This week’s release of “Batman v Superman” will answer a number of longstanding questions. Is Ben Affleck fit to wear the iconic cowl? Will Wonder Woman make more than a cameo appearance? Has Zack Snyder truly learned nothing from the backlash to General Zod’s gruesome demise? These are all pressing issues, but we’re hoping the blockbuster might address another, longer standing one, too: Does Superman sleep?
Yes, the answer might seem obvious on first glance. Of course not, he’s Superman! Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to disguise his true identity simply by donning a pair of chunky hipster specs. Yet the truth is rarely so simple, especially when Kryptonians, multiverses and cross-platform franchises are involved. A careful look through the Man of Steel’s past reveals he indeed requires sleep, to an extent — though not for the same reasons reasons as we mere earthlings.
First, some review. As the story goes, Superman gets his power from the Earth’s yellow sun. If we’re being pedantic about it, and we are being pedantic about it, his cells absorb and metabolize the sun’s energy just as plants do, though he sustains that energy at night thanks to the super-charged nature of yellow stars — as opposed to Krypton’s red. (Duh.) He’s basically a biological solar battery, converting the sun’s energy into whatever abilities his writers see fit: heat vision, invulnerability, superhuman strength and endurance and other such skills that have grown or waned in strength over the years.
On film, Christopher Reeve’s Superman, as written by Mario Puzo and David and Leslie Newman, has the power to erase Lois Lane’s memory and fly fast enough that he reverses time. Henry Cavill’s take, as written by David Goyer and Chris Terrio, mostly showcases Kal-El’s strength and speed (Brandon Routh’s take was all about putting viewers to sleep). No take seems to require much sleep, which makes sense: While sleep’s true purpose remains elusive, we know it serves essential restorative functions that Superman obviously doesn’t need; the sun does the job for him. So what can we glean from the last 75 years of Superman stories?
Tom Peyer, a comic book writer and editor with several Superman titles under his belt, points to a famous 1961 issue #145 that featured Clark Kent awakening to a ringing phone. Perry White — editor of the Daily Planet — asks why he didn’t pick up earlier, and Clark responds “I was sleeping, I guess too soundly.” This appears to answer our question, but as Peyer notes this may have been a deliberate misdirection.
“The story turned out to be a spot-the-errors contest for readers,” he told Van Winkle’s. A note at the end of #145 revealed that the story took place on April Fool’s Day and was intentionally filled with “goofs” and “boo-boos” for a contest; the reader who detected the most was promised original artwork. “Nearly every detail in it was deliberately wrong,” said Peyer. It remains unclear whether Clark’s sound sleep was one of those flubs, though we assume at least one of the 30,000 readers who responded to the “Great Superman Boo-Boo Contest” took umbrage with it.
We can find a more definitive instance of Superman’s sleep habits in 1991’s “Time and Time Again” arc, in which the Man of Steel travels through time to defeat Linear Man, a bounty hunter who wants to destroy the moon, because, why not. In the story’s final panels, he returns to the 20th Century and Lois Lane, who gives him a neck rub until he falls asleep.
So, it seems that Superman has slept. Just...not much. According to Peyer, however, it’s not the rejuvenating powers of sleep that would be important to Kal El, but rather the psychological benefits of dreaming. “It wasn’t until Action Comics #409, 1972, that the role of sleep in Superman's life was clearly explained,” he said. “Here, pressing demands on his time kept him from sleeping for three weeks straight, and that resulted in a personality breakdown. He unknowingly adopted a third identity that repeatedly tried to assassinate Clark Kent. It was like a Philip K. Dick story, with its emphases on identity confusion and altered reality. After the crisis passed, a fellow extraterrestrial explained to Superman that while he physically doesn't need sleep, his mental health requires the outlet of dreams.”
This should resonate with viewers of the Cartoon Network’s “Justice League” series. In the “Only A Dream” episodes that aired in 2003, Superman faces a powerful villain called Dr. Destiny. Equipped with telepathic powers, the baddie traps Flash, Superman, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl in terrible nightmares; in Superman’s, he loses control over his powers and inadvertently kills the people he loves.
We also catch a glimpse of his un-waking life in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series, also set in the DC universe. Here Superman and Batman attend the funeral of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, and cheekily discuss their own subconscious adventures — all meta-references to other Superman stories. “Once I dreamed I had this weird virus and I had to keep going forward in time until the end of the universe,” he says. “The one I hate is where I’m just an actor in a strange television version of my life.”
Okay, so Superman does require sleep in some form. But there’s a pretty obvious caveat to all this: The rules change whenever Superman’s creators want them to. They changed most notably when “Crisis on Infinite Earth”’s storyline in the mid-’80s destroyed a hearty portion of the DC multiverse and killed a couple dozen heroes. It was a (still controversial) reboot of sorts for the franchise, including Superman, whose powers were reined in afterward.
More confusing still, the DC Cinematic Universe is different from the comics universe and even the TV universe; just this week “Batman vs. Superman” director Zack Snyder said he never considered “The Flash”’s Grant Gustin for his upcoming “Justice League” film. This is all consistent with the idea that DC stories exist within a multiverse where there are numerous versions of every hero. But it does make it difficult to come up with a Grand Unified Theory of Superman’s sleep habits. Unless “Batman v Superman” gives us a satisfying answer, we’ll have to be content knowing he’s definitely got the Dark Knight whooped when it comes to sleep.