By the 1970s, Superman had evolved from a high-jumping, fast running superhero into a bullet-proof, supersonic flying powerhouse who could blow out stars and eat kryptonite as a snack. This empowered the Man of Tomorrow to handle the bigger class of villain he had begun to face, but at this point, it’s hard to imagine he could have much of a rival on this or any other planet. Upon Superman’s triumphant return to the big screen in 1978’s Superman: The Movie many of the current comicbook updates to Superman’s powers were completely ignored by director Richard Donner. However, he and his successor Richard Lester packed in a few new strange power revisions into the Man of Steel’s quiver.
The biggest and most obvious of these was Big Blue’s new ability to use super speed to fly around the world, reversing the Earth’s axis and thus (for no logical reason) completely reverse time. This incredibly godlike ability makes one wonder why Superman would ever let any bad things happen. If he missed a spot, he could always change history. Hell, why not fly around for a few hours and take out Hitler? Sounds like a plan to me. Before this becomes a St. Thomas Aquinas question of why Superman lets bad things happen, let’s take a look at another strange ability found in Superman II (1980). Clark’s “Super Kiss” has the ability to cause permanent amnesia in Lois Lane forcing her to forget that he is Superman and that Lois has, in fact, seen him with his tights off. So, is this power relegated just to kissing? Because even if it is, one must wonder why a savvy Superman wouldn’t lay a big wet one on Lex Luthor to regress him to middle-school and keep him from trying to destroy the world… again.
Also in Superman II, the three Phantom Zone criminals, Zod, Non and Ursa have the exact same powers as Superman including, for some reason, the ability to shoot beams from their hands (as opposed to just their eyeballs. Undaunted, Superman himself now has the ability to rip off a layer of his S-Shield and throw it at his enemies as it expands and wraps around them like a net of some kind. Of course that last one is hardly a Kryptonian super power, but more like something Batman might have in his utility belt. But in Superman III (1983) his super-breath can freeze an entire lake surface, which he can carry to put out a fire (without also showering the firemen with fish) and he has the super grip to turn a piece of crude coal into a diamond just by squeezing it.
Unsurprisingly, the ridiculousness went to epic proportions in 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (directed by Sidney J. Furie). Unsurprising because the whole affair was just ridiculous (though Furie is hardly the only one holding the bag for that). In that sad and painful final appearance of Christopher Reeve as Superman, the “super amnesia kiss” rears its super lips once again, but compared to some of the other things happening, that seems kind of believable. See, in this film, Superman is suddenly telekinetic. He can catch people in mid air… without touching them. This strange version of Clark Kent as Carrie reaches biblically epic proportions when he repairs the damaged Great Wall of China just by looking at it. So the question is… why does Superman even bother showing up? He can levitate persons, places and things and even repair damaged buildings without touching them. Why not just sit around and think about nice things and watch the world work out? And if that doesn’t work, just reverse time again. Worked once!
Back in the comics, such alterations were a bit much (Quest for Peace‘s gridded-page adaptation even eliminated the telekinetic rebuild in favor of a super-speed, hands-on approach), but Superman had already increased his powers to a serious degree… and that was about to change. To coincide with the epic universal revision that was Crisis on Infinite Earths, comicbook legend John Byrne was tasked with rebooting Superman’s origins and bringing him back to a more “human” superhuman place. But Byrne didn’t ignore the movies. Instead he took great cues from Christopher Reeve’s soaring, but down-to-earth performance as Big Blue.
In Byrne’s 1986 miniseries The Man of Steel, Kal-El’s cape is shortened and his powers are brought back into perspective (kryptonite can kill him again, but he can also still fly and deflect bullets). But the most significant differences were inside the Superman himself and invisible to the world. In Byrne’s version, both Jonathan and Martha Kent were still alive to advise and cheer on their super son.
Part of this had to do with the fact that Byrne’s biggest revision “Clark Kent” was not the mask Superman wore, not, as Quentin Tarantino asserted in Kill Bill Vol. 2, his parodic commentary on humanity, but “Clark Kent” was who he really was. Superman was the made up identity used to protect those he loved. Man of Steel introduced the “birthing matrix” that allowed the Last Son of Krypton’s actual “birth” to take place on Earth, in the United States. Most tellingly, Clark rejects the ghostly Jor-El who attempts to push his son to a more ideal Kryptonian life (as Jor-El sees it). Clark chooses Earth, even when given the choice, saying “Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am. All that matters. It was Krypton that made my Superman… but it is the Earth that makes me HUMAN!!”
Accordingly, neither Lex Luthor nor the equally alliterative Lois Lane are hunting for Superman’s secret identity, or even wondering if Clark (who looks just like him) might actually be Superman. Why? Superman publicly indicates he has no secret identity. The question is moot. And in accordance with the re-limiting of Superman’s powers, Clark no longer thinks of himself as Kryptonian, but truly human. How else could a man with such godlike powers live so benevolent a life? Sure, he could take over the planet and even reshape it in his own image. But that would never cross his mind… he’s still that Kansas farmboy with the optimistic look at the world. And that truly is a super… man.
NEXT SUPER TIME in To Be Continued…... now that Superman can die again, will he? And if so… HOW? What is the world without a Superman?