Superman at 80: The Real Values of the Man of Steel

Action Comics #1000 celebrates Superman in the best possible way: by reminding us what he's really all about.

It’s remarkable how much Superman has changed in 80 years. It’s also remarkable how little Superman has changed in 80 years. Fittingly, Action Comics #1000 encapsulates so much of Superman’s history, with all of its wonderful contradictions, and still manages to be a worthy celebration of the most important hero in all of pop culture.

In an age when Superman has died and come back to life, both on the page and on the big screen, the best Superman stories know better than to rely on raw power. Stories about how hard Superman can punch, or how many punches he can take, might sell some tickets, but that’s not the true strength of the character. The best storytellers know that Superman’s kindness, compassion, and unflagging belief in humanity’s better nature define the character far better than heat vision, supersonic flight, or indestructibility.

The vast majority of Action Comics #1000, DC’s official 80th anniversary celebration of the legacy of Superman, understands exactly that. Within its pages of short stories, Superman shares an almost friendly moment with Lex Luthor, delivers a touching meditation on mortality in the far future, finds himself in awe of the spirit of the ordinary person, and much more. Even if you haven’t read a comic in years – or ever – it’s a perfect introduction, or a welcome home, all delivered by some of the best talent DC Comics has to offer, alongside some legendary creators from Superman history.

But the one that feels the most appropriate for Action Comics in particular is “The Car” by Geoff Johns, Richard Donner, and Olivier Coipel. Picking up the day after Superman’s first adventure from Action Comics #1, the one where he famously smashed that green sedan to bits against a boulder while a bunch of low rent criminals ran for cover, “The Car” shows how even the two-fisted, sometimes hot-headed early Man of Steel has time for everyone, even a potential enemy.

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It’s fitting that the simplest, most universal truth to come out of Superman’s mouth would come from Johns and Donner. Johns, in his current capacity as DC’s Chief Creative Officer and co-chair of DC Films, continues to steer Superman’s destiny on the page and screen, while Donner is responsible for what is considered by many to be not just the definitive Superman movie, but the definitive interpretation of the character. The Kal-El of the 1978 movie, and even the comics of today, is a kinder, gentler hero than the one who trashed that car in 1938 (Supes could be a bit of a show off in his younger days), but that doesn’t stop Donner and Johns from helping Superman deliver the kind of clear, direct, pointed message that the Man of Steel used to voice on his radio show in the 1940s:

“You’ve had your fair share of knocks. And you can keep knocking the world back like you’ve done. Or you can make a decision. Today. Be that person who wasn’t there for you for someone else. It’s your life…you can fix it…or you can junk it. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.”

Here’s to the next 80 years. For Superman, and for all of us.