The one foe that Superman has never vanquished in his long career – the iconic character celebrates his 75th birthday later this year — isn’t Lex Luthor (come on), Bizarro, or the alien consciousness known as Brainiac. No, his greatest enemy is something much more mundane: namely, a simple lack of respect. While movie audiences and comic fans swoon at the sight of fellow DC Comics characters Batman or Green Lantern — to say nothing of Marvel Comics heroes like Iron Man, Spider-Man or Wolverine — poor Superman is continually being dismissed as boring, out of touch, or just a plain-old d–k. Even within his own stories, he’s too long had to put up with being mistaken for a bird or a plane. This, to be blunt, is just plain wrong. Let us be clear: Superman is the ultimate superhero, and it’s time everyone recognized that fact.
It’s not that Superman was the first superhero, as such. You could, after all, trace his lineage back through earlier pulp characters like the Lone Ranger and Zorro, who used dual identities to battle corruption and crime; or Doc Savage and Philip Wylie’s Gladiator, heroes with abilities beyond those of normal men, and see how Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel came up with their Man of Tomorrow. Nevertheless, there’s something in the way that those influences mixed together, the alchemy that resulted that, whether by accident and/or design in synthesizing a character that really has everything a superhero needs to be successful.
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Think about it. Superman pretty much embodies the template for the perfect crime-fighting hero Secret identity? Check. Brightly-colored costume? Yup. Super-powers? Oh boy, does he have some awesome powers (and some that are admittedly less-than-awesome). Desire to do the right thing, even at the cost of his life? Just ask poor Lois Lane (or, these days, Wonder Woman). Anguish that comes with being an outsider who can never fully be integrated into the society he protects? Dear reader: He’s an alien who, on a daily basis, has to deal with the fact that he is the final survivor of his entire race – and whose entire social circle consists of people who only know him through work and pile their own overwhelming expectations on him. Compared with Superman, Spider-Man has it easy.
As if that wasn’t enough, Superman has proven to be an almost endlessly flexible character, and one who’s proven himself to be easily recreated to serve different purposes for different audiences throughout his existence. Siegel and Shuster’s original “bold humanist response to Depression-era fears of runaway scientific advance and soulless industrialism” (to quote Grant Morrison, current writer of Action Comics, in his 2011 book Supergods) was transformed into a patriotic war hero in the 1940s. Subsequent years found him functioning as the patriarchal head of a metaphorical Superfamily and a transformative avatar of identity fluidity in the 1950s and ’60s, and a successful Super-Yuppie in the 1980s. And that’s just in the comics alone. Other representations include Christopher Reeves’ comedic Clark Kent in the 1970s’ movies and the almost comically emo Clark of Smallville.
Throughout those various portrayals, though, the core of Superman stayed true: That he was, at heart, an almost-impossibly good man, a hero that never gives up, and always does the right thing. That lack of cynicism or self-interest is is often pointed to, sneeringly, by those who find the character too one-dimensional (and also complain about him being too powerful). But such thinking misses the point of Superman and the very notion of superheroes: These aren’t realistic characters; they’re idealized characters, ones created as purposeful and eager rejections of realism in favor of adventure and wish-fulfillment and worlds filled with evil geniuses and impossible monsters. Any counter-argument against such a staggeringly simple premise feels small-minded and sad, to me: You can imagine any number of dangers and ultimate evils, but you have a problem with a good guy who doesn’t give up? I ask. You just need to imagine harder.
Superman is the alpha and omega of superheroes; the template for the modern superhero, and illustrative of the extremes to which the concept can be idealized. He is, ultimately, the pure superhero made fictional flesh. And, honestly? He really deserves a little bit more respect for that, thank you very much.