Why “Old Man Superman” Never Truly Works


  • The “old man” superhero trope is a successful storytelling device in comics, often robbing the hero of everything they hold dear and forcing them to rediscover their sense of purpose.
  • Since loss and rebirth are inherent to the “old Man” trope, it can be very challenging for DC’s creators to apply the concept to Superman.
  • Rather than force the Man of Steel into the same mold as Batman or Wolverine, the best way to hit the “ol man hero” story beats, it to simply explore why the world will always need someone like Superman.

The comic book industry has played with a series of tropes that help build up the value of superheroes and enrich the medium. One of, if not the most successful tropes in the medium is that of the “old man” superhero trope. These stories explore the triumphant return of an aged hero in a world that needs them. What has worked brilliantly for Batman, Wolverine, Hulk and even Hawkeye has had very mixed results with Superman.

Superman is one of the best-defined superheroes in comics, known as DC’s resident boy scout superhero. Clark Kent, whether as a civilian or a superhero, can always be counted on to do the right thing, regardless of convenience or even scale. He’s also proven an impressively versatile hero, and works across genres like action, science fiction, adventure, and even horror. However, not every trope is optimal for a hero with such an established personality and lore. Despite the massive success darker antiheroes have in the “old man superhero trope,” the Man of Steel’s “aged” stories remain much more controversial. When taking a deeper look, it becomes clear why this trope doesn’t fit Superman as well as it does other comic heroes.

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The Old Man Superhero Trope Is Great

An image of comic art depicting Maestro and Namor during Marvel's World War m

The idea of the “old man” superhero coming back for one last ride is one of the greatest tropes in comics. It’s worked for characters like Hulk, Batman, and Wolverine — creating comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Old Man Logan that showcase seasoned heroes in their blaze of glory. The concept has always been best used when applied to the gritty, solitary heroes who felt like outcasts. For example, after years of Hulk being on the run and treated like a monster, he emerged into a wasteland, where the constraints of civilization had faded. This allowed him to cut loose in a way he couldn’t in his own time, becoming Maestro. Likewise, Batman’s return to face the Mutant leader pit him an opponent stronger than him, in a city that had forgotten him. This narrative paved the way for Batman to rebuild himself as a champion in the eyes of his people.

The “old man” trope itself relies on a series of themes that play up the value of a hero in old age, especially when they leave retirement for one last hurrah. This often involves playing up just how far a hero has fallen from their prime, so that their final victorious comeback becomes more meaningful. However, these stories frequently require that heroes lose everything and everyone once close to them, in order to give them a rebirth of sorts. Heroes, in order to have a successful old man story, need to lose everything that tied them to their past so that they can be reborn and carve out a fresh meaning for their lives. This was certainly the case for Hulk, Batman, Hawkeye, and Wolverine. It even held true for Superman in the stories that showcased this other side of him. What would work well for just about any antihero is harder to pull off the brighter the character is. It isn’t that it can’t be done, just that it requires a more skilled hand.

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Aspects Of The Trope Don’t Fit Superman

Superman wields The Expunger in Superman: At World's End

One of the keys to adapting the old man superhero trope is understanding why it works. The concept aims to explore what makes a hero great, without being weighed down by continuity, supporting casts, and history. In effect, it’s a fresh start and new take that deconstructs a hero and reminds readers why they’re needed. Other uses of this trope push the character in a new direction, exploring what kind of hero they’d be in a lawless land, if a hero at all. This is partly why the trope so closely mirrors the western genres. Both play on the idea of heroes, gunslingers, and vigilantes in a world leaving them behind. This forces the heroes to question what meaning they have in life. These heroes must find new meaning, some of which is a rejuvenation, others a darker new direction. Almost all such stories give the protagonist antihero or anti villain status.

Superman: At Earth’s End could’ve been interesting. Instead, it came across like a thoughtless merging of Marvel’s Maestro and the success of Dark Knight Returns. Superman received an edgy, short-sleeved look, replete with a long white beard and long hair, portraying a savage Man of Steel. In this world, civilization had been destroyed, and androids were about to make it official by nuking the remnants of a hollowed out Gotham. Naturally, a weakened Superman couldn’t stand idly by and allow this, so he made his way into the city, where he heard tales of a bat creature. After discovering Bruce Wayne’s body had been stolen, he uncovered a scheme by cloned Hitler twins to create bat-monsters. The entire story felt out of place for Clark Kent, and more a function of the decade than of the character. There were some enjoyable moments, but there was no spark of hope when Superman returned.

Where Batman has close to a dozen aged stories, and Wolverine got an entire ongoing series out of it, the old man trope simply doesn’t fit Superman. Those grittier, darker heroes have always been at their best when solitary and unrestrained. The same can’t be said of Superman, whose entire raison d’etre is his ability to inspire the characters in his world and people reading the comic. In order to do this, Superman needs to be surrounded by characters who need him. Yet, so many of his aged stories play up the idea that he’s a near-immortal hero who outlives everyone. This was certainly true in At Earth’s End, where Superman had outlived his fellow Leaguers, friends, and loved ones. There, he survived until the future of Kamandi and the Great Disaster. The idea was better executed in the Justice League animated series episode “Hereafter,” which explored the meaning of Superman.

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The Best Old Man Superman Story

Superman's Kingdom Come Justice League, by Alex Ross

The old man superhero trope has been applied to the Man of Steel many times throughout his history, from Elseworlds tales set in the future to time-travel stories. The definitive exploration remains Kingdom Come, depicting a future where Superman had abandoned society and let younger, reckless heroes fill the void. Naturally, as these careless heroes and villains escalated their violence, regular people suffered for it. When the war between heroes and villains literally went nuclear, Clark Kent stepped back into his old role as Superman, and set about reining in the destructive generation. The reason Kingdom Come worked so well wasn’t so much that it played on an older Superman. Rather, it was a reminder of the value of an older generation. The 1990s were known for edgy, over-the-top stories that discarded classic takes on superheroes, and Waid and Ross reminded readers of these older characters’ prominence.

Though it isn’t technically an old man Superman story, Phillip Kennedy Johnson’s “Warworld Saga” touched on all the themes of the trope without going all in. Here, Superman and the Authority traveled to Warworld to defeat Mongul and free the violent planet’s enslaved population. Weakened by an earlier mission, Clark arrived at the planet almost powerless, and had to inspire people unaccustomed to his style of heroics to revolt against Mongul. The story balanced all the trappings of what could have just as easily been a good Black Label old man Superman, and turn it into a great, epic old man saga within continuity, minus the old age. For readers who would want a canonical Superman counterpart to The Dark Knight Returns, this story would be it.

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Superman Is Best As A Family Man

Superman with Jon Kent's Superboy in DC Comics' Rebirth

Where some superheroes thrive on the “old man” trope, this simply isn’t true for Superman. Since the Rebirth era, Clark Kent has been firmly established as DC’s greatest family man, and it’s become hard to imagine him without Lois and Jon at his side. The whole idea behind Superman is hope, love, and a brighter vision of justice. Aging him up and taking everything bright about him away does some damage. Just as Batman thrives in the dark alleyways and grimy feel of Gotham, Superman is at his best when he’s a family man in a world of optimism and hope, which is owed in part to him. As much as Batman reflects Gotham, Superman reflects Metropolis.

The reason Kingdom Come worked so well as an old Superman story was specifically because readers saw the hopeful effect Superman had on people. Readers witnessed how the future version of Earth changed from one where people were terrorized by reckless heroes to one where Superman and his colleagues still had a positive impact on people. In short, Kingdom Come proved why the world needed the Man of Steel, especially when Batman’s darkness or Magog’s violence wasn’t cutting it. It could be argued the story was a rebuke of people who would say Clark Kent is simply too much of a boy scout. So Kingdom Come proved the world needed one.

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