Superman is easily the most iconic comic book character of all time. Since his incarnation in Action Comics number one, the Man of Steel has been a mainstay of American pop culture. He has been portrayed in many different ways and reimagined by some of the greatest minds in the industry. Superman has fought Muhammad Ali, destroyed Nazi U-boats and even attempted to get you to quit smoking cigarettes. While darker characters like Batman have moved to the forefront in the last several decades, there is something about the positivity and hope that Superman brings to his fans that makes him truly timeless. For that reason alone, Superman will always be the truly superior superhero.
Superman: Red Son is one of the most brilliant Superman stories to have been released in the last decade. It starts with an idea so simple that you’d wonder why you never thought of it yourself: what if Superman HADN’T crash-landed in middle America, but had instead landed in the Ukraine? A lot was changed by this small detail, but one thing that didn’t change was Superman’s undying desire to help the humans of earth.
At one point in this story, Superman hears cries for help, all the way from America. He immediately bolts to Metropolis, swooping in to save the day for the city’s people. When asked why he did this, Superman simply responds, “They’re not my people, but I never refuse a cry for help.”
Man of Steel was a Superman movie unlike any that we had seen before. For the first time, the audience was able to see that being an indestructible god from another planet wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Clark’s childhood was marred with growing pains that lasted well into adulthood and when Superman would eventually show himself to the public, the pains only intensified. The world was terrified of Superman and it was easy to see why. He was an alien from another planet, who could crush them without so much as breaking a sweat. That’s not who Superman is, though. Superman wanted to be a guardian for the people of earth and as a gesture of good faith, he allowed himself to be handcuffed and questioned by the government, in an attempt to forge a bond with its people.
Superman doesn’t just save the fictional inhabitants of Metropolis—in fact, in the 1980s, the Man of Steel attempted to stamp out a problem that was running rampant amongst young adults: cigarettes. In a series of short comic strips for the American Health Education Council, Superman waged war against big tobacco companies.
The comic strips provided a positive role model for kids to look up to, as well as tips and facts to help them kick the nasty habit. Nearly one million young adults saw the campaign and it was one of the first times the Kryptonion superhero’s influence had an impact on readers outside of the fictional realm of comic books.
Unlike most heroes, Superman has remained steadfast amid the ever-changing trends of pop culture. He’s not brooding like Batman. He’s not gruff and gritty like Wolverine. Superman, among all else, is a pure-hearted alien who wants to do right by a world that was often very cold to him. His squeaky-clean persona doesn’t always go over too well with audiences, but Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale sought to change that with Superman for All Seasons. The duo wanted to portray Superman in all of his farm boy goodness, following him from the initial crash of his spaceship, to the point that he dawned the red and blue tights.
In one of the most heartwarming moments of the story, Superman saves a little boy from danger. Once the boy is safe, he says to Superman, “Wow, cool costume!” Superman—in true Boy Scout fashion—simply responds, “Thanks! My mom made it for me!”
Superman’s creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel couldn’t have imagined what the hero would become in the years following the release of Action Comics 1 in 1938. Superman was a much different hero at the time and was only a small story among many that appeared in the comic. The hero’s foundations were there, though, so it’s natural that his first appearance would appear on this list.
When Lois Lane (yes, THE Lois Lane) sees Superman lift a car, she is rightfully frightened. However, in true Superman fashion, he innocently looks at her and says, “You needn’t be afraid of me. I won’t harm you.” This one line would set the precedent for Superman comic books for years to come.
Superman Returns is a film that is often not revered for much. While the film was unsuccessful at the box office and with critics, there is one universally beloved scene that constantly comes up in conversations among fans: the airplane scene. The scene features Brandon Routh’s Superman saving a passenger-filled airplane from certain doom. After several minutes of a near orbit freefall, the Man of Steel is able to stop the plane from crashing to the ground below—landing it in a baseball field, no less. This scene really exemplified what the audience had grown to love about Superman and offered a few minutes of action that felt true to the character, in an otherwise empty stab at franchise.
Kingdom Come is one of the greatest comic book epics of all time, but it is certainly not a hopeful story. The comic takes place several years in the future, in a world populated by a legion of superheroes who are much more unchecked than the bygone era of Superman and Batman. As a result, we find out that Superman has been in seclusion inside his fortress of solitude for several years. The story's narrator, Norman McCay, pleads for Superman to return to helps Earth’s people. Superman doesn’t acquiesce to Norman’s pleas and sends him on his way. Eventually, the world finds itself near destruction, as a result of way too many comic subplots than this list can contain and Superman returns to lead a revolution of middle-aged superheroes to regain Earth’s order. Even at Earth’s darkest hours, Superman always has hope and belief in its people.
This wouldn’t be much of a list about Superman if we didn’t mention the hero’s recent appearance on the silver screen. After a brutal fight with Doomsday, Superman can see that there is only one way to take down the mutated beast. Unfortunately, the method involves a kryptonite-laced spear (which, as you probably know, doesn’t bode well for the Man of Steel). To defeat Doomsday, Superman must get close to the monster and with the spear weakening his strength, it allows Doomsday to impale the hero in the process. Without Superman’s sacrifice, there would be no force on Earth strong enough to stop Doomsday. The movie ends with a somber funeral for ace reporter, Clark Kent and a DC universe without its Man of Steel.
All-Star Superman portrays the Man of Steel in a much more reflective light than many of the other stories on this list. This is largely due to the fact that Superman learns that he only has one year to live after he flies too close to the sun to save a spaceship. Upon learning this, he realizes keeping his identity from Lois Lane is simply a waste of time. The reveal, which was years in the making, leaves Lois awestruck. She has a hard time believing that Clark Kent, her bumbling reporter friend, is Superman. That is, until Superman reveals Lois’s birthday present to her. The gift consists of a serum that will replicate the Man of Steel’s power in her for 24 hours, as well as her very own super suit. As the serum is about to run out, Superman does something with Lois that he always wanted to do: kiss her on the surface of the moon.
Richard Donner’s Superman 2 features the Man of Steel in all his campy '80s glory. While the movie is sort of a cringe fest to watch now, there are some redeeming factors that will never get old. A key conflict in the film occurs when Superman relinquishes his Kryptonian powers in an attempt to live a mortal life. Unfortunately, being mortal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. On the way home from a road trip to Niagara falls, Clark finds himself in a scuffle with a rowdy patron at a diner. The altercation ends with Superman skulking off, licking his wounds in uncharacteristic fashion. Eventually, Superman gets his powers back (obviously) and returns for revenge on the mortal man who bested him. Let’s just say that things went a little bit different the second time around.
The story of “Flashpoint” takes place in a universe that was altered when The Flash chose to go back in time to save his mother from being murdered. In doing so, Flash not only alters his own universe, but also several of his Justice League cohorts, as well. In that altered universe, Superman still crashed to earth, but instead of growing up in Kansas, he was confined to a cell and kept away from the source of his power: the sun. Eventually, Flash is able to set the thin and meek Superman free, exposing him to the sun for the first time in his life. This transforms him into the Man of Steel we love and provides one of the most bad*ss moments in comic book history.
The Superman cartoons from the 1940s were a rendition of the hero that resonated with a wide audience. At the time, there wasn’t a more American hero than Superman, so it was only natural that he would be used as a propaganda icon against the face of World War 2: Adolf Hitler. In the short feature, Jungle Drums from 1943, Superman finds himself saving Lois Lane from a tribe of aboriginal people attempting to burn her at the stake. The catch, though, was that the aborigines were led by a top ranking allied soldier. Superman saves Lois Lane (because duh) and even manages to ward off several Nazi U-boats that intended to take him out. The cartoon ends with an enraged Adolf Hitler receiving a disappointing phone call regarding what had just transpired.
Superman and his super dog, Krypto, have a relationship that is similar to most men and their dogs. In their free time, they play fetch, go on walks and generally just enjoy each other’s company. The only difference is that Superman and Krypto play fetch with a giant tree trunk, travel to outer space and end their day looking upon Earth from the surface of the moon. Okay, so we guess there are a few differences between Superman and any old dog owner. While we all can’t be so lucky to have superhuman abilities and a dog to match, everyone can relate to the simple joy that can be shared between a man and his dog.
Superman has crossed paths with many well-known figures—presidents, dictators, athletes and even comedians. However, none of these cross-overs amassed the success that his altercation with professional boxer, Muhammad Ali, did. In 1978, DC Comics released a collector’s edition issue featuring a boxing match between the two. While this bout didn’t end well for the Man of Steel, the duo would eventually end up working together in one of the greatest comic book team-ups to date. Eventually, Ali would even manage to decipher the Man of Steel’s secret identity, but vowed to never reveal this knowledge to the public. The book was a monumental success and has become one of the most sought after and expensive comic books of all time.
Superman is most enjoyable to readers when you can imagine him showing up in your own life to help you when you need it the most. This was the case for a depressed, young girl in All-Star Superman. The girl—standing on the edge of a skyscraper, intending to end her own life—feels alone, unimportant and abandoned by her therapist. In one of the most heartwarming moments in Superman history, the Man of Steel appears on the skyscraper behind the girl, placing his hand on her shoulder and reassuring her, “it’s never as bad as it seems.” Superman embraces the young woman, saving her life, but most importantly, giving her hope for her future.