I’ve been kicking around these ideas around for a while but never codified them until Jim Henley wrote his famous blogposts and essay on the Literature of Ideas. Henley’s thesis boils down to “If science fiction is the literature of ideas, the superhero story is the literature of ethics. Or say, rather, it should be.”
Now for the backstory. This isn’t verbatim, but as I know and at least briefly worked with all the people here, I suspect it’s pretty close.
In the early 1970’s, the late great Julius Schwartz took over editorial duties on the Superman comics line from Mort Weisinger. Julie hired Dennis O’Neil to write the series, and O’Neil knocked Superman’s power levels down to about the level of his earliest appearances — no heat vision, no x-ray vision, no super-breath, no flying through space unaided, and so on. O’Neil was quoted saying that the reason for the change was that he found it difficult and/or uninteresting “to write about a character who could destroy distant galaxies by listening hard.”
O’Neil’s tenure on Superman lasted for about a year, and then the reins were handed over to Elliot S. Maggin. Elliot bumped Superman’s power levels back up to where they were, and approached writing Superman this way: if you have a character who can do anything, the only story avenues left to you are ethical ones. But in this area, there’s a lot of ground: “What was Superman’s relationship to his charges, the people of the Earth? To the authoritative functionaries of the rest of the Universe like the Guardians and, by extension, those who might be considered deities? What were the limits of Superman’s responsibilities? Were there differences between the real limits of his responsibilities and his perception of those responsibilities? What role did his heritage, both on Earth and among the stars, play in the determination of his actions? What long-term effects were coming about as a result of his intercession?”