Superman's real identity: America's everyman
Since he landed in Kansas, the Man of Steel has reflected the values of the United States and its changing times.
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During World War II, Superman battled the Nazis. After Russia launched the first satellite into orbit, America entered the space race, giving new space monsters for Superman to tame. In the 1960s, he fell out of favor with antiwar youth who associated Superman too closely with "the establishment." And as Hollywood embraced the antihero, darker comic-book characters such as Batman and Spider-Man, more human beings with tortured pasts were created. Just as America faced an identity crisis in the Vietnam War-era, so, too, did the World's Greatest Adventure Character, whose simple goodness seemed passé.Skip to next paragraph
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Efforts to spice up the meek Clark Kent have been much less successful than Superman's many makeovers. In the early 1970s, Kent turned up in the comics as a blow-dried, glamorized news anchorman for the Galaxy Broadcasting System. "The most disastrous mistakes they've made in trying to update Superman came about in not understanding the appeal of the Kent identity," says Anthony Tollin, a longtime DC Comics artist. "Clark Kent is the entry area for the character, that anyone can identify with. After that," he adds, "they can dream about the ideal of being Superman."
It took the first of four Superman films, starring Reeve, to reset the character to its meek, mild-mannered reporter, pining for Lois Lane even as she swooned over Superman. "You go too far in one direction, then ultimately you get drawn back," says Mr. Tollin. "You come back to the fundamentals of what Superman really stands for."
In recent years, as America has explored its new role as the world's sole superpower, writers have explored ways to humanize and bring Superman down to earth. He's been stripped and grounded in "Smallville," the hit TV series about his high school years in Kansas. Creators Al Gough and Miles Millar have famously declared their lead will have "no flights, no tights." "Lois & Clark," an earlier TV series, dealt with relations between the star reporter and her favorite superhero. And in the comics, he's died, married, and been split in two (one red, one blue).
But the biggest changes for Superman, as surely as the US, have come post-9/11. "Suddenly, Superman was dwarfed by ordinary men and women performing extraordinary acts of heroism," says Dennis Maher, associate drama professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, pointing to the comic panel portraying firemen and policemen raising a flag on the World Trade Center site. "Standing in the foreground is Superman, who can only utter the single word, 'Wow,' in bowing to the real superheroes."
The new film, "Superman Returns," resets the character again, says Mr. Uslan. As the war on terrorism continues, with disturbing images of American soldiers under attack, not to mention allegations of prisoner abuse by the American military at Abu Ghraib and Gauntánamo Bay, Americans are looking for ways to feel good about themselves. They want to know that their moral compass has not been lost, he says. And just in the nick of time, their cinematic alter ego is back to reassure them. "America desperately needs heroes, especially ones that are clearly delineated, without shades of gray or irony," says Uslan.
In a nod to cultural sensitivities or debates about the policies of a given US administration, the latest Superman has also shed the notion that he stands for "the American Way," a phrase he picked up during the 1950s TV show. Once again, this reasserts the notion that these values are above mere politicians. "He's never associated directly with a given government," says Case Western University's Ricca. "Superman is always better than that because he's the purest version of America, not the politics."