“Look! Up in the sky!”
That phrase sums up what Superman is all about.
Look up in the sky. Look to the future. Look to the sun and the stars and the infinite possibility of space. Coming from one of those far away stars is a flying figure, an angelic, flawed traveler wearing a symbol for hope on his chest. An alien orphan with a Mid-Western upbringing who hates bullies and is dedicated to protecting and inspiring the planet that adopted him as a baby.
People are talking and arguing about what will happen or what has to happen in the new Superman movie directed by Zack Snyder. I could talk about what kind of story I’d like or what villains I want to see (Christopher Eccleston as Brainiac!), but that’s a matter of personal preference. My main concern is that this movie be great. A “decent” Superman film will not cut it for me, not after many were disappointed with Superman Returns (some fine acting, but a lackluster tale). I want great. And part of how to do that, I think, is to remember that Superman is supposed to be special, that he can still stand out among hundreds of other costumed heroes who have followed in his wake. He’s not just Kal-El, Last Son of Krypton, he’s also called the Man of Tomorrow.
More than Smallville or the popular Lois & Clark series, the live-action interpretation that had the biggest impact on geeks and non-comic fans alike was Superman: The Movie, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman. Some of the movie is paced rather slowly. The plot and some of the scenes could use some work. Hackman’s Lex Luthor is very over-the-top with scenery chewing. But Reeve’s Superman truly stands out and holds up. While a lot of the film seems silly, his Superman isn’t. And his Clark Kent is both lovable and honest.
When he says, “I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American Way,” you believe him. He’s not pontificating. His hands are not on his hips as he declares this with theatrical projection. This is a simple truth he shares with Lois, a goal he knows is not easy but is still worthwhile. But he doesn’t see himself as a big brother who’s authority is above all others weaker than he. When Lois asks who he is, he smiles and answers, very honestly, “A friend.” He wants to help because Earth is his home, too.
In the past 30 years, there’s been a strengthening idea in the comics that Krypton, while technologically brilliant, was also seriously flawed. Many stories have shown that Kryptonians could have found a way to escape their planet’s destruction but allowed xenophobia to trap them. They refused to risk their culture altering in any way if they left their planet and met other races. Superman is not just here to present the hope of a better future, he is here to warn us about mistakes of the past, namely pride, narrow-mindedness and denial. His people never embraced change and never got to see tomorrow, but we still can.
The idea that Superman fights for bigger ideals rather than just beating up criminals began in Action Comics vol. 1 issue #1 in 1938. After solving a homicide and taking a down a guy beating his wife, the Man of Steel learns of a weapons maker deliberately provoking war to profit from it. Does Superman gather evidence and send him to prison? No. Instead, the Man of Steel forces the man to enlist in the very same war. After operating on the front lines, the weapons maker understands his action and can no longer manipulate the event for profit. Superman then returns him to his life, satisfied that the man will change his ways.
This first story makes Superman stand out from his predecessors the Green Hornet, the Shadow, Doc Savage, the Phantom, and Dr. Occult. All of those guys were special individuals who fought criminals and conquerors. Superman didn’t just fight, he wanted to improve the world (even if he had to be rough about it at times). He could have scared the war profiteer into simply stopping, but that wasn’t enough. He needed the man to come to his own realization and change his ways. This is an idea that is at the heart of many faiths and schools of philosophy, that it is better to turn evil into a force for good rather than simply punish.
This idea has resurfaced in Superman’s adventures again and again for over 70 years now. A great example is Action Comics #783, published in the wake of September 11, written by Joe Kelly, illustrated by Brandon Badeaux and Mark Morales. In this story “The Gift,” Superman fights four different super-villains and then pauses to give each one the same offer.
“This is where I’m supposed to haul you in and lock you up… But something has to change, doesn’t it? It just has to… Do you realize how powerful those two words are, second chance? I don’t think there’s a greater gift you can give to someone. A second chance in life. So… I’m offering you a second chance. Put the past in a box and take my hand in friendship. It won’t be easy, and I’m not ignoring what brought us here in the first place, but frankly, I can’t do anything about any of that.
“The past is hard and cold and unforgiving. I can only change the future… and so can you. You have such… power. Gifts. Do you know what you could accomplish if you just tried? You could make the world beautiful. You could change everything.
“So that’s the deal. One-time offer. Take my hand. Let me help you. Let’s make a better world. What do you say?”
And one of those villains said yes.
I was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. I got close to the destruction, where ash covered my clothing. I witnessed human remains on the street and I felt anger and vengeance as many people did. But to read this speech just a couple of months later in a Superman comic, I was touched. It was a sentiment that needed to be voiced. Yes, it was fiction. That’s not the point. In a post-9-11 world, Superman’s belief that we can all stand up and act better just seemed that much more important. He wasn’t naive in making the offer. He makes it clear that betrayal will inspire righteous anger and action in him. But that doesn’t mean he won’t try.
“Something has to change, doesn’t it?”
Of course, dedicating himself to hope doesn’t mean Superman should be portrayed as a god who doesn’t worry or suffer doubts. He’s angelic at times, but he’s no angel and occasionally he struggles with exactly what his role is. What’s more, he wasn’t born with an instinctive purpose. In many versions of his early days, he arrives at this purpose only after exploring the world, searching for his path as so many young adults do when they leave home for the first time. No matter how invincible he is, Clark, like us, isn’t given a perfect road map to life.
In Superman: The Movie, young Clark is drawn North to the Arctic Circle and uses a sunstone, a gift from his father, to build his Fortress of Solitude, a place that is both a memorial to the dead planet that birthed him and a time capsule for is own adventures. Young Clark gets guidance from a holographic simulation of his biological father Jor-El, a digital ghost programmed to speak as the dead scientist would have. It’s a bittersweet reunion, finally seeing your father and hearing his voice but knowing it’s not truly him. Again, life isn’t perfect for Kal-El. Like all of us, he deals with loss and he can’t change some things. After many lessons, the Jor-El program gives this final declaration before Clark embarks on his public career as Superman.
JOR-EL: “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way…”
In 1972, Elliot S! Maggin wrote the now-famous story “Must There Be a Superman?” The hero realized that if he didn’t limit the help he gave to humanity, they would become too reliant on him. He was happy to save folks from an earthquake, but he didn’t want them to expect him to then build them better housing. He wasn’t humanity’s parent. This point was beautifully summed up again in JLA #4 (1997), written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Howard Porter.
Towards the end of that story, Superman discusses the role of superheroes with his colleagues in the Justice League of America. When the question comes up about superheroes perhaps not doing enough in the world, Superman remarks, “I can only tell you what I believe… Humanity has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there.”
The Flash then asks, “Why should they need us at all?” Superman answers, simply and matter-of-factly, “To catch them if they fall.”
A wonderful moment. But again, don’t think that I’m saying Superman should be someone untouched by any human doubt or weakness. That’s absurd. In the best Superman stories, you can see he’s still basically a guy raised on a Kansas farm who has no patience for victimizers, manipulators and power-hungry jerks. Like many heroes, he’s a vigilante who isn’t above bending rules if he believes it serves a higher morality. He loses his temper, he engages in a little trash talk, and he can be reckless when impatient for results. This is someone whom Batman calls friend and the Dark Knight wouldn’t trust someone he considered to be a fool or naive. An idealist can believe that people are essentially good and still kick a little ass when someone steps out of line. Just look at James T. Kirk, another optimistic farm boy dreamer who hated bullies and wasn’t afraid to wear bright colors.
In the animated film Superman Vs. The Elite, Superman speaks of the essential goodness of mankind and is then confronted with the crimes of a super-villain. His response was simple: “Good isn’t perfect.” He’s right. Neither is he, which is part of what makes him interesting.
In showing Superman’s humanity, you don’t want to overdo it either. Superman Returns brought up the point of view that “the world doesn’t need a Superman,” and then it never proved that idea wrong. Superman has a great, inspirational plane rescue, but that winds up being the high point of the film. Afterward, we see him mostly moping about and spending his greatest efforts on cleaning up a mess made by technology he himself had brought to Earth. Not Brandon Routh’s fault, the story didn’t let him shine. It was so concerned about making Superman seem human and flawed that it forgot he’s also supposed to be heroic.
You can have Superman be a person we connect to without sacrificing the fairy tale aspects of his world in the process. He can have doubts and still be a powerful being who lives in a crystal castle at the North Pole that comes equipped with an alien zoo, robot servants, and a “Phantom Zone projector” which is, basically, a portal to Hell. He saves lives but can still be frustrated when some people continue to do horrible things and when he has to acknowledge that, hey, he can’t save everyone all the time, despite the expectations of others and himself. However, this isn’t a character who dwells in doubt or directionless angst. He understands the need for action, the very word that described his first comic book. Because, however difficult it may be, he knows he will figure a way out of danger. He has to. He doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario.
In the famous Elliot S! Maggin Superman novel Miracle Monday, the Man of Steel faces a demon from Hell that calls itself C.W. Saturn. This evil force takes possession of a human woman and then wreaks havoc on Earth. The climax of the story involves Saturn telling our hero that the only way to stop all this is to kill the innocent woman acting as its host body. Superman’s reaction? He dismisses the solution as “nonsense.” And then? He actually trash-talks with the demon a bit.
SUPERMAN: “Your power is not nonsense. The idea that I would kill you simply because you misdirect it, however, is ridiculous.”
SATURN: “… Do you expect me to stop of my own accord?”
SUPERMAN: “No, I don’t. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that at all.”
SATURN: “Then what do you expect to do about me?”
SUPERMAN: “… I’ll follow you.”
SATURN: “You would follow me to the bowels of the Earth? … To the rim of the universe?”
SUPERMAN: “I think you’re being melodramatic. I’ll follow you to the ends of Creation. I look forward to seeing places where I’ve never been.”
In 2003, Mark Waid wrote Superman: Birthright to revise and re-establish who Superman was and what drove him in life. It is, in my opinion, the best all-around origin story for the Man of Steel. In this tale, Waid gave the famous S-shield new meaning. At that time, the comics had always said it was merely a monogram that stood for “Superman.” The movies said it was the family crest of the House of El, which the cartoons and TV shows followed. Waid took this a step further, arguing that Clark wasn’t just the last son of El, he was the “Last Son of Krypton.” Waid revealed in the story that the symbol may have been a family crest but it was also an old Kryptonian glyph that meant “hope.” That’s fantastic. That’s the Man of Tomorrow wrapped up in one concept and image.
That idea and emotion need to happen again. We need the Man of Tomorrow, the person who can smile with amusement as people shoot at him even if he later worries about whether his efforts really accomplish anything. We need the guy whose Fortress of Solitude is paradoxically both a memorial for a dead world and a collection of sci-fi impossibilities that would excite Doctor Who. We need him to be this way so that when the villains come, when Earth seems completely screwed and overwhelmed by darkness, he stands out as a light. Otherwise he’s yet another guy in a costume with powers and his next movie will be just another in a sea of comic book adaptations.
He’s not simply a big brother who beats up the monsters we can’t handle. He’s a guide who’s sure that we can grow to a point where we don’t need him. We simply have to work at it and believe.
Just my thoughts. Stay geeky, my friends.