'Man of Steel' in a cynical age

The newest Superman iteration is a darker story for a generation that's been won over by Batman and Iron Man.

Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
Henry Cavill in ‘Man of Steel’

Do audiences really need yet another spandex-clad, costumed superhero in a big-budget summer movie? As the new grim reboot of the Superman story, "Man of Steel," continues as a box-office hit one thing is clear: Clark Kent and his nearly invincible alter ego is the granddaddy of superheroes – and one that retains an enduring appeal for each generation.

What is noticeably different, however, is the darker overtones, both in the set and the mood of the script, reflecting a more cynical culture that has moved beyond the sky-blue suit of earlier versions of Superman. "Man of Steel" is the latest in a trend of somber superhero releases such as "Iron Man 3" and "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns."

While Superman's basic story hasn't changed over time, studios understand the need to freshen up a franchise, says Brad Ricca, author of "Super Boys," in an e-mail. He teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. "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 American 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 Peter Coogan, who teaches a course in comic book studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

By the 1950s the last son of Krypton was a stolid, dependable establishment figure, says Professor Coogan, who adds that the hero in "Superman: The Movie" in 1978 served as an antidote to the disillusionment of the 1970s. This latest "Man of Steel" movie 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."

This tweaking around the edges of the character's psyche is fundamental to feeding the future of a long-lived franchise, says Rob Weiner, popular culture librarian at Texas Tech University. In this version, Superman is viewed with suspicion because he is "not of this earth" and is considered "all powerful," he says via e-mail, which feeds into the skepticism pervasive in today's culture.

Despite the current darker national mood, however, Superman's appeal endures for a good reason, says Allan Austin, professor of history at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. "Superheroes, even if often dismissed as nothing more than low-brow entertainment, are powerful representations of who we think we are and who we want to be."

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