Iconic Superman: America’s Gentlest Superhero

Dusty old footpaths in the innermost ghettos of Delhi were littered with vendors selling all kinds of things. Any number of trinkets, toys and everyday items shimmered under the hot afternoon sun. And among these shops, a man sat with six piles of T-shirts. While most shirts sported logos of major American brands like Nike, it was easy to tell that these were fake. However, in that far-flung marketplace, the logo was enough to raise the spirits of the people who bought those shirts.

For less than three dollars, you could have the American brand of your choice. But not everyone wanted that. There were people who were much more attracted to the pile of blue T-Shirts that bore the famous S-shield that is considered by many as the most recognizable symbol in the world after the cross.

Superman has been given many reboots since he first made an appearance in 1938. Some of his avatars gave him ridiculously extensive powers that even allowed him to turn back time. And as a result of that, many people continue to think that Superman is boring. And I can understand why. I mean, who wants to see a hero that can’t be defeated. True, but then we need to remind ourselves that Superman is not merely a comic book character meant to entertain us. Unintentionally perhaps, but he is an icon of hope and justice that was born into a world that was about to enter one of the deadliest wars it would ever see.

And so, through the years, many writers have done blatant fan service by making Superman angsty or somewhat evil or conflicted.

However, the movie that completely got it right in recent times, was Superman Returns. While it did not turn the iconic hero into a God, it turned him into the next best thing, a savior bound by his earthly morals and familial destiny; tormented by his otherness and his loneliness in his trials.

Most people don’t realize this, but the character did not commit a single act of personal violence in the entire film and diverted all his energies to rescue operations and relief efforts wherever required. His quiet devotion to mankind is what makes him endearing in this sensitive, subtle, and misunderstood movie.

Superman’s heroism in this film shines towards the end when he pushes Luthor’s gigantic kryptonite infused island into space. Injured by Luthor previously and suffering from toxic radiation poisoning, Superman pushes through his pain as he struggles to keep going even as his body starts to fail him. And he succeeds, at great personal cost.

Suffering physically and emotionally through the film, and yet not giving his goodness up, that’s where the character’s humanity is more relatable than it has ever been through his other avatars where he displays anger and malevolence.

And that is the Superman our world needs right now.

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Ad for a Superman radio series (1940-51)/Image Source: Old Time Radio Catalog (otrcat.com)

Almost half a century ago, Superman was a radio series. And a hugely successful one at that. Interestingly, the radio series managed to spread the message that the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was an organization of questionable morals and extremist views. The show was able to influence enough number of people that the membership of the klan started dwindling and spiraled downwards till it was nothing more than a fringe organization.

This amazing feat of moral heroism was accomplished by a fictional character’s real ideas in an age of limited technology and access. Today, when the world’s pulse is constantly on the internet, it is saddening that the iconoclasm of Superman goes unrecognized in masterpieces like Superman Returns.

It may seem funny that I am writing this article in 2017, nearly 11 years after Superman Returns was released. There is no timeliness factor to justify this piece, but the relevance cannot be argued with.

The world is clamoring for a savior. Not only the refugees trapped in places like Syria and Yemen, but also average citizens who are being fed lies and propaganda. We need a savior to save us from our fear of the other. And we need the quietly devoted iconic Superman to do so.

Because a true leader is not a God issuing executive orders that cannot be reasoned with. He is a friend, a man choosing his godlike powers for the service of the humblest creature that crawls upon the good earth.

And that is why we need Superman more than ever now. He says sometimes that when he cannot be around, people must find him within themselves.

My question is, can we do that before it is too late?

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