Why Does Superman Have to Throw a Punch?


It seems like there’s a fundamental difference of opinion these days surrounding America’s first superhero and the use of his famous power set.

With Man of Steel, Superman has been physically unleashed. Sure, he’s done incredible things in comics and various animated things, but this is a significant moment in the history of Supes as a cinematic fighter.

Also, the release of Man of Steel has given rise to a lot of comments about Superman Returns, which was a Superman feature where he DIDN’T throw a single punch. A lot of people seem awfully relieved that the Man of Tomorrow is beating people up.

And frankly, I’ve found it kind of bothersome.

There’s a lot of disappointment when Superman doesn’t throw a punch. The lack of punch-throwing was one of the main criticisms aimed at the underrated (or at least over-hated) Superman Returns. At least, ever since Man of Steel‘s marketing department started putting action scenes in their trailers and TV spots.

This particular criticism, if you can’t tell by now, is one I don’t get with at all.


Firstly, let me just point out that Superman doesn’t get involved in fisticuffs in the 1978 movie, either. So obviously you can make a great Superman movie without them. Sure, he throws down with Zod in Superman II, but come ON people… Superman Returns wasn’t the first work where the character doesn’t wind up in a superpowered brawl.

It’s amazing to me how many people seem to have missed this particular point.

Moving on. The question of whether Superman needs to punch people obviously isn’t about whether or not Superman has ever been violent, or if fighting is a contradiction to his character. Clearly it’s not, and we’ve got three-fourths of a century’s worth of comics to back it up.


Or, if you don’t like reading, the animated movie versions.

The question instead is simply whether or not Supes HAS to throw a punch. Is that really the point of his character? It would have to be the point, or at least part of it, for people to legitimately criticize a movie for not including it.

And that happens. Which in a way makes sense, because the superhero genre has pretty much always been defined by action first. Hell, the first Superman comic was called “Action Comics.”

Still, the core of Superman lies elsewhere.

Superman has the powers of a Greek God. He can kill with a stare, build or level cities overnight, and essentially rule the world. For him to function at all, his must constantly exercise restraint. He must fit into our world.

This is the thing the ’78 movie nailed. Supes is often referred to as a “Boy Scout,” sometimes fondly and sometimes dismissively. The misread here is that Superman is only preoccupied with helping old ladies cross the street and other such trite things.* But there’s so much more to the character than good deeds.


It’s not just a tone thing, either. The character need not be portrayed cheesily. I think the early half of Man of Steel is digging into an interesting side of the character, too. The idea of Kal-El being the first Krypton (Kryptonian?) born free of a genetic disposition is fascinating.

In fact, that wrinkle highlights a core aspect of the character: Superman is a being of choice. The movie understands this, and the genetic eccentricity of his origins brings it to the surface.

Which is why it’s all the more befuddling that the action seems to have no consequence. Sure, it’s cool as hell from a visual standpoint. Superman and Zod duke it out, their kicks and punches bringing down skyscrapers and sending out shockwaves. But aside from Superman’s eventual victory, nothing else is accomplished.


I’m not going to get into Snyder/Goyer/Nolan’s new movie any more than that right now, but if you want a passionate argument against their treatment of the character, Mark Waid’s will do nicely — actually, I recommend it. The guy literally wrote the book (or at least a couple important books) on Superman. Anyhow…

This seems like a tangent about Man of Steel, and it sort of is, but the point is that this is what people wanted! Superman punching! When the imperative is “more punching,” the punching becomes the main priority. Unfortunately, when violence is the point, the violence ceases to matter from a narrative standpoint.

Which brings us back to that question. “How can you make a Superman movie where Superman doesn’t even throw a punch?” The question only makes sense if some part of Superman’s core makeup is tied to the execution of hand-to-hand combat. If punching in and of itself MATTERS.


By the way, there are superheroes for whom this idea would basically be true. Batman, for instance, has historically been a character defined by his confrontation of our darkest impulses. He’s out to set an example, sure, but the example he sets is that this will not be tolerated. As Nolan so clearly pointed out, he’s the Dark Knight; the one who will do what needs to be done today for us to survive until tomorrow.

Superman, on the other hand, is the Man of Tomorrow. Where Batman’s cynical, Superman is sincere. Where Batman gets his hands dirty as he cleans the underbelly of Gotham, Superman stands tall to set an example for us to aspire to. For Batman, violence is a part of life. For Superman, it tends to be a last resort.


I’ve read certain opinions (like this one) that claim it’s hard to wring drama from Superman stories. I don’t get that. Drama is largely determined by the stakes, and for Superman, the stakes are often our souls. Superman wants us to be our best selves. Far from being robbed of conflict, this is a hero who sometimes literally bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Any parent or older can tell you how hard it is to be a constant role model. Multiply that by six billion.

Furthermore, despite all his powers, Superman is an alien in human form. The ultimate outsider. Even though his friends accept him, and some citizens love his feats, Superman has to live every single day as (essentially) the last surviving member of his race.

Wait, this is all sounding rather familiar…


For those of you unfamiliar with The Doctor and Doctor Who in general, rest assured it’s great stuff.** The Doctor, like Superman, is an immortal alien demigod whose defining personality trait is a love of humanity. He’s also a declared pacifist. And while he doesn’t have heat vision and super strength, The Doctor DOES carry a device called a Sonic Screwdriver that basically exists to help him solve plot problems.

Surely, this is just as “hard” to find tension in as a Superman story. And yet when the show is on, the writers of Doctor Who get drama out of this character every… single… week. They simply put him in situations where all of his powers, all of his strengths, might not be enough.

Again I have to call out Superman: The Movie for finding a good, cinematic way to depict this conflict. Look, they really did mostly get this guy right the first time.


I’d cite this one, too, but you guys would just get mad at me.

So if you liked Man of Steel, I hope it wasn’t because Superman punched some people. And if you dislike some of the other Superman films, I hope it’s for some reason other than there’s not enough fighting. Because at the end of the day, that’s not what this guy is about.


*This is actually a misread that applies to Scouting, too. Not to QUITE the same extent, but y’know.

**Well, except for the most recent season, which was kinda a huge letdown. Some great episodes, sure, but the season as a whole was a total misfire. Still a great show, and one that’ll probably bounce right back.


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  1. I can see what your getting at but I disagree.

    Superman doesn’t punch *most people* because he knows they can’t take it. He holds back. Why punch a criminal when you would kill him? You talk punching but what if he flicked someone with his finger?

    Holding back is part of the appeal of Superman. He could impose his will but he would rather talk, he could do whatever he wants but he limits his powers.

    I think the last ep of Justice League Unlimited hit Superman to a tee for me – “I live in a world made of cardboard. It’s a rare chance when I can cut lose”.

    So when he fights Darkseid, Mongol, Zod, other others who are as powerful as him or more powerful, you wouldn’t want him to punch them? Look at Superman vs the Elite movie or Superman Branic?

    In Superman 1978, he didn’t fight anyone except Luthor which everyone knew he could take.

  2. First off, Superman not throwing any punches in Superman Returns was hardly the worst part of that movie. Man of Steel is obviously more action oriented then most of the other Superman movies but I think that has to do more with what the majority of the movie watching public want to see good bad or indifferent. It seems that all action/super hero movies now a day’s have to have the big action sequence at the end. I mean honestly what did you want them to do? Have Superman figure out some scheme or way to trick Zod and his cohorts into going back into the phantom zone without ever having to fight any one of them? Do you think Zod as a born and bread warrior was gonna go down without a fight? It would have been an injustice to the movie to have a bunch of Kyrptonians come to earth gain super powers and never get to see Superman duke it out with any of them. The why I look at it is this is just the first chapter in what will obviously be a series of movies. It’s a good start to a newly established Superman. I for one look forward to seeing more.

  3. Nicholas, I honestly don’t see what we’re disagreeing on. I’m not specifically criticizing the decision to use violence in Man of Steel. I’m good with Superman throwing down the gauntlet when the situation requires.

    What I’m responding to is the number of people who act like seeing Superman fight is the main reason the movie holds an appeal to them. As opposed to, say, anything he actually stands for.

  4. Did you see how amazing that fight scene was with Faora in Man of Steel? That’s why people want to see a movie where Supes fighting is the main appeal; it’s a spectacle beyond anything we will see in an action movie. I’m not saying that I’m one of those people, but I certainly can see the appeal!

  5. Actually one of the most non-Superman things in Man of Steel is the violence. The raw collateral damage caused during the violence is almost completely glossed-over. Tens of thousands of people probably lost their lives during the various fights which is almost completely ignored by the film (see also: Transformers, Star Trek Into Darkness). This is something that really stood out to me especially since Superman made such a different choice in Superman 2 where he goes so far as to flee the combat when the ramifications to the public become so obvious and severe. Now in this film, Zod definately painted him into more of a corner but the fact that Superman doesn’t seem to recognize/acknowledge the carnage, during or after the fight, seemed WAY out-of-character.

    Yes he saved that family from Zod in the end but then he proceeded to break-down and spend some quality time with Lois mourning his actions.
    How many people were in that city trapped, screaming, and injured in the rubble. Dig-out some survivors… recover some bodies… anything to acknowledge the human toll that the battle took. You had to kill the genocidal madman from your home planet and that makes you feel bad? Aw, poor you.

    It was a fun film but it sacrificed a lot of what I’ve come to understand as who Superman is in the service of the action. Generally, I’m also getting tired of action films sanitizing mass death and destruction by glossing-over it for a PG-13 rating. In a post-9/11 world, we all know that those buildings have people in them.

  6. Good points, but do people really complain that much about Superman not punching? Most people liked the ’78 movie a great deal when it came out, and it’s only its sheer age that has made it too subtle when compared to the modern superhero movies. As for Superman Returns, it’s the first time I’ve heard that Superman never threw a punch. People always complained about other stuff that Singer got wrong (lack of tension, no chemistry between Lois and Clark, indulgent editing, boring villain plot, weird final act, weird super-kid, questionable cgi, poor pacing and a long etcetera).

  7. This is the second time I came to Unreality and another poster also named Nicholas had already written my thoughts down for me. In this case, right down to the exact line in JLU that sprang to mind while reading this article. I think I may be sleep-posting.

    Good article aside from praising Superman Returns. That way lies madness. I didn’t notice that he didn’t throw any punches in it and I didn’t care. The second half of that movie was (to quote Sir Charles) “just turrible”.

  8. @hallamq
    More than you’d think.

    Man, I’m gonna have to write up a praising of Superman Returns for you folks someday or something. It’s a personal movie for me, in fairness, but I also think it’s a very good one… albeit in an unconvetional way.

  9. We know that Superman can defeat almost any foe without needing to throw a punch, so when the Last Son of Krypton must resort to physically punching something or someone it means the situation is grave and the stakes are high.

    Again from JLU
    “Always taking constant care not to break something. To break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control, even for a moment, or someone could die. ”

    I think the hate for Superman Returns comes from the fact that it is an homage film to the original Donner Superman films. To me it felt tiresome and slow, afraid to try anything new opting to instead retread plot devices from the Donner films.
    The Superman Returns suit was awful and the shield looked hokey and cheap.

  10. There has always been violence in Superman. That is for sure. In fact it’s a long running joke that Superman’s answer to everything is to punch it.

    I agree with you that it was the non consequential nature of the combat at the end that turned me off the most as well and ultimately led me to conclude that while this was a technically proficient super hero movie, it wasn’t a Superman movie.

    The movie is a tale of two acts. The first, drawing heavily from Mark Waid’s Birthright. The second half, is pretty much a straight addaptation of the conclusion to J. Michael Starzynski’s Earth One. Really. It’s the same exact plot. What the movie is missing though is the piece that the end of the comic. (I actually glossed over it the first time I read through the book, and noticed it when I reread the story this week.) Earth One, concludes with the text of an “interview” conducted by Clark Kent with Metropolis’s new protector. So obviously it’s basically Clark’s confession as Superman, and he spends a great deal of time talking about the victims who were caught in the path of his battle, and shows deep regret for each and every life lost. In fairness, the movie Superman wasn’t given the same confessional, but I think it weakens the character as a protector.

    At least as someone on Reddit says. If there is a Superman 2 Lex will now have a full on justification for his hatred and fear of Superman.

  11. Bravo, bravo, and bravo again. MoS spends two hours telling me how much hope Superman will provide, how he will lead us as an inspiration…and then we toss all that out to have a REALLY big fight in which Supes saves no one except Lois and one family. Really, watch, he saves no one in the Metropolis fight. I won’t even argue that he endangers thousands, but he show NO regard for any of the damage and saves exactly no one.

    I happen to be a big fan of Superman Returns, though it isn’t perfect. It does kind of make Superman a deadbeat dad (look, you hover in space to listen to the planet for trouble; I would have to assume you would INSTANTLY be aware your super trooper found Lois’s egg), but the compassion Routh brings to the role, particularly when working as hard to save indiviudals as much as the city during the Earthquake caused by Luthor is precisely Superman.

    I only wish Snyder/Goyer had read or watched “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and The American Way?” (animated as Superman Vs. The Elite) when writing this script. If they did, and moved forward anyway, then they just don’t quite get who Superman is, and why. They aren’t the first to miss the mark, but their build up is so good it makes their failure in the end stand out that much more.

  12. A very interesting article, but I do disagree with a few things. I haven’t watched much Doctor Who, but most of the episodes I have seen really didn’t have much tension in them. In fact, the only one I did was when they first introduced the Weeping Angels, and they removed The Doctor from almost the entire episode then.
    As for Man of Steel, the fighting definitely DID have consequences, and a large part of Dawn of Justice will be about dealing with those consequences, with a lot of people (including Batman) blaming Superman for the large amount of carnage he brought upon them.

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