There is a point on the map that, during the second weekend of June each year, is transformed into what must truly be the safest place on Earth. How could it not be when you see Superman standing on a street corner, and all it takes is a turn of the head to see a second, a third, and a whole lot more blue and red? This is Metropolis, IL, official hometown of the Man of Steel and location for the annual Superman Celebration.
“I felt so safe just walking the street and said to myself, ‘There’s no trouble going to be made here,’” laughs former Marine turned actor Kevin Caliber, who played the Man of Steel (in silhouette) on Season 1 of the CW’s Supergirl and stars in the independent film Supermen: World War, which he was promoting at the celebration, in costume. “Where I come from, in Los Angeles, you go to any street fair or anything like that, and you’re constantly checking yourself to make sure you haven’t been robbed. But today, you walk out here in the middle of the day with all the Supermen walking around, and it’s amazing how safe I feel.”
(Photo Credit: Ed Gross)
Last month, the 40th Superman Celebration was held, bringing fans from around the world — Japan, Australia and the UK among the countries represented — to this town of under 7,000. Economically challenged on a number of levels — dilapidated buildings litter many of the streets, Uber drivers only work weekends, the airport feels like a warehouse with a runway, and finding a cab is about as miraculous as seeing a man fly — people nonetheless come. Year after year ever since Warner Bros officially decreed this to be the home of the Man of Steel in 1972. And unlike mega-events like San Diego Comic-Con, this is a gathering of a different kind.
Steve Younis, from Australia and the webmaster behind the Superman Homepage, the biggest and most popular website devoted to the character anywhere, observes, “The Superman Celebration is like no other convention or pop culture event. Being an outdoor, four-day event, it feels more like a festival or fair. While Superman is the reason people attend, it’s the people attending that make the event worthwhile and far more enjoyable. It has a real community feel to it that has people coming back again and again.”
Welcome to Metropolis
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
For anyone familiar with The Andy Griffith Show and that show’s hometown of Mayberry, you get a sense of what the set up is like. Market Street in many ways looks like you would probably imagine small-town life to be, consisting of several blocks of stores on either side of the street, selling everything from antiques to ice cream. But during Superman Celebration, it’s transformed with tents placed at strategic locations where costume contests are held, guest celebrities speak to the fans, screenings unspool in the evening, and much more. In a sense, you forget you’re on a main road of town as food trucks are lined up along both sides of it, offering to satisfy a variety of tastes. On the far end of the street is a statue of actress Noel Neill, who played reporter Lois Lane alongside Kirk Alyn as Superman in a pair of movie serials from the late ‘40s/early ‘50s; and George Reeves in the television series Adventures of Superman. On the other end, in front of the courthouse, stands a 15-foot statue of the Man of Steel, emblazoned by the words “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
Throughout the year, visitors pose next to the statue, though during Superman Celebration many of them also pose in front of it with Josh Boultinghouse, who has been Metropolis’ official Man of Steel for the past 11 years, adorned in the classic costume. As such, he’s there for opening and closing ceremonies and spends the vast majority of the weekend posing for photos with fans, who seem to get pretty swept up in the magic of the moment.
(Photo Credit: Josh Boultinghouse)
“For a lot of the adults,” explains the professional fitness trainer/coach, “they become like kids again, and it’s just magic to be a part of that; to help them be a kid again, because I think that’s something we all kind of long for. To go back to that simpler time when every day was something new, and you just have this zest and love for life. And for the kids, it’s a lot like seeing Santa Claus for the first time. They’re kind of, like, ‘I thought this was supposed to be make believe,’ but then they see me and for them it’s real. It’s genuinely an honor to be a part of that.”
No one could forget the Super Museum.
Not too far from the statue is the other main attraction of the community, the Super Museum, run by collector Jim Hambrick since he moved to the town back in 1993. “They spent eight years trying to get me here,” says Jim. “Took me five years to pack and a year to get here after that. Been here ever since. We haven’t quit; we’re constantly trying to make improvements and keep the association between Metropolis and Superman flying high under the watchful eye of the Superman statue in front of the courthouse. During the summer months, we get between 1,500 and 2,000 people a day.
(Photo Credit: Ed Gross)
“The museum,” he continues, “traveled all over the US. I did special events for DC Comics and Warner Bros. You know, when I was eight, I used to charge kids a nickel to get into my bedroom so they could look at all the cool stuff on the wall. That’s how I made money. So this started that early. For me, the character’s always been there.”
(Photo Credit: Ed Gross)
And apparently, he’s been there for a lot of other people as well. While his critics often comment that he’s out of date or a challenge to make relevant for modern audiences, virtually everywhere you look you can see his “S” logo, with people continually inspired by what he represents, as noted by many of those who attended Celebration.
Mathieu Charles, a former police officer, current entrepreneur, and Superman cosplayer from Quebec, Canada, comments, “Batman is human, so everybody can connect with a human, because they say that it could be me or anyone else. Whereas Superman is somebody that comes from another planet, so he’s got huge power and with that, he can decide whether to be a good person or a bad person. It’s his decision to be good and to try to fit in. That’s a really good parallel that we can make, because a lot of people are looking for ways to fit in, in our daily lives. Superman is like the rest of us in that way, because he’s different. And he’s really about hope, which is something that Zack Snyder tried to explain in the movie Man of Steel.”
(Photo Credit: Ed Gross)
“To this world, I believe he is a symbol of hope,” offers writer/director Donald Callahan, who came to Celebration to screen his film Supermen: World War, “but more than just that, he shows that there’s a hero in all of us. Looking at that symbol for all these years, there’s always been a heroism that everybody wants to have. And to take that on as an individual and go up against whatever the biggest challenge is, whether you’re going to fight in the military or facing your inner demons, it’s the idea that we all can be better than what we were from the past or in the present. So for Superman to come into our lives, especially for me as a pediatric stroke survivor for 26 years, I was able to find my voice as I was able to watch Superman: The Movie with Christopher Reeve. That was where I was able to speak for the first time and was able to be understood. To this day, even though I’m not great at giving speeches, I’m still able to have the confidence to talk. All of that kind of comes from the ‘S’ of Superman himself.”
Brandon Routh, currently a star of the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, portrayed the Man of Steel in the 2006 movie Superman Returns, a film which, while it didn’t spawn a sequel, nonetheless made an impact — which was made clear by the reaction the actor got hitting the stage to answer questions.
(Photo Credit: Ed Gross)
“With the introduction of a new Superman franchise with Henry Cavill, Superman Returns and the energy of that movie could easily have faded at this point since we only did the one movie,” says Brandon shortly after leaving that stage, “but it’s lived on and I appreciate it. I guess it speaks to the fact that while we did not get a sequel to that movie, it made a big impact on many, many people. And that’s all that matters. And they still live it. For many people, it’s their Superman movie. And if not their movie, it’s a transitionary movie and people appreciate it, which is why they keep coming back to places where I am, I guess.
“I am here because of my collective experience, and Superman being a huge part of it,” he notes. “If you imagine it as a patchwork quilt, that’s half of the quilt, almost. And the rest of everything that’s come in the last 12 years has continually been affected by the experience, both work-wise and then emotionally and personally. And with the people that I meet, it’s like a ripple. You throw a stone into the pond, the ripple effect continues and creates other ripple effects. Everyone who has an experience to share about Superman Returns is part of that story, and it affects me in some way. I guess if I didn’t take it in, if I just had a wall up and said, ‘That happened 12 years ago, it’s not even a part of me anymore,’ then I wouldn’t be affected by it. Actually, I’d just be affected by it negatively. But I choose to take in that energy and shared experience that people have as an awesome continued participation in my life.”
(Photo Credit: Donald Callahan)
Kevin Caliber describes himself as someone who, when he was younger, wouldn’t allow other people to be bullied, which led, right after high school, to his joining the Marine Corps. “For me it was, like, ‘Well, time to go stick up for everybody else who can’t do it.’ I really considered law enforcement after the military, but decided against it — those are really the true life heroes. It’s what’s great about even being out here at Superman Celebration. I’ve met so many guys dressed like Superman who are cops or work in sheriff’s departments. They wear the uniform during the week and then they get to put on the Superman uniform one weekend out of the year. And the funny thing is, when you have the ‘S’ on your chest, you do stand a little bit taller. You really do. You see the most out of shape people and they’re going to be walking around in that Superman shirt, and it’s like that little bit of confidence, because it does make a little piece of you feel like you are Superman. And I think there’s a little Superman in everybody as long as they’re not afraid to tap into it.”
“After 9/11 especially,” points out Jim Hambrick, “people began to take the whole idea of Superman more seriously than they ever did. They used to laugh, but after that it changed the tone of everybody at one time. It wasn’t like a chain reaction, it was the next day. All of a sudden, truth, justice, and the American way had a whole different thing going along with it. And we haven’t quit. Since then, you’re seeing improvements of attitudes and the positiveness of a lot of different things that have been going on in the world, too. You’ve gotta be able to grab onto that, because that’s our heritage. This is our mythology. It’s no different than Greek mythology. You know, everybody has their heroes.”
(Photo Credit: Ed Gross)
Explains Brandon, “For me, Superman is the ideal. He shows us our better nature; that best that is in us and what we can aspire to. We may not ever have the superpowers, but we do have the capacity to attain his ability to understand truth and to speak truth, and to be responsible and to be respectful. That’s always been important, but now more than ever, in my mind and given our political challenges and the divide that exists, it’s important to have figures that unite us. Superman is a figure powerful for Republican, Democrat, Independent and Green Party. Everyone can find something to love about Superman. And if we could just all remember that, to live in the spirit of Superman, we’d find that we don’t have so much to disagree and be upset about.”
“Superman still represents the best that we can be,” Steve Younis points out. “He has always been the beacon of light that people look to for inspiration. People who say he’s impossible to identify with, usually don’t understand that Superman fans aren’t looking to relate to the character, they’re looking to be inspired by him. Wanting to be more than what we are, or having that feeling that there’s something special inside all of us. An alter ego who can do great things has always been relevant.”