Look! Up in the sky! It's a Bird! It's a plane! It's the description for Superman!The Last Son of Krypton. The Man of Steel. The Man of Tomorrow. The Big Blue Boy Scout. The iconicCape. The definitiveFlying Brick. TheSuperhero.While not quite the first superhero, he is certainly the Trope Codifier (and "super-" makes him the Trope Namer). Has been published continuously by DC Comicsfor 75 years. He first appeared in Action Comics #1 (June, 1938).On the technologically advanced planet of Krypton, scientist Jor-El discovers that his planet will soon be destroyed by natural disasters. No one will believe him, however, and in a desperate attempt to save what can be saved, Jor-El builds a small rocket vessel to carry his infant son, Kal-El, to a different planet — Earth. Because Kryptonians are Human Aliens, the boy can blend in without being seen as alien.As Krypton explodes, baby Kal-El is sent to Earth. He lands outside of the rural town of Smallville, a small town in Kansas (although it wasn't too clear originally — see Wikipedia for a full list of canonical locations). The baby is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who name the boy Clark, give him a loving home and teach him right from wrong.However, Clark turns out to be different from humans after all. Kryptonians had evolved to absorb and store solar energy and to tolerate high-gravity environments that would immobilize or even kill weaker species. While on Krypton, which was fifteen times as massive as Earth and orbited a relatively low-heat Red Giant (or in some versions Red Dwarf), their physical abilities were about identical to humans. When exposed to Earth's lower gravity and the rays of its much younger, brighter yellow Sun, Clark learns that the surplus of energy gives him incredible powers, which increase as he grows up. Deciding to use his power for good, Clark puts on some spandex (or indestructible Kryptonian uber-cloth, Depending on the Writer) and fights crime as Superman! (Or at first as Superboy, in the Silver Age version of his origin). When not fighting evil, he masquerades as a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, The Daily Planet; this career helps him find disasters and emergencies that much sooner and does not require him to closely account for his whereabouts to his employers.Naturally, the Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy—most particularly, the question of which is the "real" person and which is the "mask"—has been explored a great deal, and has changed over time (with Kent going from nervous, geeky klutz to sharp-witted Intrepid Reporter, among other changes). In the Golden and Silver Age, Clark Kent was little more than a façade for Superman. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, this idea was reversed. In some versions, both are essential parts of who he is; others, particularly Alan Moore, see both as masks worn by Kal-El to interact with humanity. Both sides also tend to be a lot more psychologically/emotionally vulnerable than you'd expect. Given his powers, and the usual stereotypes about strength of his level, it would be easy to mistake him for a simplistic oaf; but Supes is actually quite a complex guy.Aside from fighting crime, much of Clark's personal life is explored in relation to his supporting cast from the Daily Planet, his hometown of Smallville, and his beloved home city of Metropolis. Possibly the most famous supporting cast of any superhero, it consists of a large number of changing characters, the fixtures of which are: his doting parents Jonathan and Martha (aka "Ma and Pa") Kent (Pre Crisis, throughout his childhood and teen years, before dying shortly after Clark's high school graduation; post-Crisis, advising him well into adulthood; and in the New 52 both dying before he becomes Superman); his gruff, hot-tempered, long-suffering boss, Perry White, who gladly accepts Clark's constant disappearances and eccentricities as long as he comes back with a headline story; his best friend (in both identities) Jimmy Olsen, a young cub reporter/photographer with a wildly fluctuating age, the highest Weirdness Magnet rating in the DC universe and the unique gift of a signal watch he can use to call Superman anytime he gets into trouble; and most importantly, his sharp-tongued, recklessly determined go-getter of a reporting partner (and longstanding object of his affections) Lois Lane, who was desperately in love with Superman but who always dismissed the mild Clark Kent. However, in some interpretations, she would eventually fall for Clark, not Superman, before learning they were the same person and marrying him/them. In other takes, Superman has been a bachelor or dated/married different characters (currently, he's dating Wonder Woman).Originally created by two sons of Jewish immigrants, who, after several tries, finally got him published in Action Comics #1, where he immediately took off; imitations of him pretty much created The Golden Age of Comic Books.This wasn't their first attempt at the character they had in mind. Ironically, the first character they called "Superman" was intended as a villain with superior mental powers (also ironically looking a lot like Lex Luthor, Bald of Evil and everythingnote In truth, the character probably inspired the Ultra-Humanite), but when that concept flopped they revisited the idea by exploring the real idea of a "Super"man and in collecting their ideas it formed the now famous "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive..." pitch.One prototype Superman comic was written by Siegel and Schuster in 1936. It depicts Superman rescuing innocent hostages from kidnappers. This pre-dates Action Comics #1 by nearly three years.His powers include Super Strength (to the point where he can push planets), Super Speed (several times faster than light speed), Flight, X-Ray Vision, Heat Vision, Super Breath, Freeze Breath, Nigh-Invulnerability (surviving supernova explosions and black-holes), Super Senses, and possibly others, depending on the interpretation.On the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, he and the series he stars in almost universally tends toward the idealistic side, being the iconic Cape.Along with Batman and Wonder Woman, he's one of the Big Three of The DCU. He has also been a member of the Justice League of America on and off (mostly on) since its founding.
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Notable Superman Comic Book Series:
Action Comics: Anthology series for most of its run, starring Superman as the lead feature plus various backup characters.
Superman: Superman's self-named series. Renamed Adventures of Superman between the Byrne reboot of the late 80s and the mid-2000s, when it resumed its original title and historic issue numbering (and a second Superman title created after the Byrne reboot was canceled).
World's Finest Comics: Featured regular teamups with Batman.
Exile and Eradication: After sentencing the General Zod and his accomplices of a Pocket Universe to death, Superman is consumed with guilt and leaves the Earth to do some soul-searching. When he returns, he must deal with the destructive artifact known as the Eradicator.
The Death of Superman: Superman is killed by a monster known as Doomsday. Four other characters claim to be the successors to him.
Emperor Joker: The Joker cons Mr. Mxyzptlk into giving him Mxy's reality warping powers and uses them to turn the world upside-down and repeatedly kill Batman. With Batman out of action, Superman has to stop him.
Up Up and Away: Set immediately after 52 Superman lost his powers in Infinite Crisis, Clark is helping bring Luthor to justice as a mild-mannered reporter, and has enough success that Lex hires metahuman killers to murder him. Luckily, Clark's powers start to return just as Lex begins a scheme to destroy Metropolis using Kryptonian technology. Notable for beginning a new era for Superman, one with several Silver Age aspects brought back in continuity, such as Luthor back to be a Mad Scientist rather than a Corrupt Corporate Executive. (To be sure, the post-Crisis Luthor was always as brilliant as the pre-Crisis Luthor, but post-Crisis Luthor didget that check in the new timeline. However, he couldn't remain a Villain with Good Publicity forever, so more recently, he's had to use science instead of wealth and power as his weapons... reminiscent of the old days when he didn't have wealth and power.)
Last Son: Superman discovers a Kryptonian child in a strange pod that falls to Earth, and, as his adoptive parents did with him, decides to raise this child with Lois Lane. Along the way, the child, named Chris Kent by Clark, discovers the joys of living like a human and having Flying Brick powers. This story also brings the Kryptonian General Zod into prominence (not the Soviet who was mutated by cosmic radiation), as well as canonizing his accomplices Ursa and Non from Superman II.
Brainiac: Superman fights the actual Brainiac for the first time (every other time, it was a remotely controlled robot probe or some other technological method). This story reintroduces the Bottled City of Kandor to post-Crisis continuity, reintroduces many elements associated with Silver Age Brainiac and leads directly into New Krypton below. This arc was also adapted to Superman Unbound.
The New Krypton arc, where Superman has to deal with the death of his father, his loyalty being divided between humanity and the 100,000 Kryptonian survivors he's manage to rescue, and a government/military conspiracy to kill him, led by his father-in-lawnote OK, he doesn't actually know the weak and unmanly nerd Clark Kent that his daughter married is the dangerous and powerful alien menace that threatens Earth, humanity and mom's apple pie are one in the same, but he's still Supes' father-in-law..
The Black Ring arc & Reign of Doomsday arc, the former of which starred not Superman, but archenemy Lex Luthor on a quest to achieve godhood, and the latter of which, taking place simultaneously, saw Luthor using Doomsday as a pawn against not only Superman, but his entire family and supporting cast. Featuring crossovers from many other DC characters, including Superman foes Brainiac and (duh) Doomsday, it was the last Superman/Luthor battle to take place prior to the New 52 reboot.
Grant Morrison's run on the rebooted Action Comics. The re-re-re-revised origin as of the New 52 reboot. It once again decanonizes Clark's time as Superboy (but thankfully avoids another snarl with the Legion by establishing Legion presence in Clark's youth), having him take up heroics as a young adult, and starts him off as a Hero with Bad Publicity with him developing his powers over time similar to Man of Steel.
Krypton Returns. Another crossover event which also serves as the sequel to H'El on Earth. When H'El travels in time to prevent Krypton's destruction, Superman, Superboy and Supergirl travel to the past to stop him.
Lois and Clark: The first TV series to pick up on the John Byrne-era post-Crisis idea of Clark as the real person and Superman as the disguise, and of Lex Luthor as a corrupt CEO. Also, this series focuses more on the title characters' relationship.
Smallville: One of the more unique takes on Superman, it follows young Clark Kent's journey from adolescence to adulthood and explores his reasons for becoming Superman. Currently the US's longest running sci-fi show.
Superman Returns, a film supposedly in the same continuity but ignoringSuperman III and IV, starring Brandon Routh. Met with reasonable success, though not enough to warrant a sequel. However, the Superman costume created for the movie would later be reused 4 years later in Smallville's tenth season.
Look, Up in the Sky!: The Amazing Story of Superman, a 2006 non-fiction documentary of Superman, from the first comic books up to the early 21st century.
Novels starring the character:
The Adventures of Superman (1942) by George Lowther, a retelling of Superman's origin followed by a story about the character involving pirate ghosts. In this book, his adopted parents were named Sarah and Eben, rather than the more familiar Martha and Jonathan.
The Life and Death of Superman (1993) by Roger Stern. As the name may imply, it's a retelling of the hero's death at the hands of Doomsday and return following the presence of four impostors. It also included some details about Superman's backstory which is written to mirror the continuity of the comics at the time.
Superman: Doomsday & Beyond (1993) by Louise Simonson. Also an adaptation of Superman's death & resurrection, but intended for a younger audience.
Animated movies starring the character:
Superman: Brainiac Attacks- Intended as a quick tie-in movie to Superman Returns. While the action was good and story serviceable, the film was heavily criticized for its portrayal of Lex Luthor.
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies - Based on the comic storyline of the same name, it features the World's Finest going up against President Lex Luthor after Luthor frames Superman for a crime he didn't commit.
Superman vs. the Elite - Based on the comic story "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?" Superman clashes with The Elite, Expies of The Authority, whose brutal style of heroics wins them a lot of fans—and makes the public question if Superman is still relevant.
The Earth One contemporary version of Superman by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis as a young man, similar to Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man except that this series comes out bi-annually in original graphic novel format. Compare to the New 52 version of Superman.
The 1930s version of the character, or more specifically of Clark Kent, seen in Tom De Haven's 2005 novel It's Superman!
Parodies of the character:
Super-Turtle, a Funny Animal turtle with Superman's powers, who appeared in various half-page humor strips in various Silver Age DC Comics.
See also Supergirl, his Distaff Counterpart, and Krypto the Superdog, his Kryptonian dog.Also worth mentioning: It's a Bird..., a graphic novel written by Steven T. Seagle which is a meditation on the Superman mythology through the eyes of someone who's been tasked with writing new installments of the series, and isn't sure he can do it because he doesn't feel anything in common with Superman. Then he really begins to think about the whole thing...
Alliterative Name: Commonly alliterating the letter L; Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, and so on.
Clark Kent is not alliterative in writing but if said out loud uses the same k/hard-c phoneme.
Clark Kent's and Lois Lane's alliterative names may actually be the Trope Codifiers that started the trend of comic book characters (and sci-fi characters in general) being given alliterative names.
All Just a Dream: The first issue after the Death and Return storyline had Lois waking up to find Clark getting out the shower, causally commenting that she must have had a bad dream. Based on her reaction, the TV show Dallas was indeed broadcast in the DCU.
Anti True Sight: Superman's X-Ray vision can be blocked by lead. However, Superman once used this to his advantage when The Joker tried to distract him with lead lined coffins planted throughout Metropolis; a quick wide beam scan made them stand out instantly as opaque objects.
Assimilation Backfire: The villain Parasite is a power thief who also gains the victim's weaknesses. This means whenever he steals Superman's powerset, Superman can actually beat him by using kryptonite.
It's generally a good idea to keep this trope in mind when dealing with The Man of Steel. He may be the quintessential nice-guy, but he's also generally considered to be the most powerful being on the planet. The rare occasions that his (rather immense) self-control slips are pretty damn terrifying.
Beware the Superman: As of the New 52 reboot. Superman himself tends to meet this attitude with confusion - he doesn't see himself this way at all doesn't understand why someone would.
Prior to the New52, he understood perfectly why people would feel this way. Part of the reason he wears bright colors, no mask, and tries so hard to maintain a reputation as a boy scout is so that innocent people will understand that they don't need to be terrified of him — making him the exact opposite of Batman, a mortal man who expends tremendous effort to ensure that people are terrified of him. The first person to point out this difference between the two was Mr. Mxyzptlk.
Big Good: He is traditionally the chairman (and often acknowledged as the most powerful member) of the Justice League, and when not acting in his capacity as a Leaguer most other heroes tend to defer to his authority and judgment if only out of respect.
Bizarre Alien Senses: Superman has all kinds of visions, not taking into account heat. X-Ray, microscopic, soul (Yeah that's a thing now.)
Blessed with Suck: Post-Crisis, this is often how Superman views his own powers. While he is as strong as a god, he's also, well, strong as a god. His best writers have made him into quite a psychological thought-experiment: on the one hand, he's terrified to not lose self-control or someone (or many, many people) may die; on the other, he often hates himself for still being mortal enough to not be the god everyone wants him to be (such as when he can't save everyone who cries out for him - especially because he hears them... all of them).
He knows he cannot save them all. And he still tries.
This idea led to one of the most iconic Superman speeches, in the series finale of the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, where Superman is fighting Darkseid and declares:
I feel like I live in a world made of... cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can't you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am.
It's also been shown in various series That his worst nightmare is losing control, becoming more and more powerful so much so that he can't even keep it under key. Supes views his own abilities as blessed with suck because he does grow stronger, and with growing stronger means gaining more fine motor controls, controls he's afraid that one day he won't have. Blessed with suck indeed!
Brainwashed and Crazy: Given how long running his series has been it's inevitable that this trope has come up a few times. Perhaps the most famous recent event to feature this is during the OMAC Project storyline, where Max Lord is controlling him to demonstrate why superheroes can't be trusted (since they can be turned against Earth by Mind Control, and the next guy might not be him and have more sinister plans in mind) and tells Wonder Woman that the only way to stop him is to kill him- and to the horror of Supes and the rest of the League, she does just that.
Butt Monkey: In the Pre-Crisis Silver Age, as depicted on www.superdickery.com, almost anyone that ol' Supes encounters becomes a Butt Monkey — he forces Lois and Jimmy to marry apes, leaves civilians in mortal peril (or just refuses to untie them) while he goes to hunt the bad guys....
Ursa, Non, and the growing sunstone crystals from the films.
Chloe Sullivan, from Smallville. Originally created because Clark needed an Intrepid Reporter friend, but putting Lois from the get-go would trigger everyone's sensors. DC Comics later bought the rights to use her character, apparently just to prevent misuse from a third party. She was officially brought into the comics in Action Comics #893 in 2010.
Smallville's Lionel Luthor, Lex's father, has been brought into continuity as well. Although Lex had obviously always had a father, albeit barely-glimpsed in flashbacks, in recent years his father has officially been referred to as "Lionel," and in Superman: Birthright he was depicted as having a beard and long hair just like on Smallville. Recently, he reappeared in the Blackest Night story arc to get revenge on Lex for murdering him.
His flight power comes from the Fleischer cartoons where it was introduced because the animators found it easier to depict than his original jumping power.
The truly funny thing about all this? Superman himself began life as a Captain Ersatz of John Carter of Mars. "Leap tall buildings in a single bound" wasn't always just a poetic turn of phrase, when he made his first appearance Superman literally jumped, he couldn't actually fly. His feats of strength were also much more in line with those that John Carter could perform on Mars. He was basically just John Carter in reverse, coming from an alien planet to Earth and getting enhanced strength and durability. Over time with Power Creep, Power Seep (and, in the Silver Age, New Powers as the Plot Demands), as well as Character Development he became a much more distinct character, but in the beginning he was pretty much just John Carter ON EARTH.
Cartwright Curse: Mostly averted, notwithstanding some stories taking place in the distant future in which Lois has passed away.
An interesting subversion takes place in Superman: the Movie where Lois dies and Superman flies back in time to save her.
Superman: "This looks like a job for Superman!" and "Up, up, and away!"
In the early years he would often say "Seconds to Act!" before jumping in to save someone Just in Time.
In the Silver Age, he often used the phrase "Great Scott," but it's far less common these days.
Perry White: "Don't call me Chief!!!! and "Great Caesar's ghost!"
"Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" has been shown as an In-Universe catch phrase. Metropolitans no longer speak these words because they actually think the blue and red figure in the sky is a bird or a plane, but because those are their lines.
Characterization Marches On: Way, way back when Supes was first created, he was far more rough and aggressive than his modern counterpart. While he was never as cold-blooded as the early Batman, the Superman of the 1930s had no problem using his strength to the fullest and never seemed to care that fatalities would presumably occur, although these were seldom shown explicitly on the page. This came to an end late in 1940, and ever since then, Supes has been the Thou Shalt Not Kill boyscout we all know and love.
Chest Insignia: The big S in a diamond shield, at first just standing for Superman, later explained as being the symbol of the house of El.
Motif Merger: Chest insignias are used for Superman/Batman crossovers.
Clingy Jealous Girl: Silver-Age Lois and Lana, though not Lori, Luma, or Lyla. Chloe does this for a little while in the early seasons of Smallville.
Cloning Blues: Averted completely in the first (non-canon) Superman Red/Superman Blue story. When he accidentally clones himself, the two of them eliminate all evil and turn earth into a paradise, and restore Krypton. It even resolves the Lois/Lana Love Triangle! A later version of the story played the trope more straight.
Bizarro. Pre Crisis, Bizarro was always played as sympathetic, being dangerous only because of his stupidity. These days, he's often portrayed as an out-and out killer.
Continuity Snarl: In the early days, Superman's adventures were rather inconsistent, which was common at the time. After D.C. Comics had created Earth-2 where earlier versions of some of their superheroes existed, it was decided that there was a Superman on that Earth who was more consistent with the earliest stories (was never Superboy, worked for the Daily Star, etc. That satisfied most fans, but others were quick to point out that not all of the inconsistencies could be so-explained (Kryptonite was introduced years after the Superboy retcon, which was decreed years after his newspaper and boss' names were changed) and the hardest of the hardcore insist that there was at-least one other alternate Earth to explain this.
Jimmy Olsen who, due to Comic Book Time and RetCons, repeatedly goes back and forth between being a journalist in his early twenties and a tag-along photographer in his mid teens fetching coffee.
The possibility of Superman having children with Lois Lane, or any other female human for that matter. Some writers go with the basic: DNA structures being completely different from each other, making it impossible to make children. Others goes with the Power of Love: different species can't stop true love so children can be made, no problems. Or Take a Third Option: it becomes possible with the help of advanced science.
Determinator: Oooooooh, just ASK Supes to give up if you're a villain. Let's see how long you last afterwards.
Devil in Disguise: In the comics from the early 90s, it was revealed that publisher Colin Thornton, who had hired Clark Kent away from The Daily Planet to serve as editor for Newstime, was a mortal disguise used by the demon Lord Satanus.
Early-Installment Weirdness: Superman wasn't a very nice person in quite a few older stories. In particular, this showed up a lot in Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. (Though this has been exaggerated greatly by out-of-context covers, panels, and pages.)
He beat up and/or killed (usually off-panel, but not always) humans quite frequently in his earliest appearances.
Also, his powers were added over time and his costume was all over the map. He used to wear lace up sandals instead of boots and his chest logo was anything from a basic triangle to a coat of arms. The merchandise was even worse in the early days as they couldn't even get his color scheme right (sometimes his costume was primarily yellow instead of blue.)
His arguably most famous power (flying) didn't even appear until the early 40's, around the time of the Superman Theatrical Cartoons. Before then, he could only leap tall bounds (the creators used the metaphor of a grasshopper's relative high jumps).
Eating Optional: In many incarnations, Supes doesn't need to eat, but often will out of habit or because he enjoys the taste.
Evolutionary Levels: The first Canonexplanation for Superman's powers in Action Comics #1. His unnamed planet was centuries ahead of Earth on the evolutionary scale. Originally, he had been conceived as being the last post-human from the end of time, rather than an alien from another planet.
This exact origin is brought back in the Superman: Red Son story but it is not revealed until the end. Superman in this series is ironically a distant descendant of Lex Luthor with the "L" suffix being a contraction of his name.
Executive Meddling: In 1940, Jerry Siegal wrote a story called "The K-Metal from Krypton," that would have introduced an early version of kryptonite and Superman revealing his secret identity to Lois. Siegal's publishers nixed this story as damaging to the franchise and made it clear the Status Quo Is God that hold for years while both story innovations would have to wait for years.
Eye Beams: Heat vision. Originally this was just his X-Ray Vision turned up full blast, but eventually the heat effect got its own name.
Face-Heel Turn: In some continuities, Lex used to be a pretty nice guy and Clark's good friend, but it was a long time ago.
More recently, there's Ruin, a.k.a. Professor Emil Hamilton
Fail O'Suckyname: One comic featured a retired villain called "The Molester," which he intended to mean "The Annoyance."
Fantastic Naming Convention: Kryptonians are typically given one syllable names and have one syllable family names, such as the lead character Kal-El.
Fantastic Racism: In Superman: Godfall, the Kandorians are incredibly xenophobic and racist against all non-native Kandorians, especially Empireths, who are mutants with psychic powers as well as the typical Kryptonian powers under a yellow sun.
Fictional Political Party: Lex Luthor represented the Tomorrow Party when he ran for President during the 2000 Election. This party was explicitly not the Republicans or the Democrats which do exist in the DC Universe.
Flanderization: Originally, Superman was something of a tough guy tackling (literally) wife beaters, war profiteers and abusive orphanages. By the end of the forties, however, he was the leading citizen of Metropolis, battling larger-than-life villains.
Also when he was first introduced, he was a real scrapper and not afraid to get in the face of authority figures. That changed around World War II along with Batman, however by the end of the fifties, hew as flanderized into the ultimate boy scout and establishment figure. By the '80s, he'd become somewhat more morally ambiguous and a bit more cynical about people in power, especially after the Man of Steel reboot.
Cat Grant was introduced as sort of a Good Bad GirlBroken Bird. Someone who had a bit of an immoral past that she was trying to move beyond, and was looking for a good man like Clark Kent to be her anchor. Nowadays she's portrayed as a Lovable Sex Maniac at best and just Really Gets Around at worst. It's been mentioned that this is a facade Cat is using because of the pain of losing her son so many years ago.
Or sometimes the same reason. Post-Birthright, it's established that Clark has vivid, otherworldly blue eyes, the kind you immediately notice and can never forget. The glasses mute them into a much more normal shade. Clark is in fact more attractive when he takes the glasses off... and that's why they're on in the first place.
Third-rate villain Encantadora is from Spain and the writers will remind you of it by generously peppering her dialogues with unnecessary Spanish words and phrases. It gets really annoying after a couple of pages...
the 2000 Superman Annual was part of the "Planet DC" event, featuring familiar heroes going to foreign countries and teaming up with new heroes from those countries. Superman teamed up with three Mexican heroes, Acrata, Iman, and El Muerto, all of whom are extremely prone to this; El Muerto describes his amazing stealth as allowing him to disappear and reappear at will, "like a fantasmo."
Green Rocks: Good ol' kryptonite, of course. Note that pre-Smallville, it was really only good for Kryptonian-killing, so it wasn't Green Rocks by that trope's definition.
Well, from 1985 until 2005, this was true, kryptonite was only good for hurting Kryptonians (and, about as quickly as realistic radiation, humans). Until the Crisis on Infinite Earths, though, a number of different colors of kryptonite existed, and they each had a different effect on Kryptonians, and some even had an effect on humans. Some of them were brought back after Infinite Crisis.
Holding Out for a Hero: The stories have explored this on many an occasion, Supes himself seems particularly worried that the world will grow overreliant on him and become unable to function if anything happens to him. As a result, he holds off on stopping most crimes and natural disasters; his general philosophy is that if humanity can handle it on their own, he's going to let them try. This is arguably Lex Luthor's beef with Superman... but only because Luthor wants humanity overreliant and unable to function without him.
In Superman: Red Son, wherein a communist Superman had no problems with using his abilities to prevent every bad thing possible (from each according to his abilities and all that), people did indeed grow too reliant upon him to solve all their problems. Eventually cars stopped being manufactured with seatbelts — the citizens expected Superman to save them if they got into a wreck. (Ironically enough, Lex Luthor opposed him on those grounds in that reality, too.)
Professor Gordon: Say you were somewhere really out of the way, Miss Lane. In Zaire. In the abandoned shaft of a diamond mine. The mine caved in. You had about an hour's supply of air. Absolutely no one knew where you were, and even if they did there would be no chance of getting you out in time. What goes through your mind? Lois Lane: I wish Superman would stop stalling. I've got a deadline to meet.
The whole Superman holding back ordeal started in the Bronze age with Elliot S. Maggin's Must There Be A Superman? from Superman #247. In it, The Guardians of the Universe subtly imply to him that his superheroics are causing human culture to stagnate and to cut it out. He's shaken by it and decides to hold back on the problems that regular humans would be fine with handling.
It can be said that Superman is trying to defy this trope by using his status as The Paragon. He is supposed to empower humanity, not to be a living crutch.
Humans Need Aliens: Superman is the classic example. Think of all the times Superman has saved the day, a lot of those times he saved humanity from extinction. Humanity would have been long gone without him.
Made more apparent when he defeated Doomsday as he was the only hero capable/willing to defeat the monster. Without him humanity would have perished at this monster's hands.
Deconstructed in a Bronze Age storyline where Superman finds himself Brought Down to Normal in his Clark Kent identity and decides to experiment with living a week as just one identity. As Clark, he sees a subway being flooded, and realises he could do nothing to stop it now that he's powerless. Fortunately, the fire department arrives to take care of the crisis, and Clark realises that the world always got along fine before there was a Superman.
Immortality: The type varies by series. He's always hard to kill and is immune to earth diseases and toxins and generally ages really slowly if at all. In some continuities he continues to get more powerful with age.
Incredible Shrinking Man: The Bottle City of Kandor. For that matter, Brainiac's shrink ray that put it in the bottle in the first place.
In Name Only: If Kevin Smith is to be believed, Jon Peters' Superman Lives, a movie that was never made, would have had Superman's iconic outfit be replaced by an all black one, Superman wouldn't fly, and he'd fight a Giant Spider, it would have also given Lex a pet named "Chewie", as well as making Brainiac fight polar bears. This is true folks. Fortunately, Kevin Smith tried to make a script that worked the changes in while still throwing in the traditional Superman feel, but Superman Lives was never made to this day.
Inner Monologue: Because most of his adventures are solo affairs, so he has no one to banter Expo Speak with, Superman used to use a lot of thought bubbles back in the day. Now that thought bubbles are less popular, he doesn't do it as much, except in Superman/Batman, where he and Bats are the narrators.
Insect Queen: In the Silver Age, Lana Lang sometimes gained insect attributes to become a heroine aptly known as "Insect Queen." In a nod to this, there was a Modern Age villain known as Insect Queen, ruler of an imperial group of insects called the All-Hive (not remarkably different from the alien incarnations of Queen Bee) who reshaped her body to be like Lana.
Invincible Hero: Most writers take pains to avert this trope, but Supes is hard to write unless Kryptonite Is Everywhere, and that gets old fast. Alan Moore was a master at finding compelling stories for him. The best Superman stories (Kingdom Come, among others) thus tend to be the ones that focus on the problems his powers can't fix. A perennial favorite is "Sure, you're invincible. But everyone else isn't." Also leads to Blessed with Suck.
Lighter and Softer: Since the late Golden Age Of Comic Books, this is Superman's perceived personality and settings in relation to any mainstream superhero you may think of. It's also sort of a Base Breaker since Supes' detractors find him dorky and always lagging with the current comic book trends because of this, but on the other hand, his fans see this very trope as one of Superman's most endearing traits that also sets him apart from the rest of the DC Comics universe and even the company's competitors.
To this very day, there have been multiple attempts to make Superman Darker and Edgier, but the character has survived all of them relatively unchanged.
Loves My Alter Ego: Lois Lane (used to be the Trope Namer. While Lois is known for more than just that, she is the iconic example.) At least, until the Post-Crisis era when she finally learned the truth.
Ludicrous Speed: Superman's max speed has never been recorded, but he can easily go several times faster than light speed, to the point where he warps space-time, allowing him to time-travel.
Mind Screw: A story arc in Superman #307-309 written by Gerry Conway was about Superman being tricked by Supergirl into thinking that they are actually Earth-born mutants (because Superman was being a Soapbox Sadie over potential ecological disasters).
Minnesota Nice: Raised in Kansas, but the idea still applies. Supes is one of the nicest of all superheroes.
Mistaken for Own Murderer: In "The Monster from Krypton", red kryptonite transformed Superman into a dragon-like creature called a drang. When he held his cape in his mouth to communicate the change, Jimmy Olsen thought the creature had killed him and called in Supergirl and the army.
My Dear Idiot: Lois Lane's use of "Smallville" for Clark Kent in some continuities goes from insulting to affectionate over the course of time.
My Greatest Failure: At various points in his history, Superman has had the bottled city of Kandor to deal with. More recently, he's had the only time he's ever had to kill someone; this caused him to actually leave Earth for a while. During the Silver Age and the Bronze Age, Superman's biggest failure was arguably when he destroyed Lex Luthor's protoplasmic lifeform that he created as well as causing his hair to fall out when he was trying to rescue Luthor from a lab fire when they were teens. Sure it was an accident and mostly not his fault (Luthor caused the fire and Superboy had no way of knowing what was inside at the time), but it didn't help that before the fire, Superboy jokingly said he could spy on Luthor to find out what he was working on. Luthor believed Superboy destroyed his experiment out of jealousy and dedicated his life to destroying him and proving he was better. Luthor had the scientific genius to make a cure for Kryptonite as well as unshrink Kandor, so if things had gone differently, Superman would have had a lot less problems in his life and an ally against evil as well.
Nowadays, Superman also feeling really guilty of being unable to help his childhood friend, Mon-El, conquer his deadly weakness for lead and leave the Phantom Zone where he was cast into at his request as the only way to save his life. A painful one for Superman happened just after his resurrection. After the excitement and relief of him returning from the dead, he and Lois raced off to Paris for a getaway to catch up. While he was gone, the Toyman kidnapped a bunch of kids, including the son of co-worker Cat Grant, Adam. Adam attempted to lead the other kids away, but Toyman caught them and slew them all. Superman was so distraught over this, it lead to him vowing never to take another vacation again.
My Suit Is Also Super: Superman has no problem diving into the center of the sun without even leaving scorch marks on his spandex booties, so having bullets bounce off without ripping the material isn't exactly attention-getting. Pre Crisis, this was explained by his wearing a "super suit" made from Kryptonian materials. Post-Crisis, it was explained that the same force that made his skin nigh-impregnable transferred the quality to skintight costumes (thus allowing for dramatic rips of the cape, as well).
Similarly, his glasses are fashioned from pieces of the windshield of the rocket that brought him to Earth, so as to allow his heat vision to be used without melting his glasses. Although whether his Eye Beams generate heat throughout their length or only where they converge varies according to artist and writer. He's been shown to be able to generate points of heat within objects (heat vision heart massage, anyone?) while others show parallel holes where his heat vision burned its way in.
The pre-New 52 canonical explanation is that Superman has a bioaura that protects his suit. He's even extended it a few times to save people.
In the New 52, Superman wears skintight Kryptonian armor that is a nigh-invulnerable as he is. Prior to finding the armor, he wore Civvie Spandex that would tear apart when he was damaged.
Mythology Gag: In at least two continuities, Superman turned evil—one of of which involved serving almightyDarkseid. Similarly, in at least three continuities—one of which is the mainstream DCU—Lex Luthor aspires to or becomes President Evil.
Much of the new Action Comics #1 is this to the original. This is a young brash Superman who is more activist like the original, his costume isn't finalized, his powers are mostly limited to the ones he had in the original Action Comics #1 (though the new version already has his heat vision and x-rays so this might also be a nod to Smallville), he even works for George Taylor at the Daily Star like he did in the original (they only changed the name to the Daily Planet because at the time there was an actual Daily Star and there were trademark concerns.)
Never Be a Hero: Nine times out of ten, when someone gets superpowers it's not a good thing.
New Old Flame: Both Lana Lang and Lori Lemaris were introduced this way.
New Powers as the Plot Demands: Between 1939 and 1986, he was the king of this trope in the comics. At first, he was basically only super strong and super fast with the ability to leap great distances. Then he developed super hearing, x-ray vision, telescopic vision, microscopic vision, infer-red vision, the ability to fly, the ability to breathe in space, super breath (which was sometimes a freezing agent and other times, simply forceful enough to blow something away), time travel (usually in spectral form), super hypnotism, and heat vision, while his strength and speed had no apparent limits. An attempt to limit his powers came and went in 1970, but in 1986, the John Byrne reboot narrowed down what his powers were (time travel and hypnotism were gone) and rarely did any depiction deviate from this.
The Christopher Reeve movies were notorious for this, as he and/or other Kryptonians often displayed telekinesis, the ability to teleport and non-spectral time travel. While the comics narrowed down his powers in 1986, the fourth film in 1987 added still more powers, such as the ability to speak in space, and a "vision" power that allowed him to fix the Great Wall of China after a battle, not to mention his partial clone Nuclear Man was able to blast fire from his hands. Apparently, he could even transfer his ability to breathe in space to a woman whose hand he's holding.
Oh, and then there's that S-thing he throws at Non in the second movie, although there's debate over whether it was a power or a weapon.
Even the 1950s TV series had this trope, as in one episode he's able to phase through a wall (after innumerable occasions where he'd crash through one) and in another episode, he splits himself into two.
Nice Hat: Nice Headband; A headband was the equivalent of a nice men's hat on Pre Crisis Krypton, but also a symbol of citizenship; convicts like the Phantom Zoners were forbidden to wear them in public. They were traditionally an article of men's clothing, so Superman did a bit of a double take when Kara started wearing one when they became fashionable in the 80's.
Superman: That man [Batman] won't quit so long as he can draw breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I've got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made ofcardboard. Always taking care not to break something, to break some one. Never allowing myself to lose control, even for a moment. Someone could die. But you can take it, can't you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose, and show you just how powerful I really am. [Lets loose with a punch that distorts with a sonic boom and sends Darkseid flying... real far.]
No Man Should Have This Power: In "The Day the Cheering Stopped", Superman gets a magical sword which was apparently created at the dawn of time. It gives him incredible power (even for pre-Crisis Superman) and helps him defeat the villain. In the end he realizes the incredible power the sword will give him and feels that it will make him an all powerful protector. He decides he doesn't want this power and throws it into space.
Old Retainer: In the Post-Crisis reboot, Superman eventually inherits his father's faithful robot servant Kelex.
One Super One Powerset: Among other things, Superman has a weakness to Kryptonite. He also has a Kryptonite-Proof Suit. You'd expect him to wear it pretty much all the time or at least line his costume with lead to reduce the effects. However, he brings it out only when he's fighting a villain that specifically uses Kryptonite as a weapon and expects it in advance.
The Ur Example in comics has to be Superman's Earth parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. While Kal-El would always have powers by virtue of being Kryptonian by birth, the comics stress repeatedly that it was the Kents' values that made Superman the hero he is. Lampshaded in the "Reign of the Supermen" series with regard to the Jerk Ass Superboy clone:
Jonathan Kent: "No son of ours would act like that, powers or no!"
Also Nightwing's, if Nightwing: Year One is any indication. After Batman fires him, he goes to see Clark. It's not hard to interpret it as a child getting away from his abusive father (the story portrays Batman as a Jerk Ass) and instead staying with his mother (the caring, nice Superman).
Photo Doodle Recognition: In one pre-Crisis story, Superman is to be featured on a postage stamp. He goes to great lengths to make sure that a side shot of him is chosen, rather than a full-face view, because if the stamp was postmarked in a town with a double-O in its name, the letters might land on his face in such a way that they resemble a pair of glasses, which might give away his secret identity. Presumably kids in the DC universe never doodle glasses and mustaches on newspaper photos, which might also be a bit of a clue.
Lex Luthor, from 2000 till roughly 2004. Arguably, one of the most iconic and interesting character developments that Lex Luthor has gone through over the years.
The idea of Lex becoming President of the United States was reused in Superman: Red Son. It has also been hinted several times that this will also happen in the future of Smallville's version of the story.
Psychic Powers: In the past "Psionic Superman" was one common explanation for Superman's Required Secondary Powers. He doesn't have super strength, he just lifts things with his mind and needs to touch them to use it (hence why he doesn't just rip his "handle" off whenever he carries something), "x-ray" vision is clairvoyance. This is the only ability of his clone in The Death of Superman.
Kon-El (a.k.a. Conner Kent/Superboy) has an interesting variation on this. While not actual psychic powers, he does posses what has been called "tactile telekinesis" which has been used to explain a number of his abilities like Super Strength and Flight. An added benefit of tactile telekinesis is that it gives him the ability to control the things he comes into contact with just like standard telekinesis (which it pretty much is honestly though Superboy's can only be activated through touch).
Reimagining The Artifact: Clark's job as a reporter was considered an artifact for decades, which led to him being recast as a TV reporter. However, the problem was solved by asserting Clark's love of writing, a craft that not only allows him to do a social good just as important as his superhero activities, but also allows him to earn a living that feels like he does not have a unfair advantage.
Retcon: Many. That trope's page lists eight separate issues on which the character's history has changed, and some of those have gone back and forth more than once. And that's just counting retcons, not changes to the status quo going forward.
Rogues Gallery: Lex Luthor, Darkseid, Brainiac, Bizarro, Mr Mxyzptlk, Metallo, Toyman, Mongul, the Parasite, General Zod, etc.
Romantic Runner-Up: Poor, poor Lana. Also, Superman himself wound up this to Lori, after she married an alien (an alien merman, natch). Poor Supes had actually proposed to Lori back in college, and she turned him down.
Sacrificial Planet: The final arc of John Byrne's run involves Kryptonian villains from a "pocket reality" stripping its Earth bare of all life and even destroying its atmosphere as a show of power and then threatening to come to the "real" Earth and do the same.
Scout Out: One Justice League comic involved a situation where the heroes had to tie something off with a rope. Superman effortlessly makes an impressive knot. Someone compliments him on it, and he says, "Well, I was in the Boy Scouts," earning the comment, "Of course you were..."
Second Super-Identity: Back in the early '90s, the Superman comic books had a super-antihero named Gangbuster. After a year, he turned out to be Superman, with a trauma-induced separate personality.
Secret Secret Keeper: Pre Crisis, childhood friend Pete Ross was the first person to figure out Clark's identity. He didn't let him know he knew until they were both adults. Post-Crisis, the trope still applies, but Pete figured it out as an adult.
Lori also figured out his identity long before telling him she knew; she's telepathic, after all.
Self-Imposed Challenge: Superman in his Clark Kent identity enjoys working as a newspaper reporter because actually writing good newspaper articles is something that doesn't depend upon his powers. While his powers may help him get the story, writing the story well enough to appear in the Daily Planet is something he actually has to put serious effort into. For him this an enjoyable and welcome challenge.
Many many times throughout the years in the various media he's been depicted in, Superman or, sometimes, an Expy has been shown holding a car above his head pointed slightly downward in reference to the image on the cover of Action Comics #1, his first appearance. Most of these shout outs do not show the car being smashed into a hill side with people still in it the way Superman was in that iconic cover.
Also, an episode where Superman finds himself in the middle of a battle between a titanic Metallo and a Super Robot. With all the myriad shout outs from other giant monsters that show up to complicate matters (including a rather literal Gorilla-Whale), you'd think the Robot would be based on Mazinger Z, and it is... due to the fact that it bears an even stronger resemblance to G. Kaiser.
In an episode of Smallville, Tess Mercer points out that a Superhero might think twice about being a reporter, as their coworkers make a job out of REVEALING SECRETS, among other things. She says this in response to a character that's more or less read off the list of reasons why being a reporter is a Stock Superhero Day Job.
Strong as They Need to Be: Supes' strength seems to be all over the place sometimes, writers differentiated it by making scales of power between the other earths, in which the Superman from that universe isn't as strong as the Superman from the other one; Crisis on Infinite Earths came and mostly made the presence and worth of other earths useless, with this Supes was (in theory) given a consistent power level; still it's common to see writers making notes about how Superman can destroy Earth with his strongest punch and run at the speed of light, things that only the ridiculously overpowered Silver Age (Pre-Crisis) Superman could do.
Superboy: In 1944, the character of Superboy was introduced in the form of Superman as a boy. It took a while before it was clear that this was canon—a 1948 retelling of his origin didn't mention it—but by the '50s, it was clear that he had—in fact—grown up as Superboy until 1986's Man of Steel miniseries, when it was established that he had NOT grown up as Superboy. However, this reboot/retcon clashed with the history of the team Legion of Super Heroes, so it was established that there was a Superboy who was part of an "alternative time loop." In 2009's Secret Origin (basically a reboot except that it was published after its ensuing continuity had been established), it was posited that Clark Kent WAS Superboy growing up, and in fact, the Legion had visited him as in the early comics. However, after the 2011 reboot, it was established that he was NOT Superboy and that's how it stands.
In 1993, his partial-clone Superboy—later known as Conner Kent as well as Kon-El—was introduced as part of Reign of the Supermen though he didn't officially adopt that name until after the story wrapped up. This character has been adapted into Young Justice and all adaptations of the death & return saga.
Alternate Superboys in the comics include the aforementioned Superboy of the alternate time loop, as well as Superboy Prime who was introduced in a tie-in to Crisis on Infinite Earths but lingered in a forgotten dimension before reemerging as the villain of Infinite Crisis in 2005.
Superboy was a figure in the Filmation and Hannah Barbara cartoons that featured Superman between 1966 and 1986.
Superboy was, however, ignored in live-action versions during that period, with the exception of an unreleased pilot episode for a planned black & white TV series. Not long after DC had established that Superman was never Superboy, the producers of Superman: the Movie aired a Superboy TV series that lasted four years, but was never aired in reruns and was only recently released in home media. Interestingly, it was cancelled in 1992, the year before the "new" Superboy was introduced in the comics. This was a precursor to Smallville that ran throughout the '00s.
Finally, incarnations where Superman appears young enough to be called "Superboy" but is still called Superman include the animated series Legion of Super Heroes and Superman: Earth One.
Super Dickery: Essentially the trope namer. His covers in the Silver Age often made him look like a complete jerk, usually for no reason
Super Family Team: With Supergirl (his cousin), Superboy (his clone) and Steel (a friend).
Terra Deforming: One Silver Age comic shows the Fortress of Solitude surrounded by buildings, because future humans have intentionally melted the polar ice caps in order to colonize the Arctic. Superman is upset by this, not because of the catastrophic effect on the environment, but because he doesn't have privacy anymore.
And when his alternate self violates this rule in the DCAU, beafraid.
Tightrope Walking: In Superman's early appearances he couldn't fly; he got around Metropolis by running quickly along telephone wires. He explains on more than one occasion that as long as he jumps over the connectors at the telephone poles he's in no danger of electrocution.
Tranquil Fury: Very rare but used in some of his more memorable stories. Used against an Authority-Expy group in "What's Wrong with Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" with disturbing effect.
Tribute to Fido: The miniseries A Superman for All Seasons, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, gave teenaged Clark Kent a dog named Shelby, after Sale's own dog. It was a two panel gag, but Shelby later became more notable as the golden retriever in Smallville.
Voodoo Shark: Superman needs to change into his costume, so he has to duck away for a second...into a phone booth?
It made more sense when phone booths were walled off boxes you couldn't look inside, rather than tiny glass bubbles around a phone that don't exist any more anyway. The movie got a good gag out of Superman trying to duck into a phone booth, only to find a booth-less kiosk. However, there is also another wrinkle to the legend: when reporters found themselves in the middle of a story, they would duck into the first phone booth and call the editor. Perfect alibi!
In Smallville, it makes sense again: the Daily Planet basement still has old-fashioned phonebooths from when the building was built. The booths are tucked away in a corner of the basement and the one exposed side is covered with stained glass. Granted, though, Clark only seems to use it at night when no one else is in the basement.
Where The Hell Is Springfield?: Both Smallville (see above) and Metropolis were originally in a non-specific state. It has since been determined that Smallville is in Kansas, and Metropolis is in Delaware
Wife-Basher Basher: In the very first issue of his own comic in the 1930's, Superman deals with an abusive husband by brutally throwing the guy into a wall and beats HIM until he promises to never hit his wife ever again.
Wrong Parachute Gag: In #176, which explains how Superman decided on his ideal location for his Fortress of Solitude, he's on a flight over the arctic as Clark Kent when the plane suffers engine troubles. Almost immediately, everyone went for the parachutes, but Clark, who was inspecting the packs with his x-ray vision, notices a ripped parachute and switches it with his good one. Luckily for Clark, nobody notices the Human Alien dropping like a stone in the arctic night.
You Can't Fight Fate: Pre Crisis, Superman could visit the past by exceeding the speed of light, but it was physically impossible for him to change history.