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Truth, Justice, and (Fill in the Blank)

In the first screen incarnation of Superman, the Max Fleischer cartoons that ran from 1941 to 1943, each episode’s preamble informs us not only of the origin and powers of this relatively new creation (Krypton, speeding bullet, etc.), but also the kinds of things he fights for. It’s a shorter list than you think. Before World War II, Superman fought “a never-ending battle for truth and justice.” Back then, that was enough.

By the time the first live-action Superman hit the screen — Kirk Alyn, in a 1948 serial — the lessons of World War II, particularly in the gas chambers of Europe, were obvious. That’s why Pa Kent tells young Clark he must always use his powers "in the interests of truth, tolerance and justice."

It wasn’t until Superman came to television in the 1950s that the phrase became codified in the form most of us remember it: “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.”

You wouldn’t know this from the many articles that have been written about Bryan Singer’s film “Superman Returns,” which opened this week. Few of these articles treat the Man of Steel as if he’s a process, the malleable product of different writers and eras. Many, in fact, talk about how unchanging he’s been over the years. And quite a few quote the line "truth, justice and the American way" as if it’s something Superman always stood for — even though you won’t hear it in this film.

Where did that specific phrase come from? According to Mark Waid, a former DC Comics editor, it first turned up on the innovative “Adventures of Superman” radio series, which ran, off and on, from 1940 to 1951. It was the radio show, not the comic book, that introduced many facets of the Superman myth: the editor Perry White (rather than George Taylor), Jimmy Olsen (rather than a nameless copy boy), and kryptonite. Superman never flew until he flew on the radio. In the comics, he was still leaping an eighth of a mile.

Since Superman was a work in progress, it makes sense that the preamble was a work in progress, too. Fans first heard “Up in the sky! Look!” rather than the other way around. Those who did look thought they saw not a bird but "a giant bird." At one point the Fleischer cartoons even scrapped the whole “speeding bullet” business in favor of more weather-oriented metaphors: “Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane!”

Then, in fall 1942, fans of the radio show became the first to hear about Superman’s battle for “truth, justice, and the American way.”

At that time the war in Europe was not going well. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was sweeping across Africa, and the German Army was driving toward Stalingrad. The Japanese had been turned back at Midway but they were still invading Pacific islands. We were all fighting for the American way. Why shouldn’t Superman?

As the war turned in our favor, though, the additional phrase didn’t seem as necessary. By 1944 it was gone, and for the remainder of the radio show, Superman devoted himself to the fight for tolerance — as in the 1946 episode, “Unity House,” in which Superman battles the Ku Klux Klan.

It took the paranoia and patriotism of the cold war era to bring back “the American way” — this time in the “Adventures of Superman” television series, which ran from 1952 to 1958. Every week, young, impressionable baby boomers were greeted with the phrase as they sat down to watch the Man of Steel combat crooks and communist spies.

After the television show, “truth, justice, and the American way” became synonymous with the Superman saga; indeed, every Superman since has had to grapple with the phrase’s legacy. The 1966 Saturday morning cartoon, “The New Adventures of Superman,” tried a strategy of substitution: children were told Superman’s fight was for “truth, justice, and freedom.”

Others tried omission. In the premiere of the 1993 television series “Lois & Clark,” Lois asks Superman why he’s here on Earth. His response — “To help” — isn’t good enough for her, and she suggests something more dynamic. “I mean if you said, ‘I’m here to fight for truth ... or justice.’” He nods: “Well, truth and justice. That sounds good.”

The most recent incarnation to use the 1950s phrase was the 1978 Christopher Reeve movie, “Superman.” When Lois first interviews the Man of Steel, she asks why he’s here, and he responds straight-faced: “I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.” It’s the first time Superman himself ever uses the phrase — a bold move considering how cynical the country had become after the Vietnam War and Watergate. That cynicism is reflected in Lois’s response: “You’re going to end up fighting every elected official in this country!”

Some people are now objecting to the fact that “Superman Returns” omits the phrase. Perry White asks his reporters to find out more about the Man of Steel after his five-year absence. “Does he still stand for truth, justice, all that stuff?” he says. Right-wing blogs are already red-faced at the slight.

There’s no reason to be upset. Superman is right back where he began: fighting a never-ending battle for truth and justice. That should be enough to occupy any man. Even a Superman.

—This article was originally published on 6/30/06 in The New York Times.