Whether or not Man of Steel and Henry Cavill's performance in it are any good will be the subject of debate for a while. But even if you didn't like them, you have to admit that Cavill's Superman is one for our times. After all, every age gets the Superman it deserves.
The costumed hero was born 75 years ago, in 1938, at a moment when Depression-era fears of crime and powerlessness were giving way to anxieties about Adolf Hitler and the seemingly inevitable war in Europe. Superman was the creation of two Jewish teens from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both sons of immigrants to North America. (Shuster himself had immigrated to America from Canada as a boy.) Their creation – a refugee from another planet who tried to assimilate into American society, a man whose weakness was the shards of his shattered past that might turn up anywhere – resonated with their own immigrant history, as well as that of an American populace made up largely of people only a generation or so removed from Ellis Island.
When World War II began, Superman quickly enlisted, and soon he was fighting Axis spies and saboteurs on the page and at the movies, where he starred in a series of vivid color cartoon shorts. A live-action Superman serial soon followed, starring Kirk Alyn. The postwar nuclear fears that were the chief concern of Fifties science fiction movies were already present in these late-Forties Superman tales, as he fought off enemies like Atom Man.
During the conformist, anti-communist Fifties, the Congressional hunt for subversion extended to comic books, which were thought to contribute to juvenile delinquency. After Capitol Hill hearings on the dangers to American youth posed by lurid books about underwear-clad vigilantes, the comics industry began policing itself and making sure its products were seen to be child-friendly. Consequently, Superman became a big blue Boy Scout, fighing for "truth, justice, and the American way," and being played on a popular TV series by a guy who looked like your dad, George Reeves. Superboy, a title about Clark Kent's boyhood in middle-American town Smallville, flourished as a spinoff comic book. The Kryptonian Kal-El's assimilation into American society was complete. If Clark Kent had any psychological issues about passing as a regular American while maintaining his identity as otherworldy do-gooder Superman, he didn't show it.
By the Seventies, Superman had been made entirely child-safe and edge-free. On the Saturday morning cartoon series Super Friends (1972-'85), he was the cheerful team leader of the Justice League of America, a group of DC Comics heroes (including Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman), as well as two teenage alien twins and their space monkey, Gleek. (This incarnation would come in for a lot of ribbing a few years later, in DC's satirical Justice League comics.) It's hard to imagine a Superman any more cartoonish.
Fortunately, in 1978, Christopher Reeve came along to restore Superman to flesh-and-blood status in the first series of the Superman movies. Reeve's performance (especially as a bumbling, stammering Clark Kent) was full of the jokey irony we'd come to expect from the character, but it was also full of dramatic internal conflict. His was a Superman who, despite all his powers, felt profound frustration at being unable to protect those he loved from danger. Here (in Superman II) was a Clark torn between renouncing his powers to live a normal life with Lois Lane (sharp foil Margot Kidder) and his responsibility to use those powers to protect humanity from a menace he'd unwittingly set loose and directed toward Earth. This was a Superman who could appeal to kids and adults alike. Here, amid the cynicism of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam Seventies, was a Superman we could believe in.
Alas, not even Reeve could keep Superman from falling back into old habits, transforming again from hero to sloganeer, from complex man to flat cartoon. He took on villains reflecting the fears of the Eighties, including computer hacking (Superman III) and nuclear proliferation (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), but he was back to being a Scoutmaster, and fans deserted him once again.
Superman's super-slump came just as other comic-book heroes – particularly Batman, in Frank Miller's Dark Knight books and in Tim Burton's gothic movies – were being radically reimagined and revitalized. DC took a similarly drastic step in 1992 with its Death of Superman series. Superman gave his life fighting an alien menace called Doomsday, provoking outrage and controversy among casual fans. But at least everyone was talking about him again, and the issues were a success. Of course, soon DC brought back Superman in a four-way bake-off among new characters claiming to be Superman reincarnated.
One new incarnation: husband. That was the Superman of the mid-Nineties ABC series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. With the Cold War over, America could tend to more domestic concerns, and indeed, domestic life took priority for Dean Cain's Clark and Teri Hatcher's Lois. In a parallel storyline in the books, Lois and Clark were finally wed after six decades of courtship.
We even got an emo Superman in Tom Welling's Clark Kent, on the long-running series Smallville. Welling's Kent, who downplayed his powers and wore no costume (lest he be discovered), fit right in among the alienated teen heroes on the WB network (later, the CW network), from vampire slayer Buffy Summers to the introspective Dawson's Creek kids to the alien visitors of Roswell.
Smallville was so popular that it ran for 10 seasons and earned critical acclaim as a teen drama. But after 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the bitter partisanship that marked public discourse in the new millennium, even adults longed for a unifying hero. Finally, in 2006, it seemed we had one in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, the first new Superman movie in 19 years. Brandon Routh, aping Reeve's alternately comical and tormented Clark Kent, managed to save an errant jetliner from crashing into a heavily populated area, keep skyscrapers from toppling, and save a major city from a flood. And yet not even these acts of wish-fulfillment earned Singer and Routh any fan gratitude – or an encore performance. Something was missing.
Was that something a certain bleakness? After all, the superhero movies that had come along in recent years had been bitterly grim and even philosophically weighty (including Singer's own X-Men movies and Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer's Batman trilogy), and had nonetheless been huge hits. These were movies that openly wondered: in a world of unremitting chaos, aren't even the actions of a superhero ultimately futile? In a world of weak humans, wouldn't the public come to resent strong heroes who operate outside the law? And in a world of conformity, wouldn't a superhero feel like a freakish outcast?
It's no wonder, then, that Warner Bros. handed over the Superman reins to Nolan, Goyer and Zack Snyder, director of Watchmen (itself a critique of the entire comic-book hero ethos). In Man of Steel, they've given us the first non-American Superman star (the British Cavill), playing a Clark Kent who's a man without a country – without a planet, in fact. An outcast from Krypton who's no more at home on Earth, Cavill's Superman is a brooding, lonely exile. At a time when we're digging ourselves out from the worst economic crisis since the Depression, at a time when fears of international terrorism and illegal immigration have inflamed our xenophobia, it seems fitting to have a Superman who's a tempest-tossed immigrant, bringing the character back to his 1930s roots.
Perhaps he's here with a warning: that if it's 1938 again, things will get a lot worse before they get better. What's more, there's not a lot he can do about it, except offer us moral support. He may not be the Superman we want or even the Superman we need, but he's the Superman we deserve.