By Todd Leopold
(CNN) — In the comic-book world, he is sometimes derided as “the big blue Boy Scout.”
In the movies, he’s been surpassed — both in box-office fortunes and popularity — by his DC Comics stablemate Batman and the wisecracking Marvel gang. His recent TV shows, never highly rated, are off the air. His sunny, selfless side is seen as passé in an age of dark knights and troubled mutants.
Is this any way to treat Superman?
This year marks 75 years since the creation of the superhero who essentially started it all. Though his image is secure and he still has abilities far beyond those known to mortal men, it’s an open question whether one of those powers still works: the ability to draw audiences.
On Friday, “Man of Steel” opens. The film, backed by a reported budget of $225 million — not to mention more than 100 promotional partners, enough to make “The Great Gatsby” envious — is yet another attempt to reboot the Superman legend, just seven years after “Superman Returns” hit screens.
The new work, directed by Zack Snyder (“Watchmen”), written by David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”) and starring Henry Cavill as Superman, hopes to surpass the lackluster returns of “Returns,” which made $200 million at the domestic box office but was widely seen as a disappointment.
Indeed, Warner Bros. head Jeff Rubinov has expressed high hopes for the film, which is key to a rumored strategy to bring the entire Justice League to theaters. According to ticket-seller Fandango, advance sales have been promising. (Warner Bros. and DC Comics, the publisher of “Superman” titles, are both units of Time Warner, as is CNN.)
It all seems poised to put Supes back on top of the superhero heap, a place that he once had all to himself.
But that was decades ago. The world has turned many times since then; we’ve fought draining wars, dealt with horrific acts of terror, even entered an age where bespectacled Clark Kent types are cooler than six-packed musclemen.
Horrors! Has time passed by the Man of Tomorrow?
‘More layered than you think’
Arie Kaplan, an executive with Meetinghouse Productions and prolific comic-book writer, says that there’s more to Superman than meets the X-ray eye.
“He’s more layered than you think,” he says, reeling off the Superman personas: the alien from another planet, the Midwestern farm boy and the bumbling alter ego Clark Kent. Each must be kept in mind when writing the character, says Kaplan, who has one Superman tale to his credit; each enriches Superman’s, well, humanity.
The fact that those aspects of Superman all came together in one figure was, for the most part, an accident, says Brad Ricca, author of “Super Boys,” a new biography of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
“The character is a patchwork,” he says. “There’s a little bit of Tarzan in him, the circus strongman, the athlete — so it’s drawing on all these different things that were going around in their pop culture, and it’s stuck around.” Even the term “superman” was in the air: it was used to describe Franklin D. Roosevelt, says Ricca.
There are also deeper currents. Siegel and Shuster were the sons of Orthodox Jews, and there’s no question that religious imagery infuses the Superman story and character, whether it’s bits of Moses, Jesus or the golem — the latter a clay figure, brought to life, who was used as a defender of the Jewish faith.
Indeed, so much of Superman’s story echoes that of classic archetypes that it has kept a generation of Joseph Campbell-referencing scholars busy.
He is an immigrant. He is an orphan. He is blessed with intelligence and athleticism. He is troubled by shyness and insecurity. He is a divided person — man and superman, Clark Kent and Kal-El.
It’s no wonder Superman caught on with Depression-era readers, and his popularity has continued through the ages.
“I think there’s something very primal about Superman,” says comic-book historian Mark Evanier. “Jerry and Joe tapped into some basic human fantasies that are very natural and very understandable in the world. Everybody wishes they were stronger, everybody wishes they were invulnerable, everybody wishes they were much more than they appear to be.”
That secret identity — the uncertain, nerdy Clark Kent hiding a powerful figure behind his glasses — is probably the key to Superman’s fame, Evanier adds.
“When you felt oppressed, when you felt people were treating you like a weakling or a person of no consequence, you could fantasize in your head: ‘Ah yes, but secretly I could go into the phone booth and change into a god,’ ” he says. “It’s a very natural fantasy. I think every kid my age imagined it when they were 8 or 10, and many of them probably still do.”
A pop culture bonanza
Superman became the template for many superheroes to come. He had the tights, the cape, the insignia on his chest and the abilities far beyond those known to mortal men.
“When Jerry and Joe started the character, it was revolutionary,” says Evanier. The individual elements had existed in characters before, he observes, but “that particular mix of ingredients, and the sheer appeal of the character visually, were irresistible to people.”
More than the suit has made its way into pop culture. Without Superman, would we refer to rivals or weaknesses in terms of “kryptonite,” that Superman-stifling substance? Would really smart people be referred to as “brainiacs,” after one of his nemeses? Would we wonder about “bizarro world”? Would such catchphrases as “faster than a speeding bullet,” “up, up and away” and “this is a job for Superman” have ever been uttered?
Some of those details came from the inevitable spinoffs of the character — movie serials, television shows, a mid-’60s Broadway musical (with a book by Robert Benton and David Newman, who later co-wrote the script to the 1978 movie), Saturday morning cartoons and, of course, the major motion pictures.
But somewhere along the way, the character also became a bit of a joke — too perfect, too earnest, too much of a good thing. His writers didn’t help, giving him new powers when they needed to finesse a plot — and taking them away when it seemed he’d gotten too god-like.
Author Larry Niven, wittily taking Superman’s powers seriously, even wrote a story in the early ’70s about what would happen scientifically if Superman ever procreated with an Earth woman. The result, Niven believed, could be messy: the title was “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.”
He lost touch with the real world — or, perhaps, the real world lost touch with him. “Superman never made any money / For saving the world from Solomon Grundy / And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him,” lamented the Crash Test Dummies in “Superman’s Song.”
“Superman predates the Cold War, but he really is a Cold War figure, because he fights evil without shading and without nuance,” says Jerald Podair, an American studies professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “Once the idea of evil becomes more complicated — once quotation marks are put around it — that’s a problem. He’s too black and white in a morally gray environment.”
Yet Superman abides.
“One of Superman’s editors was quoted as saying, ‘He’s invulnerable. Even bad scripts can’t hurt him.’ And there were years when it looked like they were testing that theory,” Evanier says. “There have been long stretches of time when people bought Superman in spite of the comic book, not because of it, because they just liked the fantasy. They liked the character.”
Even as his comic-book sales have waned — and, frankly, comic-book sales have waned in general — he’s never gone away. Jerry Seinfeld, a huge fan, dropped Superman references into his sitcom, and later co-starred in a series of commercials with the character. Children still leap through gardens wearing capes, and adults are proud to don outfits with the famous “S.”
“Superman inspires me and many others because I feel he represents the good in all of us,” superfan Robert Levine told CNN iReport. He wore a Superman cape at his 2011 wedding. “He has always been the king daddy.”
The character can still bring a pretty penny on the market as well, particularly works from his early years, says Heritage Auctions comics expert David Tosh. Action Comics No. 1 — the superhero’s introduction — is still “the holy grail” of comic books, he says. One copy sold for more than $2 million in 2011. Tosh estimates the “Mile High” copy, which was part of a collection owned by collector Edgar Church, could go for more than $5 million if it ever goes up for sale.
Still, he says, today’s Superman just doesn’t have the same value. Even with all the changes DC has made over the years — the mid-’80s Crisis on Infinite Earths series, which attempted to straighten out continuity issues; the character’s 1992 death (he wasn’t quite dead, of course) — haven’t managed to push the character to the popularity levels of the angst-ridden Batman or Marvel universe heroes like the Avengers.
“They’ve rebooted the Superman character a number of times now and it always has a brief period of heightened interest, but it’ll never be the same as it once was,” says Tosh.
Could new angles change Superman’s fortunes? An emphasis on his status as an immigrant, which would bring him into a contentious 21st-century political debate? More anger than sorrow at injustice? (The early Superman, writer Arie Kaplan notes, wasn’t as pleasant, but more of a “cocky daredevil.”) Greater cyber-abilities, less dependence on muscle? (He is a trained journalist, though he quit the Daily Planet last year.)
The new film attempts some alterations in tone, as is expected in the age of “The Dark Knight” and Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man.” But whenever changes are made, there’s always the wrath of the fans.
“I think about the fan uproar when they revealed Superman’s new costume, and he didn’t have the red underpants,” says Paul Booth, a pop culture professor at DePaul University.
You just don’t want to fool with the Man of Steel.
Maybe he’s not the trendy thing. Maybe there’s too much competition in the superhero arena. But, three-quarters of a century after his creation, his impact — and his values — remain timeless.
“You’re very conscious of the history of this and the fact that you’re a link in the chain,” says Kaplan. “It becomes more apparent when you’re writing these stories what a debt the industry owes to that character.
“I’ve written a lot of classic characters,” he adds. “But when you write, ‘Exterior: Metropolis street, day, Superman flying above the street,’ you turn into an 8-year-old fanboy again.”
CNN’s Jareen Imam and Henry Hanks contributed to this story.
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