By Greg Richer, B.A. Student, Department of History
Superman has had a renaissance of late. Comic giants Marvel and DC are racing to reboot their superheroes for the big screen, and Superman has seen two movies come out in the last ten years — Superman Returns (2006) and Man of Steel (2013) — with a third movie in the making — one featuring both Batman and Superman. This screentime rivals Batman, who will have four upon the release of the Superman/Batman movie in 2015, and beats heroes like Thor and Captain America.
Superman (aka Clark Kent, aka Kal-El) was born on the planet Krypton and sent to Earth by his parents moments before his home planet’s destruction. He arrived on Earth as an infant but soon found out that he had super powers. Superman has, over the decades, established a massive following. Yet never was Superman so admired as during WWII and the postwar period. Fans and scholars widely consider 1938 to 1948 to be the golden age of Superman.
With many of America’s father figures at war, Superman was a natural substitute. He fought the Nazis and the Japanese, as well as saved his home (city) from chaos. At the same time, Superman was kind, smart, and most importantly had a strong moral compass. In this way he served as a mirror, reflecting to society its desires for the strong yet conscionable young men it had sent to war. Yet, Superman’s egos were at odds with one another, reflecting the divide many men felt in themselves after returning home from war. Readers grew to admire Superman and Clark Kent. He and his two essential yet contradictory personalities grew to be expected of men in America’s postwar society. A true man needed to possess immense physical strength, granting him the ability to have complete and utter control over his personal environment. At the same time men were expected to be quiet, intelligent, and thoughtful in the workforce.
This duplicity of character was not only taking place in the workforce but in personal life, as well. Men and boys had been sent off to war, trained to be killing machines, more than mere human beings. Now, upon their return they were expected to be loving husbands and fathers. Men at the time would most likely have felt split in two pieces or more. Similarly, Umberto Eco wrote on the seemingly dichotic separations that can be found in Superman. Eco points out the near impossibility for humanity to exist in such shells as Clark Kent and Superman or, correspondingly as the soldier and the family/businessman. Eco postulates that the duality of Kal-El (Superman/Clark Kent’s true identity) actually reflects the average man’s plight in the 1950s. In Clark Kent we find a man who is submissive to his female coworker (Lois Lane) and unable to find love or happiness in a world which is becoming more about technology and family, something men at the time could see in themselves. Yet in Clark Kent’s moment of transformation, wherein he rips off his suit and reveals the Superman underneath, men find an escape that they themselves cannot follow. In Superman one can find a manifestation of man’s desire to rip his tame shell from his body and reveal a more primordial animal capable of feats so great that he is able to regain control of his environment from the forces — such as workplace and family obligations — which control him in everyday life.
Superman’s popularity reflected the questions, doubts, and struggles of his own golden age. So why is Superman making a comeback now? The Afghan and Iraqi Wars have moved from the American consciousness; they’re not in the news every day, they’re not even on The Daily Show very frequently. Superman reaches peaks in popularity not because of the enemies whom he defeats in the comics or on screen (i.e. the Japanese, General Zod, Lex Luther), but rather for the comfort he offers us in the real world — a father figure to a child whose father perished in WWII, an escape for a man who returned home after the war and is struggling to reconcile his different lives. Superman is most popular when he fights social problems that require a “super man.” Now we need Superman for something new. We need Superman to fight the unknown. We are the first generation to deal with a lower life expectancy and global warming. We also live in a morally ambiguous world: we struggle with neo-imperialistic morality, a stagnant economy, the growth of China, online privacy battles, human rights in manufacturing, and abortion laws.
In Superman’s new movies he fights aliens from his home planet who are trying to alter the chemical makeup of Earth’s atmosphere. He’s forced to kill his enemy in a morally ambiguous moment of struggle. Superman always consists of two elements: the humanizing factor (Originally one could argue it was the personal dichotomy that Clark Kent and the average man faced. Now in his reboot its the unknown that makes him most relatable. What will he become with his powers? What will he do with his life? Was he right in killing Zod? What will the future hold for the new Superman?), and then rising above that humanized form and becoming Superman (In this movie this is Clark Kent literally becoming Superman, fullfilling his destiny, understanding what life expects out of him, which is a relatable feeling in the new generation: it takes a “super man” to find a place in this world).
These are new challenges for a new generation, challenges that only a new and rebooted Superman can solve. In Man of Steel, Superman’s new adaptation, Clark Kent spends a year travelling the world working odd jobs, which is a perhaps a reflection of the fears of a new generation of college grads struggling to find work in a stagnant economy. Superman also fights a villain from a world that has been destroyed by depleting its own natural resources and then tries to change the physical state of Earth, a storyline which parallels global warming. The new Superman is even forced to kill his enemy, Zod, in a morally ambiguous moment. A flying superpower killing in a morally ambiguous way is particularly relevant to modern America, as many of us face similar concerns about drone strikes in the Middle East. This of course begs the question of what we will see Superman fighting in the future. Perhaps the “Man of Steel” will return to fight water shortages, overpopulation, and global warming. Perhaps we’ll even see him presenting solutions to government gridlock, childhood obesity, or other unforeseeable problems in our future. Either way it should make for some great cinema.