A persistent critique of the new DC Movie Universe thus far has been its portrayal of a Superman more focused on punching problems to death than caring for or preserving human life. While Snyder’s films — where the Man of Steel’s antics result in death tolls comparable to natural disasters — admittedly takes things a little far, the fact remains that Superman has behaved less-than-super many times before Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice arrived in theaters.
Superman is supposed to be a representation of the best of humanity, but over decades of comics, cartoons, and films, Clark Kent has committed his fair share of misdeeds, be they disregard for collateral damage, criminal laziness, twisted ethics, or straight-up murder. These are the top 12 times Superman Was A Total Jerk.
12 Superman films a porno with Miracle-Man’s wife
This one is technically cheating, as Superman was under mind control at the time, and if this list included every time supervillains, alien entities, or various colors of kryptonite compelled Superman to misbehave, the entries could number in the dozens. However, Superman being brainwashed to make a pornographic movie with Fourth World hero Miracle-Man’s wife, Big Barda, is too outrageous and shocking not to merit a mention.
Superman might have gone toe-to-toe with Darkseid on multiple occasions (and may soon do so on the big screen), but in Action Comics #592-593, he was powerless against the mind control of Apokolips exile Sleez, a tentacle monster with incredible mind control abilities that he uses to record and sell skeezy VHS tapes. Unfortunately for Sleez, Superman is a total cold fish in bed, drawing out the porn shoot long enough that Miracle-Man could arrive and save the day.
11 Superman leaves his savior Zibarro in a nightmarish hellhole
All-Star Superman isn’t just one of the best modern Superman comics, it’s one of the best Superman comics of all time. Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s tale of a dying Superman desperately rushing to prepare the world for the shock of his passing is inspiring, emotionally devastating, and glorious, effortlessly a sense of wonder and humanity with all the goofy grandeur of the silver age.
The only tiny lapse comes when Superman is trapped in Bizarro World, and enlists the aid of Zibarro, the “normal” outcast, to build a rocket to take him home. Zibarro’s plight is tragic: unlike the other Bizarros, Zibarro is an intelligent being with fully developed emotions, crushed by loneliness and ridiculed constantly for his manner of speaking and the poetry he writes. Touched by his plight, Superman promises to work tirelessly to rescue his counterpart from a world that hates him...and, after preserving Zibarro’s poetry in the Fortress of Solitude, ignores the problem for the rest of the book.
In almost any other story, it could be assumed that this was simply an oversight, and that Superman must be working on the problem offscreen. But All-Star Superman isn’t just any story. The incredible attention to detail of the comic ironically makes it difficult to give Morrison and Quietly the benefit of the doubt. With literally hundreds of references to obscure silver-age cannon, how difficult would it have been to squeeze in a chalkboard or blueprint of a device meant to save Zibarro to show Superman was still working on it? Instead, the reader is left to conclude that, once his life no longer depended on Zibarro, Superman had no problem reneging on his vow to save the pour soul.
10 Superman builds a gulag in an irradiated wasteland, immediately fills it with "criminals"
Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come is as close to a rebuttal of Watchmen as mainstream superhero comics get, positing that edgy, morally ambiguous superheroes have neither the staying power nor the understanding of the inherent goodness of human nature to ever diminish the golden icons of yesteryear. While it’s true that the Superman of Kingdom Come — retired and living in isolation until the antics of the newer, grittier generation of heroes destroy Kansas with nuclear fire — eventually learns that lesson, he and his new Justice League don’t exactly solve problems in the most ethically consistent way.
Instead, Superman oversees the construction of a massive prison compound in the now-radioactive Kansas wastes, and fills it almost overnight with young, misguided metahumans (without a trial, of course). The stated purpose of the facility is to re-educate and reform the prisoners, but overcrowding soon causes containment to become priority. Prisoners are basically left to fight amongst themselves, and the chaos eventually spills outside of the prison into a massive, potentially world-destroying conflict. Most of the superheroes are killed when the United Nations reluctantly concludes that a nuclear strike on the heroes would be preferable to their battle continuing and potentially dooming the world, but at that point, even Superman realizes that they didn’t have many other choices.
None of that takes away from Kingdom Come's place as one of the finest comics ever put to print, of course.
9 Superman punches Darkseid through multiple inhabited skyscrapers
The Bruce Timm-helmed Justice League Unlimited cartoon is universally acclaimed, and rightly so: it expertly blends compelling writing, gorgeous animation, and a version of the DC universe flexible enough to tell modern, mature stories while still preserving the pure, heroic essence of the characters.
This made Superman’s battle with a resurrected Darkseid in the series finale all the more confusing and out of place. After watching Batman struggle to hold his own against the nigh-indestructible demigod, Superman is understandably enraged, and gives an impassioned speech about how what Darkseid sees as weakness is actually restraint, ending with a promise that the kiddie gloves are off. It’s a fantastic moment, but it’s quickly muddled when Superman uses his power to punch Darkseid through several skyscrapers. While the death toll isn’t as explicit as it was in Man of Steel, the lack of any footage of civilians evacuating buildings or of heroes helping wounded survivors makes Superman’s demonstration of power a bit more cruel than heroic.
8 Superman watches a man die by chemical weapons, does nothing to save him
Many know the story of the comic book “Dark Age” of the 1980s and 1990s: an influx of older readers and increased media attention on dark graphic novels like Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns led companies like Marvel and DC to put their heroes in darker, grimmer situations. But people sometimes forget that the original, pre-comics code heroes were surprisingly ruthless themselves.
Case in point: in Superman #2, Superman has relentlessly pursued chemical weapons manufacturer Professor Runyan, at last cornering him in his laboratory. In a final act of desperation, the mad scientist decides to take his pursuer down with him, exposing them both to his painful gas-based weapon. Superman, unaffected by the gas, promptly...watches the scientist scream in agony as he dies an agonizing death. Granted, the man was a criminal, but considering how effortless it would have been for Superman to simply take the man to jail instead, the Man of Steel’s decision to do nothing is shocking in its callousness.
7 Superman sacrifices Lois Lane to save The Joker’s life
Superman has often been terrible to Lois Lane (more on that later), but despite what misleading comic book covers from the 1950s and 1960s would lead one to believe, he's rarely made decisions that actively endanger her life. That all changed in Action Comics #719, where the plucky journalist was infected with The Joker’s poison and immediately entered a coma. With doctors telling him that Lois is on the verge of death, Superman rushes to The Joker’s cell in Arkham Asylum, learning from the maniac that the only way to create an antidote is to mix the poison with his blood. Superman is faced with an impossible decision: does he let the woman he loves die, or does he kill one of the most prolific serial murderers in history?
...Or does he just take a blood sample from the Joker and mix it with the poison in a petri dish? As obvious as this third option seems, Superman completely ignores it, instead turning to Joker-sparing expert Batman for guidance. Shockingly, Batman tells Superman to let Lois die rather than kill the Joker, and just as the Man of Steel seems ready to let her perish, she wakes up — the poison was actually non-lethal, designed to trick Superman into killing the Joker (or just drawing some blood from him).
6 Superman kills The Joker and becomes a fascist dictator
The problem with The Joker is that killing him tends to cause as many problems as it solves. In the case of the backstory behind the superhero-slugfest game (and later, comic) Injustice: Gods Among Us, the Clown Prince of Crime actually went ahead and killed a pregnant Lois Lane for real, causing Superman to give into his rage and kill the murderer.
While this put an end to his decades of murderous rampages, it also resulted in Superman deciding to use his power to conquer the world, turning as many superheroes and villains as he could into accomplices in his regime and killing all that opposed him. Eventually, the Superman from Earth-Prime defeated his evil counterpart and imprisoned him, but the fact remains that up until Lois Lane died, the two Supermen were basically identical, implying that Superman is always just one bad day away from going over the edge.
5 Superman erases Lois Lane’s memory by forcing a kiss on her
If there’s any Superman movie as beloved as the immortal 1978 original, it would be the 1980 sequel. Superman II followed in the footsteps of the first film with incredible performances by Christopher Reeves and Margot Kidder, and brought the once-obscure villain General Zod into the mainstream. And with Lois Lane learning that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same during the events of the movie, Superman II could have ended with a thundering change to the status quo, setting up a fascinating sequel where the dynamic between these two characters was fundamentally different...but it didn’t.
Instead, Superman forces a kiss on Lois Lane, and erases her memory, preserving his secret identity. The kiss, which is established nowhere in either the movie or in any other Superman lore, is shockingly lazy storytelling, and might as well have been replaced with a title card reading “We didn’t know how to end the movie.”
More importantly, the sequence is also a stunning ethical lapse for Superman, seeing him both force a kiss on Lois Lane and violate her mind by altering her memories. The implications of this are horrifying: has Superman had to do this to Lois before? If he’s willing to do this to someone he loves, what would he do to protect his secret from a stranger that happens on him changing in a phone booth?
4 Superman becomes a stooge for Ronald Reagan, Lex Luthor
So much of Superman’s appearance in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is dominated by his climactic brawl with Batman — a fight scene so memorable that it was one of the main sources of inspiration for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — that the horrifying implications of his actual role in the story can slip by unnoticed.
Frank Miller’s vision of Superman has gone from champion of the downtrodden and defenseless to a US military asset, involved in activities so secret that the government will disrupt news feeds that even mention his name. All that the reader sees in the comic is Superman intervening in a South American civil war and diverting a nuclear weapon, but The Dark Knight Returns implies that the Man of Steel has been in the government’s employ for a long time. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Superman participated in multiple government takeovers, killing hundreds or even thousands of enemies of the state in the process.
In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the poorly-received sequel, Superman is even taking orders from Lex Luthor and Brainiac, allowing them to dominate the world and ruthlessly suppress any signs of rebellion. It’s no wonder that Batman has such enmity for Superman in the Dark Knight series, especially considering how close they used to be. For example…
3 Superman and Batman repeatedly team up to convince Lois Lane that she’s insane
Batman and Superman have a long history of team-ups, and many of them revolved around complicated plots to protect Superman’s secret identity by convincing Lois Lane that she was going crazy. In World’s Finest Comics #71, for example, Lois Lane discovers Clark Kent changing into his costume in a hallway at the Daily Planet. Rather than talk to her about the importance of keeping his identity a secret, Superman instead opts to switch places with Batman. Bruce Wayne uses carefully placed ropes to create the illusion of flight, knocks out trained lions with a single punch, and creates a car filled with powerful balloons so that he can lift it up, only for Superman and Bruce to later appear side-by-side, reducing the formidable journalist to sputtering hysterics.
But even this pales in comparison to World’s Finest Comics #71, where an anonymous agitator repeatedly claims through public messages that Clark Kent is Superman. To divert suspicion, Batman pretends to be Clark Kent while Superman performs a public series of feats, again convincing Lois that all of her journalistic instincts are wrong. But there’s a twist — Superman was the agitator, merely trying to keep Batman busy because he suspected a deadly trap awaited him in Gotham City. Batman, being the world’s greatest detective, figured this out, but played along anyway, evidently deciding that teaming up with Superman to mentally destroy his love interest was more fun than fighting crime. Not cool, guys, not cool.
2 Superman adopts, abuses Jimmy Olsen
Superman and Jimmy Olsen are pals, co-workers, and sometimes even fellow superheroes. But their relationship took a strange twist in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #30, when the Man of Steel legally adopted Jimmy so he’d have someone to partner with during the Daily Planet’s father-son picnic events. After using his powers to effortlessly win every single event, Superman moves Jimmy into a new house with him, and over the course of several weeks, begins to emotionally abuse him. He refuses to trust anything he says, he orders Jimmy to do things and punishes him for it, and on Father’s Day, he uses his heat vision to destroy the custom robe Jimmy spent his savings on as a present. Once Jimmy officially opts out of the adoption, however, Superman embraces him and brings him to his “Super-Calculator Machine,” explaining that the computer told him that he would kill his son on June 17th.
This attempt to turn Superman’s emotional abuse into heroism fails for two reasons, the first of which Jimmy points out in the story itself. Superman misheard “sun” as “son”; the computer actually predicted that he would be forced to destroy the star he created by hand. The second reason is never acknowledged directly by the story, but is far more damning to Superman’s character: rather than make his friend feel miserable for weeks on end, why didn’t Superman simply explain what was going on to Jimmy and get him to voluntarily opt out of the contrived adoption? The only answer that makes sense is that convoluted schemes are far simpler for Superman to understand than concepts like “telling the truth.”
1 Superman knocks out athletes and assumes their identities multiple times
These acts top the list not for the collateral damage, which is minimal, or loss of life, which is nonexistent, but for their unbelievable pettiness. Superman can fly so fast that he can break the sound barrier. He’s strong enough to move planets. His heat vision has the destructive power of a supernova and the precision of a surgical scalpel. Superman isn’t a god (there are literal gods that interact with superheroes in the DC universe, after all), but compared to normal humans, he might as well be.
Why, then, did Superman not once, but twice decide to not only waste his time on gangsters that rigged sports games, but do so in the most dishonest and personally destructive way possible? In Superman #2, when Superman learns that former heavyweight champion Larry Trent lost his title due to foul play, he doesn’t simply find those responsible and get a confession out of them like he usually would. Instead, he keeps Trent locked up in an apartment for months while he assumes his identity and uses his superpowers to easily climb the professional boxing ladder. He allows Trent to take his place in the championship match so he can apprehend the villains, but it’s a victory built on lie after lie that will gnaw at his conscience for years to come.
But at least Trent was somewhat willing to follow Superman in this scheme, which is more than can be said for college football player Tommy Burke in Superman #1. In an effort to stop a crooked coach, Superman knocks Burke out with a hypodermic needle, keeping him paralyzed and helpless in his apartment while he assumes his identity. Superman even lets gangsters kidnap Burke just to keep them busy. After stopping the coach and his thugs, Superman lets Burke resume his identity, which includes a new girlfriend that fell in love with Superman’s football prowess. With all the things Superman could have done with his time — feed a starving village, prevent a natural disaster, end a war single-handedly — the fact that he instead chose to intercede in petty sports-based crime, and to do so by creating convoluted, damaging webs of lies and deceit, makes him nothing short of a colossal jerk.
Which comic do you think represents the worst of the Last Son of Krypton? Let u know in the comments.
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