Superman is in contention to be my favorite superhero, but not by some sort of default choice; I actually have very definite opinions about him.*
If you don’t like Superman, you are wrong.
There’s just one big thing you need to understand: you need to know that—believe it or not—there are some people who don’t like Superman.
Maybe you’re one of them. If you are: with respect, and tongue planted firmly in cheek, you are wrong.
The Three Stages of Superfandom
But with a bit more seriousness, I think there are three phases of everyone’s opinion about Superman: First, utter adulation. This is usually for nerdy kids until they’re about 10 years old. I was certainly in that camp: Supes is cool, and appeals pretty broadly to kids who feel like outsiders, want to save the world, and feel a God-given desire to protect the helpless, but feel helpless themselves.
After the adulation stage comes that cynical stage. Many people stop here: “Superman is too powerful, too infallible, too uninteresting,” they say. Maybe they think they’ve grown out of him, a symbol of the childhood they’ve left behind; or maybe they see him as an ineffectual boy scout. Batman is the popular alternative around this time, and his more brooding nature captures the mind as the former Superman fan becomes a teenager.
But is he really too uninteresting? Just from a sales perspective, that doesn’t make any sense. The character has a 78-year history behind him; he’s probably the best-selling character in comics, he basically single-handedly invented the superhero genre and made DC & Marvel household names. Why would people keep buying his books (and why would DC keep printing them) if he was so uninteresting?
Superman’s life is filled up in the safety of his friends.
The Tragedy of Kal-El
As a child, Kal-El lost his family and his entire species when Krypton was destroyed. He was sent to Earth and took on the persona of Clark Kent; eventually losing his family again, when Jonathan and Martha Kent died.
Superman flies through the sky, trailing behind him a bright red cape and a heavy chain of loss.
And one day, Metropolis will pass away, too, turning to dust between his fingers. The Earth will break apart, and no amount of super-speed or invulnerability will stop it. And his life meter will be empty.
So he’ll find a new planet, meet new people and come to love them. But then everyone he loves will die again, and his entire life’s work will be void again. So maybe he’ll find another planet. And then another, and another, and another. But they will all pass away and he will remain, useless on the eternal scale, forever trying to stave off the inevitable. Alive, but forever lifeless.
That’s why he fights so hard now. He has to make a difference now, he has to save lives now. Because someday he won’t be able to; despite all his powers, he’ll just be useless.
Superman’s great power and invulnerability, bestowed on him as a child…they’re not a blessing. They’re a terrible curse.
That’s why I love Superman, and part of why I think he resonates with so many people. He displays what I consider the Human Condition very well: we’re all built to live for something greater outside ourselves, but if we choose the wrong thing it doesn’t matter how good we are at living for it; everything will eventually fail us. He is able to protect the helpless and save the world – something we all want to do – but like him, we will be left lifeless at the end, facing into the void after a lifetime with nothing to show for it. Everything and everyone will fail us…except One.
There is One whose shoulders can bear the weight of our purpose and desire, One in whose service we can’t fail. There is a Purpose whose universe will never end, and who gives us the incredible abilities to save those whom He has called us to save. He will fill up your life in Himself, giving you a purpose and a future.
He’s not the Man of Steel. But he’s certainly the inspiration for Kal-El, and the reason Superman is my favorite superhero.
• • •
Thanks for reading Redeeming Culture. We appreciate your support.
• • •
* First of all, it’s a close race between him and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan, thank you very much), though I think Hal is more who I’d like to be while Supes is more who I like to watch. Second, I prefer Pre-Crisis Silver/Bronze Age Earth-One Superman. I realize that there is a lot of contention there, and yes there are some campy stories in that canon (even some real turkeys), but I stand by it. I think the stories in that continuity show the best breadth of writing and the most unique concepts and worldbuilding, and the Superman of that time period is the true Superman in my mind.
** Pre-Crisis refers to the time before the 1985/1986 DC megaseries event Crisis on Infinite Earths that was intended to simplify the line’s massive continuity sprawl by eliminating alternate universe settings (which…didn’t last long). It’s considered a dividing line in our universe as well as in theirs, setting a precedent for massive, continuity-spanning events. Post-New 52 refers to the time after a similar event, New 52 in 2011. Its attempt to change continuity lasted even less time than Crisis, reverted earlier this year with the release of Rebirth, an attempt to return the DC continuity back to something more like Pre-Crisis continuity.
Superman Red and Superman Blue were the split personalities of Superman that appeared in a non-canon story in 1963 and in a canon miniseries in 1998. As you might expect, he got better.