Modern Culture25 Mar 2010 09:00 am
“Every era gets the superhero it deserves.” -Manohla Dargis, The New York Times’
An enduring American cultural icon, Superman is a comic book superhero created by American writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian-born artist Joe Shuster in 1932. Superman was introduced to the American public in 1938, and his popularity subsequently landed the caped crusader into countless radio serials, television programs, films, newspaper strips, and video games. The success of the Superman comic book franchise is credited with helping to launch the entire superhero genre, and its primacy within the American comic book genre went undisputed for decades. However, the rise of edgier “antihero” superhero franchises (such as Batman) has eroded Superman’s popularity amongst contemporary comic book fans, as evidenced by the disappointing box office returns of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006). It seems that the wholesome reputation of the “big blue boy scout” does not resonate with modern audiences who crave psychological complexity and moral ambiguity from their superheroes.
While the Superman of recent history is portrayed as squeaky clean and unfailingly idealistic, the original Siegel and Shuster stories present his personality as rough-around-the-edges and aggressive. He attacked and terrorized wife beaters, profiteers, lynch mobs and gangsters, and enthusiastically embraced vigilante justice. This Superman came to an end late in 1940, when new editor Whitney Ellsworth instituted a code of conduct for his characters to follow, banning him from ever killing. This change would even be reflected in the stories themselves, in which it would occasionally be pointed out in the narrative or dialogue that Superman had vowed never to take human life—and that if he ever did so, he would hang up his cape and retire.
Because of the enduring popularity of the franchise, Superman has been the subject of an impressive body of pop cultural criticism. Many critics believe that his persona has evolved to reflect the changing mood and concerns of the nation. Thus, Superman’s crusade against organized crime in the 1930s can be seen as a reflection of a nation living under the tyranny of gangsters, and his exploration of new technological threats from the 1950s-1980s mirror a nation living under the shadow of the Cold War.
So what are we to make of Superman’s recent demotion? He seems to have had a bit of an identity crisis since the end of the Cold War in the 1980s. The world is no longer ruled by two hegemonic military powers, and the internet has ushered in a geo-political era characterized by diversification and fragmentation. Thus, the black and white dichotomy between Clark Kent and his alter ego no longer resonates in a nation where ambiguity has become king. However, one should not be too quick in relegating Superman to the dustbin of history; the down-home clean-cut boy in the blue tights and red cape might just make a comeback yet….
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