It's easy to get caught up in Superman's many physical powers. He's got them all -- strength, speed, invulnerability, vision powers, super-cold breath, you name it and he's there.
But what's always set him apart from any other character is his unwavering sense of personal honor and his code of conduct. Mirroring his physical prowess, he has all of the great virtues -- humility, compassion, sincerity, honesty, you name it and he's there. More than the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, it's Superman's ability to hew to his own high standards that inspires.
It must be tempting, for this son of an alien world, to look down on us mere mortals. And yet he yearns, more than anything, for the same things the least among us does. To be loved. To be human. To be accepted.
He has these enormous powers, and uses them for good. But is that bravery? Or does the fact that he can't really be hurt sever the very basis of bravery? Cowardice is a refusal to act out of fear for your own safety. But if you are always safe, can cowardice even be a consideration?
On the other hand, how many of us, given those powers, would be as willing to get up every day and fight the latest Lex Luthor-inspired giant robot rampaging through the city, even if we knew we couldn't be hurt?
In many ways Superman really is the best symbol of 20th Century America, or at least how most Americans want to view themselves. As a mighty nation, impervious to all harm (physical or otherwise), willing to come to the defense of the defenseless, bringing hope and freedom to people desperate for its taste.
I can't help but wonder, though, how much of that integrity and compassion exists only because of that sense of invulnerability? If he were deeply, grievously hurt, as America was on 9/11, how would he react? Would the code against killing, the honor of steel, withstand the enormous pressure of a wounded pride and heavy heart?
I like to think he would. Even if he went off the deep end, I hope he'd come back to what really makes him a hero. Not his muscles, but his heart. Not his powers, but his ideals. Because really, that's what makes him super.