I’ve never been a fan of Superman, but it has not been until recently that I bothered to understand why. I thought I could simply blame my dislike for characters that are too goody goody, but a few interesting reads have made me realize that my dislike of the man of steel goes far deeper.
Meanwhile, I had never been a fan of Captain America because I assumed he was just another America-centric boy scout like Superman. The recent Captain America movies have not only relieved me of my ignorance, they have made it clear to me which character I am proud to share with my daughters, aged eight and five.
Fair warning, I have not seen Man of Steel and I am in no rush to do so. My thoughts on the film spawn from public opinion and the Honest Movie Trailer, both of which have filled me in on all I need to know about the latest incarnation of DC’s number one hero. And I most definitely am not in a rush to let my daughters see it because I just don’t feel the message it delivers is one I want to share with them at so young an age.
One of my favourite Superman stories is Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, a “what if” story where Kal’El’s rocket lands in the Soviet Union and the little alien is taken under Stalin’s wing instead of Ma and Pa Kent. Millar reveals a being who does not do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, but because of his uncontrollable need to be in control. His desire for order. While he truly believes that he is helping humanity, what he is truly doing is taking away our freedom. Initially, Superman refuses to succeed Stalin, not wanting anything to do with politics. But when he sees the starving masses, he decides he must save them, by bringing order, first to the Soviet Union, and then the world. Only the United States, led by Lex Luthor, adamantly refuses to fall under the iron fist of Superman’s brand of “freedom.”
This is a theme that is also expressed wonderfully in Brian Azzarello’s Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, a book where I gained further insight into my dislike for Superman and greater appreciation for his rival, Lex Luthor. Lex despises Superman because what he sees is a dangerous alien who does not truly understand humanity. Without tempering forces in his life, such as friends and family, the Superman we know could easily become the tyrant we see in Red Son or Man of Steel who disregards civilian safety and kills an enemy in cold blood.
In the comic book world, Superman removes humanity’s need to protect themselves. Why bother if Superman will do it for you? Why aspire to be more, if Superman is already at the top to take care of everything?
But Captain America? I can’t wait to show my daughters The Winter Soldier, and was so proud to watch The First Avenger and Avengers with them. I loved the way the first Captain America film emphasized where Steve Rogers came from and spent so much time showing us who he was long before he was ever administered the body enhancing serum and donned the iconic suit. This skinny, asthmatic boy defined the words determination, courage, loyalty, and so much more as he stood up to bullies, tried again and again to serve his country by enlisting, and, finally, threw himself on a what he thought was a live grenade. My husband and I spent a lot of time pausing the movie during scenes like these to express why Steve Rogers is truly a good person—not because he’s a superhero, but because that is who he is.
For me, I realized that he isn’t the arrogant, “America **** Yeah!” soldier I assumed he was. He is a man who will do whatever it takes to protect everyone who needs protection from the evils of the world. He uses his gifts to achieve this, but he also empowers people and encourages them to defend themselves and to stand up for what they believe in. He is a man who will always do the right thing. And as I watch the movies and read a little bit more about him, even in books such as Hawkeye Volume 1: My Life as a Weapon, where Captain America rarely appears, I’ve come to understand how he inspires others to do the same:
“Y’wanna know the best part about being an Avenger?”
Hawkeye and others might follow Captain America’s lead and do the right thing out of guilt at first, or out of a desire to impress him, but his modesty, honesty, loyalty, trust, and encouragement results in people who come to recognize the value of such actions themselves, and take pride in performing them.
Because it is the right thing to do. No matter the cost.
I know there are more uplifting stories in Superman’s long existence, and I am not opposed to my daughters enjoying them, but if you were to ask me which of these two superheroes’ ideals and moral codes I’d encourage my children to aspire to? I wouldn’t hesitate to proudly tell you that it would be Captain America, till the end of the line.
[ETA January 2015: Thank you for all the comments and discussion below and on Twitter, as well as the recommendations for further Superman reading. I’ve taken your advice and checked out a few more … here are my updated thoughts on Superman.]