Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, beginning the Golden Age of superhero comics. The last child of a dying planet was sent to Earth, developed incredible powers and vowed to use them as a “champion of the oppressed.” In just a few pages, he saved an innocent woman from being executed, protected a victim of domestic violence, confronted a corrupt politician, and rescued Lois Lane from a gangster.
His adventures would become far grander over time, leading generations of writers across comics, radio, TV, film, and games to put their own spin on the Man of Steel and his many enemies and allies. Yet while the genre that Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster pioneered has never been more popular, there’s been endless hand wringing about where their creation fits in.
This isn’t a new dilemma. Superman’s luster arguably began to really fade in the late ‘80s thanks to the double whammy of Frank Miller portraying the character as a Reaganite patsy in The Dark Knight Returns and the disastrous final Christopher Reeve Superman film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987. When Tim Burton brought Batman to the big screen just two years later, it was almost guaranteed to illustrate the idea that Batman was cool and edgy and Superman was boring and lame.
DC Comics was so desperate to bring some life back to the character in the ‘90s that writers killed him off, made a bunch of different versions of him, brought the original back to life, and took away his normal powerset to give him energy powers instead. While Superman: The Animated Series was solid, it was nowhere near as stylish or influential as Batman: The Animated Series. Superman Returns fizzled while Batman Begins set a new standard for DC Comics films, for better and worse. Meanwhile, Disney’s success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe made Warner Bros. less willing to take risks that might further reduce the value of its big name heroes.
There are arguments to be made that Superman’s time has passed. More than 80 years after his debut, the world of superheroes is more diverse than ever and newer characters also deserve the spotlight. But Superman shouldn’t be written off. There are solutions to all the problems that fans and creators have, and addressing them shows that Superman and the ideals he stands for are just as relevant today as they were in 1938.
Superman isn’t “too powerful”
Superman has a lot of powers. He can fly, he’s super strong, he’s nearly invulnerable, he can shoot lasers out of his eyes, see through walls, sees and hears across great distances with surprising precision, and exhales so hard he can put out fires. There are times that he’s also been super smart, or so tough that he can fly around in space without any protection, or so fast he can travel through time.
Yet no matter what powers you accept as canon, the strength of any given superhero has always been flexible based on who is writing them and the context they’re in. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man was arguably just as powerful as Superman, with his numerous sets of power armor equipped with all manner of weapons and protections, a super genius intellect, and infinite reserves of money. Tony Stark just used a different paradigm. Wonder Woman or Shazam have often been able to go toe to toe against Superman, and Captain Marvel or Thor would probably have about the same chances.
You can quibble with this assessment by pointing out restrictions on these other characters — like that Iron Man needs to be in his suit — but the MCU suffers from classic superhero power creep. Armoring up became progressively easier for Tony Stark to do over the years, to the point that it was even more trivial than Clark Kent needing to find a phone booth to swap clothes in. The best writers see Superman’s strength as an opportunity rather than a problem, using him like Thor to tell epic stories involving aliens and mythological figures that can provide a suitable challenge.
Superman also has numerous other restrictions on his power beyond the basic — and admittedly kind of lame — vulnerabilities of Kryptonite and lead shielding. Superman has no more resistance to magic or mental attacks than any other superhero, he’s fairly weak to anything energy related, and his powers disappear completely if he’s not in the vicinity of a yellow sun. These limits have been creatively exploited for plenty of stories that don’t boil down to two super strong, super tough characters wailing on each other until one of them eventually wins.
When Superman is weak, he often relies on his friends, allies, and normal people he’s inspired for strength. He’s typically the founder of the Justice League expressly because he knows that he can’t deal with all threats alone. And he also understands his ability to inspire others to be their best selves, which leads us to another huge restriction on Superman’s power: His moral compass.
Superman isn’t “too good”
Superman has dismissively been called the Big Blue Boy Scout because he’s such a do gooder. He’s folksy and kind, balancing dealing with natural disasters and supervillains with helping ordinary people with mundane problems. He cares for lost and forgotten alien animals in his Fortress of Solitude. He always wants to see the best in people. He famously fights for “truth, justice, and the American way.” (The “American way” bit, by the way, was a post-war addition to the intro of his radio show, not a transplant from the comics.)
That last part has particularly been subject to criticism, leading many people to imagine Superman’s wholesomeness is just as hollow as American exceptionalism. There have been a huge number of works portraying Superman as outright evil, while Zach Snyder’s version of the character was an aloof figure who was told by his mother than he doesn’t “owe this world a thing” and didn’t seem to feel remorse for leveling most of a city or snapping another Kryptonian’s neck.
These stories aim to make the character more realistic or subversive, but they fail to recognize that Superman’s morality is meant to be just as idealized as his physique. He’s an aspirational figure, representing the best of what America and humanity itself can be. He puts restrictions on how he exercises his power much like so many people have shown they are willing to limit their own freedoms in order to limit the spread of COVID-19, or to spend their time and money in ways that benefit others rather than just themselves.
The real world is filled with examples of powerful people acting selfishly and cruelly, using all of America’s flawed systems to their advantage. Superman is subversive precisely because he stands in opposition to the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He believes that justice should apply to everyone equally, which is why one of his greatest enemies is Lex Luthor, whose powers are just being smart, wealthy, well-connected, and usually careful enough that it’s hard for Superman to pin any crimes on him. Finding the evidence is often the job of Superman’s alter ego, though he has his own set of problems.
Clark Kent is not a problem
Superman’s secret identity as the mild-mannered newspaper reporter Clark Kent was established in the first issue of the comic, following the influences of stories of Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The concept of a secret identity is an inherently old fashioned one, which is why the MCU has pretty much abandoned them and some versions of Superman have unmasked him. The Superman and Clark Kent divide is particularly silly given how little of a disguise is there.
Yet again the realism isn’t really the point. What Clark Kent represents is a concerted effort by a powerful alien to fully integrate himself into his adopted home. Some might argue that Superman is wrong to spend any time as Clark Kent because he’d be of greater use to humanity if he was saving lives, but by that argument doctors also shouldn’t be allowed any recreational time. Being Clark lets Superman understand and appreciate the people he’s trying to help.
Superman was written by the children of Jewish immigrants who fled rising anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe in the lead-up to World War II. LIke Superman, they had a homeland they could never truly know and couldn’t return to, but came to love and embrace their new country despite those who perceived them as outsiders. Living in Ohio, they placed Superman in nearby Kansas and instilled him with all the values they wanted to see in the world.
Having Clark be a newspaper reporter made a lot more sense in 1938, when it was one of the few jobs you could walk away from for a significant amount of time without being fired. It also puts him at the center of plenty of action, which is one of the reasons why journalists remain so common in superhero origins, like the Flash, the Punisher, and Spider-Man. Yet as the contraction of the newspaper market has eliminated so many staff positions, the idea of a fresh arrival from Smallville, Kansas, managing to land a job at the paper of record has become increasingly unrealistic.
On the other hand, Superman represents the best aspirations of journalism at a time when so many people are eager to write off the entire industry. While the tabloid smear of Spider-Man’s Daily Bugle may be more recognizable today, the Daily Planet is staffed by reporters, editors, and photographers truly committed to uncovering corruption and wrongdoing.
While other costumed vigilantes might sneak into people’s homes and frighten them or even assault them to try to get answers, Superman uses his Clark Kent alter ego to gain access and gather evidence. He respects the law, but also understands it’s imperfect and does everything he can to hold those who would break it accountable.
There’s already plenty in Superman’s classic incarnation that is still compelling today. But just like every other superhero, Superman doesn’t need to be static.
Superman isn’t “boring”
Everyone knows Superman’s origin story, though the same could be said for Spider-Man and Batman and they keep getting new movies. That said, there are plenty of fresh ways to tell a Superman story.
Clark Kent wasn’t written as Jewish because of the amount of anti-Semitism present in America at the time. As time went on, the immigrant metaphor fell away and Superman became just another white man in a sea of superpowered white men. Zach Snyder even moved so far away from his Jewish origins that he used him as a Christ figure in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Anti-Semitism is on the rise again today thanks in part to a president who accuses Jews who don’t vote for him of “great disloyalty,” so now could be a time to make that connection more overt.
There are other ways to update Superman’s origin story for the times. HBO’s Watchmen did it beautifully through the origins of Hooded Justice, the setting’s first superhero. Like Kal-El, Will Reeves is spirited away by his parents from a doomed home in hopes that he might survive. But in this case that home is not a dying planet but a city assaulted by white supremacists. The metaphor is made even more overt when he sees the parallels to his story in the first issue of Superman and decides to put on his own cape soon after.
Similarly, the Superman of Justice League: Gods and Monsters was raised by Mexican migrant workers, growing up among the suffering experienced by the undocumented. Considering the popularity of fresh, more diverse spins on popular characters like Miles Morales/Spider-Man and Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, this could be a perfect incarnation for expressing the themes of finding home and fighting for the oppressed that Siegel and Schuster originally envisioned.
But radical change isn’t even necessary. Superman has a rogue’s gallery as big or bigger than Batman’s that is absolutely filled with threats that are relevant today. He’s fought the KKK, Nazis, and Kryptonian supremacists who believe he should rule Earth rather than protecting it. He’s faced the malevolent AI Brainiac and the propagandist Glorious Godfrey. He’s had his own power turned against him by Parasite and been locked in his worst nightmares by Doctor Destiny.
Superhero stories are a form of escapism, allowing us to imagine what we might do with the ability to fly and the courage that comes from being bulletproof. Yet the best of them also explore what it is to be human and our relationship with power. As the first, Superman represents the genre in its purest, most idealized form. While his popularity and influence may have faded in favor of darker heroes, he just needs to step back into the light of our yellow sun to regain his strength and save the day once more.