“Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple. Superman”
– All Star Superman
Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has had a profound impact on popular culture since his debut on April 18th, 1938, 80 years ago today. His rise in popularity over the decades has evolved into a legacy that is truly remarkable, as Superman’s story has become widely known all over the world. On the cover of Action Comics #1, Superman is seen hovering a car over his head with bystanders in awe; and ever since, the House of El symbol has become one of the most recognizable designs. Thus, the iconography of the comic book medium would never be the same from this point forward, and American pop-culture would forever be impacted by Superman- a character unlike any in its history.
Over the last 80 years, the character of Superman has had an incredible, worldwide impact. Created by the children of Jewish immigrants, Superman has always championed justice for all, regardless of background or creed. Through his very rich history, Superman has commonly addressed political and social themes such as aiding in the destruction of the KKK’s key infrastructure, standing in solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement, addressing a post 9/11 America, and protecting immigrants from bigots.
These concepts have been thoroughly discussed in The Importance of Heroes in a Broken Society, which is a piece I wrote in January 2018. In this article, however, Superman’s iconic legacy will be addressed as it has impacted comics, television and film as well. The greatest fictional character in American history has influenced children and adults from all backgrounds. So from 1938’s Action Comics #1 to today’s Action Comics #1000 and every major comic, TV show and film in between, here is The Legacy of Superman: 80 Years of the Man of Steel.
As mentioned previously, Action Comics #1 was the birth of the first mainstream superhero. Not only was this the birthplace of Superman, but it is the bedrock on which every superhero is spawned. Since this publication, Superman has been deemed the “champion of the oppressed” and the “physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.” And it is because of Action Comics #1 that comic book fans have the joy of reading about their favorite superheroes. You see, 80 years of Superman comics were derived from this single issue and cover.
Within this issue, Superman was firm in his pursuit of justice, bold in standing up to thugs with weapons, strong in his stance against domestic violence, and even unapologetic when harshly dealing with criminals. Ultimately, this debut would pave the way for a variety of Superman stories in which these key characteristics were maintained in spite of various writer and artist interpretations. The comics covered below will weave through some of the most impactful Superman stories ever told taking into account the most recognizable, the most iconic moments, and some of my personal favorites.
Superman: For The Man Who Has Everything (1985), and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow (1986), are two of the most powerful Superman stories to come from the 1980s. The first of the two, Superman: For The Man Who Has Everything, is a dark, thematic short story of Superman facing his most desired reality through the influence of the Black Mercy and Mongol. The impact of this story goes deep into Superman’s history. Written by Alan Moore, the story would be adapted multiple times in Superman-related medium.
This story is special because it challenges Superman in a unique and heartbreaking way by stripping the focus away from Superman’s powers towards his heart and how he reacts when his reality is shattered. The second of the two comics is Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow. This story is set as a goodbye to the Silver Age and a finale to one of the most iconic artist runs in comic book history. Curt Swan’s legendary style comes to a thematic end with this story, once again written by Alan Moore. While not set in continuity, the story is one of the most iconic Superman stories of all time because it is infused with such inspiring yet somber content. This story gives Superman one of the very few “true endings” for the character, giving Kal-El a finale that has stood the test of time.
The Death and Return of Superman was a turning point for the hero. In an era of comics in which sales across the medium were low and stories had become stagnant, DC decided to make a statement. The Death of Superman was the first time a mainstream superhero death was marketed as permanent. Surrounding the battle between Superman and Doomsday, this story is widely known as one of the best selling and most recognizable Superman stories of all time.
The entire DC Universe and every big title was directly affected by the death of its most popular character. Headlined by multiple writers including Dan Jurgens, The Death and Return of Superman changed how comics were perceived and was an adrenaline shot to the entire medium. The story arc has often been referenced in Superman’s comic history and has been adapted multiple times throughout film and television, making a powerful impact in comic book history and popular culture.
Superman continued to evolve and be used in unique storytelling methods and spectacular art. These next two stories, Kingdom Come & Superman: Peace on Earth, is Alex Ross at his best. The first of the two, Kingdom Come, is one of the most well-known Elseworld stories in DC Comics history and introduces a unique Superman interpretation. Featuring an older Kal-El who had receded into retirement, the story sees the return of this Superman to the world and combines heavy political themes, theological references and many classic characters.
As with many of the best Superman stories, Kingdom Come takes the character of Superman and uses his own legacy as a form of deconstruction by analyzing the character at his core and letting the character find self-meaning. This brings us to one of my personal favorite Superman stories, Superman: Peace on Earth. Combining the writing talents of Paul Dini and the beautiful art by Alex Ross, this story is short, to the point, and tells a powerful Superman story. Where many Superman stories showcase the character facing world-threatening problem, Peace on Earth puts Superman in a real-world context. The story has him question his impact on humanity while dealing with world hunger and the political nature of his role on the planet. The greatest Superman stories are the ones that speak to the human condition and Peace on Earth does that well.
I look upon my powers as a gift, not mine alone but for anyone who needs them.”
Superman For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb is another unique look at the Superman character. The story covers his life and tackles the theme of finding your place in the world. This particular book is remarkable because it focuses on the meaning & importance of Clark Kent just as much as it does with Superman. For All Seasons explores four unique takes on Superman contrasting with the four seasons.
In each season, a character such as Lois Lane or Lex Luthor is interlinked with Superman, and the story finds the incredible balance of showcasing what Superman means to each respective character as he discovers what he wants himself to be. What’s so Great about Truth, Justice & The American Way, on the other hand, is a 2001 story that contextualizes the meta-reality of the audiences’ feeling of Superman’s “boring nature.” It explores the hero’s stagnant ideals when it comes to political themes and its relation to Superman in the real world. The story had been adapted into an animated film and has been blended into Superman’s legacy through the following iconic quote:
Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear… until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share — I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.
Superman: Red Son and Superman: Birthright combine to give Superman an amazing 2003. Red Son is an elseworld story that examines how the DC Universe would have played out if Kal-El’s rocket landed in Soviet Russia. What could have been a forgettable alternate storyline became an incredibly deep look at the character of Superman. Essentially a character study on the difference of Nature vs Nurture in regards to the iconic hero, Mark Millar takes familiar faces and puts them through a unique lens. The story has twists and turns that are exciting for any comic book reader while also being a social commentary on Superman’s worldwide impact and the values that are intrinsic to him. Superman: Birthright holds a special place in my heart.
My personal favorite Superman story of all time, Birthright tells a renewed story of Superman in the 21st century. Taking cues from Byrne’s Man of Steel but reimaging it, Birthright follows the story of Clark Kent in his twenties learning about his heritage and eventually becoming Superman. An interpretation that takes the character seriously, doesn’t hold back character themes and takes Superman to new heights, Birthright is a Superman story for the ages. This story, by Mark Waid, perfectly balances the character of Clark Kent, Kal-El and Superman, and it is one of the best stories to read for newcomers and lifelong fans as well.
All-Star Superman is the quintessential Superman story. Written by Grant Morrison, All-Star Superman is highly recognized as one of the greatest comic book stories of all time. This story, much like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, provides Superman with an ending and an epilogue. All-Star Superman covers an important moment of Superman; and rather than directly dealing with his death, it deals with his mortality. This Superman, who is very much Silver Age in nature, has never known true pain or had the experience of death like his continuity counterpart, as he is left with the revelation of only having little time left to live. The story is equal parts heartwarming, inspiring and humorous, with Clark essentially completing a bucket list while he prepares for his death. The story is a must-read for any Superman fan.
Superman: Earth One is a 2010 alternate story to Superman’s origin. Perhaps the most ambitious and grittiest Superman origin story, Superman: Earth One gives Clark Kent unprecedented depth and let Clark be the driving force of the story on his path to becoming Superman. Even when in costume and saving the world, you get a clear indication that you are essentially reading a Clark Kent coming of age story. This story, which at times gets overlooked, is a monumental Superman story that has been used as influence for feature films like Man of Steel.
When people see how powerful you are, all the things you can do, they’re going to be terrified, unless they can see your face, and see that you mean them no harm. The mask…is that what you’re going to have to wear the rest of your life?
– Martha Kent
The final two comics that I want to share are landmark issues. 2011’s Action Comics #900 covers many moments but none is more powerful than the short story of Superman renouncing his American citizenship. With the Middle East in turmoil and America at the center of the conflict, Superman is placed into this real world issue. Action Comics #900 asks where Superman plays into this Post-9/11 dynamic. The comic is officially when Superman makes the transition of Superman being an American hero to becoming what he was always meant to be- a universal symbol of hope for people of all colors, religions and backgrounds. Finally, we end at Action Comics #1000.
The story, which is headlined with some of the best writers and artists from Superman’s iconic history, includes a never-before-seen story from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Action Comics #1000 culminated 80 years of Superman’s legacy, and it has cemented his importance in comic book and pop culture history since his appearance in Action Comics #1.
Superman has had an incredible history on television. Early in the character’s history, the FleischerSuperman debuted in animation in 1942. The Fleischer Superman cartoon brought the character to the mainstream. Dealing with concepts of war, the series came to universal acclaim and had one of the highest animation budgets of its time. The first live action debut of Superman on television came soon after with theAdventures of Superman in 1951. Led by George Reeves, the series quickly became popular and helped grow the legacy of Superman like never before.
The character of Superman continued to have a big presence in animation with the 1960s, 70s and 80s packed with Superman cartoons, headlining Super Friends and more. The next major phase of Superman in live-action television came with Superboy in 1988. The series is often overlooked in the character’s history but has memorable moments for many fans. Moments like the episode Mindscape, in which Superboy sees faces from his past, illusions of an alternate future in a surprisingly complex episode, keeps the series in the hearts of fans. 1993’s Lois & Clark took Superman to the mainstream in a new way as well. Playing as less of a superhero show and more of a drama, the series has memorable moments. While I personally did not like this particular version of Superman, its impact on Superman’s legacy on television is important to recognize.
Superman: The Animated Series was a complete reinvention of Superman in animation and is one of the greatest versions of the character. The Superman that I was first introduced to, DCAU’s Superman, led by visionaries Bruce Time and Paul Dini, crafted a version of the character that was relatable, inspiring, hopeful, serious and recognizably iconic. This version of the character started in 1996 and enjoyed a 10-year journey though 2006, with multiple television shows taking place in its continuity. Played by Tim Daly, Superman is voiced with calmness, and a stoic vibe.
To this day, I hear Tim Daly’s voice when I read Superman comics. Lois Lane’s appearance in Superman: The Animated Series was powerful, brilliant and provided a version of the character that truly had her own agency. A character like Lois Lane is integral to the Superman mythos and Dana Delany plays her to perfection throughout the series. The impact of Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited on Superman influenced comics, took the character’s marketability to new heights and inspired kids for a generation. This version of Superman deserves its own article to truly examine its greatness but when looking at the legacy of Superman on television, DCAU Superman is often at the top of most lists.
Clark Kent: Now that I’ve moved to Metropolis, it’s going to be impossible to keep a low profile..People are calling me “Superman” now. Does this mean I’m going to have to give up my life?
Jonathan Kent: No, son. It doesn’t matter where you were born, or what you can do, you’ll always be Clark Kent. Superman just helps out now and then.
Taking a turn to the modern era, Superman saw a unique interpretation with Smallville, which premiered in Fall of 2001. The series followed a young Clark Kent, played by Tom Welling, and it covered Clark’s life from the moment he landed in Smallville, through high school, discovering his powers, and discovering his destiny. Smallville’s Lois Lane, played by Erica Durance, added life to the series when she entered it. Much like Tom Welling’s performance as Clark, Erica plays a Lois who slowly becomes the famous reporter that everyone knows. The series is a staple for many Superman fans as a great introduction the character and a deep dive look into the characterization of Clark Kent.
The legacy of Smallville is immense and introduced the character to an audience that normally wouldn’t be exposed to him. Ultimately, the character of Superman benefited with the impact of Smallville. To read an in-depth examination of the legacy of this series, you can read it here. Since Smallville, the character of Superman did not get a series of his own; however, he has appeared as a supporting character on Young Justice and Legion of Superheroes.
Instead, the character’s influence lives on through spin offs. For example, 2015’s Supergirl is centered on the life of Kara and her journey as Supergirl. Superman, played by Tyler Hoechlin, has appeared several times on the show, in which his character bears a combination of the New 52 design and Silver Age charm. Additionally, 2018’s Krypton celebrates the legacy of Superman by reflecting on his past. Covering the story of his grandfather as he struggles to save Kal-El’s future from Brainiac, Krypton shows how deep the impact of Superman is in television. Overall, Superman has enjoyed a rich tapestry of animation and live action appearances throughout the last 80 years, and it shows no signs of slowing down, which is a testament to his impact on popular culture.
Superman has had an incredible journey in film over the past 80 years. He first appeared on the big screen in 1948, portrayed by Kirk Alyn. However, the popular, cinematic character-study came with Donner’s Superman in 1978. The tagline for this film speaks to why it is so popular: You will believe a man can fly. Portrayed by the legendary Christopher Reeve, a man who changed the legacy of Superman and launched him to stratospheric heights, Reeve’s Superman exemplified the word iconic. To this day, countless fans point at Christopher Reeve as the single greatest Superman performance of all time and the actor’s legacy is forever intertwined with Kal-El.
Much like how Action Comics #1 was the first mainstream superhero comic book, Superman was the first mainstream superhero film. The film inspired a generation, has embedded itself in pop culture as one of the most iconic films of all time and continues to be an inspiration for every superhero film that comes out after. The film examines Superman’s origin with a darker intensity compared to campy, Silver Age Superman comics of the time. Richard Donner set out to make a film that takes Superman seriously and entertaining for all ages. Kids and adults alike fell in love with this film, and it successfully changed what blockbusters could mean. Following this iconic film, Superman II was released.
While the cast & craw experienced some behind-the-scene troubles, this sequel managed to successfully capture the magic of the first film with a powerful Superman story. Lois Lane in Superman & Superman II provided a very powerful female character for its time. Richard Donner handled her character with care and Margot Kidder answered the call well, especially in the first Superman film & the Donner Cut of the second. Superman II is a film that lets the character of Superman truly decide where he wants his place to be in the world and allowing him to make the mistakes needed in order to redeem himself. Superman II continued the legacy of Superman and took his popularity to worldwide levels.
You will travel far, my little Kal-El. But we will never leave you… even in the face of our death. You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father the son. This is all I can send you, Kal-El.
While Superman has had incredible moments in film, he has also had some stumbles. Superman III and Superman IV sadly missed the magic that made its previous two entries great. While still carrying the charm of Christopher Reeve as its saving grace, these two films felt more hollow than the first two films. And while some fans appreciate these films, there are minimal amounts of memorable moments that contribute to the legacy of Superman in the same way that their predecessors have. 2006’s Superman Returns had the weight of the world on its shoulders as well.
Directed by Bryan Singer, Superman Returns was a love letter to the original two Superman films. Portrayed by Brandon Routh, this Superman was a nice homage to Christopher Reeve and had some great moments; but overall, the impact of this film on the legacy of Superman is not as high as others on this list. In an attempt to be a nostalgic ode to the masterpieces of the past, it failed to take the character to new and interesting places. However, Superman Returns was the first Superman film in many years when it released and did help bring his popularity back after an era dominated by other heroes.
The key to great Superman stories is to have ones that give Superman a deep and complex problem that speaks to society at large. 2013’s Man of Steel, for example, did just that as it took Superman to new heights and successfully reinvented him for the 21st century. Set in a Post-9/11 world with xenophobia and the need for a hero, Zack Snyder’s Clark Kent grows up in a complex world that develops and creates a Superman that becomes a byproduct of it. Man of Steel quickly became the most commercially successful Superman film with crowds showing up to see a more realistic take on this iconic figure. Zack Snyder took Superman more seriously than he had been before, giving Clark a platform to finally become a relatable Superman.
Much like how Donner made audiences believe a man could fly, Snyder made audiences believe a Superman could exist in our broken society. The impact and legacy of Man of Steel goes deep, with many elements of the film blended back into the comics, spawning television shows inspired by it, and building an entire cinematic universe on top of it. In an era in which Batman has become king of comic book medium and Marvel taking over the genre with its film universe, Zack Snyder reminds everyone that Superman is SUPERMAN. Henry Cavill steps into the shoes of Superman for the first time in this film and doesn’t disappoint. A quiet, powerful and intrinsically hopeful performance, Cavill delivers a wide range of emotions and captures both the physical and emotional elements needed to craft his Superman and Clark. Not since Christopher Reeve have we seen a Superman performance so perfectly portrayed.
2016’s Batman v Superman followed up Man of Steel with an even more profound, social experiment on the character. This film challenges and deconstructs the character of Superman, implementing more Post-9/11 realities on the hero. Putting this idealistic figure in contrast with broken characters created a divisive audience reaction. Despite that, Batman v Superman is the highest grossing film with Superman and contributed to the legacy of the hero. The stories that didn’t take Superman or its audience for granted, and ones that truly respects his legacy while also actively trying to contribute to it are the ones that mattered. With Batman v Superman, possibly the most ambitious Superman story ever told, that statement holds true.
Combining a political thriller, a deconstruction story, an immigrant point of view, and beautiful comic book moments, Zack Snyder created a Superman story that will simply never be replicated and has strongly placed itself in Superman’s legacy. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman both valued the character of Lois Lane like never before on film. Brilliantly portrayed by Amy Adams, Lois Lane in these films is a smart, bold, brave and heroic character. Not afraid of any dangers in her way or the most herculean tasks needed to be accomplished, this version Lois Lane matches Superman and contributed countless heroic moments in both films.
2017’s Justice League is the latest film with Superman on the big screen. Set in the same universe as its previous two entrees, it has a similar effect that Superman III had on its previous entities. While Justice League showed Superman at his most powerful and full of heroics, the film did not contribute much to Superman’s legacy; rather, it replicated much of what audiences loved about Superman in the past. In all 3 entries, Superman is played by Henry Cavill, and he embodies Superman perfectly and will be the face of Superman for a generation much like Christopher Reeves was. His performances in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Justice League all helped the legacy of Superman and his place in it. I fully expect and hope Cavill will continue to play Superman for years to come.
You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.
Today marks the release of Action Comics #1000, and it speaks to how incredibly popular the character of Superman has been. It is fitting that the landmark issue falls on the 80th anniversary of the character. Hundreds of writers, artists, directors and actors have had a shot at depicting and/or portraying this iconic hero. Names like Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Curt Swan, Neal Adams, Richard Donner, Christopher Reeve, Zack Snyder, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Frank Quitely, Gary Frank, John Byrne, Gail Simone, Otto Binder, Alex Ross, Dan Jurgens, Jim Lee, Max & Dave Fleischer, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Tim Daly, Dana Delany, George Newborn, Geoff Johns, Tom Welling, Erica Durance, George Reeves, Richard Lester, Brandon Routh, Kirk Alyn, Mark Waid, David Goyer, Chris Terrio, Jack Kirby, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, and countless more all contributed to the legacy of Superman and made him the iconic figure that he is today.
Superman is deeply embedded in modern mythology. He is the Hercules of our time. A character that started as an American icon has quickly become a universal one. In the 80 years of Superman, the character has impacted so many people over multiple generations. As a lifelong Superman fan myself, I can not wait to see the future of this character as he continues to evolve. In 80 years, Superman has been passed from director to director, artist to artist, writer to writer, and actor to actor like a runner passing the baton to another.
In short, Superman is a marathon. Therefore, it is up to each creator to bring something new to the character of Superman without losing his core values. DC Comics has done a great job adhering to that legacy, and that character of Superman has had a magnificent 80 years of comics, television and film. Here’s to the next 80 years of Superman.