With so many Superhero characters across multiple comic-book universes, as well as in television and film, there is always great debate over the virtues of each. Everybody has their favourite. A few can be described as ‘iconic’. But the term ‘greatest’ can be reserved for only one.
Originally conceived by Jerome “Jerry” Siegel and Joe Shuster as a telepathic, bald villain planning world domination, the initial incarnation of “The Superman” in 1933 was not popular. In 1934, the co-creators changed their vision to a version closer to the one now beloved by millions, but it was not until June 1938 that Superman appeared as the cover feature of Action Comics, published by National Allied Publications (eventually to become DC Comics). Over the next 75 years, Superman permeated social consciousness to become the most iconic Superhero of all.
But is he really the greatest? It all boils down to basic facts. Here are ten of the reasons why Superman is the Greatest Superhero Of All Time.
1. The Dictionary says so – more or less.
“Superhero: a benevolent fictional character with Superhuman powers, such as Superman.” According to The Oxford Dictionary, Superman is not only very definition of a Superhero, but is also the only one great enough to be listed as an example. Many argue that, because he is an alien, he cannot have ‘superhuman’ powers, since his physical powers derive from another planet, and another species. While this is true on a technical level, it is the application of those physical powers that makes Superman ‘superhuman’. Crashing to Earth as an infant and raised by a human family, his alien ‘powers’, when they began to appear, were harnessed and trained within the realm of human experience. Additionally, his ‘powers’ are a direct result of the atmospheric composition of Earth, and its proximity to the Sun.
2. The Superhero has always been his true self.
Batman and Iron Man are clever guys with cool toys and gadgets. Spiderman got his powers from a spider bite, Thor has a big hammer, and The Hulk got zapped. Kal-El has always been who he is, and who he is, is Superman. Clark Kent is his disguise – Superman is the real persona. No gadgets, no tools, no insect attacks or ill-advised science experiments. Just the man.
3. Superman’s choice of disguise is a commentary on negative social attitudes.
When he’s not saving the world and rescuing people, Superman needs to blend in and disappear from sight. He needs to disguise himself as somebody that society routinely dismisses and doesn’t generally look at, or pay attention to. So, he hides behind spectacles, a dark suit, and a mild-mannered, shy, awkward, passive personality – because nobody would expect that person to be a hero. Clark Kent is someone that society not only overlooks, but often refers to in a diminishing way, which itself is a demonstration of how assumptions are made about this type of person. To blend in with the human race, Kal-El must follow social convention, and in doing so, holds a mirror up to the way in which we make judgements of others based on their appearance.
4. Superman has grown up.
Being around for 75 years, and having many artists and writers contribute to your overall story arc, has its advantages. In his early years, Superman was an altogether darker character, sometimes like a petulant, moody teenager. Over time, however, he has matured to become a smarter, calmer, more patient individual. His character has gradually developed and evolved into a paragon of virtue, a symbol of peace and an example to us all.
5. Modern-era Superman is essentially a pacifist.
While many Superheroes remain motivated by anger or revenge, there is no place for vigilantism in the modern Superman’s world. He spots trouble, and he helps. He has the capacity for understanding and empathy. The current incarnation of Superman – the one that exists in the consciousness of most people today – doesn’t kill in anger. While earlier versions were darker and could be seen throwing thugs from rooftops, and versions in alternate comic book universes could be seen executing villains on occasion, the current version is essentially a pacifist.
6. Superman is an iconic representation of the times we live in.
Since his appearance in the 1930s, Superman’s image has represented societal stances through history: fighting crime in the 30s, selling war bonds in the 40s, and standing against technological threats in the 50s. Post-Cold War, he has been pitted against specific villains in very personal battles, as society’s focus has shifted to more individualistic pursuits. In the current, post-9/11 era, we are taken back to a Superman facing choices and finding the right path to becoming a red, white and blue symbol of idealism and righteousness that people can unite behind.
7. He is entirely relatable, despite being an alien and a Superhero.
Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet, and he may be more powerful than a locomotive, but he is eminently relatable as a character. As Kal-El/Superman, he is basically an immigrant trying to settle in. As the quintessential newcomer wanting to work hard and fit into US society, his story taps into a huge historical aspect of American identity. As Clark Kent, he is inhibited and repressed but acts out many a fantasy of the inhibited persona by being the leader and heroic problem solver as Superman.
8. He embodies positivity.
Beyond his strong moral code and sense of justice, Superman is compelled to learn the lessons from his history and move forward with his life. Able to access information and advice from his birth family inside his Fortress of Solitude, Kal-El benefits from the wisdom of his ancestors applied to his new life. He must forge ahead, however, and this is symbolised by his only weakness appearing when Kryptonite is present – Kryptonite being a mineral from his home world, created by its destruction. Quite literally, the only thing that can cause harm to Superman is his painful past.
9. The Superman character may have been borne of tragedy.
Legend suggests that the father of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel died of a heart attack, allegedly following the robbery of his haberdashery store in 1932, when Jerry was young. The first version of “The Superman” was created the following year (as a villain), and was subsequently altered and adjusted (to be a hero) until its first successful publication in 1938. If true, the development of the character of Superman from unsuccessful villain to iconic hero could be said to reflect the journey of a grieving child from darkness to light. The legend makes for a powerful real-life origin story.
10. He really is the best of us.
Although Superman is not human, his strong moral code was instilled in him by his adoptive human parents – the Kents. This is a family that found him as a child, and chose to help him – accepting him completely and without hesitation. He was welcomed warmly and loved unconditionally. The Kents taught him, and taught him well – which means that, ultimately, despite his alien origin, he represents the very best of humanity.
The latest chapter of Superman’s cinematic story can be seen in Man of Steel, now available on DVD, and starring Henry Cavill, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon. It is written by David S. Goyer, produced by Christopher Nolan (both of the Dark Knight trilogy), and directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300). Its sequel, Batman Vs Superman is scheduled for release in cinemas on 17th July 2015.