Superman was once a simple hero, watching over the citizens of Metropolis and protecting them from evildoers such as Lex Luthor with all his criminal machinations. Somewhere along the way, the Man of Steel went from stopping runaway trains or foiling bank robberies to battling intergalactic alien invaders or twisted versions of heroes in alternate dimensions. Readers were no longer satisfied with small adventures, they wanted bigger and scarier enemies for Kal-El to conquer.
In 2011, DC Comics relaunched all of its titles, including a new series on action comics (by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales). DC took the opportunity to revisit what made Superman so successful all those years ago and bring it back to its roots. This New 52 Superman was younger and inexperienced, an ordinary man struggling to pay his rent while pursuing his own American dream. Like her status in life, her costume was random and low-budget: jeans, work boots, and a cape. This iteration of the Man of Steel is his best version as it embodies what defined him as a people’s hero in his early days.
Superman returns as a working class hero
Superman was reintroduced in action comics as a champion of the working class. The first villain he fights is a sleazy real estate developer who circumvents the law by using underpaid illegal labor, dodging safety standards, and bribing city officials. Government agencies hunt him while the humble citizens of Metropolis protect him. As a young Clark Kent, he uses journalism to expose corruption at the highest level while struggling to pay the bills in a run-down apartment in the city. The influential people Kent writes about go so far as to send law enforcement to his doorstep to harass him to calm down.
Superman must balance his powerful superhero abilities with his goals as a rookie journalist to help his people on the street level. After a battle with a monstrous robot that razes a city block, he attempts to fix things and rebuild a local building. Unfortunately, his efforts backfire due to his super speed and strength accelerating the process of gentrification. At the start of the series, he struggles to gain a foothold and establish his place in the world.
Focusing on a grounded Superman could have strengthened the series
Despite intending to return to its roots, the series soon followed the same formula as most modern Man of Steel mythos. The entire thrift store was dropped and all-new Kryptonian armor was adopted, along with the introduction of the standard nightmarish alien invaders. An opportunity was missed to develop a more grounded, human-like superhero, a popular trend in recent years. Readers often gravitate towards realistic stories of people with superhuman abilities and how they deal with them with a real-world approach. There’s plenty of room for a Superman series that keeps him localized and focused on his budding adulthood, whether Kryptonian or human, a stage he would have to overcome.
The New 52’s Action Comics version of Superman was the archetype of the original character, the one who established the name around the world. It was Superman in his most human form, dressing like someone trying to find his place in the world and dealing with the problems and rare victories of the average American. There’s a real place in the comics for a less godlike Man of Steel, and the New 52 version is the perfect model.