Lois Lane and Clark Kent are, for my money, one of the all-time great romantic pairings. Clark has had other love interests over his nearly 8 decades of comics, films, and television, but it is Lois and Clark that has endured across media, that has captured imaginations and hearts for decades. Perhaps the biggest mistake made in DC’s last reboot was to break Lois and Clark up, and while Amy Adams’ Lois was a bright spot in Man of Steel, Zack Snyder literally had them kiss for the first time standing on the ash of a ruined city, bragging about Superman’s alien virility. Henry Cavill’s Clark and Amy Adams’ Lois are many things, but romantic definitely isn’t one of them.
And the fact of the matter is, many of Superman’s best stories highlight the romanticism of the character. All-Star Superman, for instance, doesn’t just contain perhaps the second-best depiction of their love; it also contains smaller little love stories and romantic comedies that play out in the background. Whether it’s Jimmy Olson pushed to insane lengths of daring to impress his girlfriend or the destructive passions of Bar-El and Lilo as they try to remake the world together, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely subtly highlighted the passion that runs deep in the world of Superman.
But the highlight is the relationship between Lois and Clark. All-Star Superman is built around the slow death of Superman. Exposed to too much solar radiation, he is dying of, essentially, cancer. He decides to spend his final days completing epic tasks and righting uncorrected wrongs, and he begins all of this with Lois Lane. Indeed, the book’s entire first arc is about Superman’s relationship with Lois. While the story will get enormous in scope as it progresses, Morrison and Quitely ground the tragedy and the language of his death in Lois and Clark’s relationship, in the ritual of telling your loved ones about a terminal illness.
And even as the story’s scope expands, many of the book’s most emotional moments came from the give and take of that relationship. For instance, the series’ most iconic moment is almost certainly this one:
It’s everything we want out of Superman. It’s hopeful. It’s thoughtful. It holds up the best in us to help us through our worst moments. It is, without a doubt, the single finest page in the character’s seven decades in publication.
And it’s even better in context of the page that comes before:
Clark is about to die. He knows he has days left on Earth, if not less. He wants to spend it saying goodbye to the love of his life. But in the middle of his farewell, he realizes: People still need him. And rather than get the farewell he deserves, he rushes off to give a little help to a hopeless stranger. It’s a heartbreaking moment, given a strong capstone later in the series when Lois and Clark have their true final meeting in which, yet again, Superman’s moral compass pulls him away from the woman he loves. But this is the telling moment for me. Superman isn’t going to save the world, here, just one lonely young woman. No one on Earth would blame Superman for not being there this one time, but… ultimately, the reason Lois loves him is because she knows he’ll always make the right choice. He doesn’t even just catch Regan and leave her somewhere else – he takes the time to comfort her.
Meanwhile, Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen used the Superman mythos to explore not just the power fantasies of a young man, but the first flowering of love in a relationship between adults, the way a life changes when you have your first child, what it’s like to grow old with your love. Superman is often seen as a fundamentally childish figure, but I think that’s a misreading. Sure, it works, but it would be incredibly limiting to pretend that there’s nothing more to a character with a workaday job, a man pining for a coworker, a husband balancing responsibility with relationships.
What Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen figured out was that these human relationships are the core of the character. Chapter 2, for instance, follows Clark Kent, a normal kid in a world where there are no superhumans who recently discovered that he had all the powers of Superman. His friends mostly just find it hilarious that his name is Clark Kent, so he is set up with countless Lois’, Lanas, Loris and more. His friends hook him up with a Lois as yet another prank on the two of them, but this time, Lois and Clark actually hit it off.
Busiek realized there there was more to what Superman could say. Superman had to share his past with Lois, his secret identity, before their relationship could become more serious, even as figures from that past continued to haunt him. As he prepares to have children, he has to find a way to compromise with what he wants and what he has to do to keep them safe and cared for. As his children grow, he has to learn to let them make their own mistakes and decisions. These are fairly basic stories you could tell about anyone who is growing up and making more adult decisions.
But part of the excitement of telling them through the lens of Superman is that they can take on the edge of the fable. The past that haunts him is a shadowy government conspiracy. The compromise he must make between selling out for his family and staying true to his ideals finds him trying to navigate a world of black ops politics. His children have superpowers themselves and try to forge their own identities. Superman: Secret Identity yet again builds much of its tension and drama on the back of the relationship between Lois and Clark.
Finally, there’s Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. Donner’s Superman is a big, goofy, warm-hearted movie. It is clearly aimed at children, but it’s also a surprisingly thoughtful movie when it comes to building a relationship between Lois and Clark, and Lois and Superman. This is perhaps best exemplified in the “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence, in which Lois and Clark fly together. The effects are impressive for the time, but Donner still makes it about the relationship between the two as Lois considers Superman’s powers, her feelings for him, and more in a breathy poem she never speaks aloud.
Smartly, Donner structures not just the entire climax around Lois’ potential accidental death, but Superman’s whole moral philosophy. Can he be the outside observer Jor-El wants him to be? Or will his human heart force him to step in and do something he shouldn’t? We know Superman is capable of saving everyone and he can’t die, but there’s still a lot of tension because the climax is largely grounded in Superman’s character. He’s so busy saving everyone else that he never even notices Lois is in trouble. By the time he realizes, it has come down to a fundamental question between his human and Kryptonian heritage, between the head and the heart.
Perhaps the greatest mistake Hollywood has ever made was assuming that big stakes mattered. Are a billion deaths more tragic than a million deaths? Is that a number of death, an amount of pain, that any of us are truly capable of understanding or empathizing with? I would argue, no. I frankly don’t care if Nova Prime gets destroyed. But Lois Lane? While there’s a whole world of stuff to be said about the negative effects of fridging your female lead to provide a little gravitas to the story, the core idea is sound: Personal stakes are always better than impersonal ones. Not necessarily personal to the character, either, but ‘human level’ stakes. Stakes we can understand.
Stakes like a pair of lovers. Whether Lois is in danger, as in Superman: The Movie, Clark is in trouble, as in Superman: Secret Identity, or they both face loss together, as in All-Star Superman, we understand what that means to their relationship. The danger doesn’t matter; the relationship does. We’ve all lost loved ones, or kept secrets. Many of us have known someone taken from us by illness or natural disaster. It’s a very real pain we can very easily understand.
But it’s also a very real joy. I may struggle to connect with the idea of a super powerful alien who always does the right thing… but a man trying to do right by someone he loves? This is something I understand. This is the sort of thing that help me realize how Superman is relevant to me, to my needs and struggles. And, in the movie theater or on the page, this is the kind of thing that make me care about the outcome of those huge, CGI-laden battles.
All-Star Superman, Superman: Secret Identity, and Superman recognize a fundamental truth about the character that Man of Steel and the New 52 relaunch missed: The character doesn’t work without a human backbone to the story. In most of the character’s best stories, that backbone is the relationship between Lois and Clark. Sometimes it is tragic, sometimes it is epic, sometimes it is just earnestly emotional, but that love is vitally important to the character. Watching two invincible people punch each other is dull. There’s no tension to a scene like that, because there’s not only no sense of danger, there’s no context in which I can understand what that means, what that feels like. Seeing what that conflict means to a relationship we understand and care about, though? That’s drama.
You can buy All-Star Superman or Superman: Secret Identity in multiple formats on Amazon, Instocktrades, or anywhere that sells books. Superman: The Movie is available on DVD or blu-ray, as well as to rent or buy On Demand.
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