Why are we still captivated by the Man of Steel?

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound”. Superman, Kal-El from Krypton, Clark Kent from Kansas had to have been created by teenagers. X-Ray vision, extraordinary hearing abilities, a look that can heat things to a red-hot state, a breath than can freeze them – who else but a teenager would have come up with all that (especially the first)?

Sure enough, it was awkward teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who created Superman, initially as a strip that didn’t work, in the 1930s. The first comic book featuring him appeared in 1938, eighty years ago.

Superman wasn’t the first mainstream superhero character. There were several before him, including Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter, an Earthman whose human abilities become superhuman on Mars (much like Kal-El’s Kryptonian abilities made him Superman on Earth). But he soon became the biggest, triggering what became the Golden Age of Comics, and the most popular.

Superman’s success engendered a rash of superheroes. Batman (billionaire Bruce Wayne) made his debut in 1939; Captain Marvel (Billy Batson) in 1940; Black Widow (Claire Voyant), the same year; Wonder Woman (Diana Prince) in 1941; and Captain America (Steve Rogers), also in 1941. But Superman was (and is) different from all other superheroes, and this difference has shaped his treatment at the hands of some fine writers — Mark Waid, John Byrne, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Frank Miller, and, of course, the great Alan Moore (everyone should read his miniseries, Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?).
The Man of Steel celebrated his 80th birthday this year with a slew of special-edition comics and events. (DC Comics)

The difference is simply this: Bruce Wayne dons a costume to become a superhero, Batman; Superman dons a costume to become a man, Clark Kent. Their costumes make other superheroes extraordinary. His, makes Superman, ordinary (which is exactly what he wants to be). As Neil Gaiman and Adam Rogers wrote in an essay on Superman in Wired magazine: “For Superman, it’s mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent that’s the disguise – the thing he aspires to, the thing he can never be”. That thing is to be human.

Kal-El’s alien-ness is the source of his superpowers, which, in turn, help him save his girlfriend Lois Lane; his city, Metropolis; his adopted country, the United States; and the world. These powers help him battle villains although he is usually tackling disasters, manmade and natural; in the first Richard Donner / Christopher Reeve Superman movie, he is powerful enough to move back time by rotating the Earth in the opposite direction (so that he has enough time to save Lane). In a parallel fictional universe, many of Kal-El’s interventions would violate Starfleet General Order 1 (aka the Prime Directive) that prohibits Starfleet officers from interfering with or intervening in the natural order of things in other worlds, although it is usually this very interference that saves the day.
The 2013 film Man of Steel rebooted the Superman story for a new audience. (DC Emtertainment)

Superman is clean-cut, blue-eyed, and more all-American boy in appearance than most American boys; he respects authority, follows the rules, is the quintessential establishment man (some writers have tried to give the character negative traits, although this has rarely worked).

He is, despite his alien abilities, perhaps not as intelligent as Batman – one reason why Frank Miller makes him a tool of the establishment who tries to take down Batman in The Dark Knight Returns.

Both Superman’s goodness (linear, I-shall-not-stray-from-the-path goodness), and Clark Kent’s desire to be human are driven by two things. The first is the fact that Kal-El was sent to Earth from a dying Krypton as a baby, preventing him from evolving as a Kryptonian and acquiring Kryptonian values. As anyone familiar with the Superman canon will know, Kryptonians were clannish, highly evolved in terms of scientific development, hierarchical (they even kept slaves), and usually cold. Indeed, to draw an analogy from the same parallel fictional universe referred to earlier, if Kal-El had grown up on Krypton, he may have very well become like Mr Spock.

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