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Sex and the Superman
How has the world’s most famous superhero changed? Let me count the ways
In all the hype leading up to his return in “Superman Returns,” I keep reading how Superman never changes. “Polite. Selfless. Noble,” Entertainment Weekly writes. “Exactly the kind of guy Superman has always been since his debut in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938.” Even the film’s director, Bryan Singer, has gotten into the act. “The world may change,” Singer told the Associated Press, “relationships change, things change, but Superman endures."
Well, sure he endures — he’s Superman — but never-changing?
Superman was a fugitive from a chain gang
Superman’s done nothing but change. Before DC Comics instituted its “code of conduct” in the 1940s, he was a roughneck who tossed criminals around for fun. If they died of heart failure as a result, it was no skin off his nose. A rejected princess tried to stab him; he spanked her. A would-be assassin was crushed between a boat and dock, and Lois recoiled in horror. His stoic response: “But he deserved it.”
He was a social reformer out of the gritty 1930s Warner Bros. school. He battled war profiteers (Action Comics no. 2) and greedy mine owners (no. 3). He tore down slums (no. 8). He became a fugitive from a chain gang to expose a sadistic guard (no. 10).
His powers kept changing. He ran faster than an express train, then a speeding bullet. He could change the course of mighty rivers, then time itself. The line about leaping tall buildings in a single bound is beside-the-point since everyone now knows the dude can fly.
By the 1950s he’d become as muscle-bound as his adopted country. In the introduction to the George Reeves TV series, the American flag unfurled behind him as he stood there, chest out, our most famous illegal immigrant, ready — like so many immigrants before him — to fight for Truth, Justice and the American way. But who could fight him without kryptonite? Invulnerability is conceptually cool but dramatically dull, so writer/artist John Byrne downgraded his powers in the 1980s. So did the producers of “Lois & Clark” in 1993, and “Superman: The Animated Series” in 1996. They wanted to give the villains — and drama — a chance.
Even his origin kept changing. Initially Krypton was populated by a race of supermen whose physical structure was millions of years more advanced than our own. Eventually the red sun/yellow sun dynamic was introduced. As for why Krypton died? It was old (Action Comics No. 1) . No, it was being pulled closer to its sun (“Superman: The Serial”). No, it was...whatever. One constant: Superman’s father, Jor-El, the planet’s leading scientist, warned the Kryptonian council (i.e., its politicians) of the coming disaster but his findings were ignored. “Upstart scientists with apocalyptic visions!” is how one Council member put it in “Superman: The Animated Series.” Imagine, politicians ignoring scientists on matters of global doom. Glad we’ve progressed beyond that.
Sex & the single superhero
Really, what didn’t change in the Superman storyline? Lex Luthor morphed from evil scientist to a billionaire industrialist (where the “evil” is implied). In the 1948 serial, Perry White kept a picture of Abraham Lincoln in his office; in 1993’s “Lois & Clark,” he kept a picture of Elvis Presley. The “S” on Superman’s chest: Did he mean it to stand for “Superman” (i.e., did he give himself that immodest name?), or is it simply his Kryptonian family crest, which happens to bear a resemblance to our letter “S,” allowing others — namely Lois Lane in “Superman: The Movie” (1978) — to anoint him a “super man”?
Yes, let’s talk about Lois. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about the most famous romantic triangle in comic book history. The X-Men series has the Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine deal, but that’s a fairly common romantic triangle in which the men are two basic types: good guy and bad boy. If you’re male, you’re made to identify with one of these types. If you’re female, you have to choose one of these types. It’s all fairly simple. Which is why it doesn’t resonate.
Superman’s romantic triangle resonates. Clark loves Lois, who loves Superman, who wants Lois to love him as Clark. This is the true origin of Superman. Superman’s creator Jerry Siegel once told the New York Times that back in high school, “I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed.” But what if he could do super things? he wondered. Wouldn’t they like him then? Superman was thus borne out of sexual frustration. He was borne out of adolescent fantasy.
This fantasy has meaning even into adulthood. Clark Kent is everyman not because he’s meek and mild but because every man feels he’s super in some way. I’m super-smart with numbers. I’m super-nice to animals. I have this superness inside me. Why doesn’t anyone see it? You could even make the metaphor explicitly sexual: When I take off my clothes, I’m super. When I take off my clothes, I make her fly. No one else can make her fly.
As a male, in this romantic triangle, you’re not one or the other; you’re both. That’s why it resonates. As a female, in this romantic triangle, you don’t have to choose between one or the other; you get both. Both the quiet Midwestern family man and the exotic superhero. The man you love is the man who loves you, and the only question is whether you’re smart enough to realize it.
How Clark Kent got his groove back
Lois and Clark have changed, too. Initially Clark was a coward and Lois had nothing but disdain for him. (“The Spineless worm! I can hardly bear looking at him!” she thinks in Action Comics No. 5.) She’d play him for a sap and try to scoop him; he’d use his super powers to scoop her back. Eventually they became friends, but by the 1950s they were both sexless creatures, and Lois was less interested in making passes at Superman than in tricking him into marrying her. She got her own comic book but was a secondary character within it; Betty Freidan would understand. Meanwhile Clark was the man in the blue flannel suit. In the George Reeves TV show, and in all the cartoons, Clark was as stalwart and upright as Superman, making for a pretty lousy disguise.
1978’s “Superman: The Movie,” starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder reintroduced the meek Clark Kent and the career-oriented Lois Lane. This Lois had less disdain for Clark but still lusted after Superman. “What color underwear am I wearing?” she asked during their first interview. Dude, she’s flirting with you. Between his boy scout pronouncements, he flirted back. He wound up ignoring the advice of both his fathers to turn back time for her. That’s how much he cared. In “Superman II,” he finally beds her, or she him, but he has to stop being super in order to do it. Millions of women nodded and said, “Ain’t that the truth.”
Reeve was not only our best Superman, he was our best Clark Kent; he played them as if they were two different characters, which they are. But recent incarnations have taken a cue from John Byrne’s revisionist Superman of the 1980s, in which Byrne decided (or realized) that this person was always Clark Kent first, Superman second. He grew up as Clark. Thus Superman was the disguise. Why hide your true self to benefit your disguise?
Recent TV shows have focused almost exclusively on Clark. On “Lois & Clark,” the main tension is the workplace tension (sexual/romantic) between the title characters. Lois, of course, prefers Superman, but Clark is the hottie here. Besides the clothes and the posture and the voice, the two physical differences between Clark Kent and Superman are the glasses Clark wears and the curl over Superman’s forehead — because dashing men of adventure always have hair falling over their foreheads. But in this version Superman’s hair is slicked back while Clark’s falls dashingly over his forehead. The glasses aren’t even nerdish anymore; they’re designer glasses that look cool. For women, it’s just another thing to strip off him. In the first episode, a villainess flirts with Clark. The Daily Planet’s gossip columnist whistles long and low upon seeing him. “Who’s the new tight end?” she purrs.
The current show “Smallville,” goes further. It’s all Clark all the time. The producers came up with an early rule — No tights, no flights — and they’ve adhered to it.
“Smallville” is actually one of the best revisionist looks at the Superman myth. The Kryptonian baby arrives during a meteor shower that does bad stuff to people in Smallville — giving him requisite “supervillains” to battle. Clark’s own powers accumulate via a kind of super-adolescence he doesn’t understand. Only slowly does he learn where he’s from and much of that knowledge is unwanted. The show is one long bildungsroman. We know what he will become, and it’s fun watching him not quite get there.
Initially this Clark was the town nerd who fumbled and collapsed around Lana Lang because of her kryptonite necklace, but eventually it became silly pretending actor Tom Welling wasn’t 6-foot-3 and model-handsome. So they didn’t. They fetishized him. Many episodes wind up with Clark tied up and/or shirtless. “Who’s the hottie in the primary colors?” says a new girl in town. The first time Lois Lane sees him he’s standing in a field without a stitch on. This is Clark for girls as opposed to boys. He’s mild-mannered, hot and rescues everyone. Clark isn’t an everyman here, he’s a superman. The break hasn’t been made yet.
Gay Jewish Jesus Nephew
“Superman Returns” returns much of the myth to its classic state. Clark Kent is not only not a hottie, he’s hardly Lois’ friend. Lois is career-oriented again. Lex Luthor is a mad scientist, Superman is all-powerful, Perry White says “Great Caesars Ghost!”
It’s less a reimagining of the myth than a continuation of the mythic storyline. The romantic triangle has now become a quadrangle. Lois is involved with Perry White’s nephew, Richard White, played by James Marsden, who also played Cyclops in the X-Men series and is thus developing a habit of playing the guy you don’t want the girl to choose. Lois also has a kid. She has a Pulitzer. And she’s pissed off at Superman for leaving without saying goodbye. The special effects are great but the true drama is in the relationships. Particularly one relationship.
Lois won her Pulitzer with the sour-grapes editorial “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” and our own mainstream media are now taking their cues from it. They’re asking: Is Superman still “relevant” (i.e., profitable) in a moviegoing world that loves the dark suits and darker attitudes of the X-Men? Superman’s all red undies and boy scout niceties. Will the kids still dig him?
Here’s an answer. His relevance can be seen in how many groups are still laying claim to him. Some say he’s Jewish (fleeing a planetary holocaust, hiding in plain sight). Some say he’s gay (a secret life, changing in closets, flamboyant outfit). Some say he’s Jesus (sent by his heavenly father to show humans the light).
Me? I say he’s my nephew. Last Christmas I bought him a Superman T-shirt and now it’s all he can talk about. “You not Superman,” he tells anyone who’ll listen. “I Superman!” He’s three.
Will the kids still dig him?
What a dumb question. Of course they will. He’s Superman.
—Erik Lundegaard is a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan Web site. This article was originally published on 7/3/06 on MSNBC.com.