How Superman saved a small Illinois town

Some say the Man of Steel rescued the struggling city of Metropolis, Illinois. But others say Superman could do more for his adopted hometown.

June 14, 2013

Today is the day many comic book fans have been waiting for. Man of Steel, the latest Superman movie, opens in theaters across the country. Much of the film was shot in Chicago, a stand-in for the comic book’s fictional Metropolis. But some folks in the real city of Metropolis, Illinois may take issue with that.

For more than 40 years, the town at the southern tip of Illinois has been the official home of Superman. Every summer, 30,000 super fans converge on this small city along the Ohio River for the Superman Celebration. Now in it’s 35th year, they’re all there for one reason: to celebrate the big guy in the blue tights and the red cape.

“This is my third time here,” says Steve Younis with a thick Aussie accent. “I wish I could come every year but it’s expensive to come from Australia every year.”

Younis runs SupermanHomepage.com, one of the largest Superman fan sites in the world, from his home in Sydney. But in Metropolis last week, Younis was just another fan.

Here, you can find Superman everywhere: On billboards, in drug stores, even on the badges of the Metropolis’ police force.

“I just think everybody needs a hero. People always look for that; troubled times and people need some happiness in their lives and they escape with Superman,” says actor Michael Rosenbaum. He played Lex Luthor in the TV series Smallville and was on hand for the celebration. “I think it’s great.”

In reality, Metropolis is a lot more like Smallville than the big city in the comic books.

So, living in Metropolis – with Superman as a neighbor –  has to be pretty exciting, right?

“It’s boring,” says Eric Phillips, who’s lived in Metropolis for the last seven years. “Not a lot of action here. Superman almost got nothing to do. He sits around all day.”

Actually, Superman stands around all day, with a clenched jaw, 16-feet high in front of the Massac County Courthouse.

“You can walk up here at the courthouse any day, and there’s somebody taking a picture with the Superman statue,” Phillips says.

Of course, Metropolis, Illinois was around long before Superman, which was founded in 1839 to be exact. At the time, the city’s founders envisioned a large transportation hub that would develop into a major metropolis. But those illusions of grandeur never materialized. Factories closed, people moved away, and by the early 1970s, Metropolis was anything but.

That’s when somebody suggested that Metropolis take advantage of its name and push to be Superman’s official hometown. DC Comics signed off on the idea – and so did the Illinois legislature. Longtime resident Sue Barfield says the idea was kryptonite to some folks.

“We had a lot of naysayers. When we had our first Superman statue at the square, we had a lot of people make a lot of fun of it,” Barfield said.

Still, some credit Superman with saving this struggling town. Metropolis Mayor Billy McDaniel goes further than that.

“We strive to operate our city as just what it says: truth, justice and the American way” he said. “We try to raise our kids the same way: with integrity. How you treat your neighbor, how you treat other people is important in your life,” McDaniel said. “We don’t all agree on everything but I can tell you when something happens, you forget your differences and you try to help each other.”

The journalist Michele Longworth backs that statement up.

“Like in 2011, we had the worst flooding that Metropolis has seen in a long time. We had community members out sandbagging and pulling together. So, I think people really are super.”

Longworth works for the the local newspaper called, of course, the Metropolis Planet. The original name, the Metropolis News, was changed in 1972, the year the city became Superman’s hometown.

“When we get phone calls, people always ask, “Where’s Clark, Where’s Lois?” We always say, They’re on assignment,” Longworth jokes.

Like her counterpart Lois Lane, Longworth says there are days when she could use Clark Kent’s help.

“Like the time I took the wrong turn trying to go take some pictures to cover a story and ended up in the middle of a cornfield with my Mustang,” Longworth said. “Sometimes I wish there were a real life Superman to come rescue me.”

But there are those in Metropolis who say Superman could be doing more for the town than just standing around.

“I think there should be an amusement park. I think there should be a lot of developmental things,” says resident Pam Turner, who was eating lunch at the local Rube’s Diner. “I think it would have been a gold mine for Metropolis, a lot better than a riverboat.”

But according to city officials their hands are tied. They say DC Comics tightly controls anything having to do with the man with the ‘S’ on his chest. On the other hand, Turner’s mother, Loreen McGinnis, could hardly care less about Superman, the statue, or anything else.  

“I’ll soon be 89-years-old and I’ve been to it twice,” McGinnis said. I went home and I ‘ain’t’ been back.”

McGinnis says with a riverboat casino in town, Superman’s high ideals aren’t doing much good anyway.

“It’s Sin City,” she said. “I feel like our young people have too much of the devil’s playground in Metropolis.”

Sounds like a job for Superman.

But for now, residents have other things to worry about, like where to see the new movie. When “Man of Steel” opens today, folks in Metropolis will have to travel across the river to Paducah, Kentucky to watch it.

That’s because the city’s only movie theater closed decades ago. The last movie shown there?

Superman starring Christopher Reeve. 

Follow WBEZ reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.