It was last Friday at 5:53 p.m. I’m not sure what was happening in my life at the time; I think I may have been eating something. It was an otherwise uneventful moment until a text arrived from my sister with an urgent question, which I will now quote verbatim:
“Does Superman breathe?”
For the remainder of the evening, we traded texts that attempted to answer this pressing query. I began by saying that it depends on which iteration of Superman we’re talking about. I’ve found the most consistent answer to be yes, Superman breathes, but he can hold his breath for hours, or maybe days, at a time. That was the version of Superman that appeared in the comics when the entire mythos was rebooted after DC Comics published “Crisis On Infinite Earths,” which was an attempt to clean up the convoluted continuity that had evolved more than 50 years or so. That Superman would always wear an oxygen mask whenever he ventured beyond the atmosphere.
Still, I don’t recall any storylines where the Man of Steel was in danger of suffocating. Superman was rebooted again just a couple of years ago, and I’m not sure what his current lung capacity is.
My sister then brought up the first Superman film, where Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor puts a kryptonite necklace around Christopher Reeve’s neck and throws him in a swimming pool, where he seems to be in danger of drowning. But the cinematic Superman is an entirely different beast from the one on the printed page, and the rules governing his behavior vary wildly from movie to movie. In Superman II, the Kryptonian villains don’t need air. They actually have conversations with astronauts on the moon, and their voices can be heard in the vacuum of space, which is a scientific impossibility.
In that same movie, Superman demonstrates bizarre powers that he’s never shown anywhere else, like the ability to kiss Lois Lane and thereby make her forget everything that took place for the past several weeks. By the time we get to the execrable fourth Superman movie, Supes is rebuilding the Great Wall of China with weird blue flecks shooting from his eyes. Looking for any measure of consistency in Superman’s abilities over the decades and across different media is an exercise in futility. As I pointed this out, however, my sister made an excellent point.
“This information,” she insisted, “is VITAL to our dinner conversation.”
There’s quite a lot to be said for that. Fictional universes matter to us, largely because they provide causality without consequence. We can see and learn from choices made by characters on a page or on a screen without having to live with any of the real-world results. That’s only possible, however, when writers and filmmakers respect us enough to honor the rules they themselves establish.
Everyone accepts that Superman breaks the rules of reality. Yes, we know that real people can’t make lasers shoot from their eyes, and we’re not bothered when Superman can, because heat vision is part of the deal. But when he starts rebuilding Chinese landmarks with some funky blue eye sparks, it breaks the deal. It makes it impossible to invest in a story that is so lazily and clumsily depicted. If the writer doesn’t care enough to play by their own rules, why on earth should we care?
The bottom line, then, is that Superman has to breathe because he has freeze breath, which he uses in the comics, the movies and TV shows. How do you have freeze breath if you don’t breathe?
I mean, come on.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.