If you’ve seen the new MCU movie Eternals (and go see that before you read further because HERE BE SPOILERS!) then you know that one of its main characters is a Superman analog. Ikaris (Richard Madden) can fly, has super-strength, super-invulnerability, and heat vision. Director Chloé Zhao has confirmed that the character was inspired by the Superman film Man of Steel.
As one child in the film says pointing at Ikaris, “Dad, that’s Superman! With the cape, and you were shooting laser beams out of your eyes!’”
Okay, Ikaris, doesn’t have a cape. But you get the idea.
The other thing that Ikaris doesn’t have is good guy-ness. He doesn’t fight for truth, justice, and the flourishing of everyone. He fights (Spoiler!) for global genocide. Bad Superman!
The thing is, there are a lot of Bad Supermen swooping around out there in comics and on various screens. Almost since the character started jumping tall buildings, creators and audiences have been fascinated with the idea that this all-powerful protector good daddy might turn into an all-powerful bad daddy. Ikaris is one in a long line of bad (bad!) Superdudes who explore the downsides of relying on some superior someone to save us. With laser eyes.
The first evil Superman on-screen was arguably the first real supervillain in the movies. General Zod (Terence Stamp), the world-conquering supervillain megalomaniac, was a Kryptonian criminal imprisoned in the Phantom Zone before Krypton exploded. He and his confederates all have the same super special FX powers as Superman himself.
Zod (who shows up again in rebooted form in Man of Steel) thinks being Kryptonian and having superpowers gives him the right to rule over puny humans. That’s a staple of bad Superman motivations. When Superman is evil, he’s generally evil because he subscribes to some vision of racial or eugenic superiority.
In Robert Kirkman’s Invincible comics, for example, Superman analog Omniman is an alien Vitrumite. The Vitrumites are incredibly powerful and believe that their power and strength makes them the only fit rulers of the universe.
The parallels between white supremacists and fascists are even clearer in Amazon’s series The Boys. The bad Superman here is Homelander, played with hearty homicidal relish by the wonderful Antony Starr.
Homelander is a psychopathic narcissist driven by greed and an instrumental American nationalism: murdering Muslims and non-white people at home and abroad gets him a lot of good press. But his belief that his own might makes right also turns him into a natural ally of German Nazi white supremacist superhero Stormfront (Aya Cash).
Ikaris’ badness is a bit less blatant than that. He and the other Eternals came to earth 7000 years ago to keep the earth safe from giant CGI nasties called the Deviants. Eventually, we learn (here come the spoilers!) that the Eternals aren’t trying to preserve the human race for its own sake. Instead, they want to keep the human race going because sentient beings provide necessary food for the cosmic Celestials, giant monster/gods who sleep in the earth.
Some of the Eternals reject their destiny and decide that genociding the entire human race is wrong. Ikaris, though, sticks to the original plan. Like Omniman and Zod before him, he puts his superpowers on the side of some superior space someone. Human lives are worth less.
There are echoes here of racial supremacist Superman, especially given the Eternals casting choices. Most of the Eternals are people of color; Ikaris is one of only two white men on the ten-member team. When he turns against his comrades, you get a lot of images of this super-powered white guy thumping non-white people in order to perpetuate a genocide. The implications there are hard to miss.
Ikaris’ motivations are a little more involved though. You might say that he’s an ambivalent Superman rather than an evil Superman.
The Celestials do eat planets. But they do it so they can seed the universe with life. Preventing a Celestial from rising means lots of intelligent creatures won’t ever be born. Ikaris is choosing to sacrifice humans now for other intelligent life later. He’s like Jack Bauer, making the tough decisions to protect his people. Only in this case “his people” are giant blocky monster things that sleep in volcanoes. And the “tough decision” is murdering every single person on earth.
Which is perhaps why the idea of evil Superman is so fascinating. When extremely powerful people start deciding to hurt us, things can escalate very quickly. Even when those powerful people feel bad about it. Even when those powerful people don’t wear capes.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.