By Corey Patterson
If the average person is asked to describe Superman, chances are they will undoubtedly talk about his vast strength. They would speak of his ability to leap tall buildings and pick up cars. However, few would describe his caring personality and kind demeanor, and to be fair, these have been deemed secondary qualities of the character since his inception.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the iconic character to showcase the “good” version of the Übermensch, a concept of the ultimate human developed by Frederich Nietzsche. This hero would use his incredible strength to overpower those who opposed him. In the following years, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman would come to define the very nature of superheroes through this primary quality of incredible strength.
However, I would like to argue that it is Superman’s restraint of this strength that shows his true power. His kindness and mercifulness don’t hamper his abilities; they highlight them. Ultimately, it is this unique quality of Superman that makes him the ideal hero.
Common sense would say that pure strength is the best way to deal with threats. If Lex Luthor is attacking a retirement home with a giant killer robot, does it not make the most sense for Superman to punch the villain sky-high? Why hold anything back against such a threat?
In such a story, we would applaud the Man of Steel for stopping the threat. It would be easy enough for a super strong man who’s virtually invulnerable to stop a measly robot. But this by itself would not make him heroic. A hero with no obstacles to overcome risks nothing.
What makes Superman heroic is his attempt to stop the threat while saving the evildoer. This man chooses to use his power to increase the well-being of all people, whether good or evil.
Some may claim saving evil people flies in the face of justice. However, it actually shows Superman understands evil actions cause incredible harm to the evildoers themselves.
You could say Superman’s acts of mercy are ultimately in the service of love. Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, would agree. The following quote illustrates his creative understanding of the relationship between love and power:
“If love is united with the compulsory element of power, where are the limits of this union? Where does compulsion conflict with love? It conflicts with love when it prevents the aim of love, namely the reunion of the separated. Love through compulsory power, must destroy what is against love. But love cannot destroy him who acts against love. Even when destroying his work it does not destroy him. It tries to save and fulfill him by destroying in him what is against love” (Tillich, “Love, Power, and Justice,” 50).
Tillich’s notion of love and power perfectly embody the character of Superman. In this hero we find a perfect balance of tremendous love and incredible power. He uses his power to stop evil actions but limits its influence so as not to violate the established principle of love.
This is why Superman never sets out to kill the villain (with a few exceptions). His love for humanity and all beings prevents him from using the full extent of his unbridled strength. He desires to save both the victims and the villain from the evil created, which is ultimately against love.
The idea of true power being inseparable from love lies at the heart of Christian tradition and theology. Early communities of faith worshiped a God who used great power to show love to the powerless. This God sought to rid the world of evil while saving the very people who caused it.
Unfortunately, this vision of Christian faith was largely lost as empires rose and commandeered the religion, and we are left dealing with the effects to this day. Too often Christian groups support the use of violence “in the name of God” so that power might be forced upon others. Their imperial god shows no love to those outside of its chosen tribe, a far cry from the God revealed in Jesus Christ who said one should go so far as to love their own enemies (Matthew 5:43).
Fortunately, the character of Superman helps us reclaim the Christian vision of love’s relationship to power. He is arguably the most powerful superhero on earth, yet uses this power insofar as it serves others through love. This is a balance that lies at the heart of the self-limiting God revealed to us through Jesus, a God who uses power to care for the powerless.
Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here.
Tillich, P. Love, Power, and Justice. Oxford University Press. New York. 1954