Superman Substitute

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As the character widely considered the first superhero, Superman is a natural point for any writer of superhero fiction to start with. Consequently, pretty much every superhero universe, whether playing straight, parodying, or deconstructing, contains at least one character clearly intended to be a version of Superman.

There are many reasons for why this trope is so common in superhero fiction. Superman's iconography is easily recognizable, and immediately implies a superhero setting. This makes it easy to twist and put the writer's own spin on it. Superman is also considered the starting point for superheroes, which means discussions of him can have more meaning. While doing an Expy of a character like Batman might come across as critiquing or celebrating only Batman, stories attempting to critique or celebrate the superhero genre can use Superman as a base and be reasonably certain their attitudes can translate across to other characters. Superman is also famously considered one of the most powerful heroes, giving the character and their actions a sense of weight, whether as a hero or a villain. Superman's Older Than Television status and idealistic nature make him an easy target for parody or deconstruction as the embodiment of The Man. Conversely, often a Superman Substitute is created because a writer wants to write a Superman story, but doesn't want to deal with the trouble of negotiating with DC Comics to handle one of their biggest characters without Executive Meddling, and so creates a Captain Ersatz to write him anyway.

Of course, the simplest one is because he's the only one the writer knows.

This was particularly common in The Golden Age of Comic Books, as the runaway success of Superman meant that many companies were eager to Follow the Leader. Plenty of early superheroes essentially were Superman, with a throwaway origin to grant them their suspiciously similar powers and names like Dynaman or Super-American. The most famous of all was Captain Marvel, who actually outsold Superman at points, leading to one of the medium's most notorious lawsuits. Most modern takes on this trope tend to be more self-conscious, less trying to copy Superman and more trying to play with Superman as an archetype.

These characters tend to include the following traits:

A common variant is to include elements of Captain America, typically by playing up the Captain Patriotic elements and changing the origin to include Super Serum, or Captain Marvel, by adding elements of magic or mythology or some kind of transformation. The Batman Parody is also a common character type, though often more satirical in nature.

Notably, DC themselves have acknowledged this at points, suggesting that every world in The Multiverse has at least one of these on it (though some are farther than others).


Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • My Hero Academia has All Might, who is the Big Good, The Cape, and a Primary-Color Champion. He can't fly, unlike most Superman Substitutes, but he can jump, like the Golden Age Superman, and his power was passed down similar to Captain Marvel rather than alien heritage. He also manages to be a Captain Patriotic for America, despite apparently being Japanese. He is also taken as The Paragon for all heroes to take guidance for being the strongest, most charismatic, most effective, and one of the longest serving heroes.
  • Dr. Slump features a parody of Superman, known as Suppaman. However Suppaman is portrayed as a Heroic Wannabe that lacks superpowers, and is an asshole to anyone he meets. Even helping criminals to save his own hide.
  • Mr. Lostman from Gamma is that world's version of Superman, with their similarities ranging from having Super Strength and being the first Cape of the setting to growing Stronger with Age. There is also Mighty Blow, who is the resident expy of Stan Lee's take on Superman.
  • Dragon Ball
    • While Son Goku has long been compared to Superman, his actual origin is tied far more into that of Sun Wukong. It wasn't until Dragon Ball Z that we learned he was an alien sent to Earth as a baby - from a planet that was blown up mere days later. The twist is that he was meant to wipe out human civilization, but thanks to a bump on the head and a good upbringing, he became a Martial Pacifist and the Earth's greatest defender.
    • Dragon Ball Super saw fit to create a more direct Superman substitute with Jiren of the Universe 11 Pride Troopers. While nowhere near as friendly as most Supermen not made by Image, the guy's sheer power (rivalling or surpassing the Gods of Destruction), Heroic Build, psuedo-Eye Beams and membership in a hero team makes his status as such likely. This is expecially true for his manga incarnation, where he doesn't want to participate in the Tournament of Power because it will cost the existence of other universes while preventing him from keeping watch over his own universe for the duration of the tournament.
  • The Sailor Moon manga has Sailor Venus debut as this, being at first the most powerful and experienced of the Sailor Senshi, The Cape and their role model, the most beloved hero in town even after disappearing for months and Sailor Moon taking over her job, the only one who could fly (at least until she taught the others how off-page), and, even after her identity was revealed, The Leader of the team. This is somewhat Deconstructed, as the sheer effort of presenting herself as an invincible role model in spite of her Dark and Troubled Past has taken a toll on her sanity and solidly tied her self-esteem to her role as a superhero.

    Comic Books 

DC Comics

Despite owning the character, DC has a surprising number of these — either by buying up other companies with Superman Substitutes, or creating them themselves.
  • Shazam':
    • DC's Captain Marvel may be the Trope Codifier, as his creators, Fawcett Comics, were notoriously sued for it. In his case, he has the design and the powers, and was even smashing a car on the cover of his first appearance, but he's otherwise not that similar, being an ordinary boy empowered by a wizard. It's often stated that it was exactly this difference that led him to outsell Superman, as a boy who could become a hero struck a chord with readers. As he now exists in the same universe as Superman, he has gone through some Divergent Character Evolution, with writers playing up his nature as a Kid Hero. Longtime writer of the character, Otto Binder, also prominently wrote Superman in the 60s, and brought in many elements that he'd used with Captain Marvel - most obviously, Supergirl.
    • Captain Marvel himself has a Captain Ersatz in the form of Marvelman, better known as Miracleman. In Alan Moore's run, the similarities are played up even further, with him introducing a Distaff Counterpart and a Lois Lane Expy, aging up Mike Moran, and linking the character's origin to aliens.
  • WildStorm features Mr. Majestic, The High, and Apollo, all of whom parallel Superman in various ways. Majestic has the alien origin and the role as a Big Good, The High has a late-30s debut and an All-Loving Hero attitude gone sour, and Apollo has the sun-fueled powerset and relationship with a vigilante. They've been stated several times to be in the same ballpark.
  • Icon is the Superman Substitute of Milestone Comics, being an alien Flying Brick with a costume including a cape. He's also a black lawyer, who's somewhat out of touch.
  • Martian Manhunter became this over time, with him possessing the powers, the origin, the weakness, and the costume. It's often rumored that he was an outright stand-in in early issues of Justice League. He has a number of twists to it, however: his powers include several others, he actually experienced the loss of his people, his weakness is fire, and he's clearly alien in appearance while Superman isn't.
  • Captain Carrot fills this role in the Zoo Crew, though he's otherwise pretty unique, being a comic artist who uses carrots to gain his powers. That, and he's a Funny Animal.
  • After Legion Of Superheroes was rebooted to remove references to Superman, Mon-El, a character who had once been Superman's adoptive brother, became one of these, filling the role of being the Legion's historical inspiration and gaining a counterpart to Supergirl.
  • Iron Munro was created because All-Star Squadron couldn't use Superman due to Post-Crisis changes. True to form, he has the same powers as the Golden Age Superman (Super Strength and invulnerability), he basically looks the same only wearing street clothes and with a streak of white in his hair, and he's stated to be the son of Hugo Danner.
  • In the Tangent Comics universe, every character is deliberately In-Name-Only. The Earth's foremost hero is Adam Thompson, The Atom, a man who manipulates gravity and density to give himself Flying Brick powers and looks basically like Superman with muted colors. Ironically, the actual character going by "Superman" in that world is a Knight Templar with an enhanced brain that grants him Psychic Powers (which, for even further irony, is pretty close to a very early concept of Superman).
  • The Multiversity features an inversion of this trope, with several characters of the depicted worlds in The Multiverse being clearly designed to resemble other Superman Substitutes, while also being alternate universe counterparts to Superman. These include Hyperius (Hyperion), Savior (Samaritan), Supremo (Supreme), and Optiman (Ultiman). It also retroactively makes a number of other characters into these, including other-world versions of Etrigan, Captain Atom, Super-Chief, and Doctor Fate.

Marvel Comics
  • Blue Marvel has the design, the powers, the weakness, and the personality. His problem? He's black, and when he was active initially, that wasn't a good thing for a hero to be.
  • The Sentry is an attempted deconstruction, with him possessing a similar costume, phenomenal powers, and serious mental instabilities. The Retraux miniseries Age of the Sentry makes it even more obvious, with the wacky plots and good-natured attitude common to old Superman comics at the forefront. He even had a superdog!
  • The Squadron Supreme is an Alternate Company Equivalent for the Justice League of America, and therefore, so is Hyperion one to Superman.
    • His Supreme Power counterpart is even more overtly one, though he's considerably Darker and Edgier, being more or less "What if Superman were raised by the government instead?"
  • Sun-God, of Jonathan Hickman's Avengers, isn't even pretending he's not one, with him going so far as to copy some of his signature poses, and even quoting him at points. He's even from a different universe, making him less a counterpart and more a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo.
  • Avengers villain Count Nefaria possesses the right powers and costume, though he's otherwise a straightforward bad guy, with his powers basically being a way for the Avengers to fight Superman without needing to negotiate anything. Superman even copies a few of his moves in JLA/Avengers.
  • The Shi'ar Imperial Guard are a joke on the Legion Of Superheroes, and by extension, so is their leader, Gladiator - a Flying Brick alien with a primary-colored caped costume whose name is a portmanteau of "Kal Clark" and is named after a book that inspired Superman himself.
  • The Marvel Knights Spider-Man storyline "Wild Blue Yonder" introduced Ethan Edwards/Virtue. The story basically shifts from parody to deconstruction to reconstruction. The two twists on the Superman formula are that he's deeply religious (believing his powers are literally a gift from God) and has healing vision. His attempts at a secret identity are presented as absolutely useless; not only do the glasses not work, but he won't lie. When he discovers the Marvel U doesn't work like Silver Age DC, and also that he's actually a Skrull, he goes full Dark Age Anti Hero for a while as the Tiller (and is equally inept as that, coming across like a naive farmboy trying to be the Punisher), before getting talked down by Aunt May and eventually moving overseas, where he seemed to become a Messianic Archetype (with the final twist that the Super-Skrull genetic engineering he had didn't include the healing powers).

Other Comics
  • Wonder Man (not that one) might be the very first, debuting just thirteen months after Superman. Despite his different origin (he was given his powers by a ring he got from a monk), he was strikingly similar, so much so that DC sued his publisher as soon as the book hit the stands. Wonder Man never got his second issue.
  • Supreme started as a Darker and Edgier Expy, and under the pen of Alan Moore, became a Captain Ersatz of the Silver Age Superman, including more and more homages to Superman's supporting cast. Most notably was the inclusion of a Legion of Super-Heroes-esque team called the League of Infinity, and his own younger female sidekick (a la Supergirl) called Suprema.
  • The titular character of Superior is one, with the added twist of being a kid who's turned into an in-universe fictional character.
  • The Plutonian from Irredeemable is a Deconstructed Character Archetype of the Man of Steel. The basic premise of the series is that he snaps from the pressure of heroism and becomes the world's greatest villain, with the exploration behind what led up to this.
  • The titular character of Axiom, also by Mark Waid, is pretty much a condensed version of the Plutonian, and therefore by extension he's one of these.
  • Astro City's first issue focuses on one of these, named Samaritan, who is so occupied by saving people that he frequently finds himself trying to make time to just fly for its own sake. Kurt Busiek is a little annoyed at people comparing Samaritan to Superman, though, saying that he has a lot of other elements in his mix (for instance, he's a time traveler, not an alien).
  • Big Bang Comics is pretty much entirely comprised of various Expies of Silver Age heroes, and they therefore have Ultiman, a clear one for Superman.
  • EC Comics' MAD had the legendary Harvey Kurtzmann parody Superduperman where Clark Bent pines for Lois Pain while his alter-ego fights Captain Marbles. The comic was a huge success and is considered not only a great spoof but one of the greatest comics in its own right. It was notable for shredding the sexist assumptions in Loves My Alter Ego with Lois Pain ditching Bent after he reveals his identity by noting, "Once a creep, always a creep".
  • Marshal Law's first arc focuses on the Public Spirit, a Deconstructive Parody of Superman, whose all-American nature is steeped in an ugly conservatism. Curiously, his powers are fueled by "pumping ions" and not true Super Strength, and he takes steroids to give himself the muscular look.
  • The Boys, as a Spiritual Successor to Marshal Law, uses the equally scummy Homelander as its Big Bad. He even has an identical backstory to Superman, though it's completely fake; he was created by a corporation. Unusually, he's one of the few heroes given any kind of Freudian Excuse (he believes he's committed atrocities that he can't remember doing and he's lost his mind, when it was somebody else disguised as him- his clone, who was created as a contingency to take out the Homelander if he started disobeying, and took steps to ensure this when the Homelander wasn't going to do so himself. He actually fills the role of Batman in the Justice League Expy).
  • Invincible features Omni-Man, the main character's father, who looks like Superman with a mustache. He's more than that, as it turns out.
  • Prime, of The Ultraverse, is more or less one, though with a bit of Captain Marvel in the mix.
  • PS238 has Atlas, whose son, Ron/"Captain Clarinet," is one of the more important characters. At first he's pretty standard: he's the Sole Survivor of the doomed planet Argos, was raised on a farm, is vulnerable to Argonite and is married to a journalist with L.L. initials. However, eventually he and Ron's mom divorce, and then we find out that the government lied to him about his origin — he's actually a Hidden Backup Prince to an Evil Empire.
    • Among Earth-born metahumans the Flight, Invulnerability, and Super Strength (FISS) "package" is the single most common power set. Julie Finster is the 84th recorded FISS and she suffers from massive self-esteem issues.
  • In some Disney comics, Goofy has a Super-Powered Alter Ego called "Super Goof". He wears a blue cape and red overalls, and has pretty much the same set of powers as Superman, such as Flight and Super Strength. The only major difference is that his powers come from eating special peanuts called "Super Goobers".
    • This is made even more evident in Ultraheroes, where he's by far the most powerful of the team, with Paperinik the Devilish Avenger fulfilling Batman's role and Emil Eagle as the Mad Scientist Big Bad (a role reprised from previous Super Goof stories from Italy, in which he was an outright Lex Luthor Expy).
  • Top 10 has Atoman, who is the leader of a whole Ersatz Justice League of America, who are actually a pedophile ring.
  • Powers has Super Shock, commonly acknowledged as one of the most powerful superheroes alive and The Paragon. Unfortunately, his major appearance is the volume where his isolation and disconnect from humanity results in him becoming a Super Supremacist who decides to enforce to his own order on the world. And it turns out that as powerful as people had known he was, Super Shock and his teammates had been considerably downplaying his real power to avoid a worldwide panic...
  • In The Shadow Hero, The Anchor of Justice is your typical Superman Ersatz - a Flying Brick with a kindly, modest personality. And he's an alien, as well, although much less humanoid.
  • In Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan has an entirely different set of powers and personality but he's more or less an analogue to Superman in that his very existence challenges society, he plays a major international role, is backed and supported by the government, and likewise feels increasingly lonely and apart from humanity. The line of dialogue, "the Superman exists and he is American" signifies who Manhattan is meant to represent.

    Films — Animation 
  • Hercules was seen less as a Disney take on antiquity and more an attempt to retell the story of Hercules in the style of Superman. In this version, he's a god Brought Down to Normal (but not entirely), was raised by Muggle parents, had an awkward teenage year at the farm, goes to a temple and talks to his space-Dad...er God-Dad, and as an adult falls for a snarky civilized girl (Megara) who dresses in purple and the bad guy is a megalomaniacal huckster in the vein of Gene Hackman's Luthor (Hades). One of the more interesting twists is that Meg/"Lois" starts out as a Punch-Clock Villain until Love Redeems.
  • The Incredibles has Metaman, revealed in the DVD extras to have very similar powers to Superman, along with a similar name and costume...with the unfortunate exception of not being immune to a broken neck. Mr. Incredible himself has a few clear nods, mostly in his costume, powers, and name, though he's overall closer to The Thing in his role in the family.
  • Megamind has Metro Man, defender of Metro City, who is more or less Superman with a few elements of Elvis, complete with analogues to Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Lex Luthor. He's a bit of a Smug Super in order to give more sympathy to the Villain Protagonist.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Neo from The Matrix and its sequels is celebrated for "doing the Superman thing", i.e. Flight and other powers. He's a Messianic Archetype who had a mild-mannered civilian identity, has a committed relationship with a confident dark haired woman, and his main enemies are not so different from Brainiac and Luthor.

    Literature 
  • Worm: Scion is a Flying Brick who's adored by all, seen as an icon for other Super Heroes to aspire to, and is an alien who lost his family.
  • David Brinkley of Superfolks is a clear one, down to being vulnerable to "Cronkite."

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who's 2016 Christmas Episode "The Return of Doctor Mysterio" is a tribute to superhero comics in general and Silver Age Superman in particular, in which the Doctor lands in New York in The '90s and a boy named Grant Gordon swallows an Applied Phlebotinum due to a misunderstanding. The wish-granting gemstone gives him superpowers like his comic book heroes. 20 years later, Gordon became "The Ghost", a vigilante superhero with the abilities of flying, super strength, X-ray vision and other Superman-like powers, and a Lois Lane-like Loves My Alter Ego problem with the woman journalist who his civilian identity works as a nanny for.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Mutants & Masterminds:
    • The core book, and later the Meta-4 setting, had Protonik, who fits most of the requirements (first superhero, The Cape, Flying Brick, vision powers) with two twists. Firstly he started out as a Captain Patriotic Super Soldier, before later announcing he was a citizen of the world. Secondly, he was a Russian Captain Patriotic Super Soldier, during the Cold War.
    • The Freedom City setting has (or rather, had) Mark Leeds, the Centurion, who fitted almost exactly, only with the addition of an Ancient Rome theme. The first superhero (debuting in, yes, 1938) and leader of the premier superhero teams of the Golden, Silver and Dark Ages, he died in battle with the setting's Darkseid expy prior to the game's time period. Unlike Superman, he stayed that way. He has more recently been replaced by his daughter from an alternate timeline, Centuria, who's similar to Supergirl.
      • There's also his fellow hero Captain Thunder who has elements of Captain Marvel with parts of the origin story of Hal Jordan.
      • In the Lockdown sourcebook there's a disgraced African American hero called the Golden Marvel who was unfairly imprisoned. Not long after an eventual presidential pardon he transferred his powers to his grandson, who became NGM, the New Golden Marvel and joined the teenage superhero team called the Next Gen.
    • The Paragons setting has Patriot, who is a Captain Patriotic take on the concept, with a dark secret that the game master is free to define.
    • The Halt Evil Doer! setting has two. Anthony Atlas/Antaeus/Titan Man (the latter being the name the press gave him) was the 1940s non-flying brick with powers similar to the Golden Age Superman. Mikhail/Divinos is the "classic" Superman, except that he arrived on Earth as an adult, and as a result sometimes comes across as distant from humans, a bit more like the Martian Manhunter.
    • One of the default character archetypes in 3rd Edition is essentially a basic one of these, named the Paragon - a Flying Brick whose outfit is a spandex suit and a cape, with the extra of being able to survive in space.
  • Silver Age Sentinels has the Sentinel, who is also a Captain Patriotic type hero, similar to Statesman mentioned below.
  • ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying has the Captain Patriotic themed pastiche All-Star, and his sidekick All-American Girl who fulfils the same concepts as Supergirl.
  • The card game Sentinels of the Multiverse has Legacy serving the same basic role as Superman and his daughter, Young Legacy or Beacon, serving as the equivalent to Supergirl.
  • Aberrant has Caestus Pax, who along with the various other deconstructive elements takes the concept in a somewhat darker direction, with fascist leanings and a tendency towards being kind of an utter dick.

    Video Games 

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 
  • In Darkwing Duck, Drake Mallard is meant to be a Batman Expy, but Gizmoduck, the publicly adored superhero who is seen as more powerful and capable and dresses in brighter costumes, is meant to be Superman's stand-in. Their dynamic resembles the DCAU version of World's Finest.
  • Mighty Mouse is a pretty direct one, being basically "Superman as a Funny Animal."
  • Drawn Together's Captain Hero is more or less Superman as a Comedic Sociopath.
  • The Looney Tunes short "Super Rabbit" is a spoof of the Fleischer Superman shorts, starring Bugs Bunny in an ill-fitting Superman costume, getting his powers from specially treated carrots. When his carrots fall into the hands of his enemies, he decides to become "a real superman" - a U.S. Marine.
  • Captain Sunshine of The Venture Bros. is a mix of several heroes, but he's clearly intended to be Superman at first glance, with his sunlight-fueled powers, brightly colored caped costume, and obvious secret identity. In a bit of a Genius Bonus, his secret identity is a newscaster, something Clark Kent became for a few years in the 1980s after writers decided that his being a reporter was a bit dated (and changed back from it after they realized how badly it would stretch the limits of Clark Kenting).
  • In The Little Rascals episode "The Zero Hero", Darla's favorite superhero, Captain Muscles, appears to pastiche George Reeves' portrayal of Superman.
  • Titanium Rex from Supermansion is essentially a geriatric Superman past his prime, sharing not only the same role as the resident leader of the local Super Team, but even a similar backstory of being an outsider (though Rex came from an underground empire rather than from space).

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