If you’re at all familiar with the Young Justice cartoon, you might think this article sounds a bit boring. And I don’t blame you; the problem with this cartoon’s incarnation of the Man of Steel seems glaringly obvious: in Season 1, he refuses to engage with Superboy, despite Superboy desperately wanting his guidance. (This version of Superboy, also known as Conner Kent, is a teenage clone of Superman.) Superman is barely willing to talk or interact with him due to his discomfort with being cloned without his consent, and Superman acting this way clearly takes a toll on Superboy. Though their relationship improves eventually, the show’s love of skipping ahead multiple years between seasons means we never get to see this development on-screen, and Superman barely appears after Season 1 anyway, so whatever improvement was made to him doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.
But I think there’s more that can be said about the issue with this version of the character. In theory, I actually think that their choice to go in this direction with Superman didn’t automatically have to be bad. For one thing, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Superman to feel uncomfortable with being forced into a father figure role for someone who he actually had no role in creating. Characters repeatedly talk as though Superman is actually Conner’s father; at one point, Bruce Wayne calls Clark Conner’s father to his face and Clark quickly rejects it. And who can really blame Superman for his discomfort with this? He’s not Conner’s father just because he shares DNA with him. Personally, I found myself sympathizing with Superman here.
(Interestingly, in Season 3, in which Superboy and Superman have apparently become close off-screen, Clark refers to Superboy as his brother, which he apparently sees as a more fitting description of their relationship and perhaps shows the folly of others trying to force him into a specific familial role that he did not choose.)
But just because I sympathize with where Superman is coming from does not mean his handling of it was necessarily sympathetic. Superman basically just blows Conner off, engaging only in brief awkward interactions with him. It makes Superman look rather emotionally weak and unable to handle a situation in a mature way. I would respect this version of Superman a lot more if he could at least have a conversation with Conner and explain why he feels awkward, but that it’s nothing personal.
But the problem with Young Justice Superman goes even deeper than that. He’s treated as some big aspirational figure, both to Conner in particular and to people in general, but they don’t bother showing him actually being that kind of person. He doesn’t appear that much, and when he does appear, it’s usually him engaging in unappealing behavior such as his refusal to interact with Conner, or just isn’t very significant at all. The show is clearly relying completely on people’s prior knowledge of Superman, but I find that unsatisfactory because every version of Superman is different. I want to see this Superman being the kind of person that people would justly look up to. How can I root for Superboy to finally get Superman’s approval, as this show seems to want us to do, when I don’t even know if Superman is the kind of person whose approval should matter? All we get to see is his refusal to directly engage with issues even if doing so causes emotional pain to others. That doesn’t seem like the behavior of an aspirational figure. Sure, he can still have good points, but we don’t see enough of these for us to really see how Superman is a good role model or root for Superboy finally getting his approval and appreciation. If anything, I just want Superboy to realize that maybe Superman isn’t all that and he shouldn’t care about having a relationship with him or “living up” to him. And that’s not a good thing to think, and considering I’m a huge Superman fan in general, that clearly shows this show is quite far off the mark when it comes to depicting him.
Overall, I think Young Justice is a great show. Well, honestly, it’s probably more accurate to say Season 1 is a great show and Season 2 and Season 3 are pretty good shows. But I certainly think most DC fans should give it a try. However, Superman’s portrayal is a big disappointment. In this review, I didn’t talk about whether or not his behavior in this show was “true to his character” because while it’s not what I think Superman should act like, I know that every version of Superman is different. But simply from a narrative point of view, I think this version of the character is a flop. He just isn’t very likeable or emotionally strong, making it hard to actually see Superboy developing a relationship with him to be something to aspire to. I’m more tempted to want to tell Superboy that Superman isn’t really worth his time.