“Look, up in the sky!”
It’s not just a geek thing. Americans who’ve been in the habit of watching television and films for the past thirty years should know that phrase, even if they’ve never picked up a comic book in their life. But it’s not just a joke or a cliche. It is actually, when you break it down to basics, what Superman is all about.
“Look, up in the sky.” Not a bird or a plane. And certainly not just one of a crowd of superheroes. That figure flying towards us is an angelic (though humanly flawed) being who came down from the stars, wearing a shield on his chest decorated by an alien symbol for hope. He’s an orphaned farm boy who hates bullies and has dedicated himself to protect and inspire the planet that adopted him.
People are talking and arguing about what has to happen in the new Superman movie that will be directed by Zack Snyder. I could talk about what kind of story I’d like or what villains I want to see (Christopher Eccleston as Brainiac!), but that’s a matter of personal preference. My main concern is that this movie be great. A “decent” Superman film will not cut it for me, not after many were disappointed with Superman Returns (some fine acting, but a lackluster story). I want great. And part of how to do that, I think, is to remember that Superman can still stand out among hundreds of other costumed heroes who have followed in his wake. He’s not just Kal-El, Last Son of Krypton, he’s also called the Man of Tomorrow.
More than Smallville or the popular Lois & Clark series, the live-action interpretation that had the biggest impact on geeks and non-comic fans alike was Superman: The Movie, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman. Some of the movie is paced rather slowly and Hackman’s Lex Luthor is very over-the-top with scenery chewing. But Reeve’s Superman truly stands out and holds up. When he says, “I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American Way,” he’s not pontificating. His hands are not on his hips as he declares this with theatrical projection. This is a simple truth, a goal he knows is not easy but believes is worthwhile.
In this film, within his Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic Circle, young Clark gets guidance from a holographic simulation of his biological father Jor-El, a digital ghost programmed to speak as the dead scientist would have. It’s a bittersweet reunion, finally seeing your father and hearing his voice but knowing it’s not truly him. After some time, the Jor-El program imparts this final instruction before Clark embarks on his public career as Superman.
JOR-EL: “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way…”
Some of you might be arguing, yes, this worked for the movie, but it’s not as if that idea was in the Superman comics from the beginning. Well, it kind of was. Consider the first Superman story that began in Action Comics vol. 1 issue #1 in 1938. After solving a homicide and taking a down a guy beating his wife, the Man of Steel learns of a weapons maker deliberately provoking war to profit from it. Does Superman gather evidence and send him to prison? No. Instead, the Man of Steel forces the man to enlist in the very same war. After operating on the front lines, the weapons maker understands his action and can no longer manipulate the event for profit. Superman then returns him to his life, satisfied that the man will change his ways.
With this first story, we see what makes Superman stand out from his predecessors the Green Hornet, the Shadow, Doc Savage, the Phantom, and Dr. Occult. All of those guys were special individuals who fought criminals and conquerors. Superman didn’t just fight, he wanted to improve the world (even if he had to be rough about it at times). He could have scared the war profiteer into simply stopping, but that wasn’t enough. He needed the man to come to his own realization and change his ways. This is an idea that is at the heart of many faiths and schools of philosophy, that it is better to turn evil into a force for good rather than simply punish.
This idea has resurfaced in Superman’s adventures again and again for over 70 years now. A great example is Action Comics #783, published in the wake of September 11, written by Joe Kelly, illustrated by Brandon Badeaux and Mark Morales. In this story “The Gift,” Superman fought and approached four different super-villains and gave them all the same speech.
“This is where I’m supposed to haul you in and lock you up… But something has to change, doesn’t it? It just has to… Do you realize how powerful those two words are, second chance? I don’t think there’s a greater gift you can give to someone. A second chance in life. So… I’m offering you a second chance. Put the past in a box and take my hand in friendship. It won’t be easy, and I’m not ignoring what brought us here in the first place, but frankly, I can’t do anything about any of that.
“The past is hard and cold and unforgiving. I can only change the future… and so can you. You have such… power. Gifts. Do you know what you could accomplish if you just tried? You could make the world beautiful. You could change everything.
“So that’s the deal. One-time offer. Take my hand. Let me help you. Let’s make a better world. What do you say?”
I was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. I got close to the destruction, where ash covered my clothing. I witnessed human remains on the street and I felt anger and vengeance as many people did. But to read this speech just a couple of months later in a Superman comic, I was touched. It was a sentiment that needed to be voiced. Yes, it was fiction. That’s not the point. In a post-9-11 world, Superman’s belief that we can all stand up and act better just seemed that much more important. He wasn’t naive in making the offer. He makes it clear that betrayal will inspire righteous anger and action in him. But that doesn’t mean he won’t try.
“Something has to change, doesn’t it?”
Of course, dedicating himself to hope doesn’t mean Superman should be portrayed as a god who doesn’t worry or suffer doubts. He’s angelic at times, but he’s no angel and at times he struggles with exactly what his role is. In 1973, Elliot S! Maggin wrote the now-famous story “Must There Be a Superman?” The hero realized that if he didn’t limit the help he gave to humanity, they would become too reliant on him. This point was beautifully summed up again in JLA #4 (1997), written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Howard Porter.
Towards the end of that story, Superman discusses the role of superheroes with his colleagues in the Justice League of America. When the question comes up about superheroes perhaps not doing enough in the world, Superman remarks, “I can only tell you what I believe… Humanity has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there.”
The Flash then asks, “Why should they need us at all?” Superman answers, simply and matter-of-factly, “To catch them if they fall.”
A wonderful moment. But again, don’t think that I’m saying Superman should be someone so inspiring that he’s untouched by any human doubt or weakness. That’s absurd. In the best Superman stories, you can see that he’s still basically a guy raised on a Kansas farm who has no patience for bullies and power-hungry jerks. Like many heroes, he’s a vigilante, with no real legal authority (in most versions of his story) and who isn’t above bending rules if he believes it serves a higher morality. He loses his temper, he engages in a little trash talk, and he can be reckless when impatient for results. This is someone whom Batman calls friend and the Dark Knight wouldn’t trust someone he considered to be a fool or naive. An idealist can believe that people are essentially good and still kick a little ass when someone steps out of line. Just look at James T. Kirk, another farm boy dreamer who hated bullies and wasn’t afraid to wear bright colors.
You can have Superman be a guy we connect with and still have him be power being who lives in a crystal castle at the North Pole that comes equipped with an alien zoo, robots and the Phantom Zone projector which is, basically, a portal to Hell. He saves lives but can still be frustrated when some people continue to do horrible things and when he has to acknowledge that, hey, he can’t save everyone all the time, despite the expectations of others and himself. However, while he may have self-reflection and doubt, Superman shouldn’t be someone who mopes for too long or dwells in directionless angst. This is a guy who has literally been lost in Hell itself in some stories and his attitude was to roll up his sleeves and deal with it. Because, however difficult it may be, he knows will figure a way out of this. He doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario.
In the famous Superman novel Miracle Monday, the Man of Steel faces a demon from Hell that calls itself C.W. Saturn. This evil force takes possession of a human woman and then wreaks havoc on Earth. The climax of the story involves Saturn telling our hero that the only way to stop all this is to kill the innocent woman host. Superman’s reaction? He dismisses the solution as “nonsense.” And then? He actually trash-talks with the demon a bit.
SUPERMAN: “Your power is not nonsense. The idea that I would kill you simply because you misdirect it, however, is ridiculous.”
SATURN: “… Do you expect me to stop of my own accord?”
SUPERMAN: “No, I don’t. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that at all.”
SATURN: “Then what do you expect to do about me?”
SUPERMAN: “… I’ll follow you.”
SATURN: “You would follow me to the bowels of the Earth? … To the rim of the universe?”
SUPERMAN: “I think you’re being melodramatic. I’ll follow you to the ends of Creation. I look forward to seeing places where I’ve never been.”
But Superman’s not just a universal police. He’s a teacher. In the past 30 years, there’s been a strengthening idea in the comics that Krypton, while technologically brilliant, was also seriously flawed. Many stories have shown that Kryptonians could have found a way to escape their planet’s destruction but allowed xenophobia to trap them. They refused to risk their culture altering in any way if they left their planet and met other races. Superman is not just here to present the hope of a better future, he is here to warn us about mistakes of the past, namely pride, racial prejudice and denial. His people never embraced change and never got to see tomorrow, but we still can.
A couple of years later, Mark Waid wrote Superman: Birthright, intended to revise and re-establish who Superman was and what drove him in life. It is, in my opinion, the most emotional and best all-around origin story for the Man of Steel. In this tale, Waid gave the famous S-shield new meaning. The comics had always said it was merely a symbol that stood for “Superman.” The movies said it was the family crest of the House of El, which the cartoons and TV shows followed. Waid took this a step further, arguing that Clark wasn’t just the last son of El, he was the “Last Son of Krypton.” Waid said the symbol may have been a family crest but it was also an old Kryptonian glyph that meant “hope.” That’s fantastic. That’s the Man of Tomorrow wrapped up in one concept and image.
There have been and will continue to be many debates about what needs to happen in the next Superman film and that it not repeat the disappointment some felt after Superman Returns. To me, that movie had some good stuff in it and some weak stuff, but the biggest problem was this: it brought up a point of view, that “the world doesn’t need a Superman,” and then it never really proved if that idea was wrong. Instead of letting Brandon Routh shine as a hero (and I think he was fine casting) and being thankful for Superman’s presence, we saw him mope about, display that he was unable to relate to the people around him, and spend his greatest efforts on cleaning up a mess made by technology he himself had brought to Earth.
We can’t have that happen again. We need the Man of Tomorrow, the person who can smile sarcastically as people shoot at him and later worries if his efforts really accomplish anything. We need the guy whose Fortress of Solitude is paradoxically both a memorial to a dead world and a collection of sci-fi impossibilities that would make Doctor Who jealous. We need him to be like this so that when the villains come, when Earth seems completely screwed and overwhelmed by darkness, he stands out as a light. Otherwise he’s yet another guy in a costume with powers and his movie will be just another in a sea of comic book adaptations.
He’s not just a big brother who beats up the guys we can’t handle. He’s a guide who believes that we can grow to a point where we don’t need him. We just have to work at it and believe.
Just my thoughts.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires.