“Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul I swear… until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share… I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.”—Superman, What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?
These days, it seems to be the “cool” thing to hate on Superman. Whether it be his Lawful Good, Boy Scout morality, powers far exceeding other heroes, or a seeming impossibility to relate to him, he receives more than his fair share of derision. You may prefer the dark, brooding, chaotic Batman, or perhaps prefer Marvel to DC as a whole. If that’s how you feel, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I invite you to take just a moment to consider what you can learn from the original superhero.
To continue the theme of avoiding spoilers for the new installment, Superman’s character and actions in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will not figure into this post. This is because, A) I have not seen the film at the time of this writing, and B) The neck-snapping, collateral damage-apathetic Kryptonian of Man of Steel fails titanically at representing the nobility and integrity of the character. That color-deficient film attempted to fix what wasn’t broken about the original, most famous superhero of them all. It was a controversial adaptation of the character, and if you like it, that’s just fine. This post will focus on two Superman stories in particular: Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman and Joe Kelly’s What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?, and its animated adaptation Superman vs. The Elite.
Both of these stories highlight Superman’s unshakable ethics and benevolence, and make the argument they are still relevant in our cynical, morally gray modern world. All-Star Superman pays tribute to the wacky antics of the Silver Age as it follows a more-powerful-than-ever Superman slowly dying from an overdose of solar radiation. Many examples are given of Superman’s heroic deeds both large and small, from saving the planet from a world-destroying sentient star to a touching scene of offering support to a teenager contemplating suicide, pictured to the right.
Most adaptations of Superman credit his ethics to a rural upbringing in Smallville. All-Star offers a different interpretation: His ability to see the electromagnetic spectrum shows him how all forces of the universe are interconnected, including humanity itself. This ‘defiance of entropy’ shows we are all part of the clockwork of the universe, and it’s all we have. Every life is a spectacular occurrence, and Superman can’t help but feel compelled to protect this colossal tapestry of miracles.
Meanwhile, Joe Kelly’s Action Comics story What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?, as well as its animated adaptation, compares and contrasts Superman’s seemingly outdated morals with ‘modern’ antiheroes who annihilate their foes with extreme prejudice. The original comic story was a response to the runaway popularity and impressive sales of the Wildstorm Comics series The Authority, starring a team of superheroes who saved the world by any means necessary, often toppling governments in the process. In both versions, Superman clashes with a new team of ‘heroes’ calling themselves The Elite, who employ fatal force in fighting criminals and supervillains. Despite their public popularity, Superman insists they are in the wrong to kill.
Eventually, The Elite demand a confrontation, which Superman only agrees to the fight on the terms the fight take place on the moon, far away from civilians. He then seemingly kills the Elite one by one, until only their leader Manchester Black remains. Superman reveals the ‘deaths’ of his teammates were faked, and the entire fight was a ruse to prove to the public at large and The Elite themselves the danger of superpowered beings crossing the line and abandoning restraint. Black declares Superman is living in a dream if he thinks his way can work, to which he calmly replies that he will never give up on that dream until the entire world knows goodness, justice, and peace.
The common criticism is that Superman is difficult to identify with because of his awesome power. That’s not his purpose. While he may have began as a superpowered adventurer who reflected the American immigrant experience, over time, he has morphed into an icon, a paragon, a shining example not of what we are (like Spider-Man), but what we can be. Superman is incorruptible, benevolent, and is perseverant beyond measure. An alternative to his title of “Man of Steel” is the “Man of Tomorrow.” This reflects his status as an example of the greatness humanity could someday achieve, and he will do his damnedest to ensure humanity is not destroyed in the process of reaching that greatness.
In addition to protecting humanity from threats large and small, he encourages those around him to personally better themselves. I already shared the earlier example of Superman comforting a teenager contemplating suicide, but another great example of his encouragement comes from John Henry Irons, AKA Steel. Irons had become despondent after a weapon he had designed fallen into criminal hands and resulted in deaths pf innocent people. Later, Superman saved his life when he fell from a skyscraper and the Man of Steel challenged him to “live a life worth saving.” He responded by creating a metallic suit of armor and battling the gangs who wielded his weapons.
A more chilling example comes in All-Star Superman when Lex Luthor creates a serum that grants him Superman’s powers for a day. As his time runs out, he begins to see the world the way Superman sees it, seeing the interconnectedness of everything, he pleads, ” I saw everything. I saw how to save the world. I could have made everyone see. If it wasn’t for you, I could have saved the world.”
Superman sharply responds, “If it had mattered to you, Luthor, you could have saved the world years ago.”
Perhaps his mission to inspire greatness is best summarized by his biological father Jor-El in the first Christopher Reeve film, “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…. my only son.” Superman not only protects the world, but sets the shining example for those around him, in morals and in deed. Ignore the grimdark Man of Steel and instead look to these other stories I have mentioned to see how this character can inspire you to do better. You too can stand for truth, justice, and all that other stuff.
TLDR: Superman provides an honorable, committed, courageous, and powerful example for us to follow. He is not meant to be directly related to, but be a light to show us the way.