Why Superman Doesn't Need to Be Updated
Superman has been around for a long, long time. The first of what we now think of as superheroes, he set the standard for the cape and tights obsessed crew that followed in his wake. He has become an icon the world over, known for standing for truth, justice and the American way (sure I know DC removed that last bit, but to me that is still his motto). I have heard many people say they think Superman is too corny, he is overpowered, he is old fashioned and overrated. So, I thought it would be worth taking a look at the man of steel to see if he could use an update to be more relatable to the modern generation.
(Not So) Secret Origins
Superman was created by a couple of kids named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933, and was sold to Detective Comics in 1938. Born to a scientist on the doomed planet Krypton, Superman's dad shot him to Earth when he couldn't convince the rest of the planet that they were about to get blown to smithereens. Although he has been given the moniker of Last Son of Krypton, he has since run into a bunch of other surviving Kryptonians. There is of course Supergirl, Zod, and Ursa, all the inhabitants of the bottled city of Kandor, and the inhabitants of the planet Daxam who were early Kryptonian colonists, and apparently gain powers from the yellow sun the same as Supes.
Anyway, Kal-El, as he was named on Krypton, rocketed to Earth and was rescued by the Kents. They raised him as their son, Clark, even though in most portrayals they are obviously way too old to have had a kid. Of course, Clark soon realizes he is different and learns of his alien origin. So Superman is brought up with traditional American mid-west values, but is also the ultimate outsider. Of course, as soon as he finds out he is an E.T., he does the logical thing and puts on blue tights and a red cape and goes around beating up bad guys.
Superman's early years were spent as much on moral crusading as crime-fighting, with Superman destroying public housing to make the government build better housing for the poor, and taking on wife beaters and lynch mobs, in addition to the usual assortment of criminals. Supervillains weren't even a thing yet. As time went on and Superman gained more powers, his aggressiveness was toned way down, and so was his progressiveness. This is the period when he became "the big blue boy scout."
Death Where Is Thy Sting?
Superman's popularity seems to have peaked a few times over the decades, but over the last several years, he hasn't seemed to be able to make the popular comeback that he was able to pull off in the past. Writers have tried all kinds of things to revitalize and revamp Supes. They have tweaked, or sometimes flat out completely changed, his powers. They have shown him as a young man just learning how to deal with his powers. They have shown him as the survivor of a holocaust facing down twin Hitler clones and an army of mutated Batmen. They even killed him once. Don't worry, he got better.
He has been given different costumes. After he came back from the dead, he was in all black. He went through some radical power changes and for a while wore all blue and all red. He lost his trademark underwear on the outside look. For a while in the new 52 continuity, he wore a t-shirt and jeans, because apparently it made sense to the writer that he'd be able to get a Superman t-shirt in a world where there was no Superman. (To be fair, the writer may have explained this in the book, I never bothered to read it.)
Reign of the Supermen
Superman has gone through many changes in personality as well as powers and wardrobe over the years. There probably isn't much they could do to Superman that wouldn't have some precedent in his almost 80 years of history. He has been a rough and tumble fighter for social justice. He has been a by the books protector of law and order. He has been an angsty and morose guilt monger. He has even been a mad dictator who forced the world to live on his terms. While every time they made some radical change to Supes it caused a commotion, sooner or later people lost interest. However, I would argue that there is one version that will always hold appeal.
The version of Superman that has been derided as the big blue boy scout is the Superman that the world needs. He is like a protective older brother who always knows the right thing to do. His moral code is strong, and even though he has the power to enforce anything he wants, he doesn't. Sure, we could maybe use some more of the social justice warrior of the 30's version, but he needs to retain that strong moral code. He is the symbol for the better man that we all want to become. And contrary to popular opinion, you can write some damn good stories with this version.
In fact, all of the best stories have this version. For the Man Who Has Everything, Byrne's reboot, even the Justice League cartoons that Cartoon Network aired, which I think has one of the best portrayals of Superman in any medium, used this version. In the cartoon, they would have people take jabs at Supes by calling him a boy scout, only to have Kal-El own that moniker, and use it to show why his way is the best way after all.
In the end, I don't think that truth and justice and the American way (or what we thought was the American way when that was written) ever go out of style. Superman stands for standing up for what is right, no matter the odds. He stands for giving your all to protect what is important. He stands for looking out for everyone, because once your planet has blown up, I guess you realize that borders and skin tones don't mean much and we are all related after all. He stands for not letting the strong overpower the weak, not letting the rich exploit the poor. He stands for the betterment of all mankind. This is the Superman we need. There are already enough edgy, angsty, angry, and brooding heroes out there. Let those of us who haven't completely given over to cynicism have our one optimistic hero, the one guy who stands for a better life, not at any cost, but by doing what is right.
© 2017 Gracchus Gruad