Over the course of 75 years, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young men from Ohio, has not only withstood the test of time, but has grown because of time. Yes, Superman has not always been successfully translated to the screen, big or small, just as he hasn’t always been successful in his own comic books, but he has somehow managed to survive the Senate Committee Hearings of 1954, the stark realism that grew out of the 1960s and into the 1970s due to the Vietnam War and the cynicism of modern America. His origin story is retold over and over again. I’ve read two very different retellings in just the last three years–Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, and Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis, both of which are superb–and have at least three that I can think of downloaded from Comixology (Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu, Superman for All Seasons by Jeff Loeb and Tim Sales, and Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen). His personality has changed though the core of this modern American myth remains the same.
In watching and rewatching Superman’s exploits on the Silver Screen, it becomes apparent just how much his story is our story. The baby from another place comes to the United States, learns the principle values on which this country was founded, and grows up to do his best to maintain those values both to keep what is essential about himself as well as to be a role model to the humans he could so easily annihilate. His values aren’t just American, in the end, but human.
Each version of Superman that made it to the Silver Screen was able to capture where this character was at any given time. The early Fleischer and Famous cartoons gave us a Superman who was quick to leap into battle and protect Metropolis, the United States, and the world from danger. The 1948 and 1950 serials gave us a Superman who was ready to get the bad guys with gusto and verve. Superman and the Mole Men (1951) gave us a Superman who would use his might when needed to but would appeal to our goodness and be a role model when possible. The Superman portrayed by Christopher Reeve was a straight-forward, earnest man who spoke plainly but also was all-too-human. He made mistakes but, more importantly, he rose above those mistakes. Brandon Routh’s Superman was a throw-back to Reeve’s but in the modern world. Does the earnest, caring young man with the strong principles have a place in a world as complicated as this one? What happens when the human emotions become so strong in the man who can never be physically hurt? And Henry Cavill’s Superman brings us to the modern era in which you and I live, with a young man torn between doing what’s right and doing what’s safe. How does the world react to a super man in Post-9/11 America when there’s serious talk about building walls across borders and when no one is trusted?
Superman is not on the top of very many people’s Favorite Superheroes list. For a long time, he wasn’t on mine at all. But now, I have to ask myself: does Batman still get the top spot? The big argument against Superman (and for Batman) is that one simply cannot become Superman, but anyone, with the right amount of training and education, can become Batman. And now, after watching these movies, and writing these essays, I can firmly say: You’re wrong. Superman isn’t about whether or not a boy or girl can someday become him, Superman is about living with the set of principles that includes tolerance, empathy, ethics, and love. Superman is about the goal of not being super-powered, but the goal of being human.
The two young men in Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sons of Jewish immigrants, understood what it was like not to fit in. They understood what it was like to be different. And what was their payback to the people who surely bullied them as they were growing up in the 1920s and 1930s? They gave the world Superman. Superman isn’t supposed to save us, he is supposed to show us how to save ourselves.