Superman: A new movie, and a 75th birthday

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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1938 cover of Action Comics' Superman. (Comic Book Investment Reports)

Seventy-five years after he sprang from the imaginations of Clevelanders Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman is making another visit to movie screens, in Man of Steel, with Henry Cavill playing the superhero.

Coupled with the anniversary of the character’s first comic-book appearance in 1938, the movie at once aims to generate new interest in the last son of Krypton and to demonstrate the enduring power of a major cultural figure.

One, of course, who has been reinterpreted and reinvented over the years. Cavill’s movie and TV predecessors include George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Tom Welling, Dean Cain and Brandon Routh. But that barely hints at the longevity of the character.

Think of these stats, from Larry Tye’s book Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero:

Before he was killed in a 1992 comic book (and later resurrected), Superman had been the subject of death scenarios in comics in 1950, 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1968, 1984 and “twice in 1987 — with each story proving to be his inventive artifice or his writer’s imagination,” Tye wrote.

Similarly, the 1996 print marriage of Superman and Lois Lane followed wedding (or, more precisely, near-wedding) stories so frequent that they put the runaway bride to shame: Tye says tales appeared in 1949, 1955 and 1959, another 16 times in the ’60s, and six more in the ’70s, including one involving a parallel-world Superman that actually stuck. There was also a wedding on TV’s Lois & Clark in 1996 (which may have hastened the end of the series) and in 1981’s Superman II, in which Superman gave up his powers to marry Lois — only to have to reclaim them, and end the marriage, in order to save Earth.

Part of the menace to Earth, by the way, was General Zod, played by Terence Stamp, who more than 20 years later gave voice to Superman’s father Jor-El on TV’s Smallville. (Superman sagas, on and off screen, circle around; Man of Steel was directed by Zack Snyder, who also helmed the super­hero revisionism of Watchmen, and co-written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer of the Dark Knight trilogy; but without Superman, there might not have been Watchmen or Batman.)

Indeed, Zod returns in Man of Steel, now played by Michael Shannon, who was a couple of months shy of his seventh birthday when Superman II came out.

Cavill, 30, was born about six weeks before the premiere of Superman III. He is six years younger than Welling, who played the young, pre-Superman Clark Kent on Smallville from 2001 to 2011. Based on the chronology in Les Daniels’ book Superman: The Complete History, Cavill’s birth was long after the arrival of not only Superman but Superboy (in 1945), Supergirl (1959), Krypto the Super-Dog (1955), Streaky the Super-Cat (1960), Beppo the Super-Monkey (1959) and Comet the Super-Horse (1962).

Decade by decade

Every decade since the ’30s has had some kind of Superman moment: the first appearance in the ’30s; animated productions from the legendary Max Fleischer, a live-action movie serial starring Kirk Alyn and radio programs in the ’40s; the TV series starring Reeves in the ’50s (and his death under still-debated circumstances before the decade was done); a Broadway musical in the ’60s; the Christopher Reeve movies beginning in the ’70s; more Reeve movies and a Superboy TV series in the ’80s; the death-of-Superman saga in the ’90s; Smallville and the big-screen Superman Returns in the ’00s; and now Man of Steel.

Not that all these efforts were successful. The musical was a dud. Superman Returns made close to $400 million worldwide — but that figure paled when the high cost of the movie was considered and, as Tye has written, it was less than the reinventions of Spider-Man and Batman had made.

Still, Superman endures, often revised and reconsidered, different and yet the same. Tye is fond of saying that Superman has evolved more than a perpetually changing fruit fly.

“He changes his hairstyle,” Tye said in a telephone interview. “His uniform gets updated. His work circumstances change.” Even the seemingly shocking change of Clark Kent from newspaper reporter to blogger was not really surprising, Tye said. “He’s been quitting the Daily Planet, whether it was to work for TV or do whatever seemed most contemporary, for 75 years.”

But that evolution comes with a fundamental sameness. For one thing, Tye said, Superman works best with audiences when he is in his 20s or 30s — when, for youngsters especially, he is older than they are but not as old-seeming as their parents. More important, though, is having a Superman with what Tye has called his “instinctual sense of right and wrong,” one that is sometimes seen in religious terms.

Religious symbolism

Born on another planet, he has nonetheless worked as a Christian symbol, as writer Steve Skelton argued in his 2006 book The Gospel According to the World’s Greatest Superhero. Jor-El’s sending young Kal-El to Earth could be seen as “a heavenly father sends his only son to save the Earth.” Tye has argued for another theory, that Superman is in fact Jewish. But it is possible that he is both, just depending on who is seeing him.

“While I make the case that the most convincing evidence is for that he’s Jewish, there are all these Christian metaphors built in,” Tye said. “Buddhists see him as the ultimate Zen character. Atheists and agnostics can see him as a secular messiah. He is a biblical kind of righteous character that works whatever your beliefs are, whether they are religious or any particular religion.”

What matters, basically, is that Superman believes in right and wrong, and doing something about it, in a direct and honest way. Spider-Man can be flawed, Batman can be a dark knight. Superman at his best is what Tye repeatedly called “a righteous hero.”

He may be vulnerable, as he was in the Christopher Reeve films, but there should also be something grand about him. The ’50s TV show announced that he had “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men,” the first Reeve Superman gave him a grand retelling of his origins, and trailers for Man of Steel also echo in mythology.

And, if timing is also important to the success or failure of a given Superman project, Tye thinks the timing is right now for a Superman who is at once connected to the 1938 one and resonant in a world full of horrors like the Boston Marathon attack and the Cleveland kidnappings.

“It’s a moment in American history … [where] we need a hero,” Tye said.

“This is a moment where I think we are readier for that than we have been in a long time,” he said. “We have vulnerable and flawed characters every day when we pick up the newspaper. I think we want an escape. … This is a moment very much like the moment in 1938 when he came to life. We’re entangled or about to be entangled in lots of overseas adventures that we’re not so sure we want to be in, and we’re still mired in, if not the Great Depression, then in a recession that never seems to end. Every day we have headlines that are really disturbing.”

And maybe a little Superman will make those headlines more bearable. That’s not certain. It may be the moviegoing world has moved on to the likes of the flashy, troubled Iron Man, whose third film has passed the billion-dollar mark at the global box office. But then, as Tye observed, there were the people who inundated Warner Bros. with comments when a teaser for Man of Steel first appeared. It may be that, even after 75 years, people want to look, up in the sky — and see their old hero.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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