Superman Isn't What He Used To Be

Man of Steel hits theaters tonight, and Warner Brothers is hoping that it will bring out the inner 40-year-old in all of us, and that the inner 40-year-old will dig deep and fork over the twelve to twenty dollars it will cost to see the film. It’s a tough spot: historically, the Superman franchise is one for five when it comes to good movies, which puts Superman pretty far behind John McClane. The movies make money, sure, but the movies themselves (other than II, of course)? Not so super.

Any fanboy will tell you that the solution to the relative quality of this upcoming reboot of the franchise will revolve around one thing: the punching of things. Sure, there’s all sorts of fun new ways to achieve artistic success — there’s even a Hollywood statistical firm that has figured out that targeting demons have higher box office appeal than summoned demons (whatever that means) — but listen to the fanboys, who have sat through such mundanities as Superman saving a choo-choo train, and Superman swooping around the world real fast to turn back time, and Superman lifting a big Kryptonite island and throwing it into space, and Superman throwing the “S”, and whatever Superman did in III and IV (anyone?). Those are all heroic feats (except for the “S” throwing), but they do not require the punching of things. Fanboys would like to see some punching of things. It worked for The Avengers.

Problem solved, right?

But maybe the punching of things is the solution to the wrong problem. Maybe the punching of things exacerbates the real problem: Superman isn’t what he used to be, and the thing he used to be, that’s a thing we could use more of.

It’s not an accident that the American version of iconic fictional heroes are called superheroes. Superman is not just a superhero, or — depends on who you ask — the first superhero. He’s Superman. He’s the most iconic superhero ever.

Superman’s rise as crossover media juggernaut was fast — first comic appearance, 1938; first radio appearance, 1940; first movie (serial) appearance, 1948; first television appearance, 1952. Mere years after his creation by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was ubiquitous, so much bigger than bigger-than-life.

Part of the reason for this is that he was endowed with superpowers that were just one notch below omnipotence. He was super strong and his skin was impenetrable. “Faster than a speeding train, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…” Well, in the beginning that was the case, but as the years went by, he could shoot heat rays out his eyeballs, he could see through walls and his breath could freeze things. Basically, he could outrun a speeding train, pick it up, throw it over a tall building, catch it, then also pick up the tall building, pat his head and rub his stomach at the same time, etc.

For this reason, as a character for whom compelling storylines must be created, Superman’s always been a bit of a boondoggle, on account of being Superman. As in, if he’s by definition invulnerable, then what’s the dramatic conflict? (How he shaves? Gag.) To solve this, the comic book introduced kryptonite in 1949, as to Achilles him up, and soon a small moon’s worth of kryptonite meteorites fell upon the planet and Superman was feeling faint with some frequency, but it did little to detract from his resistance enough to create anything resembling suspense.

This only made Superman more popular. The Big One was fought and won by the U.S. (at least in the U.S. history books), and was the last nation standing, the only major participant with no homeland damage. Western Europe? In rubble. The Soviets? Even more rubble, and only yet flexing their peculiar Stalinist version of colonialism. Add to that the vanquishing of the Great Depression, and add to that the Bomb, and there was a strong streak of invulnerability in the national Zeitgeist. And what better comic book character to become the most American of Americans, the paragon of virtues, the most heroic of heroes? The talking mouse? The guy dressed in black and grey with bat ears? No, that would be Superman, the hero equally prone to stopping alien invasions and super-walking little old ladies across the street.

Oddly, when Superman was introduced, he was more of a grim, avenging figure, not so quick to smile, and the mad scientists of the day that would threaten Superman and/or Metropolis were as likely to end up dead in an explosion of the secret death ray lab (“AAAIIIEEEEE!”) than behind bars.

But that quickly changed, and the Superman that persisted into the 70s was the guy posing in front of the American flag with an eagle on his arm, the Big Blue Boy Scout. And when I say blue, I mean blue — check out this DC Comics coloring guide from the 1980s. He was very much a primary colors character. He saved the world. He had a best pal, Jimmy Olsen. He had a secret identity, a nebbish reporter. He had girls go crazy for him, and he declined to get involved. He was a ten year-old’s idea of heroism: selfless, generous, uninterested in profit.

Overall, he was as implausible as “President Newt Gingrich,” but the little kids took him into their hearts as the hero. You might’ve preferred the Marvel Comics, or you might prefer the movie stars or the baseball heroes, but Superman was different. He was not subject to your adolescent fickleness. The future was bright. America was on the ups. Mom and Dad loved you. Bacon for breakfast every morning.

And it may be silly, juvenile even, to look up to a funny book character as a hero in a flesh and blood world, but scan a list of the Most Admired Men, as polled annually by The Gallup Organization, going back to 1946. You will notice that only three men were Most Admired who were not present/future/past presidents. One of those men is Pope John Paul II, and another is Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The third is Henry Freaking Kissinger, from 1973 to 1975. Not coincidentally, the only president since then not to be Most Admired was Gerald Ford. This is what we’ve had for heroes in the real world: presidents, a pope, a general with a God complex and a secretary of state with an odd knack for self-promotion. (Most Admired Women are also listed, but a little odd to use as an example, given the ever-evolving struggle with gender issues. Mother Teresa did well, as so did Margaret Thatcher, but Hillary Clinton has owned it for every year but one since 1997.)

It was hard to beat, having your own personal Superman.

But since that era, the character has changed. The newer narratives, highlighting his outsider status as an actual space alien trying just to fit in with those crazy humans, or even the very emo With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility conflict, have all walked-back the Mom-And-Apple-Pie-ness of the Superman of years ago, to the extent that it existed anywhere outside of the minds of the little kids desperate for something to believe in, a secular God that ameliorated the peculiar uncomfortability of growing up in what school told you was the only great nation of the world, ever. He died and came back, he grew his hair long, he got married, he turned into a guy with weird electrical powers. He’s flailed around in a comic book world that got darker and darker and more grown up.

And the movies and the TV shows never stopped. If anything, they proliferated. But each new sequel, new series, new reboot, Superman splintered, spinning off little baby Superman universes, connected to the others in name only. The awe and the wonder that powered the Superman mythos slowly bled away, and he became just another guy with his underwear on the outside, just like all the others.

When talking about Superman, the dirty reality of his creation must be addressed. Superman is nothing but a small but terrifyingly lucrative bit of Intellectual Property. Oh yeah, he’s infused the dreamlife of Americans for generations, but dreamlife-infusion is a discrete thing that generally is the by-product of something else — making movies or TV shows or comic books, all of which are done expressly for the purpose of getting paid.

It’s legendary in the comic business how Siegel and Shuster got screwed over by DC Comics, creating Superman as a work-for-hire, then going on to live and eventually die in obscurity, but the nature of their screwing has nothing to do with art and everything to do with commerce. It was not the creative rights, the dreamlife-infusion rights that were trammeled, but rather the economic rights. No fanboy sticks up for Siegel and Shuster because they never got to control the direction of Superman comic books. The indignity suffered and duly fanboy-noted is that a bunch of people made piles of cash as big as the piles of petroleum coke alongside the Detroit River, and none of those people were Siegel and/or Shuster.

The IP of Superman yearns to be exploited. Hence, Man Of Steel. I’ve avoided advance reviews, which I am told have generally not been very kind, but the previews and trailers I’ve seen indicate that there is a very good chance that many things will be punched in the movie, and that Superman will be doing some of the punching. This is a a good thing. I don’t understand the reticence of the authors of previous movies to have the punching of things, but it was missed.

But the punching of things, as important as it may be to the success of the Superman franchise and the bottom line of Warner Brothers, has nothing to do with Superman, the ideal, the notion. That notion does not exist anywhere but in the ugly chunks of nostalgia lodged in the hearts of the Boomers and the Gen-Xers all Peter Panned nearly to the point of obsolescence. That notion is equal parts George Reeves, who got shot in the head, and Christopher Reeve, who was thrown off that horse, none of them invulnerable like they were supposed to be.

There can’t be a return to innocence. We weren’t actually ever that innocent, just excessively naive. A vain argument for the return to innocence would be, for example, the insertion of the punching of things into “Super Friends.” But it would be a nice little ray of sunshine to have a Hero, one that wasn’t retconned into meaninglessness, drained of his heroism, all in the hopes of keeping his IP robust.

Brent Cox is all over the Internet.