I recently revisited Superman and Superman 2 (The Richard Donner cut), as I like to stay familiar with the staples of geek culture. I didn’t honestly expect either movie to be more than background noise, to be completely honest. Superman was released in 1978, and genre movies tend not to age very well. But from the moment the theme song started playing, I had the stupidest smile on my face, I even choked up a bit. Something about it connected with me in a way that so few things ever do, resonated in that place in my soul that is so simple and basic yet defies explanation. I watched for the next two hours strangely fascinated by this film that seemed to transcend the sum of its parts.
I pondered over this phenomenon for a few days. I’ve never been a particular fan of Superman, but clearly, there is an element there that I wasn’t immediately discerning, something timeless I had not previously considered. I have a few thoughts I would like to share regarding the Man of Steel’s legacy, hopefully an effort worthy of the first superhero ever (literally).
It wouldn’t be objective for me to discuss this topic without looking more closely at how Superman compares as a character and an icon to his contemporaries. For example, Batman is, far and away, the most popular DC character (if not comic book character), of all time. In fact, I would be lying if I said he wasn’t my personal favorite of the Justice League line-up. Batman and other characters have maintained such popularity over the years, and powers don’t seem to be the deciding factor. In fact, some of the most popular characters (Ironman, Captain America, Batman, etc.) exist on the shorter end of the superhero stick, if they can really be considered “super” heroes at all.
Superman, alternatively, has the lion’s share of super powers. X ray vision, ice breath, laser beams from the freaking eyes, impervious to just about everything, speed, power, flight, etc. etc. and while far from obscure, why doesn’t this behemoth share quite the same popularly as his super friend Batman? I believe it has everything to do with our ability to relate. While few of us will ever be injected with a super soldier serum or possess apparently inexhaustible wealth, we can more easily relate to otherwise ordinary humans who can still hang with the gamma irradiated, demigod, mystical, alien, mutated or otherwise super powered ranks.
Kal-El, son of Jor-El, refugee from Krypton, may as well be a god, having very few true equals. How can we relate to him?
David Carradine (as Bill in Kill Bill) discusses one of the distinguishing differences of Superman:
Superman doesn’t need a costume to be a superhero; he needs a costume to blend in with us. I considered the full implication of that distinction, and I believe it is that defining characteristic that makes him an enduring and endearing champion. Little boys (and maybe little girls, can’t speak from experience) want to be Superman, the all powerful defender of truth and justice, to save the day, time and time again. But we grow up, we stop believing in fairy tales and at most, maybe wish we had Batman’s resources to set things right. (Or at least a stungun to put in the kidneys of some of the sickos making the 6 o’clock news.)
I think, despite advances in technology to “connect” us, we’re more divided and cynical than ever. We need to believe in Superman now more than we ever have; if not an actual all powerful being to save us from insurmountable threats then we need to aspire to the ideals that make him truly super.
With the exception of Kara Zor-El (better known as Supergirl), it seems the majority of other Kryptonians that have ventured here have world domination on the mind. And with seemingly endless powers on our planet (our single yellow sun seems to do them good), it isn’t surprising. Were the roles reversed, how many of us, if we found ourselves on another world with superior abilities, could refrain from using it as our personal sandbox?
Superman has never used his power to subjugate us, not even in the name of protecting us. While I did post the Superman / Clark Kent monologue from Kill Bill, I don’t think Clark Kent is Superman’s criticism of the human race’s weakness, I think Clark Kent is his example of humility, how an otherwise unassuming, normal guy can make a difference.
Christopher Reeve, a true “super man” in his own right, said once of his most famous role:
“What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely.”
If “the meek shall inherit the Earth”, Superman understood that “meek” really means “strength withheld”. Superman more often has to hold back rather than give his 100%.
Superman was never afraid to be bold. Red and blue with a bright yellow crest is hardly the color scheme of a man trying to hide, despite having arguably the most well known and exploitable Achilles heel in modern mythology. And despite adversity, he never gave up hope in the world or himself.
“Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear… until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share – I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.” (Superman, Action Comics #775)
If only we all approached our spheres of influence with the same level of both confidence and compassion, we wouldn’t need to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound or be faster than a locomotive. We would be the difference we want to see in the world. That’s an example the world desperately needs now; that’s a man I want to believe in.
“It’s very hard for me to be silly about Superman, because I’ve seen firsthand how he actually transforms people’s lives. I have seen children dying of brain tumors who wanted as their last request to talk to me, and have gone to their graves with a peace brought on by knowing that their belief in this kind of character really matters. It’s not Superman the tongue-in-cheek cartoon character they’re connecting with; they’re connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand difficulty and to turn your back on it.” – Christopher Reeve