There is a picture of me taken in the spring of 1979 in our front yard in Hurst, TX. I’m 7 years old, wearing a homemade Superman cape and leaping off of a small cliff. There is about five feet of air between me and the ground. My face is blurred but you can tell that I am shrieking with joy. In those days, it was a common thing to see me with my cape running through the house, bouncing over furniture and leaping off of rock formations. Because of my young age and fierce spirit, I was impervious to fear and pain in those moments until the reality of gravity trumped me. If I made this jump today, I would be looking at several weeks of physical therapy and ice packs not to mention a change of underwear. But in those moments as a young boy, I was the strongest person on the face of the Earth. I was Superman.
My first real memory of Superman was watching the Richard Donner film. I stared in wide-eyed wonder, hooked forever. After four films (2 of which were bloody awful), Superman returns on June 28th. The buzz is high, and early reviews are extremely positive. Watching the trailers now brings back that same excitement I felt at 7 years old. But what is it about the mythology of Superman that is so attractive and has entertained the public for almost 70 years?
Superman (aka Kal-El), the refugee from Krypton, was conceived by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel in 1932. Surprisingly, his first incarnation was as a villain in the short story "The Reign of the Superman." Shuster and Siegel quickly changed Superman into a hero and began writing new stories which they sold 6 years later to DC Comics, and this superhero took off faster than a speeding bullet becoming one of the most successful and commercially viable comic book characters in history. The character has had multiple adventures in several different series. Depending on which comic books you read, Superman has discovered a cousin from Krypton, dated a mermaid (I’m not making that up), died, been reborn, tangled with Batman and sold Amway.
But what or who does Superman represent? Cultural influences range from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch or "Overman" (a widely disputed claim) to the Jewish legends of the Golem (a savior of 16th century Jews in Prague) to pulp hero Doc Savage. The list goes on. Siegel himself said he was influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and Tarzan, Johnston McCulley’s Zorro and E.C. Seegar’s Popeye. Mario Puzo wrote the screenplay for the 1978 film intending it as a mythological story. In the 1978 film and the upcoming Superman Returns, there is an obvious Messianic theme. In fact, Richard Donner insisted the screenplay be changed and later admitted that the Messianic overtones were intentional. There are also those who believe Superman is a champion for the gay movement. It should be noted that Bryan Singer, the openly gay director of Superman Returns, has said that Superman "is probably the most heterosexual character in any movie I’ve ever made". The bottom line … what Superman stands for can really fit into any box you want it to.
It must be noted that I’m talking strictly now about the Superman character from the films and his more popular public persona. Apologies to the comic book fanboys.
The answer to Superman’s allure, I believe, is far more universal and simple. Despite the various forms that Superman has taken in the last 70 years, one thing remains common—his strength. There is the obvious physical strength, but Superman also exudes strength of character, morals and spirit. The word "strength" derives from the Old English word strengþu which meant "power, force, vigor, moral resistance". Superman is seemingly flawless and virtuous in everything he does even as Clark Kent.
However, there are those who may argue that Superman is flawed. In the 1978 film, he interferes with human history against his father’s warning and turns back time to save Lois Lane. But darn-it we, as the audience, wanted him to save her! In Superman II, our hero did the unthinkable and became mortal. We stared in disbelief as he made the conscious and irreversible decision to forsake his mantle of savior to the human race in exchange for love. But I believe that Superman was at his strongest in Superman II.
A measure of strength is resiliency. In architectural engineering, it is important to use resilient metals to endure extreme conditions. In Superman II, Kal-El learns shortly after becoming mortal what a dreadful mistake he’s made as General Zod and his posse ransacks America. He returns to the Fortress of Solitude and, in agony, admits failure to the darkness. In his despair, he spots the green crystal that first called him to his destiny. Moments later, Superman returns to Metropolis in probably the most triumphant and thrilling moment of the entire series. By the end of the film, he outsmarts Zod, crushes his hand to powder and proves that he is still the Man of Resilient Steel.
In the original script of Superman, Jor-El (Superman’s father) posthumously explains his son’s mission to him in the Fortress. Most of this did not make it into the final film and some of the dialogue will appear in Superman Returns:
Your leadership can stir others to their own capacity for moral betterment. The virtuous spirit has no need for thanks or approval. Only the certain conviction that what has been done is right. Develop such conviction in yourself, Kal-El. The human heart on your planet is still subject to small jealousies, lies and monstrous deceptions. Resist these temptations as you inevitably find them—and your ethical power will then properly outweigh your physical advantage over others … Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and power are needed—but always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage … They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all—their capacity for good—I have sent them you. My only son.
What a destiny to have! What if we could be that strong? Can we? I don’t know. What I do know is that despite his past and upcoming struggles, Superman is now and forever infallible. And for those two seconds between the top of the cliff and the soft green grass, I too was invincible.