Halloween time is here. The one costume I have most often worn through the years has been Superman. I wore it as a kid during Halloween and whenever else I felt like it; while watching those beloved Christopher Reeve classics, the Max Fleischer cartoons, or playing with my Superman figurines (don’t keep them in a box). I still occasionally wear Superman logo T-shirts. Though I never collected the comic books or really kept up with the myriad of storylines or versions, I’ve always cherished the character. I was captivated by a super powered being that uses his gifts for humanity’s good.
Why am I going on about Superman?
The other day I was at a convenience store getting a coffee and the cashier complimented my Superman ring (yes, I wear one). I smiled and thanked him; but then he followed it up with “But I’ve never cared for him as a superhero.”
I paused, looked at him, sighed. “Why not?”
The young fanboy replied “It’s because he can do anything and is hardly ever challenged. He’s just boring.”
Customers were lining behind me so I bid him farewell and left, but it got my mind spinning and thinking back on why I loved the big blue Boy Scout. And since its Halloween, I thought I would share those thoughts, along with specific homiletic points.
Like any topic, context sets the scene. When Joel Siegel imagined Superman for the first time, it wasn’t the hero we’ve known, but a super powered villain who was bent on ruling the world. But soon after toying with the idea some more, he had another: why not a super powered figure who uses his gifts for good? And that’s where Siegel and artist Joe Shuster took the character from then on. Superman’s first big battle was for his character. In this Superman teaches us that to be good and to do good is a character battle worth fighting and worth winning. Though it is a difficult battle, we are all the better for it. It’s a daily choice of character that lays the foundation of legacy long before it ever is one.
As decades and ages passed, Superman’s comic book mythology unfolded and developed as he grew into the hero we all know. He applied his time and powers to all kinds of problems and people in need. No job was too big or too small. He would catch planes falling out of the sky and rescue cats stuck in a tree. He would save people who were special to him and those who were complete strangers. He fought all foes: the powerfully alien, diabolical humans, and the psychological. The one comic book I bought was a holiday special where Superman appeared to a stranded, suicidal man on a freezing Christmas Eve night, warmed him up, talked with him, fixed his car, and sent him on his way home. The point here is that whether fantastic or mundane, doing good is never boring. The idea that being good or doing good must be exciting, entertaining, or spectacular in order to be significant is shallow. It twists character into commodity. In this sense, it sometimes seems comic book fanboys have more in common with Lex Luthor, demanding Superman dance to their tune and belittle him if he doesn’t. If a person in trouble is being suddenly saved, they don’t quibble about the showpiece; they’re simply grateful for the goodness. Superman reminds us that goodness does not cater to the fantastic but serves the helpless.
As the Superman character settled into the psyche of fans across the world, his heroics came to be experienced through new forms of media. Comics and radio turned to television and cinema, each attempting to be more epic and entertaining than the last. In order to do that, stories and tones fluctuated from Christopher Reeve’s colorful and lighthearted adventures to the more recent realistic and darker interpretations, each an attempt by filmmakers to depict Superman as a character who is more relatable to the audience. This is one of the most common charges thrown at the Superman, that because he has so many powers and so few weaknesses, he makes for a very unrelatable character, and is thus boring.
This is a point that really draws out the juxtaposition that exists between Superman and humans. We humans like our heroes relatable; to be able to empathize with us. Since we cannot easily relate to or identify with Superman, we dismiss him as boring. Perhaps it’s our insecurity of being the weaker being or needing to be saved by a powerful being that makes us resent Superman. But we don’t have to identify with or relate to someone in order for them to feel compassion and do good for us. One of Superman’s crowning characteristics is while he doesn’t have to save us, he still chooses to. He sacrifices his time, relationships, stability, and sense of happiness so others can survive to experience theirs. We may not identify with Superman, but he identifies with us. He could tyrannically dominate us, but instead he sees our frail form and flies in to lend a hand when we’re falling apart. Superman is not the hero we can identify with, but he’s the hero who will save us nonetheless. A hero doesn’t have to make you feel good about them or yourself in order to do good for you.
When Joel Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish men in the 1930s, conceived Superman, they envisioned a hero who could do what they could not. Ironically we’ve started shrugging him off for the same reason, insisting he lower himself to our level if he wants to get our approval. But the purpose of a hero is to do what we cannot; it is also to point and push us to a better level of character. If Superman stopped being who he was in order to make us feel better about ourselves, we would suffer. We need a hero to look up to in order to learn how to live in the world around. We need to look up in the sky, see that it’s not an everyday bird or plane, but someone who personifies something good and is challenging us to pursue that goodness with him in service to a world in need of something and someone super.