You wake up tomorrow morning and find that you have all the same powers as Superman. You’re invulnerable, strong, fast, you can fly, and all the trimmings like hearing, vision abilities and so on. What do you do next?
Would you enter the world stage or keep yourself secret?
Would you overthrow governments and make yourself supreme leader of Earth?
Would you keep your secret and cheat to be the world’s greatest athlete?
If power corrupts, would your sensibilities be immune at abusing that power?
There are a million possibilities, but would you honestly keep your identity secret and anonymously use your powers to save people without asking for money, recognition or endorsement? Would you fight for truth and justice, and if so, whose truth and whose justice?
Traditionally, Superman has been the fictional embodiment of altruism. He has amazing powers and is virtually unstoppable, but he’s also been wise enough to use his abilities to help others rather than abuse them for selfish reasons. Yet he still keeps his regular identity secret. Ayn Rand might suggest that true altruism doesn’t exist in humanity. It’s easy enough to assume that since Superman is an alien, that he is immune to human classifications, but that’s not good enough for a human audience. Having been raised by the Kents, he has every chance of being as flawed as the rest of us. Yet it has always been his upbringing that brought about his altruism.
Superman was the first superhero when he debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938, but soon afterward, it became common in the pages of comics for someone with superhuman abilities to put on a garish costume and either help people or hurt them to further their own self interests. In Superman’s case, he disguised himself as Clark Kent the news reporter in order to hear about emergencies as they happened, and then help. His reasons for helping people were because he was just a “good guy.”
It took 10 years until a retelling of Superman’s origin in Superman #53 from 1948 explained why he dressed up in a suit and helped people. Clark’s Earth mother had already passed away, and it was his father’s dying wish that he use his powers to do good and uphold the law. And for a long time, this was the reason for putting on the suit and saving people. Frankly, it wasn’t as good a reason as Batman had for avenging the deaths of his parents. This got especially wonky when Superboy became a popular retelling of Superman’s adventures as a boy, and his parents were both still alive. Mostly, he was just “good” and did good things.
When Christopher Reeve donned the tights for the first Superman film, the character’s upbringing in Kansas and loss of his father certainly informed his sensibilities, but it was the digital “ghost” of his Kryptonian father Jor-El that trained him for years in order to make him Superman. Jor-El even outlined specific rules, such as forbidding him from altering human history.
The same essential altruism still applied in that he cared greatly for other people, even ones he did not know. But Jor-El was even the one to give him the suit, complete with his Kryptonian family crest as the “S” symbol. That’s why it became so poignant in Superman II when he decided to give up his alien powers and be an ordinary man in order to pursue a relationship with Lois. Ultimately, he sacrificed his fortress and became Superman again in order to stop Zod because he felt it was his responsibility.
The 1980s Comic Book Revamp
Everything changed for Superman when the entire DC Universe was rebooted and streamlined in the mid-'80s. His new origin, “Man of Steel,” suggested that young Clark was already using his powers to help people when they needed it, but without the costume. Martha Kent even kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings concerning miraculous and unexplained rescues that she knew were his doings. When he pulled off a big rescue where his face was seen, his parents had the idea for the Superman suit as well as the glasses that would hide his identity and allow him to live a normal life. Once he began working as Superman, it freed him to help people without having to worry about being seen. This was the opposite of the film version where it was Jor-El’s idea because in the comics, Superman didn’t even know about his alien descent until about six years after he began wearing the suit.
Soon after Clark became engaged to Lois and revealed his dual identity, they had a long meaningful conversation in Superman (vol.2) #59 from 1991, that could never have happened before she knew his secret. She asked him why he decided to be Superman when he could have used his powers to do a number of other things with his abilities. His answer was once again, a truly altruistic one. “Because no one else can.”
The revamp informed most of the other Superman stories that would begin in the '90s as well. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman from 1993 showcased a version where Clark was the real person and Superman was the secret identity. The same can be said for Superman: The Animated Series in 1996, and the pre-Superman Smallville in 2001.
Man of Steel: Altruism vs. Realism
The new Superman may borrow some of these themes as the impetus for becoming Superman, but given how the filmmakers have claimed that this will be a “realistic” take on the property that should be accessible for casual fans and summer moviegoers, and that the level of altruism Superman embodies is not entirely realistic, there will have to be more to the story. Much of this is speculation, especially the details.
The story beats of act one will most likely be:
1) Young Clark wants to be a normal boy.
2) Teenage Clark is torn between helping people and keeping his abilities secret.
3) Jonathan Kent dies when Clark could have saved him.
First, Clark’s powers will most likely manifest themselves as he grows up, leading to discomfort because it makes him different from others and he has to hide what he can do, even in the face of bullies. Imagine being in a kindergarten class when your superhearing kicks up for the first time and you have no idea why. It may even make the world feel “too big.” Clark will probably wish he didn’t have these powers at all and could just be a normal boy living a normal life, which is one of the reasons he might want to be still keep his human identity even after he becomes Superman. It was also a major overall theme on the TV series Smallville.
He will still desire to use his powers to help people, as has been seen in the full trailer. In one scene, teenage Clark apparently rescues a school bus full of children, and is witnessed doing it. This leads to a conversation with his father, Jonathan, who is the one who instilled these values in him in the first place, but is torn between knowing Clark did the right thing and keeping his powers and origins a secret. It would make for an interesting dynamic if Jonathan specifically trained him not to use his powers, even when people needed him to, and Jonathan himself died in a catastrophe like a Kansas tornado. Something similar may happen in the film to drive Clark toward becoming Superman.
Even then, there still needs to be a reason for Clark to want the dual identity, which can be another major plot point for a realistic film. The suit clearly comes from Krypton, rather than something his mother made. Once he puts it on, we might expect him to start wearing the glasses as Clark and maintaining the dual identity. This is another unrealistic leap in logic, because what ordinary person would do that? Instead, he might struggle with the decision to be one or the other, but could be forced to be Superman in order to save the world from Zod and his “Black Zone” armies. He may settle on living as both by the end.
As much as I love Superman’s altruism, even in his earliest appearances, a realistic take on the character requires more. Much of this is speculation, but it’s also a valid way to move the character forward and into the 21st century without compromising the integrity of the origin. Ultimately, naysayers often call Superman boring because he’s “too good,” probably because true altruism fails to be realistic on its own merits. Once Man of Steel sets up the character’s foundation in realistic terms, perhaps those naysayers will be more willing to accept a character with as much good in him as Superman.
“My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me. He was convinced that the world wasn’t ready. What do you think?” –From the Man of Steel trailer.
Well, what do you think?