No, this isn’t who would win in a fight. (It’s Diana.)
But comparing the Last Son of Krypton and the Princess of Themyscira has taken a rise following the release of Wonder Woman, despite being apples and oranges, so we’re going to do the same. Part by part.
Plus, picking out parallelisms between two of my favourite capes? I’m down.
(NOTE: Spoilers for the DCEU films… you have been warned)
When We Were Young
The stark contrast in their childhoods – and subsequent adolescence – is something many people tend to overlook or gloss over when comparing the two. A huge oversight, especially when it’s such an important factor that shapes their characterizations.
Diana grew up in very different environment from Clark. She lived among those whom she thought were just like her at that time, and was beloved by all. Most importantly, she lived in a home where patriarchy did not exist.
Her demigod powers appear to have kicked in only after she became an adult, so she didn’t have to go through the struggle of figuring them out as a kid. When you grow up in a literal paradise island, your childhood seems nothing short of idyllic.
(I would however suspect she must have realistically felt some form of loneliness, having grown up with no other kids her age. In the comics, Diana gets a playmate her age through magical means.)
Clark grew up with the misfortune of having his powers kick in at the worst possible timing. A child having his own body be a huge source of confusion and fear is disconcerting enough; try adding in the mix of discovering later on that you’re not like everybody else. (Here, an autistic fan relates their experience with Clark’s.)
Having super hearing isn’t all that a blessing when you learn that your schoolmates call you “a freak” and “weirdo”. And how heartbreaking is it to have a child ask their parent, “What’s wrong with me?”
And as a teenager? It doesn’t let up.
Part of their contrasting youth was Diana being told as a child that mankind was inherently good; their atrocities were just due to corruption from an outside influence. It was this naïve idealism that would later shake Diana to the core in the film’s climax.
Clark, however, never got that luxury of innocence. Perhaps it would’ve been easier on him if he believed that a mythological figure was influencing the bullies that tormented him, instead of the fact that some people are just cruel.
While I’ve never experienced being bullied, Clark feeling out of place was similar to my childhood – never feeling like I belonged to either of my heritages. “So, what are you?” was a question I struggled with. Clark’s “Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?” and in turn, pretending to be human, was basically my version of “Can’t I pretend to be just Chinese?” (Because I was Chinese-passing. Sometimes it was “just Malay”, since I could speak the language over Mandarin. It varies.)
I’d later on grew to accept myself as a person from two communities, and so having Jor-El call Clark a child of two worlds – Krypton and Earth – in Man of Steel was nothing short of delightful to me on a personal level.
Earlier, I stated that their different childhoods were essential to their characterizations. Firstly, it shapes their worldviews. Clark knows he is an outsider who lives in a world that hates outsiders. Humanity doesn’t need to even consider whether you can fly or shoot lasers from your eyes. Different skin colour? Attraction to the same gender? Already a basis for alienation. Wanting to conceal your identity from the world becomes a matter of survival.
Diana in her first trip to Man’s World would not have such cause of anxiety like Clark, because she’s never felt a need to have to hide herself. (Or even cover up completely, since the Male Gaze did not exist in Themyscira.)
Likewise, with the vast difference in their respective beginnings, it should be expected that Diana and Clark will develop different personalities. For one, Diana wouldn’t grow to be as reticent as Clark, due to her innocent and carefree childhood. And Clark wouldn’t be as cheery as often as Diana, due to his own traumatic one.
Diana, having no knowledge of the patriarchal shackles her gender suffers from in Man’s World, instinctively charges head on to butt heads with a condescending general.
Clark avoids full on confrontation, such as when dealing with his bullies and a sexual harasser at work, because he can’t afford to draw attention to himself unless absolutely necessary.
Finally, and most importantly, their different backgrounds hold the root of their altruism. Diana is under no obligation to leave her paradise – where she knows peace with her loved ones – for our messy world, but she chooses to do so. Clark is under no obligation to help a world that continually hates and mistrusts him, but he too chooses to do so. It’s the Right Thing to Do, and they know it. This selflessness propels them forward in their heroic journey.
Is It All Contrast Between Them?
Not really, for there are parallels too.
Despite the differences in their childhoods, overprotective parents who wish to shield them from the world are a shared similarity.
Hippolyta and Jonathan aren’t perfect parallels, however. Hippolyta distrusts humanity completely, due to the Amazons’ history of being enslaved in the past. She opts for inaction even after being made aware of the war that leads to the death of millions beyond the island. (“I will not deploy our army and leave Themyscira defenseless to go and fight their war.”) Reminds me of the Ents in Lord of the Rings.
Jonathan Kent doesn’t trust humanity all that much too, though he simply believes in waiting for the right time. (Clark: “He was convinced I had to wait. That the world was not ready.” / Martha: “He always believed you were meant for greater things. And when that day came, your shoulders would be able to bear the weight.”)
It also shows in their responses to their children expressing their wish to save people:
Clark: “What was I supposed to do? Just let them die?”
Diana:“Stopping the God of War is our foreordinance. As Amazons, this is our duty.”
Hippolyta: “But you are not an Amazon like the rest of us! So you will do nothing. As your Queen, I forbid it.”
And there’s also,
Martha: “I never wanted this world to have you.” / Hippolyta: “They do not deserve you.”
Everyone Needs A Little Nudge
Almost every hero has it – that moment when they need a little inspirational nudge to make their heroic choice.
For Clark in his origin story, it came in the form of a priest. “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first; the trust part comes later,” he advises. Clark therefore chooses to take that leap with humanity, despite knowing their nature, and puts his fate in mankind’s hands by surrendering to them.
For Diana, her desire to save lives was already there, but Steve Trevor told her what she needed to hear: “My father told me once, he said, if you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing or you could do something.” Doing nothing was subsequently no longer an option for her. “Who will I be if I stay?” she declares to her mother in open rebellion. It went unspoken but the meaning was clear – she won’t be someone who ignored what was wrong in the world.
Another Thing A Hero Can Undergo? Temptation.
In WW, Diana is tempted by Ares to join him and eradicate humanity, whom she had lost faith in by that time. With humanity gone, the earth could flourish to be the “paradise it once was”.
In MoS, Zod tempts Clark with the possibility of reviving their lost homeland. The only downside in Clark’s eyes was that a new Krypton would require humanity’s destruction.
Both Diana and Clark reject their respective foes, and interestingly, with similar lines:
Diana: “I could never be a part of that.” / Clark: “I can’t be a part of this.”
How Do You Hurt Someone Invulnerable?
In Adventures of Superman #640 (2005) written by Greg Rucka, Lois Lane quotes:
“You look at Superman, and you wonder, what can he possibly have to worry about? What could possibly ever hurt him? But just because his skin is invulnerable, that doesn’t mean his heart is. And that’s how you hurt Superman. You break his heart.”
Also very applicable to Diana.
(Yes, there’s also Kryptonite for Superman. Now hush.)
A pivotal moment for both Clark and Diana is their standing in the tragedy of human fatality. When I first saw Diana surrounded by orange gas in WW, I went, “Holy crap,” and instantly connected the scene to Clark in the midst of orange flames in Batman v Superman just a year earlier.
Here, both stood untouched by the very thing that ravaged the people they dedicated themselves to protect, and thus, front-row view of the loss of life.
The difference in this otherwise perfectly aligned parallel was the aftermath that followed. Diana blames Steve for preventing her from killing General Ludendorff, which to her, indirectly led to the villagers’ deaths. (“I could’ve saved them if it weren’t for you.”) Then, knowing who the direct cause of the deaths was, she charges on in righteous fury towards said General.
For Clark, the person behind the bombing was unknown, unseen, and so he blames nobody but himself for failing to protect the people. (“I was standing right there and I didn’t see it.”) He then goes on to a self-imposed exile.
How the Mighty Have Fallen
Afterward came another common phase of these characters’ lives – disillusionment.
Diana, having never known the intricacies of human morality the way Clark has, would experience her previously idealistic view of them shattered. “Maybe people aren’t always good. Ares or no Ares, maybe it’s just who they are,” Steve unwillingly admits to a visibly troubled Diana. So disappointed and heartbroken is Diana by that knowledge that she goes as far as to declare that mankind did not deserve her help.
(I like to call that Diana’s “humans can go f*ck themselves” moment. I know that feeling, girl. Happens to me at least twice a week.)
Clark, by contrast, wasn’t fazed by the fact that people sucked. (“People are awful? Wow, it’s almost as though I’ve known that my entire life.” Okay, I’m putting words into Clark’s mouth now. He’s too nice to think that.) Instead, he was disillusioned with himself. “All this time, I’ve been living my life the way my father saw it. […] Thinking I’m here to do good. Superman was never real,” he laments.
His despondence following the bombing and the implication that he suffers from nightmares as confided to a hallucination of his father, appear to be symptoms of survivor’s guilt. Zack Snyder also confirmed that Clark is haunted by the lives he couldn’t save.
I find it interesting that Clark of all people never felt that humans don’t deserve his protection, the way Diana did during her lapse of faith. Lois even states that stopping to help people altogether wasn’t an option for him. He has had plenty of reasons to choose so, and I definitely wouldn’t fault him for that.
Sure, he didn’t trust that mankind was ready to accept him the way he is. But it’s the same way that LGBTQ+ people like myself may not out themselves to everyone in their lives, only a selected few. (For example, not everyone in my family is ready to know yet. If that makes me cynical, then I wear that badge of cynicism proudly.)
Love Will Save the Day
It is the darkest just before the dawn, and that dawn is love.
Diana eventually overcomes her disillusionment, for through her experience with Steve, she realizes that mankind – with all our complexities and flaws – hold great capacity for love. “I believe in love,” she declares. And that was worth protecting.
Clark too is motivated by love. “She [Martha] gave me faith that there’s good in this world,” his father (or a hallucination of him) had said, and for Clark, that came in the form of Lois. “This is my world,” he states right before, “You [Lois] are my world.”
Show a Little Mercy
What else am I 100% here for? Both Diana and Clark showing compassion not just for innocent civilians, but to their enemies who definitely don’t deserve it. Diana was well within her right to drop that tank on Doctor Poison, who not only led to Steve’s death, but actively worked to murder millions too. And Clark could’ve stood there and let Doomsday flattened Lex after the latter abducted his mother and bombed a whole building of people.
But they’re better than that.
(Fun fact: In Lex’s earlier Villain Monologue on why he hates Superman, he says, “No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from Daddy’s fist and abominations.” And here Superman saves Lex from his abomination’s fist. Zack, I see what you did there.)
You Threatened Humanity. Prepare to Die.
Okay, that was a poor reference on Inigo Montoya’s famous line.
In both their origin films, Diana and Clark were faced with foes that vow to wipe out mankind no matter what – Ares out of disdain for Zeus’ creation, Zod out of revenge against Clark for ruining any chance to revive Krypton.
(Diana also kills General Ludendorff in a case of mistaken identity. And Clark also kills Doomsday in BvS… or you could say he re-kills Zombie Zod. Zodbie.)
Here, the contrast is how both reacted after the deed. Diana, having believed in the Amazons’ mission of destroying the God of War since young, readily accepts her role as executioner, or “Godkiller”. There’s even a moment of relief and serenity at having ended the war. (She is also depicted against a sunrise, literally embodying the “dawn of justice” as the world’s first superhero.)
Clark, shedding the only form of innocence he had, reasonably succumbs to his shock and grief. He gives up his clean hands for humanity’s sake and requires Lois to “save him emotionally,” as stated by producer Deborah Snyder.
Bridges to Humanity
I’m a total sucker for Powered Beings paired with Ordinary Mortals. Superman/Lois Lane, Wonder Woman/Steve Trevor, Thor/Jane Foster, Hulk/Betty Ross, The Flash/Iris West etc. When you have a Superpowered Character, they risk losing their connection to humanity. One of the best ways to strengthen that connection is through their relationships with regular people, romantic or otherwise.
Lois and Steve are ordinary people doing their best to pursue justice without all the enhanced gifts of Clark and Diana, and no doubt are just as heroic in their eyes. And to both these superheroes, Lois and Steve also symbolise the potential for goodness that mankind holds. That humanity can be caring and loving, accepting and trusting. That there will always be people like Lois Lane and Steve Trevor, even if there are plenty others who aren’t.
MoS and WW also have a pretty cool parallel of Lois and Steve giving Clark and Diana their iconic alter ego monikers, further cementing how integral they are to the Superman and Wonder Woman mythos.
(And Clark flying away from Lois to sacrifice his life for the greater good? Leaving behind a diamond ring? Just like Steve and his watch. The look that Diana gives to Lois in BvS exemplifies how she empathises with the other woman’s pain perfectly.)
So with these contrasts and parallels…
In the beginning of this article, I said comparing Diana and Clark was like apples and oranges. And they are.
The narrative presented in the DC Extended Universe explicitly sets them up so. Their heroic journey, while similar in their shared goal to protect humanity, also differs with experiences that shape their personalities, their outlooks, and their inner conflicts. They were always meant to be different. Superman is not a male Wonder Woman any more than Wonder Woman is a female Superman.
People are also complex, and often, no sole character can embody everything we wish to relate with.
As a woman, Diana is to me the feminist dream of someone empowered. Someone who doesn’t shun her femininity as weakness, someone who values sisterhood, who is compassionate enough to give up paradise for us, and who inspires love. (She’s also canonically bisexual in the comics. Can you imagine how much it means to me that the highest-profile bisexual superhero now is someone as iconic as Wonder Woman! Before that, it was like… antiheroes Catwoman or Constantine.)
However, Diana coming from a place of privilege, a literal paradise island, is something that I can’t relate with. That’s where Clark comes in. There are many moments where I better related to him in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, than Diana in Wonder Woman. (It doesn’t mean I love Diana less. We can still love and enjoy a character without having to personally relate to them.)
As a person who feels othered and has grappled with depression, Clark offers me a shared experience many other male superheroes in movies don’t. Someone who is alienated and can’t help but feel affected by it because he has emotions goddammit, yet chooses to be selfless to a world that hasn’t quite yet joined him in the sun. Clark here is heavily coded as mentally ill and I’m not the only one who feels so.
I see value in both and I need both.
2017 has been great for me, now that Diana’s story is finally being told on the big screen, alongside Clark’s. And I can’t wait for both to be in Justice League.