Post #42: The Supergods Problem
There are superheroes and then there are supergods. Superheroes have abilities augmented beyond those of ordinary mortals, and supergods are superheroes whose abilities approach the godlike. This is a recurrent problem in the superhero genre: characters who have the powers of gods “should” be able to fix everything, right? That can’t happen, though, because that’s not the nature of the world we live in. For that reason, supergods can be problematic.
Supergods are as old as the superhero genre. The character Superman, published by Detective Comics (DC) in 1938 in Action Comics #1, began the trend, not just for superheroes, but for characters that have godlike powers. DC has more characters in the supergod mold than its rival company, Marvel, does. To understand this, we can perhaps look to the old saw that DC characters are mythic archetypes while Marvel Comics characters are realistic. Logan (Wolverine) may have the abilities of a supergod, but being a loner with violent tendencies and a penchant for going berserk make him more of a real human being than a god.
The subjects of this post are two characters share the supergod problem : DC’s Clark Kent (AKA Superman) (Action Comics #1 in 1938) and Marvel’s Carol Danvers (AKA Captain Marvel) (Marvel Super-heroes #12 in 1967). But whereas Marvel solved Carol’s supergod problem in the films Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck 2019) and Avengers: Endgame (Russos 2019), DC struggled with Clark’s in the films Man of Steel (Snyder 2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder 2015), and Justice League (Snyder 2017).
In Captain Marvel, Carol has abilities that are uncannily similar to those of Clark in the DCEU films. They both fly, capable of passing through solid matter when they do so: Clark foils Zod’s attempt to terraform Earth by flying through the World Engine in Man of Steel, and Carol persuades Ronan the Accuser to abandon his search for the Skrulls on Earth by flying through several of his ships in Captain Marvel. Clark’s eyes can emit red rays, which he can modulate at the lowest level to cauterize wounds and at the highest level to attack enemies (see figure 1). Similarly, Carol’s eyes glow (see header image), though that only indicates that she has abilities and is not a power and of itself.
Although (and perhaps because) these abilities put both characters past the ken of ordinary mortals, Carol and Clark have strong links to humanity. Two constant themes in the three films mentioned above are Superman’s love for his human stepparents and his relationship with Lois Lane. In Man of Steel, Clark is reluctant to be a supergod and is implicitly—some might say ham fistedly—compared to Christ (see figure 3). In Batman v Superman, the ethics of Clark’s supergodhood are questioned, with the disgruntled Wallace Keefe, who lost his legs in a building collapsed by the Superman-Zod throw-down, defacing the public monument to Superman with the graffito “FALSE GOD.” In a montage of “real-world” talking heads we hear and see various angles on Superman’s existence and interventions in the world: those who believe that he should be regulated, and those who do not believe that the rules that apply to human beings apply to him. Intercut with these television segments are images of Kal saving people at various locations around the world: he rescues girl from a burning building in Mexico, he retrieves the crew cabin from a disastrous rocket launch, he pulls a battleship that has become trapped in ice by its anchor, and he comes on the scene to help people who are standing on the roofs of their homes to escape rising floodwaters (see figure 3).Justice League attempts to move beyond the question of whether and how Superman should act,, with Bruce Wayne (AKA Batman) admitting that Clark has supergod abilities but uses them judiciously:
BRUCE: He was more human than I am. He lived in this world. Fell in love, had a job. In spite of all that power. The world needs Superman. And the team needs Clark.
Here Bruce implicitly contrasts Clark’s restraint in using his supergod powers with the principal antagonist of the film, Steppenwolf, who is similarly powered but who wants to enslave Earth.
Kal’s commitment to protecting Earth from extraterrestrial incursions and giving humans hope might lead us to expect the same from Carol. Carol also has a connection to humanity--in fact, she was human (whereas Clark is from the planet Krypton and adopted by human parents as a baby), working as an Air Force pilot on a base in the southern California desert. An accident gave her supergod powers, but it also left her in critical condition, which was remedied by the Kree. They infused Carol with Kree blood to save her life, and make her an elite soldier, wiping her memory. When the Skrulls investigate her erased memories, Carol’s human identity begins filtering into her mind in dribs and drabs. She eventually reconnects with her human friend Monica Rambeau, and Monica’s daughter gives Carol the jacket she wore as an Air Force pilot (see figure 4).
Carol doesn’t stay on Earth, though. Because she had been brainwashed by the Kree to carry out their culture’s mission of genocide against the Skrulls, she vows to help Skrull refugees find a new home. Nick Fury had planned to have Carol help him protect the planet, as he remarks at the end of Captain Marvel: “And our one-woman security force had a prior commitment on the other side of the universe.” Carol accompanies the Skrull ship to destination unknown, and instead of making her the first superhero to protect the Earth against extraterrestrial threats, Fury uses an element of Carol’s former human identity, her Air Force callsign “Avenger,” to name his “Avengers Initiative.”
With her godlike powers, Carol would probably have turned the tide against Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War (Russos 2018), but she’s not around, only contacted by Fury’s intergalactic pager in the end credits scene. This leads to a tense exchange between Carol, James Rhodes (War Machine), and Rocket Raccoon in the next film, Avengers: Endgame (Russos 2019):
RHODES: And if you don't mind my asking, where the hell have you been all this time?
CAROL: There are a lot of other planets in the universe. And unfortunately, they didn't have you guys.
ROCKET RACCOON: What, you gonna get another haircut?
CAROL: Listen, fur-face. I'm covering a lot of territory. The things that are happening on Earth are happening everywhere, on thousands of planets.
Whereas Superman is the Justice League’s secret weapon, defeating Steppenwolf in a matter of minutes in Justice League (see figure 5), Carol isn’t able to stop Thanos, even after she’s alerted to and dealt with the fallout from the threat.. She is crucial in the final battle against Thanos and his followers in Avengers: Endgame, destroying his spacecraft with her signature fly-through in the final battle, but when she goes toe-to-toe with the Mad Titan, he punches her out of the battle.
As her actions at the end of Captain Marvel and her response to her fellow superheroes in Avengers: Endgame demonstrate, Carol’s human identity is not enough to keep her in Earth’s orbit, so to speak. Instead, she is drawn to solving intergalactic conflicts, probably because of her manipulation by the Kree Empire. Rather than direct her supergod powers to the obliteration of her mentor Yon-Rogg, the Kree Supreme Intelligence, or even Thanos, Carol uses her abilities to address issues that the Kree and she (under their control) created. The current cinematic incarnation of Clark Kent completely contrasts with this: he uses his abilities to defend his adopted planet against extraterrestrial forces who are essentially reverse images of himself. He uses his powers reactively, to destroy beings who threaten the Earth and to save the people of Earth. The cinematic Captain Marvel is thus a solution to the supergod problem: by taking on complex problems that even a god couldn’t unravel, she becomes a much more believable superhero in the context of the audience’s own complicated world, while Superman remains a fantasy of wish fulfillment.