We don’t live in a “super” world.
Spend about 5 nanoseconds online and the first thing you’ll see is anger. Hostility. Intolerance.
That’s not to say that there aren’t good aspects of the internet. Scroll long enough and you’ll find heartwarming stories: Strangers becoming pen pals for the lonely elderly in nursing homes; shelter cats and dogs finding their forever homes; a community rallying behind a neighbor fighting cancer.
Sadly, the negative is always going to be louder. Haters gonna hate, as they say. But the good is still out there, always.
But what does this have to do with a nerdy blog post? Everything. Because if there’s one thing nerds know, it’s that heroes never stop being heroes. The good never stop fighting. They might falter. They might fail. But they always get back up.
And today I want to talk about the quintessential superhero, the one who started it all: Superman.
First appearing in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the savior from another planet captured the attention of the world: He was strong, he was fast, and he was always good.
In a time when World War II was only a year away and the escalation of the Nazi party had the very basest, worst part of humanity on display for all to see, it’s little wonder that the idea of a superhero was so captivating.
In that historic first issue, Superman saves an innocent woman from being executed, stops a man from abusing his wife, saves a kidnapped Lois Lane, and begins an investigation into a corrupt Congressman (which was continued in issue #2).
Superman was pretty busy in that first issue, but it epitomizes who he is as a character: He helps, not only with the major country- or world-shaking problems, but also with everyday injustice.
But is such a character still relevant today? Is it realistic to believe in someone who helps whoever and however he can? Someone who is, simply put, a genuinely good person?
I think the day that we say “no” is the day that we stop believing in humanity. The day that we admit, at our core, we are nothing more than selfish, violent animals. The day that we throw our hands up and declare that we will never be any better.
I’m not willing to give up on us. And neither is Superman.
Characters like him are the mirrors that show us what we can be.
Of course, that mirror might accomplish such a feat in different ways as culture changes. In 1938, Superman just lived up to his name. He was super and he made us want to be super, too.
Nowadays, comics are a little different. Superman is still super, but he reminds us of humanity’s potential in a very different way.
In Action Comics #775 (2001), the story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” pits Superman against a new gang of “heroes.” Known as The Elite, they are powerful and, collectively, stronger than Superman. At first, Superman is happy to have more people willing to fight the good fight. But the story takes a dark turn when The Elite kills terrorists.
Superman appeals to them, saying that it is not a hero’s duty to be judge, jury, and executioner. To do so opens the door to anarchy and violence, rather than justice.
The problem? The public loves the Elite’s no-nonsense attitude. They embrace the revenge that the Elite represents. And Superman quickly becomes little more than a joke in comparison.
Of course, Superman still believes in justice. And he worries what might happen if the Elite stops killing terrorists and turn their attention instead to others. What if they change their mind on what constitutes a danger? What if they become overwhelmed by power and start attacking innocent people? And, a part from that, they have still broken the law by abandoning due process.
Of course, they refuse to come quietly. Consumed by popularity and publicity, the Elite want to broadcast Superman’s attempt at arresting them.
As predicted, they are more powerful and they defeat him. Or so it seems.
Suddenly, Superman returns, proclaiming:
“I’ve made the mistake of treating you people like… people. But now I understand better. I understand what you are. And how to deal with you.”
Seemingly enraged and insane, Superman murders the members of the Elite and (using his heat vision) lobotomizes their leader, the telekinetic and telepathic Manchester Black.
Key word: Seemingly. It turns out that Superman staged the whole thing. No one was killed, and he only gave Black the equivalent of a psychic migraine.
The comic ends with Superman flying away, declaring:
“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 become the reality we all share–I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.”
More recently, the story arc The Oz Effect (2018), has Superman fighting his father, Jor-El, who was saved from Krypton’s destruction and brainwashed. Unlike his son, his time on Earth was spent among the worst in humanity. He warns Superman that the world is ending, and then manipulates people around the world to give into their worst desires (prejudice, violence, etc.).
The arc ends with Jor-El reaching out to his son, admitting that he is being controlled by a more powerful force. Superman returns to his wife and son, his mind spinning over what he has witnessed. Is it possible that the planet he has spent so much of his life believing in and fighting for truly is a lost cause?
The final image leaves the reader with only one thought:
We’ve created a job too big for even Superman.
Now, back to the original question: Is Superman still relevant?
Absolutely. As long as we can strive for better, as long as we need a reminder that we truly are capable of even more than we imagine, as long as we need a beacon to confirm that, yes, there is still good in the world.
Superman may be fictional, but the ideas and hopes he represents are not. As he said, “Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us.”
The good news: We don’t actually need a visitor from another planet to save us. We just need ourselves–one act of kindness, one selfless thought at time.
The Man of Steel reminds us that, even though we might not live in a super world, that doesn’t mean that we can’t be super people.
Up, up, and away.
Sources: Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years (2013) and Superman, Action Comics: The Oz Effect Deluxe Edition (2018).