The Man of Steel. Big Blue. The Man of Tomorrow. The Metropolis Marvel. Supes. The Boy Scout. The Last Son of Krypton. Smallville. Kal-El.
He was one of the first superheroes and has endured 76 years of ups and downs for the comic industry – and it only took him 73 of those to learn where his underwear is meant to go. He is the template, the blueprint, for superpowered heroes who came after. And we still love him today. He still catches our imagination and makes us feel excited, like children again.
My first experience of him was from the Christopher Reeve films. I remember getting my mum to make me a cape out of a red velvet curtain, and poking the lenses out of an old pair of Ray-Bans (sorry!). Then I’d stroll around the living room in my Clark Kent disguise, until trouble inevitably erupted in a nearby land (the dining room). Then, off would come the glasses, and I’d fly, via the sofa and chairs, to said land. Apparently, the sewing machine’s brass-looking handles were actually Kryptonite, because it was on one of these, in the process of saving lives, that I fell off a chair and sliced my finger from top to bottom. Even Superman can cry.
Age 7 was the start of my depression and it was partly due to this that, for more years than I can recall, I’d go out into the garden, stare straight up at the sky and try as hard as I could to take off. Perhaps it’s for the best that I never did, because my dad carrying me through the house while I pretended to fly taught me that flying is damn sore on the back.
But that’s about as far as my personal story with Superman goes. I didn’t grow up with comics; I grew up with Knight Rider, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Crocodile Dundee, and the Dean Cain Superman series. He was only one of my ‘heroes’, as it were – though I never really considered anyone my hero.
But everywhere I look, there are a lot of real people who have been brought through real tragedies and trying times by Superman. He isn’t just an inspiration and symbol of hope to those 2D citizens in comic books, he’s a very real symbol to very real people. And I think there’s something quite remarkable about that. That symbol is hope. You might be surprised, after the “It means ‘Hope’” scene in Man of Steel, that the S emblem on Superman’s suit didn’t actually mean that for a long, long time. Not until the 2000s, in fact. To me, this is a case of writers realising that Superman himself had become a symbol of hope, and so it made sense to bring the emblem’s meaning into alignment.
Even as a baby, he was sent away from a dying world as their last hope. As a baby, he embodied hope.
So Superman is the shining beacon of hope. The bright blue ideal that many other superheroes look to for inspiration and leadership. He is the icon that shows us that there is something better out there, that we can be something greater. He is a shining light in the darkness not because of his strength and his powers but because of his purity, his incorruptible moral compass. It’s probably rivalled only by that of Captain America. He is unwavering in his ethics and values, and will not stray from or betray those under any circumstances, no matter what he faces and no matter the personal cost. That is an ideal many people find inspiring and aspire to. He is an example to people in this way and relatable for us because he doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. He doesn’t consider himself better than humans in any way, even while some of those humans refer to him as a god.
What makes him so relatable is very human: loneliness. He is the last of his people (in some storylines), his birth family is dead, his Earth father dies relatively early-on, and (again, in some storylines) his Earth mother dies later on too. He embodies the sense of isolation that so many people feel. Although he has adopted humans as his people and Earth as his home, he is alone. Kal-El is neither Superman – the invulnerable, perfect hero – or Clark – the bumbling fool. These are two facades he puts on every day and so, surrounded as he is by people, he is still profoundly alone.
And Superman doesn’t just save the world from larger-than-life villains, he is there for people. For individuals. An alien who has travelled the stars, battled gargantuan monsters, and…bent steel, cares as much for individual people as he does for the world and humanity as a whole. Whenever we fall, he is there to pick us up.
So a near-perfect, incorruptible symbol he may be, but he is also relatable.
But is an alien with so much power that he could rule the world, but instead chooses to serve it, a bit boring? The struggle for acceptance and against loneliness is more of a theme rather than something directly addressed, and his choices always come across as easy for the Man of Steel. Physically, he is practically invincible.
Many people think that Superman is too perfect, too overpowered, too boring. I can kind of understand why, but even my limited knowledge of the character leads me to believe that if those people read more about him, they might appreciate him a little more.
Superman does what is right. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Sometimes his choices, though clearly right, are a struggle for him. He doesn’t fail to make those choices, but in some ways this means he sacrifices more, and more frequently, than many other heroes. No matter the cost, he will always do what is right.
Perhaps he is overpowered for normal battles. But there are plenty of supervillains out there to equal his strength and power. Again, it is usually his purity and the good within him that allow him to overcome. Do we hear the same amount about how overpowered Thor, the god of thunder, is? Or Green Lantern, with his ring that creates practically anything he wants? Superman gets beaten to a pulp as much as, say, Batman, does he not? So, what’s it all about? He has a weakness to Kryptonite, and magic, and a surprising amount of other things, yet Batman can defeat him even without those. A human man. Dressed as a bat. But his biggest weakness is his humanity, his compassion, that same good within him. It can so easily be exploited.
Superman is not human, but he will give his life for us (and has). You may think that it wouldn’t be easy for him to do that, but I’ve just closed an article full of comic pages detailing all the ways to kill Superman, and it’s so long I gave up before I even got halfway through.
I don’t really understand the idea that darker, tortured heroes are better. Those who give in to their weaknesses on occasion. Why is that? Because being pure good is boring? Because identifying with someone like that, giving in, is easier than striving to be something greater?
Batman isn’t too different to Superman, but he isn’t considered boring. Is that because his broken bones don’t heal as fast as Superman’s? Because he breaks lots of other people’s bones? He’s human and risks his life every time he goes out, but…so does Superman. The things that threaten the latter’s life are just, by necessity, more out-of-this-world.
The real world would be a better place with Superman. Not because of his powers, or because it would be cool to look up and see him flying overhead, but because of his purity, his morals, his ideals. And if that’s all it takes to make the world a better place, then shouldn’t we all strive to be Superman? If he, an alien, can be humanity’s greatest example, why cant we?
I think that is why Superman endures.
And now, because I don’t know how to end this article…here’s Martian Manhunter:
“Though we gather here today, bound together in sorrow and loss, we share a precious gift. We are, all of us, privileged to live a life that has been touched by Superman. The Man of Steel possessed many extraordinary gifts, and he shared them with us freely. None of these gifts were more remarkable than his ability to discern what needed to be done, and his unfailing courage in doing it, whatever the personal cost. Let us all strive to accept his gift, and pass it along, as an ongoing tribute to Kal-El of Krypton, the immigrant from the stars, who taught us all how to be heroes.” – Martian Manhunter
Thank you, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
This article was originally written for Uproar Comics.