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Super-god or Super-human?

Superman and Batman have both been mainstays of American popular culture for over seventy years now, but in that time great differences have emerged, not only in their characteristics, but even in the manner in which they are characterized.

Batman has a number of well defined attributes; he is a billionaire with exclusive weapons technology, an expert in all styles of armed and unarmed combat, the world’s greatest detective, and a student of the world’s great yogis and sages. Different writers emphasize these attributes in various degrees, but contrasting characteristics are never introduced. Grant Morrison’s more cerebral Caped Crusader remains an affluent ninja vigilante, while Frank Miller’s psychopathic and sadistic Dark Knight retains his forensic expertise and spiritual training.

Not so with Superman. In the hands of different writers vastly different and even competing characterizations are put forth. The basic elements of the Superman mythos (the orphaned alien, the duel identity, etc.) may be identical across a number of stories, but their depiction of the central protagonist is often contradictory.

In the characterization of Superman there exist a number of dichotomous attributes. These go beyond the question of whether the Clark or Superman persona is the true identity, though the answer to such a question will inevitably be dependent on which side a writer accepts and which he rejects in regards to said dichotomies. Two will be explored briefly in this and another post.

The first, and arguably the most important, dichotomy is in regards to Superman’s divinity or humanity, which I refer to as Super-God vs. Super-Human. To be clear, I am not contending that he is written literally and explicitly as a god or messiah, with "god" corresponding to a certain back-story or power-level, but rather that the function he serves in the story is thematically similar to God or a god. The Super-god viewpoint can take on several manifestations. Of these, the least contentious is the depiction of Superman as fulfilling the role of a pagan deity, with the Justice League as an Olympian pantheon of sorts. In such a view the great stories of comics and cinema serve the same imaginative role in American culture as the myths of gods and heroes did in pagan mythologies, sans the religious reverence.

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