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'Man of Steel' offers a new generation its own, brooding, Superman (+video)

To each American generation, its Superman. But will audiences get what they need from another spandex-clad, costumed, immigrant superhero in this summer's 'Man of Steel'?

By Staff writer / June 13, 2013

This publicity shot released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Henry Cavill as Superman in 'Man of Steel.'

Clay Enos / Warner Bros. Pictures / AP

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Los Angeles

As the new Superman movie “Man of Steel” prepares to land in theaters this weekend, it’s easy to wonder if, indeed, audiences really need yet another spandex-clad, costumed superhero in a big budget summer movie.

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But, as fans and pop culture pundits are quick to point out, Clark Kent and his nearly invincible alter-ego are the first, the biggest, the granddaddy of superheroes – and one that retains an enduring appeal for each generation.

The character's basic story doesn't change over time, says Brad Ricca, author of “Super Boys,” in an e-mail, “but its place in our collective cultural mindset does.”

Studios understand the need to freshen up a franchise, points out Ricca, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. "There is a kind of dark marketing origin to these endless new versions of Superman," he acknowledges, but "the end result is that each new generation gets a new version that they can claim as theirs.”

Producer Christopher Nolan’s brooding take on the baby from an alien planet who goes from the US heartland into the global consciousness is just the latest retooling since this tale first appeared in 1938.

“Superman in the 1930s was idealistic – a super New Dealer,” says Prof. Peter Coogan, who teaches a course in comic book studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

By the 1950s the caped crusader was a stolid, dependable establishment figure, says Professor Coogan, who adds that in “Superman: The Movie” in 1978 he served as an antidote to the disillusionment of the 1970s. This latest Man of Steel positions Superman as a realistic figure, he says. “He does not immediately know how to use his gifts and needs a period of searching in order to gain the life experience to understand how to use his powers.”  Like the Superman of the 1930s and early 1940s he adds, this 2013 hero “is greeted with official skepticism by the authorities.”

Even his superpowers adapt to different ages, points out CarrieLynn Reinhard, assistant professor of communication arts and sciences at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

He started as having some powers, she notes in an e-mail, such as being “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” as at least one generation of TV watchers can recite.

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