Sure, he was the forebearer of the superheroes I held so dear. But he was flawless, both physically and morally. What’s so interesting about someone who can solve any problem just by punching it and just being the best there was?
But over time, as I got to know Clark Kent on a more personal level, I realized it wasn’t the heat vision, the super strength or the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound that made him super. Soon enough, it was his kind smile and, yes, moral perfection that turned me around on the Man of Tomorrow.
When asked what Superman represents to people, Christopher Reeve, the actor who portrayed him from 1978 to 1987, described him in a single phrase: “a friend.”
“That’s what people really need most,” Reeve said in an interview promoting “Superman IV: A Quest for Peace” in 1987. “They don’t need a strong-armed, one man vigilante force. They need a friend.”
For my first few years really paying attention to comic books and their characters, Superman was not the friend that Reeve described. He was the stoic, emotionless messiah figure of Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman,” or he was the inexperienced, rage-filled hero that graced the pages of the New 52. Suffice to say, I hadn’t met Clark Kent yet, not properly at least.
And then I gave Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s 2016 run on the character a shot.
Telling the stories of a more classic Superman more akin to the Richard Donner films that Reeve starred in, Tomasi and Gleason weren’t concerned with the bombastic storytelling of the New 52 or the religious metaphors and morally pondering over whether he should even be Superman that Snyder’s films were centered around. They were more concerned with stripping Superman down to the basics, yet pushing the character forward with the introduction of his son.
In a way, Gleason and Tomasi’s run that centered around Clark Kent teaching his son Jonathan what Superman means, was a lesson to me as a 15-year-old reader as to what Superman really stands for.
Slowly, thanks to Gleason and Tomasi, I got to know Clark Kent on a more personal level.
I realized it wasn’t the heat vision, the super strength or even the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound that made him super. Soon enough, it was his kind smile and, yes, moral perfection that originally turned me away from the character that turned me around on the Man of Tomorrow.
Finally, I could see the “genuine love of people and always knowing that he’s your friend,” as Reeve described it. I finally met Superman, good and proper.
But after I met Superman, I realized that there were still some who held my old belief that the Man of Tomorrow was boring, especially on Twitter.
These arguments were the exact same things I said before getting to know Kal-El, at least on a more personal level beyond just his superficial elements.
And it was these superficial elements that I feel were cultivated by Snyder’s stoic portrayal of the character who is told by his parents not to help humanity and that he doesn’t owe mankind a thing. To his critics, he is merely a strong guy with a god complex.
But to those who look up to the Last Son of Krypton, he is so much more.
For Jessica Crets, a Superman fan for as long as she can remember, the character is only boring when he is written by people who don’t understand his ideals.
“If all someone sees when they look at Superman is the powers and the strength and the red eyes from his heat vision, they’re not going to do a good job writing him. At his core, he’s about doing good and that’s where the stakes should be,” Crets, @BadPostsLLC on Twitter, said. “We live in a very dark time. It’s good to have a character who is a piercing light of positivity that pushes back the dark. That’s what Superman is.”
It’s his purity and lack of cynicism that draws Crets back to Superman over and over, something extremely valuable in this day and age, she said.
Superman, to others, still holds the same ideals he had when he was created, especially in the world we live in today.
“The Golden Age had it right; a social champion fixing the evils of a world poisoned by war profiteers, businessmen, abusers and ‘the man,’” Twitter user @profofevil explained. “Then have what makes Superman tick and what could make him relevant. Because those evils still remain. And it’s a job for Superman to make things right.”
From classic stories like “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” and “Superman: The Animated Series,” to more modern interpretations like the current “War World Saga” that sees the hero depowered and fighting as a revolutionary gladiator, Superman means something different to every person, but a common theme arises: his relentless pursuit of the good.
“He represents the constant human strive to do good and seek justice and symbolizes the hope of the presence of the potential for good within each and every one of us,” Twitter user @itsmukil said.
Superman isn’t like Batman; the former’s entire character is built around how in-tune with humanity he is. Batman has the ability to be dark and gritty or cartoony and light-hearted. For me, Superman just doesn’t have that ability.
He is the best of us. In fact, he is what we strive to be, even if we will never achieve his ideal.
“Superman’s ideals are something for everyone to strive for,” Twitter user @KevinTalks12 said. “He is a man trying his best in this world and that is what everyone tries to do every day.”
In one of the rare moments that Snyder’s depiction truly encapsulates the ethos of Superman, Clark’s birth father, Jor-El, tells him that he will “give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards.”
“They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall,” Jor-El says. “But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. You will help them accomplish wonders.”
Superman isn’t a hero because he punches bad guys; he’s a hero because we look up to him and want to be better versions of ourselves because of him. Fans of Superman don’t just read his stories to see if he can beat Doomsday, but to see if he can lift mankind up with him as he fights to protect us, oftentimes from ourselves.
It’s the little things that draw fans, like me, back to Superman.
Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman” features a moment where a girl, after thinking her therapist stood her up, attempts to take her own life. With tears in her eyes, she is stopped by Superman. “Your doctor really did get held up, Regan,” he says.
“It’s never as bad as it seems,” Superman tells the girl as he hugs her. “You’re much stronger than you think.”
And it doesn’t even have to be something as drastic as saving someone from taking their own life. Superman, as depicted in the 1978 film, can save a little girl’s cat from a tree with a smile and brighten the world, even just a little bit.
The best Superman stories put emphasis on the man, while downplaying the super. He is still a boy raised in Smallville by two loving parents, after all; the most down-to-Earth origin possible.
It’s not the strength he holds that people gravitate towards. Looking at all the stories of when a Superman-type character goes evil like Homelander from “The Boys” or Omniman from “Invincible,” it feels wrong, like we are watching and reading something we shouldn’t.
“He can get angry, prideful, sad or happy. He feels an intense loneliness by virtue of being the last of his race and frequently thinks of abandoning his role,” @itsmukil explained what his ethos on the character is. “But these struggles within himself and against his negative emotions are what make his subsequent victories and resolve to do good that much more sweeter and compelling.”
Superman does falter. He’s like any one of us. But when he falters, it isn’t at the detriment of his humanity, but because of it. When his father dies of a heart attack in Geoff Johns’ “Brainiac,” he doesn’t snap and turn into a dictator like in Tom Taylor’s “Injustice” when his wife and unborn child are killed. No, instead, he grabs his father’s body and does the same any of us would do: he weeps.
Seeing Superman fight on despite a key part of his life being taken away is more impactful and more interesting than any story where he is overwhelmed by a bigger, badder monster than last time. Hell, I find the most boring stories about the Man of Steel to be the ones where he punches the bad guys instead of talking to them.
Superman may be old-fashioned and corny with his blue pajamas and red cape.
But he isn’t boring; he represents the best version of ourselves that we can imagine and has been that way since two Jewish kids named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster thought him up in 1938.
But he isn’t real. I know that.
The message he instils in us, however, very much is. No matter what, kindness and love for your fellow man holds more power in our hearts and minds than any strongman with laser eyes. Instead, he’s a prideful friend that loves mankind and, despite their flaws, is proud of them.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Daniel Warren Johnson’s “Generations” from “Superman: Red and Blue” no.5, Superman tells mankind that “you are special. I love you” as he saves the day in seemingly mundane ways like feeding the homeless or reading to sick children.
“I’m so proud of you,” he tells the Earth with a smile.
Boring to some, but to others, this soft smile is a gesture from a friend.