The biggest gripe we have with Superman is that he's boring. He's too perfect. Too strong, too impeccable, too moral, too selfless, too good. Too dedicated to helping strangers. He's the hyper-inflated version of that guy in your neighborhood who spends all his spare time volunteering and leading Boy Scout troops and smiling cordially at everyone and probably hiding some unspeakably dark secret.
But that's exactly what we need about now—minus the dark secret, naturally—at this point in time where everything seems to be unraveling, and unraveling violently. Yes, today is Superman's 75th birthday—the first issue of Action Comics hit news stands out on April 18th, 1938—and we need that crime-fighting bore, that steadfast champion of goodness, more than ever.
Because Superman is still Superman. His dullness is partly responsible for his ubiquity; were he anything short of human perfection (plus flight and x-ray vision and invincibility) he wouldn't be the ur-hero that he is. He is, as Umberto Eco calls him, "a hero without an adversary." Superman wins, all the time, period. (Except for that one time when he died during the confusing 90s and went on a years-long bender of an identity crisis, but anyway.) That's why he's the #1 superhero of all time, and maybe, as Grant Morrison claims, even our 21st century Christ figure.
Superman was born to help those struggling with the Depression; as people lost faith in their institutions—banks, the government, corporations—they could believe in an alien angel-man who could be counted on to save the day. Like Jesus, Morrison says, early Superman was a socialist; fighting the rich and the corrupt and standing up for the meek and the poor. Superman has always been there throughout three-quarters of the last century, instilling us with a faith not just in a higher power, but the potential goodness of man itself.
Todd Van Der Werff outlines our most prevalent superhero's history as follows:
Superman’s adventures ... roughly parallel the story of a powerful nation realizing just how powerful it actually was. He stands up for the helpless during the Great Depression, fights in World War II, grows bored and listless with ultimate power in the ’50s and ’60s, loses himself a bit in the ’70s, then grapples with an ever-maturing world that threatens to leave behind his brand of innocence from the ’80s onward. And now, in Grant Morrison’s wonderful run on Action Comics, the character is blending all of these influences, sometimes uneasily, even as he’s gotten back to those roots as the “champion of the oppressed.”
And about now, that's just about everybody. That includes the workers at a fertilizer plant in Waco Texas, the two-dozen immigrant laborers who were just shot for demanding payment, the working poor in America's withering Rust Belt, and it certainly includes the 99%. Obviously, as a fictional tight-sporting muscle man, Superman can't actually save any of those people; but as the world caves in around us, it's easy to want to believe that someone can.
But Superman's appeal isn't just about bringing justice to the oppressed; far from it. Even the affluent and the middle classes find comfort in the Manichean universe he does battle in. It's a universe where there are no deranged shooters of children or invisible Boston bombers—there are just super villains like Lex Luthor with mad schemes that can always be thwarted with steely determination and moral certitude.
It's a hugely comforting notion: That the super-est of mans will never fail, and our foes always will.
Personally, I'm one of those guys who'd always found Superman mundane. I was a Spider-Man kind of kid; I wanted my heroes relatable and fallible. But clearly, Spider-Man isn't up to the task today. He's well-intentioned, sure; he's a good guy. But could Spider Man stop a bomb in Boston, an anthrax-laced letter to the president in DC, and a fatal explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas, all in the same week? I think not. We've kept Superman around because we want someone who can tackle all that, and maybe we want it more than anything. Our other heroes, our X-men and Batfolk, may be "dark" and "complex" and "allegorical," but the myth of the guy that can snap his Kryptonian fingers and make everything right ultimately rises above them all.
So I'd like to think it's more than a marketing department-engineered coincidence that when I logged on to YouTube earlier today to watch the footage of the fertilizer plant exploding, the Related Videos were as follows: "Texas Explosion leads to fire at AzkoNobel plant," "CAUGHT ON CAMERA: Fertilizer Plant Explosion," "Man of Steel - Official Trailer 3," and "Boston explosions."
Even if it is, it makes sense. Somebody has to be an absurd beacon for goodness in this mucked up world—even if it is a boring one-dimensional septuagenarian super hero with a cleft chin.