From the pages of Action Comics, to the “Up, Up, and Away” days of radio serials, to screens big and small, there is hardly a person in the entire world who isn’t familiar with the man of steel, Superman. Since his humble beginnings in 1938’s “Action Comics #1,” Superman has flown above his comic book peers to become one of the most recognizable fictional characters of all time. However, despite his undeniable fame, in recent years, Superman has had a falling out with the public consensus primarily due to the poor reception of his most recent film appearances. To quote the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday,“‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ begins and ends with a funeral, which is fitting for a movie that plays like one long dirge.”
These opinions, though understandable thanks to the lackluster, bizarro portrayals of the beloved character, should not be held against the entirety of 80 years worth of lore. For a more hopeful and likeable interpretation of the last son of Krypton, we must dig deeper into his mythos and take in the hope he has inspired in his 80-year history.
In the critically panned “Man of Steel,” Kal-El is faced with stopping fellow Kryptonian, General Zod. In an effort to end Zod’s assault on Earth, Superman snaps his neck.
“He’s shown as this bright character. He’s not Batman; he should find another way,” said 8th grader Jack Channing. “He goes from a farmer to a nobody in the middle of nowhere to the guy who can solve any problem.” In an attempt to make the fantastical world of heroes mirror our own, Superman went from a helpful guy who just so happens to be faster than a speeding bullet, to an angst-filled messiah figure who solves problems by murder.
“He’s just too powerful to be interesting,” senior film student Jacob Carrasquillo said. “How do you challenge the guy whose whole thing is being unbeatable?” Thanks to a faulty public image, Superman has gone from a symbol of American mythology to the butt of a joke.
However, to truly see what the chest mounted ‘S’ can become, look no further than “For The Man Who Has Everything”, a comic book story written by Alan Moore in 1985 and later adapted for the late great, “Justice League Unlimited” in 2004. The JLU story picks up with Batman and Wonder Woman visiting Superman’s Fortress of Solitude only to find him in a catatonic state thanks to Black Mercy, a parasitic plant that enters its victim into a dream state while slowly draining their life force. Superman, or rather Kal-EL, envisions an idealistic life on Krypton had it never been destroyed, where he has a wife, Loana, and son, Van-El. After frequent tremors caused by Batman’s attempts to remove the plant, Kal is able to realize that his world, his reality, his family, simply cannot exist. He remembers the responsibility he has to the people of Earth and is forced to share a tear-filled goodbye with his son, promising that he’ll never forget him or the life he might have had.
A tearjerker of an episode to be sure, but it serves as an excellent example of Superman's love of humanity. Rather than have a happy ride off into the sunset, Kal’s love of humanity drove him to break free and resume his role as the protector of Earth. Here we see a more interesting story than the paltry, “let's make him fight Batman” narrative of “Dawn of Justice.” While including superhero action in an admittedly awesome fight between Wonder Woman, Batman, and Mongul, JLU digs deeper into what makes Superman more than a man.
If Superman’s human element has yet to appeal to you, consider the words of JP Comics’ Paul Bryant.
“What makes [Superman] work is he has to be truly decent,” he said. “He’s best when he is the benevolent helping-hand type. He lends himself well to stories that are all-inclusive of his life, a set beginning, middle, end.”
This sentiment lends itself well to stories such as Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman.” In a plot by Lex Luthor, Superman’s cells are overloaded with solar energy and slowly begin to deteriorate, signaling that his life is coming to an end. Realizing his time is short, Superman sets out to perform a series of tasks to either prolong his life, or ready humanity for a world without him. In this story we see his final moments with not only his closest friends but even members of his rogues gallery. “All-Star Superman” is proof that there is more to Superman than superpowered beatdowns. He’s a genuinely caring guy from Kansas, who just wants to make his adopted home a better place with what little time he has left. Again, this story pits Superman against an internal threat, rather than some villain, which allows us to see more character growth rather than the face punching the superhero genre is known for.
To find Superman boring is to admit you have the most superficial awareness of the character. At his best, he is more than your run-of-the-mill crime fighter. He isn’t your standard “I’ll stop the bad guy, get the girl, and fly off towards the camera” hero anymore. He is a symbol of what we all should aspire to be—because without the cape, without the tights and without the super, he is just a man, and we can all relate to that.