Quick – who is the more interesting character, Superman or Batman? Batman, right? Supes is the Big Blue Boy Scout. He’s the quintessential “good guy.” He’s all bright colors and kid friendly. Batman is all dark and angsty. We could never be Superman with all those powers but, if we really worked hard at it, I mean if we had sufficient motivation and tons of money, we could be Batman.
That’s the common opinion. It’s not true, of course, but that’s the myth.
We always assume that Superman will do the right thing because, well, he’s Superman. That’s who he is. Doing the right thing, making the right choice just comes natural to him, like breathing. Good guys do the right thing. That’s what makes them good guys.
I’ve given a lot of interviews lately for the Suicide Squad Special: War Crimes that comes out this Wednesday and I’ve talked a lot about why I really enjoy writing bad guys, or at least anti-heroes. I find them more interesting, more complex. Take a look at my career – GrimJack, Amanda Waller, even Jim Corrigan a.k.a. the Spectre. They are all morally conflicted characters and only marginally “heroes” in that they are (usually) better than the people they oppose.
The flaw in this line of thought is that being “good” is something that comes naturally. That it’s not really a choice; it’s so basic to a character or a person that doing the right thing is something that s/he does automatically.
I usually find that isn’t the case especially when there is some kind of cost, big or small, connected with doing what’s “right.” Then it becomes a choice and what we choose is what ultimately defines us. Nobody – repeat, nobody – makes the right choice 100% of the time or the wrong choice every single time. Not the Pope, not your Aunt Petunia, not Donald Trump. That’s because the process of making that decision is usually a complex equation filled with lots of variables of different desires, needs, and thoughts. Perhaps there is one over-riding motivation but there will be lots of other factors looking to horn in, e.g. I want to lose weight, I need to lose weight, I need chocolate right now.
There is also the question of what the right thing is – and who is it right for. Is it right for the country, is it in my own self-interests, is it the right thing at the moment and will that moment change and therefore change what is the right choice? What might be an easy choice for one person might be a difficult one for another with roughly the same choice. Who would you die for? Would they die for you?
This decision can take nano-seconds or the person making the choice can agonize a long time over it. If this is true of us, and I submit that it is, then it should be true of our characters. Habit can also play a large part in making these decisions; if you’re accustomed to making the choice confronting you in a certain way, you are more likely to choose that way again. But not always. No guarantees.
If Superman is to be a convincing character to us as a person, then he must also face these decisions, confront fears, deal with doubts. He should have conflicting desires. For all his powers and his alien origin, this is what makes him human.
That’s what we want from our stories – humans making (sometimes difficult) decisions. If Superman is facing death he must also want to live; that makes his choice mean something and that choice defines him as a hero.