I have been a follower of Superman since the early 1960s when he appeared in various comics as the god-like person who could blow out stars with a single breath or move planets with one hand. He would occasionally meet an evil twin, or a differently coloured super-being who temporarily usurped his place as the ‘world’s best superhero’, or find himself on some strange parallel ‘imaginary world’ where he had lost his powers, and so forth. Somehow, these over-the-top adventures didn’t irritate me as much as they might these days. Similarly, the plain, primary coloured panels of the comic books he appeared in occasionally seem two dimensional now but back then they were charming and evoked a desire to imitate them, which I tried to do regularly with my own drawings.
Superman first appeared in 1938 but didn’t take off immediately, if you’ll pardon the play on words. It’s odd to think that there had never been anything like him in fiction - yes, there had been ‘superheroes’ prior to his first appearance, pulp characters like Doc Savage or The Shadow, but never anything quite like this caped individual from another world whose abilities were beyond human and somehow delightful. Boys - for that was Superman’s early audience, in the main - often desired to be super-strong, and I daresay imagined what it would be like to have x-ray vision at times; flight was and is a common fantasy. To find these wish-fulfilment attributes wrapped up in a hero who fought for ‘truth, justice and the American way’, especially at a time of growing lies, injustice and totalitarian ways must have been refreshing. Slowly newspaper editors and other media chiefs caught on - this was something new and had appeal.
Adolescent male wish-fulfilment doesn’t quite explain the longevity of Superman, though. Even when superheroes as a genre, having rapidly proliferated during the Second World War, collapsed and albeit disappeared in the years following, Superman kept going (along with his darker shadow, Batman). By the time we reached the 60s and my childhood, writers were getting desperate for storylines - they had largely dropped anything that seemed in any way ‘realistic’ (if they had ever bothered much with that) and we were now journeying with Superman to the far future, or meeting super-dogs, super-horses and even super-monkeys. That didn’t particularly bother me, though at the same time Marvel Comics was challenging DC’s supremacy in the field with a whole swathe of modern super-characters grounded in a more real New York as opposed to an ‘imaginary’ Metropolis. Marvel’s individuals were much more ‘life-like’ in the sense that they had real human problems like how to cope with teenage bullying, broken hearts, lost ambitions or uncontrollable tempers, whereas Superman’s main problem seemed to be how to prevent people discovering his secret identity or how to get his powers back when they were almost inevitably lost (in order to make a story feasible). Marvel’s characters certainly had an appeal of their own, but Superman’s attraction was of a slightly different sort: he seemed to belong to a simpler, brighter, plainer world in which rules that were not quite identical with those of our own world applied.
And that turned out to be the secret of his appeal, I think. Superman -and the stories about characters like him, in his world - was of a different ilk: in that world, the environment was not supposed to be our own. Metropolis - and the various other cities of DC’s comic book world -were only superficially like ours, whereas Marvel’s New York was intended to suggest that it was the ‘real’ New York from the dialogue of its citizens to some of its landmarks. Don’t get me wrong - Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were stealing my heart with ground-breaking stuff over in Marvel - but DC’s universe had a separate feel to it. The DC world was more like a magical zone of legend, with the larger than life heroes of another culture, another time.
Part of this was that Superman as a character (like Batman) was extremely close to a heroic template - the orphan whose world had been destroyed, left with an innate weakness, finding a comic companion (Jimmy Olsen) a female companion (Lois Lane) and an older guide (Pa Kent and then Perry White, the Daily Planet’s editor) in his battles against various shadow protagonists (all kinds of variations of the ‘evil Superman’) and antagonists, in particular Lex Luthor the sinister scientist who was a kind of opposite of Superman’s scientist father, Jor-El. Whereas Jor-El had tried to save his home planet Krypton and failed, managing to send his son Kal-El out of harm’s way, Luthor sought to destroy or rule over Earth and failed, constantly battling to do harm to his nemesis Superman.
On these strong pillars, and despite the waning of superheroes as a whole in the 1950s and later the growing creative and commercial threat of Marvel in the 1960s, Superman remained strong. In fact, he grew stronger, not only in the comics literally crushing planets, freezing lakes and so forth, but as an idea - Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman marked a significant reinvigoration point for the Man of Steel.
Apart from being the most expensive movie made at the time, Donner’s film was received with acclaim by fans and critics alike, and it’s worth having a closer look to see why.
As outlined above, the archetypal protagonist for most stories has certain key characteristics: he or she is an orphan, has a wound or scar, is raised by an elder, and meets a wise old figure (who often possesses a stick) who gives the protagonist a mission or quest; the character then goes on to meet other character archetypes. Donner’s film strengthens almost all of this: Kal-El is orphaned after the destruction of his homeworld, but fragments of that world become kryptonite, deadly to him - his only weakness. Though he meets one mentor figure in his adopted father, the key point in the film is Superman’s encounter with his real father through a phantom message - the green crystal ‘stick’ gives Superman his entire raison d’etre: he is Earth’s saviour (the Christian symbolism does not go unnoticed either). Luthor as an evil mastermind does not have the familial connection to the hero as is common in many tales (Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker probably spring to mind) but his efforts to fracture the Earth’s crust echo Jor-El’s efforts to prevent such fracturing on Krypton.
So Donner’s film clarifies and refreshes archetypal templates. Instead of being repetitive or unoriginal, this has the effect of injecting new life and energy into what was then a forty-year-old story. Those archetypes have been played with since, but never quite reinvigorated in the same way - nevertheless, Superman goes from strength to strength (again, please pardon the word-play) and it is unlikely that, as long as he basically stays true to the template, he will ever lose his appeal.