You look at Superman, and you wonder, what can he possibly have to worry about? What could possibly ever hurt him? But just because his skin is invulnerable, that doesn’t mean his heart is. And that’s how you hurt Superman. You break his heart.
This quote is iconic because it exemplifies everything that Superman is at his best – a hero, not because of his powers, but because he cares so deeply about helping people and doing what’s right. He’s not perfect. He’s flawed and human and doesn’t always know what the “right” thing to do is, but he tries anyway, and keeps trying.
Man of Steel and Batman v Superman do a brilliant job at showing how that’s true, because when do we see him angry or upset? For the most part, not when he’s in physical pain, but when his father dies. When Zod attacks his mother. When it’s a choice between letting an innocent family die and killing someone. When he looks out at a mob yelling at him to go home. When the Capitol blows up and he’s left unscathed. When Lex threatens Lois and Martha. (And when he’s being literally stabbed in the heart, but that’s another thing.) He doesn’t give up, even when Bruce is standing over him about to kill him – he keeps trying to reach him, down to the last moment, to his last breath.
The end of that fight is an interesting parallel to the end of the Superman Zod fight in Man of Steel. Zod wouldn’t stop, because he would rather die than give in – kill or be killed. Clark couldn’t save him, couldn’t appeal to his better nature to let those humans live, so he had to physically stop him. In Batman v Superman, though, Clark was at Bruce’s mercy. Bruce’s life wasn’t in danger, but his soul was, because there would be no going back if he killed Clark, and Clark did save him, by convincing him not to cross the line and make himself judge, jury, and executioner. I think that shows what Clark can and can’t do very well – he can’t force someone to become a better person, but he can and will do everything in his power to find the good in them.
Dick Grayson may be the heart and soul of the comics universe, but when it comes to the DCEU, that’s Clark, hands down. He’s the conscience of these movies. He’s an inspiration.
When Perry tells him to write about sports, he points out that when they tell a story, they’re making a decision about who matters, and that as journalists, they have a responsibility to keep uncovering the truth. When Senator Finch asks him to come give his side of the story, he does, because if he refuses to be held accountable, how can people still believe in Superman as a sign of hope? He has the courage of his convictions and he does what’s right even when it’s hard.
He drags Bruce back from the brink and stops him from crossing a line that there would be no coming back from – not by fighting, or even through logic, but by appealing to his humanity. By reminding him of his mother. By pointing out how far he’d fallen. The girlfriend of the human trafficker Bruce branded at the beginning of the film told Clark, “Men like that, words don’t stop him. You know what stops him? A fist.” She was wrong. It wasn’t a fist that stopped him, it was an alien using what he thought would be his last words to beg for his human mother’s life. It was a human woman stepping in front of him to explain what those words meant, loving that alien enough to use her own body to shield him. It was words. It was love.
He got Diana to stop hiding, to stop running away, to step forward and fight to protect humanity again. She got off the plane when it looked like he was dead and picked up her sword and shield to become Wonder Woman, even long after she’d given up, because if he was willing to give his life for a world that feared him, how could she justify not doing the same? The world needed a hero, so that’s what she became.
The world changed when Superman flew across the sky, and it changed again when he didn’t.
There was one particular moment in Justice League that upset me a lot, and that was when a line – “Superman was a beacon to the world. He didn’t just save people, he made them see the best parts of themselves” – was changed to be about Diana. Now, I love Diana. I think she’s a great character. But that quote doesn’t describe her. It describes Clark, because it was him that inspired her and reminded her of what she used to fight for.
When he’s fighting Zod up in the sky, Lombard and Perry are trying to haul away rubble to free Jenny. Pete Ross went from a bully to a friend when he saw how fundamentally good Clark is. He pushes Bruce and Diana to be better heroes again and form the Justice League. He’s hope. He reminds everyone around him that they need to stand up for what’s right. This universe is built around him and a beautifully simple idea of heroism – look for the good in others. Help them see the best parts of themselves. Stand up for what you believe in. And fight only if compassion and reason fail.