Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s . . . oh my God, I’m already bored.
Superman, strange visitor from the Roosevelt administration, will soon be among us again in a very large and, I’ll warrant, very loud movie called “Superman Returns,” due in theaters in June.
The marketing tsunami is even now approaching the mainland. The movie’s trailer is already slacking jaws in cineplexes. The face of actor Brandon Routh, in all its canine beauty, stares out from magazines. Mattel has announced a small mountain of movie-themed toys and merchandise, including an inflatable Superman muscle suit and a remote-controlled flying action figure.
(I wonder if the suit comes in my size? Honey, I’ve got a surprise for yooooo.)
All of this raises the question: Can Superman die of overexposure? Along with the new movie, we have the prospering WB series “Smallville,” now with 100 episodes in the can. Not enough of the guy with the big chassis? You may seek out the 2005 novel “It’s Superman,” which is a respectable literary reinvention of the ur-myth by Tom De Haven. There are boxed-set DVDs of the ‘90s series “Lois and Clark”; director’s cuts of the “Superman” movies starring Christopher Reeve; and collections of all the various animated series, from the breathlessly Moderne 1940s cartoons by Max Fleischer to the weird, Dada-esque Hanna-Barbera “Superfriends” series, which gave the language the indispensable phrase: “Wonder Twin Powers, activate!”
You may also purchase a collection of the 1950s TV series “The Adventures of Superman,” starring the ill-fated George Reeves, who may or may not have committed suicide but was definitely not faster than a speeding bullet. A big-screen biopic about Reeves starring Ben Affleck is in the super-pipeline.
And then there are the forests of pulp comics, the graphic novels, the fictionalizations, the radio shows, the songs, the Broadway musical, the subversive histories—good Superman, bad Superman, Christ Superman, gay Superman. Oh my.
And yet, for all that, do we really know the man in tights? One problem is that Superman’s back story was written on the fly, so to speak. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created the comic book character in 1938 (Action Comics #1), but soon Superman became the collective construct of an army of animators, radio and TV script writers and comic book authors all trying to catch the tail of the blue comet.
Superman’s familiar creation myth—the spaceship crash near the Kent farm in Kansas, the adopted parents—the Achilles’ heel of Kryptonite, the Daily Planet, the X-ray vision, all were ginned up for radio.
So there’s been a fair amount of what they call in the military “mission creep.” I’m guessing Siegel and Schuster would have been flummoxed by “Smallville,” a soapy melodrama that has been nicknamed “Smallville’s Creek” for its portrayal of young Clark as a victim of super-teenage angst and ardor. Apparently the only thing more powerful than Kryptonite is hormones.
“DC Comics has been more than willing to let the mythology get played with,” says Michael Chabon, author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a brilliant summoning of the early days of the comic book industry. “If you counted every writer and artist who ever worked on Superman, it’s a huge number of people,” he says. It’s understandable how this collective myth-making would have unleashed huge Jungian geysers. “It’s hard to find a parallel,” says Chabon, except perhaps in the Talmud or the body of Arthurian legends.
In the realm of comic books, the constant month-after-year overlay of heroes and plots—a cosmic filigree of alternative universes, multiple Earths, time travelers, various leagues and societies of justice—periodically becomes so convoluted that the whole enterprise is scrapped and begun over again. Such a four-color cataclysm occurred in 1991, when DC Comics published John Byrne’s “Superman: The Man of Steel.”
In Hollywood, a narrative do-over is called a reboot—"Batman Begins,” for example. The new Superman movie will begin with the Man of Tomorrow returning to Earth after an absence of several years to ponder: Am I still relevant?
My very question. Doesn’t it feel strange to have Superman fight harlequin arch-villains to save the planet when its inhabitants are so industriously pursuing its destruction? What of Superman’s mission, when “Truth, Justice and the American Way” seem to have so comprehensively parted company?
As long as we’re rebooting the Superman myth, I propose we return him to the righteous, New Deal populism of his beginnings.
It’s worth remembering that in Action Comics #1, Superman bursts into the governor’s residence with evidence that will exonerate a woman who is about to be sent to the electric chair; he smacks around an abusive husband; he goes to Washington, D.C., to expose evil lobbyists and corruption in Congress—anyone come to mind?
The operating trope of Superman is Revenge of the Nerds—mild-mannered Clark Kent splits his shirt and strikes back for the powerless and disaffected. He is not the flag-waving tool of the power elite.
Superman, we need you now more than ever.