Men (and Women) of Steel: Supermen and Superwomen in Fantasy
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This month sees the release of the long-awaited (by most of my friends, at least) Superman movie, Man of Steel. Superman is an interesting character because he’s essentially the iconic symbol of DC Comics, the biggest of their superheroes, and yet he’s a character that’s hard to make work. Batman, the other male hero of the Big Three, seems to have an easier time of it. Critics often say that Superman is just too powerful, it’s hard to make him relatable, or to have threats seem, well, threatening.
He does have, of course, elements that attempt to make him more flawed. He’s the last Kryptonian, for example (unless you count Supergirl), and the planet of his birth and his natural family are forever lost to him (unless you count various ways he’s been able to communicate with his parents). His superhero identity makes it hard to have true relationships (unless you count the time he was married to Lois Lane). He cares for his adopted world but often feels apart from it, or perhaps continually on guard. And then there’s kryptonite...
Superman is also something of a Christ/savior figure, particularly in the way he’s been most recently portrayed. He is sent by his father, Jor-El, to Earth to be a savior of the people there. In the comics he has died and come back. He is, in many ways, the alpha superhero and it even shows in the way other superheroes relate to him.
This difficulty in getting Superman right got me thinking of supermen (and superwomen) in Fantasy. Which characters draw from the same kind of ideas as Superman and how are those ideas explored? How do those characters work? Well, let’s take a look:
Though not the most powerful being in his own universe, Sandman Slim (also known as Stark), from the series of the same name, is a pretty powerful bad-ass. So powerful, in fact, that he was able to defeat all his enemies in the arena when sent to Hell. Powerful enough to even kill one of Lucifer’s generals. He also returns from the dead. The difference here is that Stark isn’t the hero type. While he generally does good, he does it for his own reasons and not out of some grand plan to help humanity.
Harry Potter definitely fulfills the Savior part of the Superman formula. Like Superman, Harry is an orphan, sent away from his “homeworld” (the Wizarding world) to the mundane Muggle world. Though his childhood is not nearly as nice as Clark Kent’s, he becomes a hero figure, wielding great power and ultimately leading the fight against Voldemort, while also feeling the need to distance himself from friends and loved ones because of his notoriety. Again, in the savior role, he also dies and comes back. Harry even has his own symbol, the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Harry’s fight, however, eventually ends, while Superman’s continues.
Jim Butcher’s wizard hero (from the Dresden Files) is based more on Spider-man than Superman, but he still fits this list. He may not be the most powerful wizard in the series (the Merlin or Ebenezar are both stronger than him), but he does wield considerable power. Unlike the other wizards, Harry takes a more proactive role in defending the world against supernatural threats and has saved it on more than one occasion (he practically does it in every book). In recent books he’s even acquired his very own Fortress of Solitude. Harry also serves as an example to those around him, inspiring other people to take up the good fight. Dresden lives in a much greyer universe, and he often has to compromise his ideals, but he is definitely a hero and puts other people’s welfare over his own, often at great cost to himself. There’s more to this analogy, but I don’t want to spoil any of the events of the later books.
Buffy Summers, star of her own series, is the Slayer, the girl chosen to lead the fight against vampires and other supernatural threats to humanity. She begins the series in high school, but is gifted with strength and abilities beyond those of normal humans (the better to fight the baddies with). Like Harry Dresden, Buffy is usually at the forefront of the fight against the end of the world. Like Harry, she also inspires those around her to join in. And again, there’s the whole dying and coming back, something that happens to Buffy twice. Unlike Superman, Buffy’s power comes with her role, and there have been many slayers, but I think it’s clear to say that she ranks as the best based on her accomplishments.
When it comes to superpeople, it’s hard to single out one member of the Royal House of Amber. All of them can travel to any world they can imagine, essentially creating them out of thin air. All of them have considerable strength and the ability to heal even severed limbs or eyes. Oberon might be the most powerful (not counting the mad Dworkin), perhaps Brand, but Corwin is the chief protagonist of the first five Amber books, so I would say he qualifies most of all. He is also the most altruistic of the family, a quality that developed over time, as he spent much of his life ignorant to his own origins on our Earth. Corwin’s journey begins for purely personal reasons—he wants the throne of Amber. But later, Corwin shifts to wanting to save, well, everything.
The boy from Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga begins life as Pug, an orphan who becomes a magician’s apprentice. Only, he has trouble with the magic, seemingly having some kind of mental block. Later, when he becomes a slave in another dimension, he is trained in the Greater Path of Magic and comes into his own, becoming one of the most powerful characters in the whole series. Indeed, Feist has had to find ways to limit Pug’s involvement (or at least his abilities) lest he easily solve any of the problems later in the series. Despite this, he remains perhaps the greatest force for good in all of Midkemia.
I know, I know. If we’re touching on Christ figures, I could go with Gandalf. He certainly has the power. But Gandalf is more of a support figure and he rarely is the one in the thick of the battle. Glorfindel is only a minor character in The Lord of the Rings, but he is said to be one of the most powerful of the elf lords. Tolkien indeed indicated that he was the same Glorfindel from The Silmarillion who defeated a Balrog in single combat, though he perished in the battle. However, he was sent back to Middle-Earth later when Sauron returned. Hmmm...back from the dead? Sound familiar? Tolkien sidesteps the issue of Glorfindel’s power by not having him join the Fellowship. Says Gandalf:
"I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom. Even if you chose for us an elf-lord, such as Glorfindel, he could not storm the Dark Tower, nor open the road to the Fire by the power that is in him."
Rand is another chosen one, another destined savior. He even grows up in a small village, the farmboy origin which all such characters share with Superman/Clark Kent, not realizing that they’re special until after their childhood. Rand grows in power over the course of the Wheel of Time series, eventually becoming one of the most powerful individuals in the world. Additionally, he is known to various peoples as a hero, not just his own (something else that Superman embodies).
Sethra Lavode is the most powerful sorcerer in Steven Brust’s world of Dragaera. She is also undead. She is older than the Empire and helped to found it. In addition to her own sorcerous might and her undead strength, she also wields the Great Weapon Iceflame, a dagger which is at least partially sentient and can devour people’s souls. She is a warleader and even better still, she has a secret identity (though I will keep that to myself for fear of spoilers).
That’s my list. As always, feel free to suggest characters of your own that might fit the bill. I am troubled by the relative dearth of women on this list. I’m sure there are more examples out there, but I had a hard time finding good fits. The massively powerful character may just be more of a male power fantasy than anything. Can anyone out there think of characters I missed? Sound off in the comments.
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