The nation's first superhero is back on the big screen, and in true movie-star style, he's had a bit of a makeover. The insignia is smaller and the snappy shorts are tighter. Although 26-year-old Brandon Routh is the same age as Christopher Reeve was when he first assumed the red mantle in 1978, the new Man of Steel looks younger. (Eat your hearts out, mere mortals.) And in a crowning special-effects moment, the signature dark curl on Superman's forehead finally flutters when he flies.
But while the cut of the cape may change, certain essentials about the crusader remain from his creation in 1938. Through more than six decades of life in the comics, radio, TV, and movies, his basic moral code of doing good for its own sake has been unwavering. And, perhaps more important, while he may see Clark Kent in his daily mirror, when he peers into his heart and soul, Superman's real secret identity is America itself.
"He's very American," says Brad Ricca, lecturer at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. From the creation of our country, Mr. Ricca explains, the US has had a healthy tradition of looking to men who embody the nation, people like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. These figures have personified all that's good and patriotic about America. Of course, Superman is fiction, but, adds Ricca, "those men have been fictionalized, too."
Equally important, the Man of Steel is the ultimate immigrant, created by two shy Jewish teenagers from Cleveland. These Depression-era boys, Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster, were science-fiction fans from immigrant families who poured their own anxieties about being outsiders into an idealized superfigure from another planet.
"He comes from somewhere else, and goes through a rebirth on a new planet," says Gareth Barkin, assistant professor of media anthropology at Centre College in Danville, Ky. This godlike origin story, with echoes of Greco-Roman mythology as well as the births of Moses and Jesus, reinforces the idea that American values of truth, liberty, and justice are universal, because they come from above. This emphasis on cosmic ideals from the heavens is significant because the US is the only nation based on an idea, rather than geography; it has philosophical rather than national roots. "This turning to figures like Superman, with an inalienable moral center," says Mr. Barkin, "is how the US sees itself and, in its heart, distinguishes itself from other nations."
Even the question of "Who am I?" that Superman must face when Ma and Pa Kent reveal his true origin is fundamentally American. "This question of, 'What do I symbolize, what do I stand for,' " says Michael Uslan, executive producer of the Batman movies, "this is something the Founding Fathers were doing by asking, 'What is the essence of this new country, America?' " Thus, he adds, Superman's perpetual fight to feel at home in his earthly costume has mirrored America's own struggle to define its role in the world.
For Kal-El, the boy who fell from Krypton, this has meant an endless stream of costume changes, not to mention an expanding – and occasionally shrinking – menu of superpowers. (After all, if you can juggle planets in space, what challenge is left?) The son of Jor-El was little more than a superthug when he began, using threats and implied violence against Depression-era malcontents such as wife beaters and corrupt politicians.
"The key aspects of the comic clearly resonated for that time period," says Joseph Darowski, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University writing his thesis on the evolution of superheroes. "Superman could be seen as the New Deal government that would come and fix everyone's problems while Clark Kent, with all his insecurities, was like the people who had lost all their confidence and [had] become emasculated."
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.
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."