I finally care about Superman.
Regular readers of the JAM might recall that I didn’t always feel that way. Last December I wrote about my lack of interest in the prototypical superhero following “Man of Steel’s” first trailer. My critique of that first trailer still stands, and that critique is essential to why I think I’ve finally come around. In comparison to the first trailer, which left me sure we were going to get a grim and gritty, hopeless Superman movie, the last two trailers have completely changed my mind. The Hans Zimmer score, the scope, the adventure, the character — everything I did not know I wanted from Superman has been encapsulated in these trailers.â€¨
This was never more evident than in the few times I’ve gone to the movie theater this month. Before both “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the parade of trailers did nothing but bum me out. It seems like the main selling point of every big blockbuster this summer is just how awful humanity or the future is. Seeing trailers for “Elysium,” “World War Z” and “After Earth” back to back to back just left me feeling void of hope. Why are we so big on apocalypses all of a sudden?
And then comes the opening piano bit of Hans Zimmer’s new Superman theme from last month’s trailer, a trailer with actual hope in it. That’s the one thing I’ve learned to find in Superman: hope. I know that’s ridiculously cheesy, and maybe it says something about how exhausted I kind of am with pop culture at the moment, but show me footage of a man flying and saving people to an uplifting, percussive score and you will move me to tears. Just saying.
But the new trailer hasn’t been the only thing to help me change my mind. Like I said before, I do believe that a reader can grow to like just about any character if given the right stories. I believe that to be true because I found my magic combo of Superman stories: “Superman: Birthright,” “Superman: Secret Identity” and “All-Star Superman.” I’d even go so far as to say that this trio of stories could easily convert anyone who thought Superman was as boring as I used to.
Mark Waid and Leinil Yu’s “Superman: Birthright” gave me a Superman origin that I could cling to. The series did what I previously thought impossible; it made Superman relatable. It accomplished that feat by fleshing out Clark Kent’s character in the grand Marvel tradition, wherein you root for the superhero because you relate to the real person underneath. This version of Clark had a real everyman quality, one that wasn’t dull. In previous Superman stories I’ve experienced, you almost suffer through the Clark stuff to get to the Superman stuff. Here I was more emotionally invested in the Superman story because I cared so much for Clark.
“Superman: Secret Identity” isn’t so much a Superman tale as it is a story about what Superman means. In a way I see it as a companion piece to “All-Star Superman.” While Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “All-Star” shows just how important Superman is to the Earth he inhabits, Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s “Secret Identity” shows how he’s important to the Earth we inhabit. In it, a kid named Clark Kent naturally gets Superman’s powers upon hitting puberty, coincidentally falls in love with a woman named Lois Lane, marries her, starts a family and grows old. The catch is that he lives in a world where the pop culture icon of Superman exists. He gets Superman toys and comic books as gifts for every holiday just because his parents named him Clark. Since he essentially lives on our Earth, he never meets other heroes or comes up against super powered villains. He is the lone fantastical element in his world. He’s written to be relatable, so every time he stops a natural disaster, you feel like you’re being Superman along with him. The series follows him as he falls in love and has children, treating these ordinary events with emotional resonance usually reserved for big sweeping events. It takes an analogous Superman to places the actual Superman can never go.
I have a complex relationship with Grant Morrison’s writing, and that’s been a thing ever since “New X-Men.” “All-Star Superman” didn’t change my opinion on Morrison (which probably deserves its own entry), but it did help change my opinion on Superman. It made me understand how Superman fits into a world that is filled with Lex Luthors and Bizarros. It acted as a sort of greatest hits, filling me in on everything that’s important in the 70 plus years of Superman stories. Whatever personal peccadilloes I found within the series didn’t matter, because I was nearly in tears by the last issue.
Reading these stories helped me view the new “Man of Steel” trailers differently, and they’ve helped me solidify what I want in superhero fiction right now. In my previous article I said that I had no interest in characters that always do the right thing. I’ve now realized that I do like characters that always do the right thing because it shows strength of character and a level of determination that I hope to have myself.
I’ve always reacted viscerally to moments of selfless heroism, and I now get that Superman is entirely built around that notion. Be it Spider-Man saving the runaway elevated subway train in “Spider-Man 2,” Jean Grey saving her teammates in “X2,” or Iron Man deflecting a nuclear missile in “Avengers,” these moments grab my guts and pull them out of my tear ducts. Of all those heroes, Superman is the one that presents an entirely different spin on the selfless act. Superman is nearly all powerful. He doesn’t have to save anybody. He could crush all of us. But he does save people because he cares, because of the strength of his character. He’s an all-powerful alien who loves humanity so much that he strives to be one of us.
This is also why Superman can tell stories that no other superhero can tell. A Frank Miller Batman story is just a few shades darker than a Frank Miller Daredevil story, but when Superman is done right, no other character can replace him. The right Superman stories play up the fact that he was the first superhero; the great stories play up the fact that the people in the DC Universe feel as passionately as about the character as we do. Morrison hit the nail on the head when he presented a world without Superman in an issue of “All-Star,” and that world contained artists that created Superman because every world needs a Superman, real or fictional.
I now get that Superman as a figure is more important than comics and movies. He’s grown to be more than just a pop culture icon. It’s not even that he was the first superhero, although that plays a big part in his importance. It’s that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster wrapped the first Superhero in ideas and ideals that every person on Earth should strive for. They made a hero that wasn’t there to just save people, they made a hero designed to inspire others to rise to his level, to aspire to something greater.
The trailer gets it absolutely right with one line of narration that gets me every time. “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They’ll race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun.”
I’m glad I finally like Superman.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).