Comic Book Character Spotlight: Superman
Growing up a comic book geek, I was never all that much into Superman. Sure, it was impossible to be a kid in the '80s and not have some level of awareness and respect for the Man of Steel, so I enjoyed him on Super Friends and I had an action figure from the Super Powers line. Yeah, I knew who he was, but I didn't love the guy. I didn't see the Christopher Reeve movies until I was in middle school, and I didn't pick up a Superman comic book until I was a teenager. As far as DC Comics went, I was waaaay more into Batman, but my tastes were heavily skewed toward Marvel properties. Superman was on my radar, but he was just a tiny blip.
During the "Death of Superman" storyline that ran across all the Superman comics titles during 1993 and into 1994, I finally took the plunge. I remember seeing on the evening news that Superman had been killed in the comics, and America at large seemed to be in mourning, either not aware or not concerned that it was all a big publicity stunt to drum up readers and sales. I chased down the trade paperback collected edition of the story shortly thereafter and really bought into the story and into the character of Superman himself, who had sacrificed himself to defend a world that was not his. This was not a selfish character, but one who had immeasurable love for humanity.
There is a core truth to Superman that is as important as any historical figure. We live in a world where movies are made every single year out of comic books and television shows with little regard for how accurate those movies portray their characters. We have a Transformers franchise where the Autobots and Decepticons look and behave almost nothing like the established characters that millions of us grew up with, but no one really seems to care. Studios change superhero origins willy-nilly and we all roll with it in pursuit of having a good time at the movies. It's only when a company ruins characters so badly that they can no longer do anything with them (I'm looking at you, Fox, and your complete disregard for the integrity of the Fantastic Four) that we get upset. I used to think that it was okay for movies to try different interpretations of these characters, but I don't anymore. It's okay to tweak little things, and Marvel Studios has shown that by changing little things but sticking to the truth of their characters. They're bendable, but they can't be broken and turned into something else. Respect the characters first and everything else will fall into place. If you have to change the essence of a character to fit into your movie, that character doesn't belong in your movie.
Superman is more than a cape and the "S" symbol. He's more than the red and blue tights. He's one of the most well-defined characters in the history of comics. To compromise or downplay the things that make him special is to do a great disservice to who he is and to the generations who have loved him.
Here is the Superman I love.
Born on the dying planet of Krypton, Kal-El was placed in a ship and sent to Earth by his parents Jor-El and Lara. They wanted a better life for him, a chance for him to succeed where they had failed, and they chose a planet where he would be powered by the yellow sun and appear as a god to humanity. They did this with the knowledge that he would be a great hero to inhabitants of Earth, offering them something that Kryptonians had lost: hope. Superman is a hero because heroism was instilled in him from the moment he was born. It's in his blood.
But Clark Kent knows that he has a great power and that he is capable of things that no one else on Earth can do. He doesn't defend this planet out of a sense of adventure or duty, but because he realizes that no one else can do it like he can. It partially comes from his sense of loyalty, but it also reflects highly on his honor and his small-town values. Clark Kent values honesty and the power of a handshake. If he gives his word, he'll keep it. Because of his power, he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He doesn't want to be a superhero, to be worshiped, vilified, chased, and always in the spotlight; he wants to live a normal life, and when he's not being Superman, it's a normal life that he's pursuing.
Superman is not immortal. He can be hurt, and he can die. He was much more powerful in the early days of the character, but the last thirty years have brought us a Superman that is far less powerful than the one who could change the axis of Earth's orbit or go back in time with his super-speed. He's vulnerable, and he can be hurt and killed. Kryptonite, the shards of his dead planet, can hurt him. When he fights a super-villain, that villain could be the one to punch his ticket. Superman goes into every battle knowing that he could be seriously injured or even killed.
He's not perfect. He doesn't have any more answers than the rest of us, and he's bound to make mistakes from time to time. Some of the drama in the Superman story comes from him having to make complicated judgment calls that most of us would want to avoid at all costs. Superman can't avoid them because he's the only one with the power to do something about it, which puts him in awkward, unenviable positions. In the end, he's just trying to do what's right.
Superman's biggest weakness is also his biggest strength: his love for humanity. His friends, like Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Lana Lang, mean everything to him. Superman may be one of the last Kryptonians (there are a few others), but he's never alone. He is not a martyr, and he does not stand around moping and frowning. He smiles A LOT. He doesn't watch humanity from a distance or monitor his pals from afar, but connects to them very directly. Multiple people know his secret identity, and when Superman is really worried about something, he will confide in one of the many supportive friends or family members he has in his life. His inner circle is another vulnerability, because he'd do anything to protect those closest to him.
I haven't seen the version of Superman I love on a movie screen since Christopher Reeve played the character. The iteration of Superman that he played for four movies came the closest at portraying the core of the character, but it still wasn't quite the vulnerable, grounded Superman that I love and that the comics have been portraying since 1986. When someone asks "why should I care about Superman," it's hard to give them an answer when the one we see on screens and in comics is so far from the guy I've outlined above.
I love a lot of superheroes, from Batman to The X-Men to Iron Man and Captain America. Almost all of our comic book heroes are a reflection of society, and a bunch of them have loads to say about us as people, but none of them have as much to say about who we could be as Superman.
Some people derogatorily call Superman a Big Blue Boy Scout. Not me; I think he's a Man of Steel.
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