With a new Superman movie ‘Man of Steel’ due for release in 2013, and the character’s revision as part of the rebooting of DC Comics entire line under the DC 52 Banner, it seems like an interesting time to look at the character and see whether he measures up to life in the 21st Century and whether he is still relevant today?
No character in popular culture is as universally known as Superman and this is even by people who have never picked up a Superman comic book, let alone read one. And this was before Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie released in 1978. So why has the character (and there are others,) lasted as long as he has? Let us look at his history and our history as a starting point.
Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. He wasn’t the character I had grown up reading, loving and getting bored with at times. In his early years he could only leap great distances (or had the ability to ‘leap over buildings in a single bound’, as the tagline used to say). He couldn’t even fly nor was he totally omnipotent. Yet he was powerful enough to get the job done. And struggled a little along the way. As the years went by, different writers and artists did different things and by the early 1970s when I started reading the comics, (I could read by then,) he could fly, fly through space, time travel – in fact, there was nothing he couldn’t do. Unless you had a large piece of Kryptonite, remains of the planet Krypton where he was born.
The creative team behind the character was American writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian-born American Artist Joe Shuster, who created the character of Superman in 1932, when they were both living in Cleveland, Ohio. They sold their story to Detective Comics inc., later known as DC Comics and the rest as they say is History.
An intellectual I used to work for, once describe Superman as ‘A Capitalist Concept’. That was one way of looking at the Man of Steel but I am not so sure. If he was strictly that, why is the character so universally known everywhere but possibly North Korea? He has to be more than ‘A Capitalist Concept’ as my former supervisor described him.
Look at his story. There have been many variations of the story but I will stick with what was pretty generic up until 1986, which was known as the Silver Age of Comics, which was from the 1950s up until then and pretty much what Richard Donner’s movie told. Our hero was born on the Planet Krypton in another Galaxy. He was the Son and it seems the only Child of Jor-EL and Kara. Jor-EL was a leading scientist and a member of the Science Council that ruled or rather governed Krypton. The planet’s governance was based on that of Technology and Science – A Technocracy if you will. In more recent times (in the Modern Age of Comics 1986 to 2011,) the governance of Krypton would be revealed to be made up of ‘Guilds’ composing the Science, Military, Religious and although not mention an Arts Guild of some kind. The House of EL, in later years would be revealed to be one of the most influential families on Krypton, which explains why his parents had access to space faring technology, though it is explained that the Kryptonians were a planet-bound Civilization that never truly developed space travelling technology. Everything points to that fact but Jor-EL was well aware of Earth, its culture and environment, which is why he chose to send his infant son here. Again the comic books never seem to touch on this until the Modern Age but could Jor-EL have visited Earth via some kind of Portal/Wormhole technology the Kryptonians had abandoned long ago?
Whatever lay behind the father’s decision, the Planet was dying, would be destroyed. He had the means to save his son by sending him away and so he did. Superman or rather Kal-EL as his parents named him arrived on Earth, specifically near the town of Smallville in the State of Kansas, as an infant, with no one to care for him and as an illegal immigrant. Fortunately he was found by a caring, couple who would adopt him and say he was their own so his future and safety was assured. Could you imagine what would have happened if the military had discovered him first?
The history of the United States is one of immigration. Legal and Illegal. Not everyone went through Ellis Island or what replaced it. Our hero certainly didn’t but his upbringing and the strong moral values of goodness and decency instilled in him by his adopted parents would shape the Hero we would universally know as Superman and his alto-ego as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent.
Still, there has to be more as to why Superman was and is still so universally appealing. Since the Human Species has been able to walk upright and look up to the sky, we have been aware of something greater than us. A superbeing. A god of some kind. Ancient man looked up to the Sky and saw the Sun and the Moon. He quite rightly ascertained that one (the Sun,) was the bringer, the giver, the sustenance of all life, while the other (the Moon,) affected the night, the weather around them. They realised that at certain times it would get colder. The Sun was going away, they would worship the sun make sacrifices, do what was necessary to make the Sun stay. In time they realised that the Sun was not leaving them but had gone a distance way. It was colder but he still lit up the sky even if they could not see him. In time Ancient man learned to prepare for the changing of the seasons and to survive accordingly. The same with the Moon at night. Sometime he was there. His full face looking down and watching over them, other times he would not be there or hiding while still watching them, occasionally showing part of his face.
Similarly Ancient Man looked up to the sky at night and saw the stars. They were able to link certain stars together to create celestial heroes and beasts that would form the basis of their mythologies and stories, thus the art of storytelling was born. Astrology was born as a way of man defining his destiny, present and future. Ancient civilisations and empires rose and with it the pantheon of gods, superbeings who we worshipped out of fear and love. Gods who were like us but more powerful than us. They were good, evil, bad, generous, vain, greedy, spiteful, merciful and merciless. How could they be anything else? They were like us because we created them. And it is these traits that have kept them in our memories and psyche for thousands of years. So the concept of Man and his Superman has been with us right through our existence on this Planet as a species.
The Human Psyche in modern times, as in ancient times still needs heroes, somebody to look up to and admire. In the reality we live in, that role has at various times being taken up by film stars, actors, sportsmen, athletes, popular music singers and musicians. But at the heart of the Human Psyche, is still the need to have that God-like figure to look up.
Friedrich Nietzsche the German Philosopher of the 19th Century came up with the concept of ‘The Ubermensch’ (the Overman). The Superman in this case, known as the ‘Overman’ is a solution to the death of God. Once god has died there will be a twilight of piety and nihilism. The Overman is a gift to Mankind who are not aware of the solution to the problem the Overman represents. The Overman is and will be the creator of new values. He will not follow the morality of the common people as it favours mediocrity but instead will rise above the notion of good and evil and above the herd. In this the Overman represents by example, the ultimate journey toward a state of being – that of being ‘Overman’ i.e. Superman. The spiritual evolution of self-awareness and the overcoming of traditional views on morality and justice that stems from superstition and beliefs still deeply rooted or related to the notion of God and Christianity. The Overman/Superman represents the next stage in Human evolution. He leads by example and lives by a higher code and not that of the common man. He is there to be looked up to and admired. He is the key to the next stage in our evolution. An evolution where we throw off the earthly shackles that have bound us to this earthly plane, and finally achieve Nirvana. Even looking at this concept/idea it sounds appealing. Unfortunately the Nazis hijacked Nietzsche’s concept for their own ends in creating the notion of a ‘Master Race’ for the purposes of racial cleansing and classification.
Superman/Clark Kent in many respects reflects Nietzsche idea of the Superman. With one notable exception. While Superman holds himself to a higher standard, despite his alien birth and heritage, as Clark Kent, he lives among the common people, he interacts with them. He writes newspaper columns, reports on the events and stories that may or may not affect them. In the Modern Age of Comics, he was a best-selling novelist. So while Superman incorporates many of the traits of The Ubermensch, as Clark Kent, he is firmly anchored in the world around him and is not as far removed from the world around him as Nietzsche’s Superman is. He is not a God but is like unto a God.
As people tire of the destructive causes of religion in terms of the wars fought in the name of religion and the infringement on their personal liberties by religious pressure groups, one begins to see where Nietzsche’s view begins to take shape that God needs to die and be replaced with a more human looking solution, one with different code that supersedes all that has gone before. A new way of thinking for a new millennia. Speaking of which, how does Superman play in the 21st Century?
The Film Producer Barbara Broccoli once commented that we demand more from our heroes than we ever did. It is therefore not surprising that Daniel Craig’s performance as James Bond is a man who is deeply flawed but will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Sometimes at the expense of those close to him. The death of friends and loved ones. He doesn’t get to walk away forget about it. He has live with the consequences of his actions and as such is a very lonely and complex man. And this is the problem Superman has faced for the past thirty years. He has struggled to be relevant in the current age.
It is no surprise that during that same period the rise of the anti-hero has risen to ever greater heights. I mention Daniel Craig’s performance as James Bond but you can also see that in the Sean Connery’s early performances (though he was far more colder and in control,) and Timothy Dalton’s take on the Character. As a Widower, Pierce Brosnan had that in common with Bond so showed a man who had loved and lost someone he loved, had gotten past the bereavement and was doing what he was good at and getting on with his life and work, which is something Pierce did in his own life.
Again in this same period, Superman finally reveals who he is to Lois Lane, they fall in love and finally get married. This flies in the face of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, as Superman like any intelligent man knows, you can compartmentalise your life, do what needs to be done and still have time for those that matter. He is still the standard bearer for the next stage in our evolution but is not an anti-hero, he has no flaws and while he demonstrates all that is good as Superman and Clark Kent, Logan/Wolverine is clearly a more popular character and one who is not all that friendly and accommodating. He not the Big Blue Boy Scout, nor is he The Man of Tomorrow but he represents today, as he has done for the past forty years. Something Superman has had problems doing consistently over the same time period.
DC’s rebooting of the character last year (in my humble opinion at least,) has done nothing to improve things. We now have a character who no longer married; he is moody in a way that does not suit the character. There are reasons for that in that he lost his adopted parents earlier on so there isn’t anyone to turn to or even talk to anymore. I read the first two issues of the rebooted Superman and the first issue of Action Comics, which deals with the early appearances of Superman. Was I interested in reading about his past in Action Comics and his present wearing body armour in the new Superman title? No I wasn’t and gave the comics away. The only place where the character worked in the DC 52 comic reboot was in the new Justice League title. Here the character was broody but it made sense. He was drawn the right way, looked the right way and had the right attitude. In many ways he was pretty much closer to the Ubermensch in that he looked powerful and was a world apart but not too far afield that he couldn’t tell people where to step off. I think this characterisation is where they needed to be going with Superman.
The modern age of comics from the 1980s up and until last year, has given rise to long established characters like the X-Men coming into their own as well as other heroic but flawed characters and this is no bad thing. It is inherent in our genes to be drawn to powerful characters who are greater than we and have special abilities but are yet so much like us. Superman is not like any us. He goes one better than Nietzsche’s Superman/Overman, in that he not that far removed from us in his personal life but we don’t read about a flawed character that has difficulties with his abilities, nor the coming to terms with his abilities, nor how he and his then wife Lois Lane could ever lead a normal life. With any other character that is a story that could be a continued underlying thread for many years but that is not going to work in the long term with Superman. He is perfect. He does what is always right. There is no conflict of conscience continually. And there won’t be. When you couple a good, strong, down to Earth upbringing backed up in later years by twelve years studying, learning and training in a crystal edifice known as the Fortress of Solitude, what steps out of there is very much the Overman until he begins interacting with the greater world on a global scale.
In Life as well as comic books, the way the world is, People want to read, see and hear about someone, something special. That is why we create heroes real and fictional. They give us what we need to make our lives that little bit better. And if they lose something along way, are flawed, make a mistake now and again, so much the better. They are not perfect. They are just like us, just richer, more powerful and famous. Sound familiar?
Superman is a great comic book concept and while I used to believe the slogan that he represented Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, I am no longer too sure. This may stem from the way the Character as a commercial property has been handled. It is surprising that DC Comics didn’t think about capitalising on upgrading the Character to coincide with a major movie release back 1978. They just carried on turning out the same kind of boring Superman stories right up until mid-1980s when they rebooted their whole line. Subsequent changes to his origin story over the years didn’t help either. That may well have disenfranchised other fans like myself.
From what I have seen of the current incarnation of Superman, he is certainly a Man but I wouldn’t say he is a Super Man. And that is most unfortunately.