On April 18, Superman will turn 75. Although still faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, he’s showing his age. Recent movie reboots of “Batman” and “Spider-Man” won Oscars or broke box-office records, but “Superman Returns,” released in 2006, sold fewer tickets than expectedwithout managing to reinvent the hero. (Hollywood is set to try again this year with “Man of Steel,” starring Henry Cavill, Russell Crowe and Amy Adams.)
Yet, for a septuagenarian, Kal-El of Krypton remains remarkably spry. It’s not just the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound that keeps him in shape. In the decades since the first Superman comic book appeared in 1938, writers have inserted him into political and social debates from World War II to Vietnam, from race relations to the war on terrorism. As a result, Superman’s political and cultural sensibilities have proved a lot more malleable, for better or worse, than you’d expect from a man of steel.
As conceived by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman was an aggressive, even brutal, social reformer who could strong-arm the cruel and unjust without mussing up his Brylcreem. “You see how effortlessly I crush this bar of iron in my hand?” he snarled at one arms manufacturer. “That bar could just as easily be your neck.”
As the nation emerged from the Great Depression, Superman went after those who would trample on the rights of honest working folks. He triggered a cave-in at a coal mine that trapped its wealthy owner underground, exposing unsafe working conditions. He terrorized a corrupt Washington power broker by tossing him around the Capitol dome like a rag doll. He torched an oil well, bankrupting its crooked stockholders. Artists often depicted him gazing past the horizon, burnished by the golden sunrise of a new day — iconography straight out of a socialist mural.
But this New Deal-inspired Democratic zeal faded with World War II. Suddenly, the nation looked to Superman as a patriotic symbol, and the Man of Tomorrow represented the status quo instead of challenging it. He nabbed Nazi saboteurs by the armful and hectored readers to collect scrap metal, plant victory gardens and “Slap a Jap With War Bonds and Stamps!” His “never-ending battle for Truth and Justice” became a fight for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” By the end of the war, Superman’s cape and the American flag waved as one.
In peacetime, he settled into a comfortable, Ike-liking, slipper-wearing existence familiar to many middle-class American men. He became the coolly paternal head of agrowing family — although his super-powered coterie, including his perky cousin Supergirl, Krypto the Super Dog, Streaky the Super Cat, Comet the Super Horse and Beppo the Super Monkey, looked like no other. Domestic concerns and romantic entanglements drove more stories. On one 1945 cover, he helped love interest Lois Lane defrost her freezer. A 1949 story asked, “Does Superman Prefer Lois as a Blonde, Brunette or Red-head?” He grew so busy fending off Lois’s advances that fighting crime took a back seat — although he did manage to thwart the assassination of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959.
Four years later, he made the unprecedented decision to reveal his secret identity to someone outside his superfamily: President John F. Kennedy. In Action Comics No. 168, JFK agrees to don a rubber Clark Kent mask so that “Clark” can be seen at a live television event while the Man of Steel is receiving an award. “If I can’t trust the president of the United States,” Superman reasoned, “who can I trust?” Kennedy would take Superman’s secret to his grave: In a ghoulish coincidence, the president was assassinated in Dallas as this issue was on its way to store shelves.
As the national mood soured with Vietnam and Watergate, the generation gap between Superman and his readers widened. With his clean-cut hair and baby blue uniform, he represented the establishment — a cop in a cape. In 1970, the dogged pursuit of relevance resulted in goofy stories such as “I Am Curious (Black),” in which Lois steps into a handy Kryptonian Plastimold outfitted with Transformaflux technology that turns her into a righteous African American woman who goes undercover to expose racial prejudice in Metropolis’s black neighborhood, Little Africa.
In 1986, the Man of Steel was retooled from scratch, transformed into an icon of the Reagan era. Superman got a buff physique that made ’roided-out 1980s action heroes such as Rambo and the Terminator look wispy. He also espoused a new, surprising worldview: Although Clark, Superman’s alter ego, had allowed Superman to live among those he had sworn to protect, the Man of Steel became Clark’s alter ego, a public face that the newly-confident news reporter called “just a fancy pair of long johns that lets me operate in public without losing my private life.” In other words, the world’s greatest hero became a means to an end — a dodge to allow Clark precious me-time away from humanity and its incessant needs.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, cast a pall over tales of garishly dressed heroes with fantastic powers who always arrived in time to save the day. In one comics anthology whose proceeds went to Sept. 11 victims, a somber Superman compared his amazing powers with his inability to “break free from the fictional pages” of comics to save lives in the real world. In an ill-considered 2010 story line, he tried to connect with humanity by walking from city to city addressing street-level social ills such as illegal immigration, pollution and child abuse. The series, called “Grounded,” was marred by its pious tone and maudlin execution. Superman “can make my mom love me again,” an adorable moppet says in one issue. The series was brought to a merciful, swifter-than-planned end.
In 2011, Superman decided that his responsibility to mankind required him to renounce his U.S. citizenship. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy,” he said. “The world’s too small. Too connected.” The story caught fire on the right. On Fox News, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee decried the announcement as “part of a bigger trend of Americans almost apologizing for being Americans.”
The Man of Steel has changed as his world has changed. When he remains above the political fray, he represents truth, justice, compassion and mercy. When writers push him into politicians’ squabbles or social debates, they do him a disservice. Such efforts cannot bridge the distance between his tidy two-dimensional world and our own. They can only make it wider. This is why his writers’ desire to keep Superman relevant often backfires, resulting in well-meaning but ham-fisted tales that cement his reputation as the ultimate square.
We don’t look to Superman because he responded meaningfully to World War II or was saddened by Sept. 11. We look to him because, no matter what decade it is, he reminds us that we can be better than we are.
Relevance: It’s the only thing that might kill the idea of Superman — a trap even Lex Luthor would envy.