Superman has been identified in numerous ways throughout the years. The Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, and the Last Son of Krypton are among the more official titles awarded to the popular superhero. To unsuspecting denizens of Metropolis he is simply Clark Kent. On Krypton he was named Kal-El by his birth parents. To fans and critics of later years he became the Big Blue Boyscout and, over time, simply “Big Blue” or “Supes.” Very rarely do superheroes earn so many titles, which only supports my theory that for all intents and purposes Superman has been and always will be one of fiction’s most iconic personas to ever be associated with the realm of popular culture.
With his existence these past eight decades, however, Superman’s importance has ebbed and flowed. His popularity has risen and fallen. His meaning has changed throughout time. Some have called into question why we even bother to continue having a symbolic character created in the shadows of the Great Depression while others argue that he is needed now more than ever. People consistently argue over what superpower most defines him or who his most formidable adversary has been. Fans and non-fans alike find that only certain types of popular media have been able to accurately portray the Man of Steel yet are quick also to point out which was responsible for first introducing them to their growing imaginations. Some of his most die-hard fanatics will debate over which story is their favorite. This article attempts to address all these issues raised concerning Superman in order to gain insight into what sort of legacy he has attained over time.
In writing this article, the writer was determined to gather such insight into the Man of Tomorrow’s legacy by appealing to the opinions of fans, writers, comic creators and readers alike. Creating a simple survey online, he encouraged those interested in answering a slate of questions regarding Superman. Their answers were varied and informative, offering viewpoints toward the superhero’s enduring vision. Their identities were not tallied in the survey, hence they will not be shared in this analysis. Their generous efforts, however, are greatly appreciated and comprise the cornerstone by which the writer came to some fantastic and surprising conclusions in gauging Superman’s legacy.
Dawn and Depiction
One would be hard pressed to find an individual who does not know who the Man of Steel is. His popularity reaches far beyond the realm of comics and it has inundated the annals of popular culture both in the United States and abroad. The manner in which someone became introduced to this phenomenon, however, is another matter entirely. Generations of fans and readers between 1938 to now have discovered Superman in their own way. Many enjoyed the Golden and Silver Age comics that were present. Some became instant fans of the Kirk Alyn serial or the George Reeve’s television show. In researching the findings of this informal survey, it is the opinion this writer that the films of Hollywood actor Christopher Reeve were most responsible in giving individuals their initial impressions of the Man of Tomorrow as a pop cultural icon. These particular films were found to have given more persisting impressions to Superman than most other forms present. As a side note, it must be stressed that the Reeve era films barely edged ahead of animated entertainment as the means of Superman’s introduction. Various cartoon programs such as the 1940’s Max Fleischman series, Super Friends in the 1970’s, and the Justice League animated series in the 1990’s are specific examples of this. Other forms of media were indicated as well, including the 1950’s George Reeves television show, Smallville, comics, costuming, and even toys. Still, despite the presence of all other forms of entertainment, it was Christopher Reeve’s films that shared the greatest responsibility for introducing people to the Man of Tomorrow.
Introductions do not equate to successful portrayals, however, and for fans and non-fans alike this matter is especially so. While they might argue that Christopher Reeve helped to foster their initial impressions, they do not agree that his films best portrayed Superman. Instead, it seems that comics continue to be seen as the best tool by which to entertain the masses. The medium itself contrasts to the institution of screen writing yet no doubt the latter relied on the former as its source material. Animated and live television series have also had their successful visions for the Last Son of Krypton, but not nearly as profound as the medium of comics has demonstrated. Films, video games, radio programming, stage theater, conventional books, merchandise, attractions and even music have also had their respective chances at presenting Superman. But even their combined efforts hardly measure up to the success comic books have had in entertaining people in their depictions of the Man of Steel.
Story and Symbolism
Superman’s character has been written with the intent of entertaining audiences for eighty years now. Such longevity has in itself borne a veritable library of stories for readers to enjoy. In all of that epic literary accumulation, people have come to embrace a story of Superman that they cherish above all others. It is a tale they believe essential to the character and continues to demand their attention. Therein lies one of the great ironies of this insight into Superman’s legacy, for in calculating which story was most beloved by readers, it would seem that his tragic death story line in the early 1990’s is their most favored. How intriguing that a widely popular story among readers is the epic tale of how Superman met his ultimate demise. Perhaps the significance lies in the fact that this god-like entity attained a semblance of mortality, something mortals can identify with. The next most liked stories include Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (Alan Moore, Curt Swan), Red Son (Mark Millar, Dave Johnson), and his basic origin story, with the greatest example of the latter being Secret Origin (Geoff Johns, Gary Frank). Other notable features include Last Son of Krypton (Johns, Richard Donner, Adam Kubert), Man of Steel (John Byrne, Dick Giordano), Superman for All Seasons (Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale), All-Star Superman (Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely), World’s Collide (Dwayne McDuffie, Ivan Velez, Robert Washington), and Injustice: Gods Among Us (Tom Taylor, Brian Buccellato). It should also be noted that some non-comics stories were represented in the survey’s answers, including Justice League Unlimited (animated television series) and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (feature film). So many iconic accounts captured the hearts and minds of imaginative readers, yet it seems The Death of Superman made the greatest lasting impressions on the widest audience.
Superman has become a character rich in symbolism to readers. In the time he first graced the pages of comics to his grand following we now know of today, the Man of Steel has come to mean something specific to everyone. Among those who were surveyed, Superman is most synonymous with standards of righteousness, hope, and justice. He is a character that has always stood for the principle of doing the right thing. His very nature allows him to live as a god among mortals yet, despite all those near-infinite powers he chooses to be a shining beacon among a populace fractured by crime, racial and cultural divisions, and injustice. Some think he has attained a legitimately quasi-religious status in the human psyche. The Christ-like metaphor is almost too obvious to ignore to these individuals; but at the same time it helps to supplement his status as a force of good intent. The Man of Steel also seems to espouse principles of altruism, charisma and strength; to some he is a character is all powerful yet commands respect through his benevolent deeds and actions. One cannot ignore the belief of others that he is both a patriotic figure with his character’s literary history yet due to being a native born Kryptonian is the ultimate symbol for immigrants and refugees. Few even went so far as to say that Superman is the personification of humanity itself in its striving to better itself for a brighter future. Kal-El’s symbolism is as varied as his audience, engendering a meaning that each and every reader finds for him or herself. But in the end, righteousness will continue to be his most resounding metaphor.
Scoundrels and Superpowers
Fighting injustice for eight decades has earned the Man of Steel a substantial rogue’s gallery. His never-ending strive for justice has put him at odds with enemies galore over time. Some of them have fallen into obscurity entirely. Others have survived and even come to thrive in modern times. Few have become entirely essential to Superman’s very existence. This small minority is where we next explore Superman’s legacy, by finding out who we consider to be his most iconic adversaries. The survey’s findings regarding this matter were of no surprise to the writer, for it was discovered that an overwhelming majority of those that answered found Alexander Joseph “Lex” Luthor to be the Man of Tomorrow’s most celebrated villain. The mad scientist turned billionaire entrepreneur and one-time President of the United States has been a thorn in the side of Superman since he first appeared in Action Comics #23 (April 1940) yet has always maintained that his enmity toward Krypton’s Last Son has been a legitimate crusade despite its xenophobic undertones. Far behind Luthor yet no less significant is Doomsday, the beast wrought of reactive adaptation designed to survive at all costs whose one great accolade was having killed Superman in the tragic Death crossover event. Brainiac was another notable enemy deemed to be among Superman’s most iconic, and considering his character’s constantly re-invented history this comes as no surprise. After all, this is a denizen of the planet of Colu who started merely shrinking cities as surviving vestiges of civilizations across the cosmos yet by the early 2000’s was retconned as being the one responsible for hastening Krypton’s inevitable destruction. The fact that Mr. Mxyzptlk made it into this survey analysis shocks the writer to no end. Despite the 5th Dimensional imp’s near limitless means to warp reality itself, Mxy was always seen as nothing more than a bit of an annoyance to the Last Son of Krypton if not a bit of comic relief to the reader. Finally, Earth’s opposition to Superman at times is taken for granted. Readers tend to overlook Earthling’s fears and hatreds for the Man of Steel as much as their love and acceptance of him. In a way, this very opposition all relates back to the very sentiment of Luthor himself, who feels that Superman is a figure to be feared rather than venerated. All these villains and so very many others have stood in the way of Superman’s eternal mission, yet Luthor retains supremacy at the head of Superman’s long list of despised malefactors.
Superman’s evolution in popular media has allowed him to become more ‘super’ over time. We take it for granted that the greatest expansion of his powers took shape during the era of the Silver Age of Comics before being limited thereafter in later generations. Readers tend to also forget that his powers come as a result not only of Earth’s weaker gravitational pull in comparison to that of Krypton but that his very body is akin to that of a solar battery. And under the Sol System’s yellow sun, he has absorbed energy on a scale that makes him stronger and faster than average and ordinary humans. With such great absorption of power comes a whole slough of powers that he has developed. Of the many he has attained, though, it seems that the popular imagination celebrates only five of his powers as being quintessentially derivative of the Man of Steel. These include super-strength, flight, invulnerability, heat vision, and charisma. Here lies another surprising find in this analytical study of Superman’s legacy. Of the five superpowers represented, flight is considered to be his most identifiable trait. This is a curious finding indeed when one considers that flight capability wasn’t even originally one of Superman’s powers; the Golden Age’s depiction merely had Big Blue leaping very high and far distances. At the same time, it stands to reason that flight is his most iconic capability, for his popularity might not have had the evolution it enjoyed had the ability not been given to him. It is difficult to envision Superman without the ability to take to the skies now. After that, his most quintessential aspect is his super strength, which helps define Superman’s power nature to the audience in general. His invulnerability defines him as a powerful entity not so easily subdued; he has become both the immovable object and the unstoppable force. He is unrelenting in his everlasting mission of righteous reckoning. Finally, his heat vision and charismatic disposition captured the inspiration of many, and without them its hard to justify him being Superman at all. Alas, for eighty years now we have believed a man can fly, and so long as Superman’s popularity continues to shine may we resume entertaining that belief.
Importance and Intrigue
Superman’s longevity begs the question, in light of his symbolism, of whether he continues to be a relevant presence. Among those surveyed, Superman still retains relevancy even in today’s world but only by so much. Almost as many who took the survey believed that he no longer continues to command the importance he once did. They feel he is a character they cannot find justification for. In a world where so many superheroes exist and society continues to change, they find less reason to look up to his standard, especially in light of his seemingly invincible nature. Then again, maybe if he had a proper reconsidering in the popular imagination, they could justify his existence to fit with the times. On the other hand, there are those that believe him to still be as important today as he was back then, perhaps even more so now. His example is something they feel is needed in the world, especially given his cherished meanings to readers. Many feel there are plenty more stories to be written about the Man of Steel. His popularity comes and goes, but his relevance continues to live on. Superman has stood the test of time, and what made him great in 1938 can still make him larger than life in 2018 and beyond. It is up to us as writers, creators, readers and fans then to decide if he will continue to retain our inspiration or be retired to the shelf of relativistic inadequacy.
Another subject in debate is whether Superman continues to be a character that people can relate to. As evidenced by the survey, many struggle with whether he is a character they may even identify with. They feel the Man of Steel to be the unattainable ideal yet a glaring anachronistic relic of the past. His guise as an all-powerful superhero they find difficulty connecting with. He’s far too noble a character for them to like and if they had any semblance of understanding for the Man of Tomorrow at one point, they simply cannot find it any longer. Such sentiment is in stark contrast to others who insist there is much in Superman we can admire. They adore the vulnerabilities he feels as Clark Kent, juggling his private life of love, family and other relationships with his responsibility’s as a superhero. His parallel to the spirit of humanity reflects us all whether we see it or not. His upbringing as well as his duty to righteousness and hope are the theme familiar to so many. One must make up their own minds then whether they see Superman as an approachable symbolism or not. In these uncertain times, it remains to be seen whether Superman will continue to be as engaging a persona as he was to previous generations.
The summer of 1938 brought to the world arguably one of fiction’s most iconic figures. He became a larger than life hero that captivated audiences and would forge their overall imaginations. Superman has done such a thing for eighty years now and though his importance continues to decline, his legacy will continue to endure. Movies helped provide the genesis by which we learned of the Man of Steel while comics continue to always give the best portrayal of his character in the popular media. The saga surrounding his death at the hands of Doomsday persists in captivating his reading audience while his symbolism still relates to the tenets of altruistic righteousness. Lex Luthor will always be his most iconic adversary while the advent of flight capability is Superman’s most quintessential characteristic. People question whether he continues to hold the importance he once did. It is this writer’s firm opinion that that very notion is testament to the fact that Superman still retains a legacy of popularity today as he did so long ago at his inception. Adulation for the Man of Steel has come and gone, but Superman has remained in the human conscience for almost a century and will continue to do so as long as we wish for it to be. His legacy is our collective memory, and he lives on in our hearts and minds if we continue to strive for truth, justice, and humanity’s way.