When I was small, my mom drew Superman for me to copy. She always drew him the same way. He stood righteously upright, his fists resting on his hips and the tip of his hair heroically coiled. It was a Superman with a moral imperative, a Superman with high cheekbones and godlike posture. It was the Christopher Reeve Superman.
This is how I learned to draw and this is my first memory of Superman. I was about 5 years old.
A new Superman movie — Man of Steel — came out this summer, and according to the Internet, it was 56 percent good. Comic book people seemed to think it was significantly less good based on Superman’s angst and the fact that, in the process of defeating the supervillains, he helps destroy most of Metropolis and just about all of Smallville, including his mom’s house, which is redecorated with a pickup truck. There also was the issue of the how Superman stops the featured supervillain General Zod: He kills him.
The sometimes virulent dissatisfaction with Man of Steel is understandable. Superman is an archetype and there are expectations. Superman is not angsty, nor is he dark, sad, uncertain or gloomy. And Superman does not kill people, even genocidal supermen with terraforming fetishes. (Zod obviously saw Wrath of Khan.) Superman believes in due process. These are the rules and Man of Steel violates them. That was not Christopher Reeve. It was some dreamy English guy with the requisite demigod jawline — but a flaccid moral imperative.
I’m not offended by this interpretation of Superman. He is public domain. Most people, like me, have a relationship with Superman, and it’s individual. Also, in many ways, the Man of Steel Superman is the most plausible. It addresses the psychology of Superman, the psychology of being alone and all-powerful. I assume in future movies Zach Snyder’s Superman will develop his moral imperative. Well, maybe. Zach Snyder isn’t known for a soft touch.
Superman is different from other superheroes. He is above them, exalted not only by geeks but common men, as well. Superman was the first superhero, although others, like the Phantom and characters from pulp magazines and radio serials (the Shadow, the Spider, the Green Hornet, etc.), were around before Superman debuted in 1938. Superman, more than any other superhero, is an icon, and people are emotionally involved.
The percentage of Americans who have worn a Superman costume at some point in their life is likely very high. The Superman shield — that stylized “S” stuffed inside a polygon on his well-pectoraled chest — is globally recognizable. People dress as Batman, too, but Batman is less accessible, despite the popular argument that, because he has no superpowers, he is easier to relate to.
Batman is psychologically unsettling, which undermines the relatability of his regular-powered mortality. His villains are overwhelmingly psychopaths, and he is punishing, cold and vengeful, going about at night costumed as a shadow demon, smiting the wicked in memory of his murdered family.
Batman is an effective crime-fighter, but not an effective inspirational symbol because of his reliance on fear. He wouldn’t do children’s parties.
The connection to Superman is inspirational, perhaps because of the religious flavoring of the origin story. It beats you in the face with Christ — and Moses, too. Superman, just Kal-El in the beginning, is sent by his father to Earth as a savior to us yellow-sunned people. This element of the story has been played hard, notably in the first two Christopher Reeve movies — which don’t stand up very well because of the numerous absurd parts (notably, Superman reversing the Earth’s rotation to save Lois Lane) — with Marlon Brando playing Superman’s biological father with a pronounced God-ishness. It’s played even harder in Man of Steel, with Russell Crowe playing Brando/God, and Kevin Costner playing the Joseph role and playing it very well.
Man of Steel treats Superman with a Christlike reverence that can feel good in the moment, but when you think about it after, it doesn’t feel earned. Maybe if Superman had spent more time saving people and less time breaking Metropolis, serving his to-be worshipers death-by-collateral damage. Except for saving Lois Lane a number of times, Superman can’t be bothered — until the scene when he snaps Zod’s neck to keep him from death-raying a family with his eyes.
(An aside: I actually like this. It makes no sense to let supervillains live. They inevitably escape prison to kill more people. Gotham should have gassed the Joker in the ’40s. Of course, this is bad for plot and the continuing sales of Batman comics, so the Joker lives. In the case of Zod, where do you incarcerate a homicidal god? Execution was a good choice.)
But it’s because it’s Superman that that reverence, even if it’s kind of artificial, can still work. The movie didn’t earn the reverence; the character Superman did. Man of Steel uses that. So did Superman Returns, which wasn’t bad, just kind of boring — except for the plane scene, which is a very Superman moment because he acts as a savior, and humans relate to saviors. It’s another example of the character (and the archetype) doing the work. (If you haven’t seen Superman Returns, Superman returns after a five-year absence — he left Earth to investigate Krypton’s shrapnel — to save a plane from crashing.)
There’s also something about Superman’s powers: They’re simple. He’s got super strength and he flies. Being bit by a radioactive spider or imbued with the Speed Force just aren’t romantic. Spiders are gross and the Speed Force requires too much explanation, and even after that, it’s just weird. A man from the sky coming to Earth, empowered to godliness by the yellow sun and with an altruism as invincible as his constitution needs little explanation. It’s crisp and it’s accessible.
Superman has transcended comic books, an until recently maligned form of entertainment. It’s true that not everyone likes superheroes, but if they know about a superhero, it’s most likely Superman. He’s iconic and he’s American. There’s a comic book, Superman For All Seasons, that captures Superman’s Superman-ness very well. Its art is inspired by Norman Rockwell, and it doesn’t have Superman fighting his always bizarre supervillains; it has Superman saving people.
It’s the Christopher Reeve Superman, the one my mom drew for me when I was 5.