I'm sure all of my fanboy followers out there have seen the latest trailer for the soon to be released blockbuster film Man of Steel, and there have been many other television and film adaptations of this character and probably more will come, each time re-inventing the boy in blue again and again. What I would like to examine today are many of the various incarnations of the character and how each of these incarnations have been used to comment on the human condition.
Of course, the first incarnation of Superman is in the comic books, namely Kal-El's introduction in June of 1938 in Action Comics #1. Back then, Superman was simply a symbol of peace and hope, fighting criminals with unimaginable powers and "leaping tall buildings in a single bound". Created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, the character was originally supposed to be a reflection of the Nietzsche "Superman", but a powerful force for evil. Since Siegel and Schuster were Jewish and Nazi Germany later warped the idea of the "Superman", they tried to publish the character as a comic strip, eventually ending up landing a deal with Action Comics and the rest is history. Their Superman was a champion of "truth, justice, and the American way", embodying all of the patriotism that arose around the end of the 1930's and early 1940's. Since then, Superman has taken on several other personas, but has always been the leader of the DC line of comics, as important a character as Batman or Wonder Woman.
In the television shows of the 1950's and '60's depicting Superman, played by George Reeves, Bud Colyer, and Kirk Alyn respectively, Superman is again a reflection of the times in which he lived. The Superman of this era was meant for Saturday morning serials in the movie houses, mostly directed at children because at the time most adults felt that comic books were meant for children. The stories were often weak and were without substance, and Superman would always swoop in to save the day at the end of the show. My favorite Superman from this era was probably George Reeves, and it gave me a taste of the 1950's that still stays with me. He reflected the shiny surface and prosperity of that era, a somehow overinflated man with powerful abilities, and Lois was always almost putting it together that Clark was Kal-El.
In the 1970's Superman hit the big screen played by the unforgettable Christopher Reeve. It was the first time that a comic book movie was shot with a realism and care that dealt more with the Superman persona and what it means to have all that power yet not be able to save everyone. In this incarnation (Superman: The Movie), Kal-El has real problems and must live among us, a god among men. The film actually dealt with issues found in the pages of Alan Moore's The Watchmen, which explores the question of power and the difficult choices we must make if we have great power. Those with great power must understand that their actions affect the lives of many. In the '70's there was the threat of the Cold War, economic decline, and governmental turmoil in many of the most powerful nations in the world. The Superman sequels with Christopher Reeve (AFTER Superman II) some of them a little off-putting for hardcore fans, tried to ham-handedly comment on current events but often Superman seemed to be caught in the crossfire, as if he were placed into the movie without his consent. It was a reflection for me of the '80's exploitation of media and big budget films, over the top action and exaggerated characters.
In the '90's everyone fell in love with Superman again when Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman aired. It was tongue in cheek, poking fun at the mythos of Superman with a sarcasm that was true to the angst and cold fallout that the '90's brought us. With the success of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and later Angel, Warner Brothers jumped on the bandwagon, creating Smallville which depicted a young Clark Kent dealing again with difficult teen problems that spoke to a generation of kids, but again the character of Superman was mirroring the culture in which he was depicted. It took license from Lois and Clark creating a retelling of the Superman story with more modern flare, angst and week to week love triangles.
It wasn't until Superman Returns that Superman became a serious adult draw again, and even though some fans and critics balked at the film, it was a great box office success. Helmed by the brilliant direction of Bryan Singer and the incredible performances by Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor (who stole the show) and the somewhat creepy channeling of the spirit of Christopher Reeve by Brandon Routh, the film was a look at that age old question that seems to resurface with the Superman mythos: great power has consequences. Superman is hated by those who know that he can stop them with a wave of his finger and envied by those who wish to control his power. Those who are closest to you as a person of power will be caught in the crossfire when you are attacked by your enemies.
In this latest incarnation, Man of Steel, we do not know what to expect, but from seeing the latest trailer it looks amazing. What comment will director Zac Snyder (The Watchmen) and screenwriter David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Rises) make about our culture through the guise of the Superman mythos? Will they comment on terrorist threats, fear of environmental changes, economic shifts in world powers or will they opt to simply tell a story told since Action Comics #1? Only time will tell. Recently, DC Comics released the New 52 announcing that they were revamping all of the origin stories of their most cherished heroes, one of them being Superman. Superman went through a few fundamental changes (none of them that catastrophic), namely that he and Lois are no longer married, but one plot point of the new 52 made a comment about culture that was very interesting. He quit his job as reporter for the Daily Planet citing his opinion that "reporting is no longer news but entertainment". In this single statement, Superman again says what many of us feel in this digital culture. It is indeed, Supes. When was the last time a news service bragged about "getting the story straight" rather than touting that "we have the largest ratings"? Worth a thought.
All in all I'm looking forward to Man of Steel. I'm hoping that Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer can bring some realism to this great American character, because as Superman said himself in a recent comic book: he stands for truth, justice, "and yeah — I'm not ashamed to say it — the American way". This statement is something that Americans sometimes forget in this raging political climate. We should not be ashamed to be Americans, that the "American Way" is not something to be ashamed about. We'll follow your lead, Superman.