Thursday, April 18, 2013

Look Up And Believe, We Can All Be Superman - Superman Turns 75

Press play.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Man of Steel.

He wasn't always my favorite Superhero. In fact, I never really liked Superman. He was too perfect. There wasn't a lot of conflict there. He seemingly had every power under the sun. He was indestructible, handsome, built like a tank, and a bit of a boy scout. His hair always twirled perfectly and he always seem to look down his nose at people, at the struggles of the other, more troubled, heroes like Batman. He never appeared to deal with any demons nor harbor any hate, fear, or darkness. He was perfect. And how could anyone relate to that?

But as I got older, and I realized the world wasn't such the shiny new penny my childhood self always thought it was, I became more familiar with the character, and more importantly his character. And I owe all of that to the performance of Christopher Reeve. I think the general consensus is that everyone who has ever played the role can only ever be second place to Reeve. There was something about him on screen. He just was Superman. But what was so endearing about his performance (in the Donner films) was that he felt real. He felt relatable. Because underneath his shiny, perfect exterior was pain. A pain he never addressed or shared with anyone simply because he didn't want them to be burdened with it. It was his responsibility to save the people of earth, not to whine or weigh them down with his emotions. So he hid them.

And he continues to do so. A lot of people think Superman is a boring, overdone, waste of character space because of his perfection. But as we approach his new film and look back at his 75 years in pop culture history, I think it's the complete opposite. Superman is a gold mine of fresh, new material. But we've been too afraid to tap into it. Why? Because the idea of a savior being human terrifies us. And that's where it clicked for me. That's the reason I decided any other Superhero could only ever be, in my book, second best to the Man of Steel. Because he isn't any of those things. He's an alien. And not in the typical sense. He is, literally, alienated from the rest of the world. He is the lone survivor of an entire race of people. No matter how hard he may try to fit in and feel like he belongs, deep down he will always be alone. Because he is the only one there is. And to be burdened with the weight of the powers he possesses on top of that makes him obligated to do something about all the terror we see on this earth. Because if he didn't, he would be useless. He isn't perfect and he isn't condescending. He isn't unstoppable and most importantly, he is not a God.

Despite being an alien, his emotions are human. His upbringing and his influences are human. And so his nature, because of these things, is human. Superman, though a lot of people would probably roll their eyes at the comparison, is the Messiah. He is an else-worldly being sent to earth to be its savior. He is perfect and flawless and, for the most part, without sin. He is about as super as a man can be. But that perspective comes from the old world, when character development did not reign supreme. Spectacle and show were all that mattered. People only wanted to see the miracles. Much of the old Superhero comics, serials, cartoons, and television shows reflected only story and never theme. Because who cares what these characters are like on the inside, just show them punch some bad guys in the face.

But as time went on we grew tired of meaningless action and audiences desired to take the ticking clocks apart and see how they worked. Why are they the way they are?

And as time wears on Superman becomes less of a Messiah and more of a man. A very special man, but a man nonetheless. Despite being fictional, this is something much of us deal with every single day. Trying to be perfect, to live up to the example set by Christ or any other holy figure we're told and taught we should. And we get burned out on that. Much as audiences, until recently, have with Superman. We get tired of trying to be perfect because it isn't just difficult, it's impossible.

But the thing about Superman that endeared me to him forever is his unwavering resolution to keep fighting. Underneath his perfect shell is a troubled man who is compared to being God day in and day out. And when terrible things happen and he's not present, people cry out, "Where was Superman?" or more accurately, when terror strikes in our world, "Where was God?" If he isn't "present" then he's partly to blame. Because we rely on him to save us when times are tough and the odds are stacked against us. When we're not capable of digging ourselves out of the pit we expect Superman, God, to swoop in and save us. Because that's his "job".

But the only thing that separates Superman apart from you and I are his fictional powers. Super strength, ice breath, heat vision, flight, we'll never be capable of any of these things. But, in today's world, none of these things are what make Superman special. What makes him special is his will. And that is the most human trait of all. His abilities are merely a product of his genetics, just like athletes or mathematicians or physicists or bodybuilders. We humans are are also different depending on our genes, some of us are capable of great feats of strength and some of us are capable of using our brain to solve complex equations, but all of us are capable of getting in touch with our will power and putting it to the test. All of us are capable of setting our sights on goals and achieving them. All of us are capable of imagining world peace, of a world without hatred or violence or bigotry or discrimination, and all of us are capable of fighting for that world.

Perfection may be impossible, Superman is a testament to that. Even he is imperfect. Despite all his powers and abilities, at his core, he is human. Just like all of us. He is tried and tempted, tested and tortured, and at many times he fails. Superman has failed on countless occasions. Because he isn't God. He isn't omnipotent and can't be everywhere at once, just like us. We can only be in one place at any one point in time. Wherever that is and whatever is happening, our only duty, just like Superman's, is to do the best we can with the gifts we've been given. That's all we or anyone else can ask for, to do your best.

Free will, and its incredible bi-product of will power, is a right bestowed unto us all. We're all babies at birth, only time and our choices will determine who we become. But never forget what we're capable of. Nothing defines who you are except for you. Superman burdens himself with the troubles of others because he can and because he can take it. When we think about life we realize it's made up of nothing but sacrifices. No matter how big or small they are, significant or trivial, we're always sacrificing something for something else, sacrificing something with the hope that, in the long run, it'll pay off.

You're going to lose a lot of sleep, get a lot of bruises, and pour out a lot of blood, sweat, and tears trying to succeed in life. That's inevitable. But you're fighting. And the more you fight, the more you soldier on and never give up, the more you become the Hero of your own story. And you are far from fiction.

Superman is not just a myth or a legend, he's not a paper champion, a fantasy, a hope, or merely a prayer. He is you. He is me. He is in all of us. Deep down, on the level that is our human nature, each of us are capable of being Supermen or women. The only thing standing in your way is your refusal to get out there and try.

Superman may only be turning 75 years old today, but supermen and women have endured forever. Peace on earth and good will toward men will always be a possibility so long as there are humans alive to fight for it. So lift your spirit, set your sights on saving the world, and take flight. All you've got to do is look up and believe a man can fly. Because we can all be Superman.


  1. Great essay!
    Will Sterling = Superman :D

  2. A great read but it does seem that the Superman being portrayed today in various forms is not the way you write of him. The recent Batmanization of his character takes away from the greatness that he is and he has complexities that are uniquely his own.