I finally got around to watching Invincible last week, which was great, and if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s like mixing Sky High with The Boys, which is great. It got me realizing though, that this is just the latest in a long line of evil Supermen.
Superman, as a character, is one that is supposed to represent the best of us, as our best. Created during the rise of Hitler by Jewish comic creators, this character is from Not Here, being the ultimate representation of immigration, and fully becoming an important American Hero. He has all of the strongest abilities, and can do almost anything. Luckily, he is here to protect us from threats.
But what if he wasn’t?
History of Evil Supermans
We can’t talk about Evil Supermans without first mentioning that Superman has, on occasion, gone evil himself. The most popular version of this is from the 2013 Comic/Video Game Injustice, wherein the Joker tricks Superman into killing his wife Lois, and their unborn son. In his rage, he kills the Joker, and then decides he will finally just rule Earth as High Councilor, killing anyone who opposes him, to bring peace to the planet.
However, long before this, or many other evil Superman stories, Marvel created a character, Hyperion, as an evil parody of Superman. In 1969, Hyperion was a member of the Squadron Sinister, a team of villains meant to fight against the Avengers. The character is an alien, raised by the government to be used as a secret operative, but once outed, decides to create other catastrophes in order to distract the public from the government’s nefarious deeds.
In 2003, Image Comics released the Invincible comic, which has the great Omni-Man. Omni-Man is a Viltrumite, sent to Earth to learn it’s strengths and weaken it’s defenses, so that the Viltrumite Empire can come and conquer the planet without resistance. The comic has been turned into a show on Amazon Prime, which has received favorable reviews.
In 2006, Wildstorm, a DC Imprint, released The Boys, which has Homelander. Homelander was taken by a pharmaceutical company called Vought as a baby, and experimented on with a chemical formula called Compound V, which gave him fantastic powers. He uses these powers to largely save people and be a hero, but his priority is mainly in helping the company that created him. He claims to be an alien, so that people don’t learn that Vought has been experimenting on infants for decades. The ultimate power that he has earned both through his abilities, and the protection of Vought, has led him to having a dangerously narcissistic behavior, believing that he can do anything, and kill anyone, that he wants. This comic was turned into a live action show on Amazon Prime, which is about to have it’s third season, and has a very excited fanbase.
In 2009, Boom! Studios released Irredeemable, which follows the hero The Plutonian. The Plutonian was once the world’s greatest superhero, but after continual criticism from the public, he becomes the world’s greatest supervillain. Created by aliens, The Plutonian was sent to Earth to study humans, and tried to be the hero that others wanted him to be, but his morals were twisted by the realities of the world.
Most recently, we have Brightburn in 2019, a film about a young boy who learns he is an alien with superhuman powers, and uses those powers to terrorize everyone around him. The alien ship that he landed in as an infant tells him to “Take the World,” and he quickly follows those orders. This horror movie wasn’t received very well, but is definitely recognized in this trope.
What Does It Mean?
Why do we have so many evil Supermen? I also want to point out that this isn’t even all of them, just some of the most popular. So if this is such a common trope, then why? And why now?
Well, it starts with the fact that Superman was, essentially, the first Super Hero. Created before Captain America, Batman, or any other superhero you can think of, he has been around for a long time. In the mid-20th Century, people wanted to see ultimate power in the hands of good. There was so much uncertainty in the first 60 years of Superman, that the idea of a hero who can take our problems for us, who can handle the fights we can’t, was so incredibly cathartic and fulfilled our power fantasies as a society.
Well, there’s a lot less uncertainty nowadays. In fact, with the amount of information we have at our fingertips, we know a lot more about our world, and it’s not all good. We know that a lot of people in positions of power are not our heroes. The “Most Powerful Man In the Free World,” the US President, is a position that has been increasingly hated and criticized by the population, with the average approval rating, for each President since 2000, being under 50%.
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”Lord Acton
We also have to take storytelling in this medium into account. When comics and superheroes are new, there aren’t tropes and stereotypes yet, so you can have a story where an asteroid is coming to Earth, our hero goes up and moves/destroys it, and it’s a fun story. You tell that now, and people would be incredibly bored. So as we tell more stories, those stories have to become more varied, unique, and unpredictable. So we are in a phase of Evil Superman.
Lastly, I do want to point out that in the Superman comics, the primary antagonist was an incredibly wealthy, intelligent, bald white man. The threat that Superman has to face more than anything, is a very human power. No matter how many times Superman proves that Lex Luthor is evil, doing objectively evil things, Luthor can pay his way out. What makes Luthor a villain is the traits that allowed him to become so rich and powerful. Then you watch shows like The Boys or Invincible, shows that say “Superman probably isn’t all that great, he’s probably really wrong about things,” and you watch those shows on Amazon Prime, a company owned by an incredibly wealthy, intelligent, bald white man. Jeff Bezos has been under an incredible amount of criticism for the mere fact of being the richest man in the world, and by slowly destroying our opinion of Superman, we might slowly stop criticizing Bezos for simply being a Billionaire.