Jordan Peterson is Wrong on Superman

This is a script for my video essay on Superman and Jordan Peterson, which you can watch here.

I like Jordan Peterson. He is a great philosopher who has shared lots of marvelous insight and reached out to help millions of people through his books. However, one thing I disagree with him on is the character of Superman. So with all due respect, I wanted to discuss Superman in response to some rather basic criticism Peterson has made towards the character, and I also want to reframe the Superman story in a way that fits into Peterson’s ideas. In an interview with Flagrant 2 back in April, the topic of Superman came up. Peterson and the host both agreed that he was boring and lacked story.

I wanted to be fair to Peterson so I looked for other instances when he mentioned Superman, but I found that his stance on Superman’s near omnipotence was consistent. He also made this point in a 2017 Lecture at the University of Toronto.

And on top of that, he also said as much in his hit book 12 Rules for Life, which I read a few years ago and loved but I guess this mention of Superman flew over my head. 

“No limitation, no story. No story, no being. . . . A realization of this sort emerged more recently, in the pop culture world, during the evolution of the DC Comics cultural icon Super-man. Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In the beginning, he could move cars, trains and even ships. He could run faster than a locomotive. He could “leap over tall buildings in a single bound.” As he developed over the next four decades, however, Superman’s power began to expand. By the late sixties, he could fly faster than light. He had super-hearing and X-ray vision. He could blast heat-rays from his eyes. He could freeze objects and generate hurricanes with his breath. He could move entire planets. Nuclear blasts didn’t faze him. And, if he did get hurt, somehow, he would immediately heal. Superman became invulnerable. Then a strange thing happened. He got boring. The more amazing his abilities became, the harder it was to think up interesting things for him to do. . . . he developed powers so extreme that he could “deus” himself out of anything, at any time. . . . He gained some reasonable limitations. A superhero who can do anything turns out to be no hero at all. He’s nothing specific, so he’s nothing. He has nothing to strive against, so he can’t be admirable. Being of any reasonable sort appears to require limitation. Perhaps this is because Being requires Becoming, perhaps, as well as mere static existence—and to become is to become something more, or at least something different. That is only possible for something limited.” – Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life

So, clearly, Peterson has stuck by this poi nt on Superman for a while, and he’s not the only one. Superman has been criticized this way by many people for a while now. He’s too overpowered, he’s bland and uninteresting, nothing can challenge him, etc. While many writers have struggled to write good Superman stories over the years, I think it’s unfair to broadly dismiss decades of Superman lore because of one over-repeated argument on his power level. 

Again, I like Jordan Peterson, but if I had to guess, his background as a clinician and professor did not leave much free time to peruse Superman comics, which is fine, but I still have to disagree with him and other superman critics.

In reality, Clark Kent is one of the most dynamic and interesting characters I have encountered in any medium. His heritage from a doomed planet and his second chance on his adopted planet, is just as interesting now as it was when introduced nearly a century ago. His incredible power is not boring or lazy, it’s an invitation for talented writers to bring forth new and engaging challenges that a God living amongst men would have to endure. Storytellers have presented brilliant limitations and challenges to the character over the years and it’s a shame that most people haven’t noticed.

What these critics don’t seem to get is that writers scale up the threats Superman needs to face. Superman doesn’t just use brute force to destroy the villain and save the day. He’s often a representation of optimism facing off against symbols of pessimism and nihilism. There’s so much more to this mythos than what’s on the surface. Superman is nearly a god among mortals, but the fascination with the character lies in what he chooses to do with these abilities. Superman could colonize the planet if he wanted to, have all the riches in the world, or he could enforce his good intentions on people, but he doesn’t do that. Instead he chooses to help people and to make his ideas of hope and optimism available to people rather than ram it down their throats. He has these strong and unyielding morals instilled in him by Jonathan and Martha Kent. He is always trying to live up to those morals no matter what. To simply write Superman off as a boring Gary Stu is just not a fair point in my opinion. He is an alien, yes, but his upbringing makes it so that he loves his adopted planet and wants nothing more than to bring out the good in it. In response to the hosts question of “what the fuck superman has to deal with”. I think he’d be surprised to see what Superman has to deal with in some of his best stories. Superman deals with things similar to all of our struggles, but on a bigger scale, so in a way, writers can magnify these conflicts and present them in a new and interesting light. Here are some of my favorite examples.

  • I think the death of Clark Kent’s foster father was a pretty big struggle. Especially when you have the abilities of a God, you are absolutely going to feel regret about an inability to save your father.
  • Kingdom Come: Clark grapples with the passing of his love Lois Lane and the destruction of his home of Kansas, not Krypton. Superman can do all these amazing feats but he’s not a necromancer and he can’t rebuild a state. Superman then has to stand up for his ideology of hope once again as he has to fight other superheroes. It’s an amazing story that utilizes Superman’s character in amazing ways.
  • Superman for All Seasons: Focused on Clark Kent and his role in Metropolis contrasted with his upbringing in Smallville. It’s a very nostalgic and beautiful tale that examines Clark as a human as much as it examines his heroship. This leads into another point: Superman is more human than you realize. He was raised by farmers in Kansas from nearly the moment he was born. He works a 9-5 job. He struggles with romances and family issues. Shit, he’s probably more human than I am. And Superman for All Seasons illustrates that.
  • The Death Of Superman: Perhaps one of the most famous comics of all time. SPOILERS: We see superman actually die, not by kryptonite, but by simply being killed by a strong villain. His death is a huge deal in the universe as the comic was in our world. This story also does a great job of challenging the notion of the unbeatable Gary Stu and shows that writers creatively scaling up the threats can challenge Superman. 

These are some good story examples of why Superman is more interesting than his critics think. His animated shows have also done well with the character, and it’s too bad that the major films have not quite lived up to Superman’s potential, but I think the Snyder Cut was a step in the right direction. But of all the comics, films, and shows, I think there is one Superman story that tops them all. The Best in my eyes. The Big Mac Daddy of the Superman Chronicles. It is not just my favorite Superman comic: it is one of my favorite works of fiction: say it with me now:

ALL STAR SUPERMAN: This is one I would recommend Jordan Peterson and Andrew Shulz, the host of Flagrant 2, to read. In fact I recommend this to ANYONE who is literate. And if you are illiterate, learn to read and then read this book first, believe me, The Bible and To Kill a Mockingbird can wait. Grant Morrison, one of the best writers in comics, crafts a story of a Superman terminally ill from overexposure to solar radiation, that alone is brilliant since the sun is his power source. Close to the end Clark has to look at his life and reaffirm what truly matters to him. I won’t go into detail because it’s so great and you should really read it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed. We see superman at perhaps his most human, in his most quintessential forms. It’s not about his strength and insane power to fight off any foe, it’s about Clark Kent, the Superman, a symbol of hope and optimism: Truth, Justice and the American Way. I recommend this to anyone if they have mixed feelings on Superman, and I would love to hear Jordan Peterson’s thoughts on it one day so he can put his, let’s face it, trite and tired belief on Superman to rest.

To conclude, I not only disagree with Peterson’s dismissive take on Superman, I think Superman and his lore is another perfect example that Peterson can incorporate into his philosophies. I came across a video of Thorin, an e-sports journalist, who illustrated this point well, and it’s something I hadn’t thought of before. Peterson reflects a lot on Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, and myths in our society. He’s mentioned Marvel Heroes as an example a lot but he keeps giving this same answer on Superman. Thorin explains that Superman is a larger than life figure, his lore and mythos was established over decades by many people, and his influence was present before us and will continue to endure with our descendants. In that way, he is more real than any of us, and his status as one of the best known heroes cements his legacy for the future. 

I felt the need to make this not just because of Jordan Peterson, but mostly because this dismissal of the character is more frequent than ever. With the Marvel universe expanding in popularity, DC’s Golden Age Icon is left with a few adaptations with mixed reception overall. It’s too bad that the mainstream will only watch a movie and eschew the comics, but because of that, I think it’s more important than ever to understand the original Superhero himself. Superman is a symbol of American ideals. His stories should be considered among some of the best in western canon. He is anything but a boring omnipotence, he is a dynamic human character that has been established over decades, and over the coming decades, he will remain that human symbol to strive towards.

POSTSCRIPT: Thanks for watching and once more, I love Jordan Peterson and his work, but he came after my boy Clark Kent and I can’t let that shit slide. I think the host on Flagrant 2 really got me with the way he just dismissed Superman, so I wanted to just put my thoughts out on why I love Superman. So, thanks again. Please like and subscribe. Until next time, I’m signing off.

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