People debate who would win in a duel: Goku or Superman? Although entertaining, this question is the old oranges and apples argument. Goku and Superman are different types of heroes. Each reflects a different set of values and cultural views, and both types of hero are important.
The Man of Steel
Superman is the ultimate hero, good and infinitely powerful. With each generation he’s addressed concerns that troubled that generation. For example, during the Cold War, he addressed many of the concerns surrounding nuclear weapons. In short, Superman is a Messianic figure. He swoops in and saves the world. There is no doubt he will win. After all, he is Superman.
Certainly, he makes mistakes and faces challenges in many story arcs (I haven’t read many Superman comics so my knowledge of the arcs is limited), but in the end, he is a representation of Western Judaeo-Christian thought. God is an all powerful being that will set everything right in the end. Superman is an all powerful being that does the same. Superman isn’t the type of role model we can emulate. He represents the values American culture holds dear: honesty, power, goodness, self-sacrifice, and individualism. He inspires us, but his other-worldliness keeps us from fully identifying with him.
Dragonball Z’s Goku
Goku likewise embodies Japanese cultural values: honesty, persistence, mercy, loyalty, and a drive to always improve. Unlike Superman, Goku isn’t a messianic figure, but he is a hero that saves the day. Goku pulls from China and Japan’s rich mythology. For example, his hair design in Super Saiyan form is in the shape of a lotus. The lotus represents the state of awakening, enlightenment in Buddhism. Goku awakens to his hidden power. His relationship with monkeys( Saiyans can transform into giant ape when they have tails) hearkens to the Chinese story The Journey to the West.
Goku is also a father. This plays into the Japanese concept of adulthood. Marriage and the children that follow define what it means to be an adult. Goku’s fatherhood shows how he lives up to his social obligations to society. Take a look at my article about Japan’s social expectations for men for more information.
Whereas Superman has infinite power, Goku has to train and work to improve himself and unlock his potential. But Goku’s power takes the effort of the community. He is supported by his friends and allies. Even his enemies help him improve. Goku embodies Confucian ideals: striving toward self improvement, being a good father, being an honest person, being loyal to friends, and being selfless. Goku is the type of person we too can strive to be.
Contrasting Values and Needs
Both Superman and Goku meet different needs and cultural concerns. Superman represents a final, corrective force that can right any wrong. The idea provides comfort. Superman will save the day. Goku is who a person can be. He represents the infinite potential for personal growth and improvement. He represents social responsibility. Unlike Superman, Goku has limits. But those limits speak to us. We all have our own limits that seem insurmountable.
Superman comes off as profoundly American. As Julian Chambliss, a historian who specializes in studying superheroes and American culture, states: “the core narrative in Superman has been and continues to be the values and belief about the U.S. experience being strong enough and good enough to address the troubles facing the generation engaged with the character” (Truitt, 2013). Superman, among most other American superheroes, doesn’t rely on anyone for help. Compare this to Goku who relies on his friends. It often takes a community to take down villains in Dragon Ball Z’s universe. Superman exemplifies American individualism; Goku shows Confucian ideals of community. Goku requires help from others in order to reach a higher level of ability. Outside of Superman mentally blocking his abilities, he doesn’t need help realizing his potential.
Superman affirms the America world view, a view of justice, individual merit, and truth. Goku affirms the Japanese focus on family, community, and self improvement. See what I mean about apples and oranges?
Hidden Identity and Community
Speaking of community, Goku and Superman differ considerably. Superman hides his true identity behind the persona of Clark Kent. In American society, many of us do the same. We wear social masks when out in public. Just as Superman crafts the image of a fumbling Clark Kent, we create an image of a Superman. When someone asks an American how they are doing, we respond with our happy, healthy persona answer. After all, no one likes a downer right? We are Clark Kents that hide behind a Superman persona.
Superman, for all his power and independence, craves community.
Goku lacks a persona. Goku is simply Goku. He is a father and member of the community. He relies on his friends, and they rely on him. Goku is his own person, but he doesn’t follow the doctrine of American individualism. Unlike Clark Kent, he doesn’t try to hide who he is. Goku’s honesty often gets him in trouble, but we can’t help but admire him for it.
Friends and Enemies
Superman isn’t one to befriend enemies. Goku goes against the grain and befriends several enemies, changing them for the better. Vegeta transforms from a murderer to a responsible (somewhat) father. Superman doesn’t have to befriend anyone because he doesn’t need anyone to help him. Goku needs people to help him grow, and he desires to help others achieve their full potential. Superman doesn’t need to grow. He doesn’t have potential; he is potential. This isn’t to say Superman doesn’t have friends. However, there are fights only he can do. Goku’s friends help wear down villains or delay them for Goku to tap into his inner strength.
Superman vs. Goku
Alright, I will admit that I don’t care for Superman. He is too powerful. Despite being an American, I view American individualism as corrosive and poisonous as it stands now. Individualism is a lark anyway. No one is truly self made. Even Superman had his parents and greater society. However, individualism blinds us to this fact. Goku, however, represents human potential and the necessity of relying upon others to grow.
Both Goku and Superman are different types of heroes. Superman is a God figure. Goku is who we can be. Each speaks to a different psychological need: the need for justice amid reality’s injustices, the need for community. Superman is what Goku will eventually become. While Goku has what Superman deeply wants: acceptance and community.
Goku and Superman would never fight each other. Well, Goku would pester Superman constantly for sparring matches. But then, such a case would give the Man of Steel something profound: a friend and equal.
Truitt, B. (2013) Believe it or not, Superman is the greatest American hero. USA Today.