Understanding Superman

A Hero Corner Commentary by David 2

As some people know, I am a life-long fan of Superman.  He was the first actual superhero of the 20th century.  A modern-day Hercules with the power that rivaled those of the classic gods.  Only he could do the things that couldn’t be done.

Unfortunately, much like my look at Batman and the common misunderstandings of who the character really is, the idea of Superman has also been mischaracterized by certain people, including comic book writers and major motion picture producers and directors.  Thus we really need to re-understand who Superman is and why he appeals to so many people over the years.

The creation of two Jewish boys in 1930’s Cleveland, the idea of Superman was originally that of a super-villain.  “The Reign of the Super-Man” was a short story first published in 1933 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster about a small-time criminal who was given a serum that gave him the power to control minds.  As with all bad men who suddenly had power, this self-professed “Super-Man” exploited his power to its ultimate end, which was to literally control all the minds on the planet, only to lose the power through his shortsightedness and end up being a nobody again.

Later that year, Siegel got the idea to change the character by making him a hero instead of a villain.  Instead of having telepathic powers, this new hero would have physical abilities “far beyond those of mortal men”.  And rather than having those powers come from a product of science, this hero would be from an advanced alien civilization where people would naturally have such superhuman abilities.

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1, published in 1938 by National Allied Publications, which would later become DC Comics.  He was the first of a series of short comic stories in the issue, as was typical of comic book publications of the time.  It wasn’t long, though, before Action Comics just focused on Superman.

Over the generations, Superman has evolved as a hero.  He became the symbol for DC Comics just as much as Spider-Man was for rival Marvel Comics.  He was the epic archetype of superheroes for the whole comic genre; often replicated by other publishers but never really duplicated.  His power levels rose to insanely cosmic levels.  Where once he could only leap tall buildings in a single bound, Superman soon could fly over the city, and later into space and even be able to travel through time and to other universes.  At one point, he became so powerful that one sneeze could literally destroy a whole star system.  Thankfully his abilities would eventually be scaled back to simply being “super” and not god-level.

To keep Superman “grounded”, Siegel and Shuster created an alter-ego for our hero; a mild-mannered reporter named Clark Kent.  Shy and aloof, but still curious enough to dig into mysteries that he could later solve as Superman, everyman Clark Kent was “encouraged” to keep up the pretense through his romantic attraction to rival reporter Lois Lane.  Of course, she was only “fixated” on her occupation as a reporter, which not considered a “traditional role” for women at the time.  Keep in mind that we are talking about America in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  Sure, Lois “wanted” Superman, but then she couldn’t be a reporter if she married him.  Obviously this idea would evolve over time.  As the women’s movement liberated opportunities for women, it was considered perfectly acceptable for Lois to be a reporter, and even be a “take charge” kind of character.

Clark Kent’s “disguise” evolved as well.  He became a sniveling coward and continual klutz, fumbling over his own shoelaces and making a mess of himself to drive home the false message that this “failure” of a man couldn’t possibly be Superman.  But eventually they made him more “average” than “pathetic”.  He went from being a newspaper reporter and editor to a TV Anchorman and even the publisher of a news blog.  His relationship with Lois evolved as well.  Instead of playing the perpetual game of keeping Lois at arm’s length and convincing her that Superman and Clark Kent were not the same person, the two became workplace partners, friends, lovers and got married.  And, in recent issues, the two became proud parents to Jonathan Samuel Kent, a.k.a. Superboy.

Unfortunately, who and what Superman is has been seen in different ways by certain people.

Far too often, Superman was seen as a god, or, worse yet, a messianic figure.  Mario Puzo, best known for “The Godfather”, was the screenwriter for “Superman – The Movie” and had no qualms interjecting a messianic theme when it came to Jor-El’s ghostly communication with his son.

“For this reason, above all else, I gave them you, my only son.”
Ghost of Jor-El (Marlon Brando) in “Superman – The Movie”

He wasn’t the only one with the messianic fixation.  Director and producer Zach Snyder certainly believed that Superman was a messianic figure, and he made sure that idea was seen in “Man of Steel”, from the not-so-subtle image of Jesus in the stained-glass windows behind Clark Kent’s head in a church, to the crucifix pose Superman made when he went to save Lois in a falling Kryptonian escape pod.  And in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, the messianic theme was even more blatant, with Superman saving a little girl from a fire and throngs of civilians reaching over to touch him, followed by a media discussion about seeing Superman as either a messianic figure or even as a god.  Even Lex Luthor continually makes references to Superman as “God”.

“No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy’s fist and abominations. I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all-good. And if He is all-good, then He cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you.”
Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

The problem is that this is not who Superman really is.  He was never meant to be a god, never mind a messianic figure.

Superman was the creation of two Jewish boys in the 1930’s.  They would not want to see their creation be viewed as a religious figure.  One of the key parts of the Ten Commandments says “Thou shall have no other gods before me”, and viewing Superman as either a messianic figure or as a deity itself would certainly violate that religious rule for his creators.

The truth is that Superman is not a god.  He is not all-knowing or all-being, and while he can do more than mere mortals, he is far from all-powerful.  These are the qualifications of a god, so that pretty much takes him out of contention.  He can be hurt.  He can be killed.  He can’t heal the sick by laying hands on them, or raise the dead, or make loaves of bread and buckets of fish magically multiply.  Everything that he can do that can be interpreted as “miraculous” can be explained… with the exception of the cellophane S-shield net seen in “Superman II” or the “god-gaze power” in “Superman IV” that could rebuild the Great Wall of China.  Those were just the product of really lazy screenwriters and bad producers.

So what is Superman?

Simply put, he’s a man with the power to do what needs to be done.

In the second season of the TV Series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”, it was Dean Cain’s Superman that perfectly described the core being of the character.

“Lois, Superman is what I can do. Clark is who I am.”
– Superman (Dean Cain) in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”

“Superman is what I can do.  Clark is who I am.”

This is what gives Superman staying power.  Yes, he can do “super” things, but he still sees himself as a man, not as a god.  He has to wear a disguise to mingle with normal people, which is contradictory to your typical superhero mold, but he still doesn’t see normal people as being inferior to him.  He doesn’t stop being “Clark Kent” simply because he is in his Superman outfit.  Superman is still Clark Kent.  He has always seen himself as Clark Kent; someone who can do more than most people, but still just as much a citizen of the world as anyone else.

Being Clark is what grounds Superman to Earth and to humanity.  He’s not “better” than them simply because he can do more than they ever could.  His midwestern upbringing by the farming couple that treated him as their own child gave him a sense of obligation and humility.  His desire to make both sets of parents and the woman he loves proud of him is what keeps him from going over the edge.  It keeps Superman as a “man” and not thinking of himself as a god.

Some people don’t like the idea of Superman as a character because they feel that he’s “too overpowered”.  Well maybe that would be true back when the comics made him so powerful that his sneeze could destroy whole star systems and he could travel through time on a whim, but that still does not mean that there are no challenges for someone that powerful.  When you deal with someone with great power, you challenge them with what they cannot do.

No, Superman is not a god.  He is not all-knowing, all-seeing, or all-doing.  He can’t be everywhere at once.  He can’t do everything at once.  He doesn’t know everything going on at once.  He has morals and scruples.  He has self-imposed limitations so he can remain “grounded” and connected to humanity.  These are also vulnerabilities that can be challenged, explored, and exploited.  A good writer knows how to use these, and obviously Superman has had plenty of good writers over the eight decades, otherwise he wouldn’t be around for this long.  Now if only the rest of the entertainment and mass-media people would recognize this.

Superman is a timeless legend in the same league as Beowulf, Thor, Paul Bunyan, and Hercules.  A champion to inspire the best in all of us.  The ultimate in American ideals, an immigrant brought to this world, raised to be like one of us, and does everything he can not just for himself, but for the betterment of others.  His story deserves to be told in the best way possible.

(Note: Superman is a fictional character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and is owned by DC Comics, a subsidiary of Time-Warner, with special arrangement by the Siegel family.  This article is a speculation from a longtime fan and sometime writer under the Fair Use doctrine and should not be presumed to be published with either the expressed or implied permission from either DC Comics or Time-Warner.)


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