Do We Just Not Want Heroes?

SPOILER ALERT for Man of Steel.  And, for that matter, for Superman II.

I remember, back in the 90s, seeing a promo for the TV show E.R., then starring everyone’s favorite bachelor, George Clooney. Over footage of Clooney carrying an unconscious woman into the emergency room, a grave voice announced, “Tonight on E.R., a hero falls.”

I remember thinking then, as I do now: who would want to watch that?

Lately my sons and I have been watching Star Trek TOS, them for the first time, me for the gazillionth. And I’ve grown to appreciate all over the primal appeal of telling a self-contained story in 50 minutes (fewer commercials back then). Further, there’s something incredibly pleasurable in watching characters you admire try to do the right thing whatever the circumstances. They’re not perfect–I wouldn’t want to work for Kirk, and Spock is one step from an emotional breakdown way too often–but they are heroes.

We don’t get that much anymore.

Even Superman, the quintessential modern hero, is now little more than a flawed character who, in Man of Steel, not only kills General Zod with his bare hands, but allows the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Metropolis. This ain’t Superman, pal: this is just another alien-visits-earth movie disguised as a Superman flick, written and directed by people who, for whatever reason, don’t see Superman as a hero.* They let the villain, Zod, determine the kind of character Superman is going to be, instead of having Superman define himself. Superman becomes a killer because Zod makes him.



Because he can’t think of anything else to do, Superman has to kill Zod. That’s not super, man.

Why is that?  I mean, I know the world sucks right now, and there simply aren’t many real-world heroes, especially in positions of power. But have we totally lost the ability to even conceive of one?  Can we not accept a Superman who (as he did in Superman II) finds a way to outsmart General Zod rather than snap his neck? Can we not imagine a Superman who is a super man?**


Not only does Superman trick Zod, he tricks Lex Luthor into helping him.

I write a lot of stories, and not all of them have a hero: many feature a protagonist, which is a different thing. But what I don’t do, and never want to, is to take a legitimately heroic figure and de-heroicize him (or her; for me, “hero” is genderless). That doesn’t mean you can’t make him or her flawed, and interesting, and even dark; it means that, at the end of the day, they fight against their flaws with the same drive, and with the same success, as they do battling the villain.

I mean, I’m unashamed to say I like heroes. I like Indiana Jones, who always seems to be working at the absolute limit of his abilities. I like Treasure Island’s Jim Hawkins, a boy who’s neither a fool nor a coward. I like Huckleberry Finn. I like Selene in the Underworld series. I like Philip Marlowe, going down those mean streets and trying not to turn mean himself. I like John McClane in the first Die Hard movie (he’s a caricature in all the subsequent films). I like Captain America, particularly in the films. I like Atticus Finch.

I could keep going, but the point is, these characters are heroes. Superman should be in their company, but as David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder have given him to us, he’s not. He’s in the company of Walter White, Tony Soprano, Tommy Gavin from Rescue Me, Rayland Givens from Justified. And while I enjoy all those characters, they’re not heroes. And neither, alas, now, is Superman.


*You want to see the true nature of director Zack Snyder’s soul? Watch his pet project Sucker Punch, if you can. I only made it about twenty minutes. And this is the guy they’re trusting with Wonder Woman.

**One of my favorite bits from Superman II is, as Superman rescues a boy from Niagara Falls, someone in the crowd exclaims, “He’s such a nice man!” No one would say that about the character in Man of Steel.

[An addendum about Superman II: the fate of the three Kryptonian villains is rather ambiguous in the final version, but scenes exist that show them, as well as Luthor, being arrested and taken away by law enforcement officers in special snow vehicles (see image below; you can find these scenes as special features on the “Richard Donner Cut” version). In addition, the overall tone of the scene implies they are not killed, but simply placed in some sort of confinement (it’s not a natural ice structure, remember, it’s the Fortress of Solitude).  Superman II was completed in chaos, and the fact that it holds together at all is a tribute both to the skill of the two respective directors, and truthfully, to sheer dumb luck.]



26 Comments on “Do We Just Not Want Heroes?”

  1. Thanks. I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that bugged me about Man Of Steel, and you verbalized it exactly. It was–in some ways–a good movie, but it wasn’t Superman.

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  3. I’ve argued a lot about Man of Steel with people who love it.

    I don’t. It breaks the character too much for me.

    Captain America, now, Captain America is a hero, period. I am surprised you didn’t list him.

  4. Paul, I agree. I should have listed Captain America, because in his films, they get him exactly right. I’m editing the post to correct this.

  5. Synder apparently thinks anti-heroes are the only interesting type of heroes. I think he was a terrible choice to this film. Just imagine if he had been hired to do Captain America? For me, Man of Steel failed on pretty much all areas. You’ve captured my thoughts exactly.

  6. I think the biggest problem with Man of Steel is that it was a reboot/origin story. In the comics, Superman killed Zod, too … and in a way it was even less heroic, because it was a premeditated execution. But this was after *years* of established continuity establishing that this was just not the sort of thing Superman does. And in the wake of that, he basically had a nervous breakdown and exiled himself into outer space to come to terms with his failure.

    In Man of Steel, Kal-El doesn’t even have the name Superman, just donned the suit, and hasn’t even started at the Daily Planet. It isn’t just that he killed Zod … it’s that killing Zod is his opening move as a superhero, instead of being his lowest point as a superhero.

  7. Absolutely right, Alex, and glad to see this. This is an opinion I’ve often expressed myself, both in print and on panels. One of the reasons that I write genre fiction, and sword/sorcery in particular is that it’s one of the few remaining genres in which you can present a hero, and a sense of heroism as you describe it, without irony.

  8. We did not see the same movie. Superman as depicted in Man of Steel fought and failed to prevent those deaths. That remains an important distinction. It keeps him firmly out of the leagues of “Heisenberg” White and Tony Soprano.

  9. I completely agree with you. We toss the word “hero” around so much these days in the real world that it no longer has meaning. I want my fictional heroes to be bigger than the word now is. The ones who do the right thing despite the costs. Captain America. Robin Hood. Even the reluctant heroes like Sherlock in the modern BBC iteration (He claims to not care, but he always saves the people; for him murder doesn’t go against his code of ethics; I could go on, but that would be a whole blog post–hmmm, might be using it one of these days.); I especially like emerging heroes, the ones finding their ways, like Huck Finn. Great post.

  10. I was sorely disappointed by Man of Steel for many reasons, but that was its #1 failing. Terrible.

    I reckon it’s our cultural zeitgeist. We have gone from an idealistic, do-gooder, world-saving nation of heroes in the first half of the century, to the post-Nixon, by-any-means-necessary, pre-emptive-striking arbiter of a huge GDP in the latter half of the century.

    It’s not that we don’t want heroes, it’s that true heroes evoke self-loathing rather than inspiration these days. The audience is more comfortable seeing someone who does what they have to do and looks out for number one, whether they win or lose. That evokes no guilt.

    My quick take on it, anyway…

    1. “It’s not that we don’t want heroes, it’s that true heroes evoke self-loathing rather than inspiration these days.” Jefferson, I think you’ve nailed a big part of it right there. Brilliant.


    I think Alex Bledsoe choses to forget that Superman is not a GOD just a human-looking ALIEN who chooses, as a matter of free will, to act benevolently toward humans as a species.

    Emotionally Superman has always been presented as having the same emotional range as humans — a literary device that allows us to relate to him and not fear him for his powers (an emotionally distant and sociopathic Superman would be unsettling and less engaging as a character).

    Thus there is no reason why Superman can’t feel the same negative thoughts toward others as most humans do. His great virtue is that he makes a greater effort to impose incredible self-control than most humans do; otherwise he would quickly become a threat to all humanity.

    Mr Bledsoe requests a Superman capable of outsmarting Zod. But Superman is much younger, less experienced, and less knowledgeable, and less prepared than Zod. Again, Superman is not a GOD just a super-MAN relative to Earthlings, not Zod. His primary goal is to defeat Zod in any way he can, with minimal loss of human life and property, and survive.

    Superman does not allow others to die, he simply isn’t physically able to save every-one and every-thing. There is an important difference. Superman is a super-hero, not a god. He does the best he can given the imperfect circumstances he’s experiencing.

    A hero isn’t someone who always does the right or noble thing. A hero is someone who is willing to put their own circumstance and/or life on the line in an effort to save others — and that effort is not guaranteed to succeed. In fact, the greater the perceived chance of failure the more the individual is seen as a hero by those observing the act(s).

    To be seen as similar to humans, a hero must struggle with their decisions and the consequences of their actions. They may occasionally make the wrong decision, reveal character flaws, or fail at some minor tasks on the way to greater knowledge, self-awareness, and eventually succeeding at the critical task (in the story).

    If that struggle doesn’t happen, and the occasional flaws and failures are not present, not only will the hero come across as non-human, but from a literary point of view, they are boring. We cannot empathize with a perfect being; rather, it is the struggle for perfection, while overcoming significant obstacles, that we seek to seek out and learn from.

    While ‘Man of Steel’ wasn’t the greatest superhero movie, for me, Superman as recently conceived, does pass the test of being a ‘human’ hero.

    1. Kevin, that is an excellent way to frame it, and you just captured my feelings about the movie. Full on agreement. It’s getting old to hear the criticism of Snyder and his version of Superman. I enjoyed the film tremendously and look forward to the next one. Great counter-argument.

  12. When “Man of Steel” appeared on the screens I aadmit I enjoyed the movie, but I kept telling people, “it’s not Superman.” My argument was simple and reflects your own thoughts: what is wrong with someone that is better than us? Isn’t this what makes a hero? Why must our heroes be flawed? We should strive to be like our heroes. We can’t be flawless, but we can try, and we can all certainly be better people.

  13. I really feel like he’s not a hero in this movie. This movie is about his origins as a hero and what makes him become that way. So he looks back on how things happened and decides to be better. And actually making the decision to be better is what makes him a true hero instead of it just being a de facto position for him.

  14. “Can we not accept a Superman who (as he did in Superman II) finds a way to outsmart General Zod rather than snap his neck? “

    Did you finish watching Superman II? Because that Superman was a much more evil Superman than Kal-El in Man of Steel. He didn’t simply “outsmart Zod”… after Zod was neutralized by his deceit, Superman picked Zod up, held him over his head, and then threw him to his death.

    That’s right, he killed Zod in Superman II.

    Just because you didn’t witness the moment when Zod hit the bottom of that fatal plunge doesn’t mean he survived. Superman knowingly and willfully murdered him. And Zod wasn’t even a threat anymore at that point!

    And to top it off, after murdering Zod with a smile on his face, Superman watched Lois murder Ursa by punching her into a similar pit of death, then watched with amusement as Non tried to fly and jumped to his own demise.

    He had no reason to kill Zod, nor to let Ursa and Non die, but he did. And unlike Kal-El in Man of Steel, who grieved for having to kill Zod because he couldn’t find another course of action in the span of time he had before Zod would flash-fry a family, Superman in Superman II smiled, laughed at Luthor’s confusion, then picked up Lois and merrily flew back to Metropolis, where he practically put a man who offended him earlier into a coma by hurling him across a bar and into a piece of heavy machinery.

    People really glamorize Superman II just because of the comical way it’s portrayed, but Zod and Ursa were murdered by Supes and Lois, and Non could have been saved. Let’s not pretend that was a nicer Man of Steel.

  15. Did you know there’s a director’s cut of Superman II available on DVD? It reconstructs the movie that Richard Donner wanted to make (he was fired halfway through). Much better than the film that was actually released, IMO.

    My pet peeve about today’s movies is that the future is almost always depicted as a dystopia. Optimistic visions of the future seem to be verboten in today’s culture.

    Heroes can still be found on the screen, though. The Avengers was pretty heroic, and it’s the third highest grossing film of all time. Avatar also was unabashedly heroic, and it’s the #1 grosser.

    With Superman, they tried rebooting the franchise along the lines of the Richard Donner film, and it flopped. So now they’re going in more of a Batman/Dark Knight direction. It’s a marketing decision, not an aesthetic choice.

  16. Interesting post, though I think it relies on a somewhat unrealistic interpretation of what a hero is. (And yes, I know super-heroes are unrealistic to begin with.) I think Man of Steel was an attempt to inject a modern understanding of how difficult it is to be a hero in any situation, such as a soldier in wartime. Casualties will happen and decisions must sometimes be made to do the lesser of two evils.

    Besides, just because we didn’t see Captain America kill doesn’t mean some of his opponents did not die from cerebral hemorrhages, broken backs, and other effects of physical injury.

    To suggest that super-heroes never kill under any circumstances is to create an unrealistic expectation in the minds of viewers of what a hero can do. This, I think, further distances the characters from reality when they can be used instead to show children (and adults) what to do when faced with difficult choices. For example, it was great that Superman outwitted Zod in Superman II, but–director’s cut or no–the ending does leave us with the impression that the three villains perished (and that Superman took unfair advantage of the bully who assaulted him earlier when he was non-powered). Parents can use such scenes to open a dialogue with their children about whether or not Superman acted appropriately. This is better, I think, than rationalizing that all the violence Superman and other heroes are shown to commit never results in death or serious injury.

  17. Thanks for this. I considered myself a “DC guy,” & Superman is my favorite…so it is a bummer watching the cinematic DCU flush itself down the toilet. At least I take comfort in the fact that Marvel is able to make a decent superhero movie.

  18. “Can we not accept a Superman who (as he did in Superman II) finds a way to outsmart General Zod rather than snap his neck? Can we not imagine a Superman who is a super man?**”

    You missed the part were , once Zod lost his powers and was a human.. Superman broke his hand, threw him against a wall of ice , probably breaking his back, and then he fell into the Abyss to certain death…. then this Super Man , as you calls him, does a Nod Salute and a cute smile…. yeah I just killed someone… happy days…. the other guy tries to fly.. he goes down into the Abyss as well, Kal didn’t move a muscle to save him…oh and Lois got in on the killing too and punched Faora which proceeded to fall down the hole as well… 3 deaths in about a 1 minute….. Super Man…. yah ok.

    Did Superman smiled after killing Zod in MOS? Nope.. he cried down in agony… THAT is a Super Man…

    This was Superman Day One.. not Year One.

  19. I wish I could edit post… I meant Ursa not Faora. And I just also realized another person already said all that. lol

  20. Dilemma is defined as making a choice between two equally bad options.

    Should Superman become a killer and extinct his own species?

    Or should he let that family die because he doesn’t want to sully his own hands?

    How else do you stop Zod here? Well you behind by rearranging everything in the whole movie.

    So really you’re not arguing with Snyder’s handling of the character, you’re arguing with the contemplative tone. Ignoring the fact that Snyder sourced deep into the character’s history, paying homage to nearly every iteration.

    In supe2(1980s) he either kills Zod, in the cinematic version, after making him mortal (so, Superman Reeve kills a mortal, by throwing him in a pit) or the director’s cut, Zod gets arrested, still without powers.

    And we are Back to destructing man of steel to somewhere in the beginning inserting a device that de-powers Kryptonians. That premise is bullshit and you know it.

    The moral gray area is interesting. Superman lives in that area in the comics. There’s real human psychology at play in Man of Steel, that isn’t present in the reeve “let’s go back in time to avoid a dilemma” version.

    You’re not supplying a cogent reason that supe needs a moral binary. He’s not that waybin the comics. So why should the movie be that way? Simply because it’s more consumable?

    Look McDonald’s burgers a fun and tasty but lack nutrition and skill. You’re arguing that Superman should be a fast food hero, and you’re complaining about Snyder’s effort to make foie gras.

    To pretend that Superman shouldn’t be written in this comprehensive way in order to protect the cinematic version from the whole round character we have had in the comics for the past, I dunno, 35-40 years, is to suggest limiting the story to be palatable for children.

    In this movie Superman priotizes others’ live ahead of his own consistently.

    To complain about the metropolis destruction is to, again, complain about the tone, rather than the execution.

    You’re weighing the movie against something it’s not. It didn’t fail to be happy. You can’t fail something you didn’t try to be.

    It’s not like Snyder missed his mark. It’s just that you don’t like the target. That’s not a real critique.

    Advocating Superman MUST be a picaresque ignore how’s amazing his origin is within the setting of Bildungsroman.

    The character is 75 years old. He deserves to be explored in a psychological reality. Zod is a powerful villain who promises to kill Superman and kill all humans, faora promises to kill a million for every single one supes saves.

    What would REEVE do in those conditions?

    You’re not placing and reacting to the character correctly, you’re instead wishing you watched a different movie.

    You don’t get it. You don’t WANT to get it.

    It wasn’t supposed to make you feel safe. It was supposed to make you feel emotion.

    If you care about casualties for the first time ever in an action movie, then Snyder hit his mark. It was too real, maybe, and you can’t look past a cityscape. You have to ignore the world engine’s purpose in order to criticize Superman for destroying it.

    If he goes to metropolis and saves the city from the slave engine, we’ve suddenly got 7 Kryptonians loose and no way to get rid of them. And they’re only here to extinct us.

    there we are again rewriting huge portions of the plot to justify and satisfy a moral binary.

    “This movie was too complex, the stakes were too high, the emotion too real” is an endorsement of Snyder’s vision.

    You’re saying you don’t want to feel anything while watching a Superman movie, and hate that you were forced to deal with things and watch Superman deal with things, they way any normal human would.

    This criticism falls flat and asks for too much.

    This isn’t a criticism of man of steel. This is a wish that marvel gave captain America a cape and an S shield.

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