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Christian Art and Culture

Superman for All Seasons

  • Gary D. Robinson
  • 2013 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
Superman for All Seasons

George Reeves. Chris Reeve. The father figure beautifully drawn by Curt Swan in the sixties. Joe Shuster’s grinning, leaping strongman of the thirties. A digital comic’s white-haired, black-garbed hero of the future. Smallville’s reluctant champion, dressed like a cross between Johnny Cash and a gunfighter in a spaghetti western. Animated, live-action, daily-stripped, serialized, radio-waved, Youtubed, now in four-colors on the comic page, now in IMAX and 3-D. Look! Up in the sky! It’s… 

Superman slim and Superman stout,
Sometimes with trunks and sometimes without,
Sometimes laughing, sometimes mad,
Sometimes silly, sometimes sad. 
Now he loves his Lois Lane,
Now a princess with a plane! 

After seventy-five years of iterations and incarnations, re-runs and reboots, there’s a Superman for everyone.   (If you care to know mine, it’s the guy I grew up with, George Reeves, though I’m also partial to the comic book version of the early sixties.) But here’s the wondrous thing. After seven-and-half-decades, he’s still recognizably Superman.  

So what makes him so super, what has given him such staying power? We could answer cynically, pointing out that he’s a corporate commodity worth millions in licensing. But surely, after all these years, there’s more to him than that. Why does a teen-age girl choose to buy a t-shirt emblazoned with a pink version of the famous ‘S’ shield? Why does a friend of mine get comments every time he wears a tie featuring that spit-curled visage?      

His continued existence is ironic at least, given that we don’t care for real-life supermen. In his book, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon writes: “Superman is every handsome, athletic trust-fund kid who roars his convertible into the high school parking lot as the sweater around his neck flutters in the breeze.” He’s the fellow for whom everything comes easy. Who admires that? Isn’t it the struggling schmucks we root for, the scarred survivors? What is there in Kal-El of Krypton’s extraterrestrial heredity with which we can identify? 

“Superman isn’t brave,” says George C. Scott in the film Angus. “He's smart, handsome, even decent. But he's not brave. Superman is indestructible, and you can't be brave if you're indestructible.”

It’s a problem that’s dogged Superman, the series character, since the beginning. How can you create tension, drama, with an invulnerable hero? Back in the forties, someone wrote a clever short story about some rural children who are devoted to “The Super Duper.” A pastiche of Superman, the Super Duper can do anything--except keep his stories from being all the same. When the actor who portrays their hero gets caught in a barb wire fence, the kids must rescue him. Their ardor cooled, they turn to more interesting reading material.    

It’s a criticism Superman’s always had to endure, a bullet he used to be able to outrun. Lately, however, the milieu has changed and now the last son of Krypton struggles to stay in the public consciousness. At least, he’s had a hard time getting movies. After the last Christopher Reeve film, nineteen years went by before Superman returned to the Cineplex. Though it made money world-wide, Superman Returns didn’t meet studio execs’ financial expectations. When Man of Steel opens, seven more years will have passed. During that time, we’ve seen Spider-Man twice, Iron Man and Batman three times each. We’ve seen super-heroes with flawed bodies and personalities, problems with co-workers and girlfriends, heroes struggling as much with the darkness in their own souls as with their evil adversaries.   

That’s what’s selling tickets and therefore, to a certain extent at least, what the producers of MOS hope to sell again. Many have noted the dark palate of the trailers, the seeming hesitation to tout the name “Superman”—as though it had become a liability. Plainly, Warner Brothers doesn’t consider this Big, Blue Boy Scout as compelling as the down-and-dirty Dark Knight. When we add what Glen Weldon calls “spandex fatigue” among audiences and critics, we can see why Hollywood is holding its breath, hoping for a hit. 

If the project is so iffy, then, why bother spending the big bucks? The trailers provide a big reason why this is still the greatest of super-hero of them all. As his father, Jor-El, tells him in voiceover, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble, they will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun.”  

It’s not Superman the fictional character that endures, then, so much as Superman the ideal for humanity.   As Weldon writes, “Unlike Spider-Man and Batman, he is not the hero with which we identify; he is the hero in whom we believe. He is the first, the purest, the ideal. As long as such traits as selflessness and perseverance manage to retain any cultural currency whatsoever, we will need a Superman to show us what they look like.” 

I agree, but I would add a deeper reason for Superman’s endurance: the dream of immortality, of godhood.  He isn’t simply the ultimate good guy; he’s the dream of glory coupled with righteousness. He’s the dream of joy that lifts us off the earth and sends us soaring through the clouds.   

My mother had nothing but contempt for Superman: “Oh, Gary, that’s fick-tishus!” (I think the enmity began when her son flew through the kitchen window, requiring thirteen stitches.) She was right. But truth is stranger than fiction. We can’t get into Superman’s story.  Wonder of wonders, the Son of God came into ours. Kryptonite can’t hurt us. But a whip and nails and thorns and a spear can do us a lot of damage, as they did to Jesus. Superman never dies. Jesus died—and rose again. 

And herein is our hope, a snapshot of power and glory and joy that will one day fill the whole world. Superman is a shadow thrown by that light, a powerful myth whose source ultimately lies in the human condition and the soul’s desire. He is our hero, but not our savior. Praise God for the Savior! 

Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, and Superman fan. He is author ofSuperman on Earth: Reflections of a Fan.

*This Article First Published 6/5/2013