The Death of a Hero: How DC Killed Superman to Make Way for the Man of Steel

Superman comic coverI shall tell you of Clark Kent, otherwise known as Kal-El. Historians from DC Comics will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes. The powers that be at DC felt it was dying without a legacy, and the chief creative officer, a cruel man known as Geoff the Longshanks, claimed the throne of DC directions for himself. DC nobles fought him, and fought each other, over the crown. So Longshanks invited them to a relaunch called the New 52—new origins, character revamps, and one page only. Among the farmers of that shire was Jonathan Kent, a commoner with his own lands. He had one son, Clark, also known as Kal-El.

This is the story of perhaps the greatest superhero of all time—certainly the first—and how he died, betrayed, much like William Wallace, by those he should have been able to trust. Superman was first introduced in 1938 in Action Comics #1. He was the first of his kind and paved the way for the wide array of heroes we have today, until his untimely demise. During his first 75 years, he met all manner of close call, from Kryptonite to red sun exposure to Doomsday. This last brought about the Death of Superman story line in 1992, a multi-issue arc across Superman and related titles that resulted in the hero’s death . . . or so we thought. After the depiction of the world’s reaction to Superman’s death in Funeral for a Friend and the emergence of four individuals believed to be the “new” Superman, we got the eventual return of the original Superman in the Reign of the Supermen story line.

But it wasn’t until the 2011 New 52 launch, culminating in the 2013 movie Man of Steel, that Superman truly died. The New 52 was DC’s attempt to reinvent itself by “modernizing” its characters—changing their costumes, relationships, origins, and sometimes even their power sets in order keep things “fresh.” This has happened a lot over time: Superman couldn’t fly when he was first introduced, only leap an eighth of a mile, and Kryptonite wasn’t introduced until five years after he made his debut. (Even then, it was only on the radio. It would be another six years before it made its way to the comic book!) His amnesia-inducing super kiss would have to wait until 1963. So it’s not that I think change and alteration are bad; there just needs to be a good purpose, and that was lacking with New 52 and Man of Steel. I can forgive the discarding of the trademark red trunks, I can adjust to the new Krypton backstory, but what I cannot forgive—and what I think fundamentally changes the character—is the mishandling of Jonathan Kent’s death in the film.

In 1978’s Superman, we are introduced to the hero with many of the classic and some of the more modern elements. Christopher Reeve delivers a phenomenal performance, and the character is true to what Superman is: a symbol of hope, truth, or justice. But the most significant thing that defines him beyond the powers is who he is, something that is shaped by the experiences of his life, especially the upbringing by Jonathan and Martha Kent. Here is this being with the power of a god, instilled with compassion, humility, and grace because of the guidance and lessons taught by his parents, even if they weren’t intended. Enter the most defining experience in Superman’s back story: the death of his adoptive human father.

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve’s Superman: as humble and human as a superpowered alien could be.

In the movie, Clark gets picked on a lot and has to hold back his powers so he doesn’t hurt anyone or reveal himself. After some of his classmates make a mess that they leave him to clean up while they drive off to party, Clark uses super speed to finish the work and race home so fast that when the classmates drive by, he’s standing out front, leaning against the truck and smiling. After they drive off, Jonathan has a father-son conversation with him about showing off; Clark expresses his frustration about having to tamper down his abilities when he could outpace all of his classmates, and especially when people pick on him. Jonathan does the fatherly thing of listening and acknowledging his frustration and how he feels and then reaffirming to him that he is there for a reason (and it’s not to score touchdowns). He instills confidence in Clark and reminds him that he has purpose and something important to do. They laugh and decide to race to the house. Jonathan, tragically, has a heart attack from this and dies out in the yard. The next words we hear are Clark’s, uttered in grief, at the cemetery:

“All those things I can do. All those powers. And I couldn’t even save him.”

Clark with his arm around Martha, dressed for Jonathan's funeral

Clark and Martha grieve for their loss.

That, right there, is the defining moment. It is the realization of his humanity and the reminder that even with all of his abilities, he does have limitations. It helps to define him as a hero who is constantly striving to be the best but who never forgets humility or humanity.

In 2013, we saw a different Clark Kent—not one raised to use his powers responsibly or to temper them with the knowledge that he had a real purpose. Instead we see what happens when you take a being of immense power and tell him to be afraid, to suppress his abilities, and to not do anything unless he wants to, that everything is his choice. Good old Heartland values. This culminates in the contrasting version of the defining scene for the Man of Steel, when Jonathan is killed by a tornado. As father and son are driving along the road with Clark doing the “You’re not my real dad!” teenage rebellion shtick, all the traffic ahead has stopped because the clouds are circling fiercely. So naturally, in Kansas of all places, everyone stops in the middle of the road and gets out their cars to stare up at the sky and watch the tornado form.

This would be astoundingly moronic on its own, but no one is satisfied enough with a momentary gawking to get back in their car, cross over the grass median, and drive on the completely open road heading in the opposite direction. Instead, everyone instead heads for the overpass. Jonathan goes back to help, but stops Clark from doing the same because he’s afraid that if people see him use his powers, in the middle of a natural disaster, something will happen to him. Even when Jonathan comes back and hands a kid to Clark and they realize that they left the dog in the car, still he stops him from helping, instead running back and letting the dog out himself. In the process, he gets injured just before the tornado hits. Clark starts to rush to save him—only to be waved off by Jonathan.

Jonathan holds out his hand to stop Clark from helping him

Not my Jonathan Clark.

He stops him from saving him . . . out of fear . . . and Clark follows! With his abilities, Clark could have made the rescues faster, passed through the tornado without people seeing and claimed to have hidden under something, or—most importantly—rushed out at super speed to save Jonathan without anyone seeing what had happened!

This reimagining of Jonathan’s death creates a fundamental flaw in this version of Superman: he does not learn humility or mortality. Instead, he learns fear. He stands by and lets one of the two most important people in his life die out of fear, his own and his father’s. And therein is why Superman died—he did not complete his maturation and emerge from his chrysalis as Superman. His growth was stopped, stunted by fear, and he emerged as a hero without heart, a “Man of Steel” in more than one sense.

Henry Cavill as Superman, wearing a pained expression

Not my Superman.

I wish that I could say that it gets better in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it doesn’t. If anything, it gets worse, as he adds judgmental, sanctimonious, and reckless abandon. (Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen Dawn of Justice and don’t want it spoiled, skip to the next paragraph.) In this latest film, Superman kills General Zod because he thinks it’s the only way to stop him, but then has the audacity to go to Gotham and tell Batman that he shouldn’t fight crime because he doesn’t like his methods—and in doing so, he lets the villains get away with Kryptonite. He rushes into a terrorist camp in the desert not recognizing that it’s a setup to turn opinion against him. He walks into a committee hearing so intent on clearing his name, he doesn’t notice the bomb, and when it goes off, does he use super speed to save at least some of the people? Nope! He just stands there looking mopey and feeling sorry for himself. (End spoilers.)

In DC Comics’ rush to make this character more “realistic,” grittier, shot through a sepia filter, they forgot to include the core element that makes Superman special: heart. Superman has represented the shining ideal, the best that we can strive to be, a beacon of hope that shines out into the darkness, and a titan who learns to be a hero, by being human. In the words of Jor-El:

Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. But always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you . . . my only son.

Lex LuthorAnd in keeping with the religious overtones of that quote, Superman died so that DC could forge a new covenant . . . unfortunately, it seems to have been with the sales and marketing department, not with fans.

Is this really DC trying to keep things fresh, or has Lex Luthor taken over the comic company and enacted a master plan to kill his nemesis? If it’s the latter, he’s doing a great job.

For a take on how, like the Man of Steel, the Caped Crusader has changed over the years, check out Satish Jayaraj’s article “Taking the Gotham out of Batman”—plus, find Mark McPherson’s full review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice right here.

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