With the premiere of “Man of Steel,” the latest iteration of the Superman legend, it is an appropriate time to analyze the history of the character on his 75th anniversary. Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, two Jewish-American teenagers from Cleveland, created Superman during the Great Depression, with DC Comics publishing Action Comics 1, the first comic book to feature Superman, in 1938. Many have interpreted Kal-El’s (Superman’s given name) flight from war-torn Krypton as a metaphor for the American immigrant experience in general, or perhaps for Jews trying to escape Europe during the 1930s. Clark Kent’s sense of otherness as an “alien” in Middle-American Kansas can also be seen as an expression of the challenge of assimilation for the immigrants who arrived through Ellis Island between 1882-1924 and their children. During the depression, Superman reflected the politics of the time, acting as a proto-New Dealer, taking on corrupt landlords and businessman.
During the 1950s, Superman again reflected the ethos of his era, emerging as a champion of “truth, justice, and the American way,” during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This phrase, now closely linked to the character, first became central during this time (though it had been used briefly during World War II.) The first Superman television show, the Adventures of Superman, premiered during this decade, starring George Reeves, from 1952-1958.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Superman re-emerged with the Christopher Reeve films, which became the most famous and influential depiction of the superhero. The success of the films can partly be attributable to the fact that director Richard Donner portrayed Superman as an incorruptible hero in the aftermath of the cynicism wrought by Vietnam and Watergate. The film also served as a template for most of the comic book movies since then, clearly influencing Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, as well as Sam Raimi’s Spider Man series.
The TV show “Smallville,” which premiered in 2001, can be seen as a 10-year prequel to the Christopher Reeve films and became the primary representation of the Superman myth for Generation Y. Exploring Clark Kent’s coming-of-age in Kansas, which is only partially examined in the Donner film, “Smallville” shows the young Superman discovering his origins and learning to use his powers.
After the failure of “Superman Returns” to revive the movie franchise in 2006, it appeared that the character might disappear from the big screen. With the strong opening box office for “Man of Steel,” however it seems likely that the character will continue to endure in films and other aspects of popular culture for the foreseeable future.
Sources: Bradford Wright, Comic Book Nation, (Baltimore, 2001)
Erik Lunegrad, "Truth, Justice and (Fill in the Blank), New York Times, June 30, 2006