You wouldn’t like me when I’m strong

I’ve been thinking lately about the role weakness plays in getting me to like a character.

This came up because I was discussing Man of Steel with Mike Underwood. Now, there are any number of criticisms you can make of that film, starting with the wanton destruction of the ending and proceeding backward through the plot from there. But one point where Mike and I disagreed was on the wisdom of characterizing Clark as alienated from the world, and having to learn how to fit in and deal with humanity.

To some people, this is just an example of our current obsession with “gritty” and “dark” approaches to stories. Can’t have Superman being the big blue Boy Scout; you have to grim him up. But to me, it wasn’t about grimness or anything like that. It was about giving him a weakness.

I’ve never really been a fan of Superman as a character. He’s all right in a team, where he’s only one part of the story, but on his own? Eh. Down in the comments on that post, Mike and I started debating what types of stories one can tell with Superman, and he proposed that the way to make the character interesting is to approach it as “an Individual with Power,” and to tell a story about him “[struggling] with how and when to use his power because he is so much more powerful than others.” To which I said, that would be great — but it still doesn’t work for me, because there’s no weakness to counterbalance it. In the absence of Kryptonite or something even more ridiculously over-the-top than him, Superman is always operating from a position of comprehensive strength.

The only part of Superman Returns that has stayed in my memory at all is the part where he gets stabbed with Kryptonite and falls from the sky. The trailers for the new Wolverine movie got my attention because it looks like it’ll be about some or all of his regenerative ability being taken away, leaving him vulnerable. Iron Man is definitely an Individual With Power — money, technology, social connections — but that’s paired with a boatload of psychological issues, for which his strengths operate as compensation/defense mechanisms/etc.

It isn’t strength that makes me like a character, though the complete absence of it isn’t very appealing. What I attach to is weakness. Those places, be they physical, mental, or emotional, where the character can be hurt. I regretted the fact that The Bourne Legacy didn’t make more than a passing nod to the fact that Aaron Cross would degenerate without the drugs used to make him amazing. I wished Avatar (the one about the blue aliens, not the one about airbending) had dug further into the way having a surrogate Na’vi body helped Jake Sully escape his disability — and the shame he might feel when a member of this warrior culture saw how small and damaged his real body was.

Superman doesn’t have a weakness, other than Kryptonite. His physical strength is paired with a strong moral code and a sense of his place in the world. To make me interested in him, you have to break that somehow. Kryptonite works, but I prefer internal approaches to the green (or red or gold or blue) macguffin: take away some of his supports, make him question the things he believes in.

Because it’s only when a character is weak that I feel they can be truly strong. If being punched in the face doesn’t hurt you, then continuing to fight after being punched is meaningless. If you have no fear, then charging into danger isn’t an achievement. If you never doubt your companion’s loyalty, then trusting them in a moment of crisis is merely business as usual.

But play strength and weakness off one another well, and I am sold. Those are the characters I will remember for the rest of my life.

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  1. 1. Mary

    The gentle art of stirring up sympathy.

  2. 2. R. James Stevens

    I agree wholeheartedly. Without weakness, characters get quite boring…quickly.

  3. 3. Sabreman

    Oh, he has various weaknesses, not too hard to work up in a comic book milieu: red sun radiation depowers him quickly, and he’s completely vulnerable to magic. These are so readily available (moreso than Kryptonite) that almost anyone can fight Superman with a little preparation. Writers often have to forget how easy it is to beat Superman in the DC universe. (Captain Atom should never once ever lose to Superman, ever, unless he’s just being chivalrous to give Kal a chance.)

    None of those are his greatest and most interesting weakness, though.

    His greatest weakness (from an enemy’s point of view), and to me (as a writer) his most interesting weakness, is his ironclad intention to keep other people from being hurt (and to a lesser extent doing damage to the environment).

    Elliot S. Maggin plays hard with this in his two late 70s Superman novels (Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday), which I would take as the blueprint for writing any Superman story. Superman isn’t super because of his overwhelming power, but because he’s so skillful at using that overwhelming power — skillful enough that he can save both his enemies and innocent bystanders. Various situations, and especially his enemies, set him challenges in that, and that’s what a writer designs.

    The first 70s movie understood this, which is why it was largely designed and played as a (1970s) disaster movie. (Ditto Superman 2, to a slightly lesser extent. I like to pretend the next two movies don’t exist, but they do generally follow suit. Even the often annoying Superman Returns does. The Animated Series usually does, the sequel Justice League series not so much despite its quality.)

    The writers to Man of Steel did not understand this, which is why a lot of the themes in that movie seem so broken. To them Superman was just someone with laser beam eyes who could fly faster and punch harder (sometimes) than other people without taking damage. I get the feeling like different people worked on different parts of the script, because hobo Superman was very much more effective at being Superman than after he put on the armor and cape.

    Writing Superman as someone who, fundamentally, lives to save people (despite lip service to this in the movie, and some semi-random examples here and there along with general ‘goals’), would have ramped up the difficulty for Superman being so powerful and also ramped up the audience tension as Superman succeeds by the skin of his teeth (and maybe occasionally fails) in continually acting to save specific people even at the expense of keeping up with his fight.

  4. 4. Monique

    I completely agree, Marie. I learned to read as a kid by reading DC comics, but even my 5-yr-old self thought Superman was pretty limited as a character.

    For over 15 years I owned and managed a comic store, and my sense is that people who love Superman love him for his untarnished icon-ness. Superman is the reigning Sun God of the DCU: magnificent and beneficient and ultimately untouchable.

    The best of his stories are about his interpersonal relationships, because in terms of challenging him in the superhero milieu — can’t be done. Not with, as you say, some contrived plot shenanigans.

    It’s amusing, too, b/c back in the day, he wasn’t that over-the-top. He didn’t used to fly; he could “leap a tall building in a single bound”, that was all. But as other comic heros were introduced, the writers added new powers — my personal favorite was the episode where Superman won a calculation competition against a computer , b/c _even his brain_ was “super”. It’s a classic example of giving your characters a succession of new powers and new strengths until you’ve written yourself into a corner.

    I kind of hate Kryptonite and everything it stands for as a writing device. But don’t tell anyone, or the lynch mobs will form. :)

  5. 5. Mary

    Depends on the writer. His weakness to magic ought to make him vulnerable to Captain Marvel — certain other magically power superstrength has harmed him — but they tend to play them as equal in power.

    As witness a charity arm-wrestling compeitition. I believe it ended with a supervillain attack.

  6. 6. Patrice Sarath

    Just one small comment on The Bourne Legacy. I just rewatched it a couple of days ago, and it’s there. It’s subtle, for sure, but Aaron Cross really does have a lot of vulnerabilities, and the biggest one is his fear of losing his magic powers.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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