With the powers of flight, steel-crushing strength, heat vision, and the good judgment not to be a total jerk about it, Superman is among our culture’s most altruistic and noble fictional creations.
Too bad he’s just a blob of ink.
Until technology and science figure out how to mold a real Man of Steel—and before you watch Hollywood’s latest attempt to reinvigorate the icon in theaters this weekend—check out these five ways the Big Blue Boy Scout actually made a real-world difference outside of the comics pages.
1. Superman vs. Looming Foreclosure
In 2010, a family living in the South came under financial duress after their small business collapsed. Unable to cover the second mortgage they took out, the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings.
As they began to prepare for eviction and sort through their belongings in the basement, one of them came across a stack of comics. Among the pile was a copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. Published in 1938 and considered the Holy Grail of comic collecting, fewer than 100 are thought to have survived the decades.
After seeing what other copies had gone for online, they reached out to auction house ComicConnect to act as a broker. The book, which originally sold for 10 cents, went for an astounding $460,000, saving the family’s home with cash to spare.
2. Superman vs. the New York City Blackout
New Yorkers have often had to display superhuman levels of endurance. Among their most trying times: The 1977 citywide blackout that saw rampant looting, fires, and over a billion dollars in damages.
With information hard to come by, New Yorkers turned to the Daily News, which had somehow managed to keep its printing presses running without power. How? Because Warner Bros. was busy shooting scenes set in the Daily Planet at the paper’s building for Superman: The Movie and generously lent them the production’s generators: journalists toiled as powerful klieg lights lit up the newsroom. Superman may not have been able to save the city from a lot of grief, but his handlers kept its citizens from being left completely in the dark.
3. Superman vs. the Ku Klux Klan
Before George Reeves donned the cape for television, Superman fans across the country got their fix with the character’s popular radio drama. In addition to fighting the usual variety of villains, he came across one very real and very formidable threat: the racist diatribes of the Ku Klux Klan.
In a 1946 serial dubbed Clan of the Fiery Cross, Superman runs into a KKK stand-in and sniffs out their secret code words, handshakes, and ideologies. While the story was fictional, the details weren’t: Superman producers had been slipped facts about the clandestine organization by Stetson Kennedy, an activist who had infiltrated the group and was spreading information about their inner workings to a variety of news outlets.
While Kennedy later came under fire for allegedly exaggerating some of his efforts—even prompting the authors of Freakonomics, who had documented his undercover work, to issue a retraction—his dialogue with the Superman producers isn’t in dispute. In Superman, Kennedy had a resource to infantilize the Klan and mock their hate speech. Soon, its leaders saw kids play-acting with hooded robes and treating them with ridicule; Superman had broadcast a lecture on tolerance, and an entire generation of children was listening.
4. Superman vs. a Speeding Car
Costumes rarely instill the wearer with the attributes of the character. (And in some instances, actually deprive them of one important trait: dignity.) But for a Melbourne, Australia man, his choice of superhuman threads couldn’t have been more appropriate.
On his way back from his own bachelor party where he was dressed as Superman, Heng Khuen Cheok stumbled across a man who had just been hit by a car. Bleeding and dazed, the victim took one look at Cheok and likely thought he was hallucinating. His friends, fearing Cheok was a menace, tried pushing him away until he finally convinced them of his day job: an emergency room physician. Cheok tended to the man until an ambulance arrived.
5. Superman vs. Psychological Hurdles
For child psychologist Patty Scanlon, superheroes often act as a handy allegory for the dreams and aspirations of her patients. As recounted in the book Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy, Scanlon notes she’s helped several children with psychological issues by invoking the Man of Steel.
One composite patient, Jason, was having difficulty at school and was acting out aggressively toward peers. By exploring Superman’s earnest nature, Scanlon was able to impart lessons on human behavior and social functioning. Later, Jason’s parents reported he was doing better in school and making friends.
Once, Scanlon role-played as Superman and apparently got too edgy: “No, stop,” Jason retorted. “Superman wouldn’t do that. He’s nicer than that.” Seventy-five years after his debut, Superman is still saving the world, one juvenile delinquent at a time.
Hungry for more Superman knowledge? Jake Rossen has just the thing: Superman vs. Hollywood, his comprehensive account of the Man of Steel’s successes (and many, many stumbles) in Tinseltown.