By Brian Truitt, USA TODAY
"I'm from Kansas. It's about as American as it gets."
(Henry Cavill) tells a couple of confrontational soldiers about his
Midwestern upbringing - by way of the doomed planet Krypton - in
director Zack Snyder's new Man of Steel (opening wide Friday).
He's also giving moviegoers a little history lesson on the fact that
he's been arguably this country's most iconic superhero for the past 75
"For me, he's that perfect mix of Americana," Snyder says. "I really tried to do The Right Stuff-meets-Norman Rockwell with a strong dose of angst and 'who am I and where do I belong?' "
for identity is a very human concept, for sure. But what makes Superman
and his alter ego Clark Kent the ultimate American hero is that he has
reflected our culture and society, ever since his first appearance in DC
Comics' Action Comics No. 1, cover-dated June 1938. And his
crash-landing in a cornfield as a baby and being raised by two Kansas
farmers is, in a way, the story of the American immigrant.
surprisingly, it was hatched by a pair of men from Cleveland, Joe
Schuster and Jerry Siegel, whose parents themselves were immigrants from
Europe looking for a new start in North America.
created the Man of Steel in the 1930s, "the core narrative in Superman
has been and continues to be the values and belief about the U.S.
experience being strong enough and good enough to address the troubles
facing the generation engaged with the character," says Julian
Chambliss, a history professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.,
who specializes in superheroes and the American experience.
the Great Depression, Tarzan and Flash Gordon were popular in comics
because they transported Americans elsewhere, says Brad Meltzer, a
novelist and host of History Channel's Decoded. When World War II
encroached on our shores, though, "America starts getting scared and
here comes this giant, almost straight-from-the-flag character who's
come to save us."
"The Big Blue Boy Scout" marched with the troops
and fought Nazis in the late 1930s and into the '40s, but he was also
"a reaction to industrialization, to the power of big business," says
comic-book writer Mark Waid. "He was created as a social agitator, a
character who fought for the oppressed and the weak."
1950s, Superman went from anti-authority to a sort of "uber-cop," since
the postwar era is "where we saw ourselves as the world's peacekeepers,"
says Waid. And then the Man of Steel of the '60s and '70s had stories
that touched on the counterculture and "young people not really having a
good sense of who they were or where they came from or where they were
When Christopher Reeve flew onto the big screen in 1978's Superman,
he had to save the world and Lois Lane, of course, but Waid also found
that he exuded a relaxed attitude. "He didn't have to be histrionic, he
didn't have to be war-mongery, he didn't have to be antagonistic -
because he's Superman for God's sake. What threatens him? We're in a
post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era, in that brief period in American
history where we felt confident and almost complacent in our place in
The 1980s featured Superman fighting his own hubris
and self-importance, Meltzer says. The Man of Steel who appeared in
Frank Miller's seminal Batman comic-book series The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 was "a perfect reflection of Reagan politics and being a heel to the government."
the '90s pit Superman against not only a bad mullet but also big
corporations - his arch-enemy Lex Luthor is even redefined as a cunning
The decade also featured a memorable "Death of Superman" story line
that becomes "the peak of the gritty mountain" that the comic-book
industry was climbing, Meltzer says. "We're going to take our heroes
down so many pegs and (be) so realistic. And the pinnacle of that (is)
"When they kill him," he adds, "it's almost like
America, for that small moment, thinks they can do without him, that
they almost don't need him anymore. In a strange odd way, the moment he
disappears is when you hear the outcry of how much we need him again,
and that's where we are right now."
One aspect that remains
timeless about Superman's origin story is how his mom and dad put their
son Kal-El in a space capsule as a baby before his home planet of
Krypton explodes. They send him to Earth so he will lead a good life and
have opportunities to be of service for the world.
been the ultimate immigrant story," Waid says. "What is the hope of the
immigrant than at core a promise that it would be better in America?
That no matter what your situation is, it will be better here."
That aspect of the Man of Steel has always been close to the heart of Jim Lee, artist on DC's new Superman Unchained comic, who moved from South Korea to - like Superman - the Midwest when he was 5.
was all about, can you adapt and fit into a society. What's
aspirational about Superman is that he is about truth, justice and the
American way, but he seeks to be a global champion," Lee says.
"His story is the story that all of us share in one way or another, depending on how far back you go in our genealogy," adds Unchained
writer Scott Snyder. "What also makes him quintessentially American is
he's a superhero who looks out for all of us. You always get the sense
that Superman is protecting everyone and he sees everyone as equals."
director Snyder plays up Superman as champion in the film and also
focuses on him as an alien in America who will do anything to help his
Snyder actually had to fight for that "I'm from
Kansas" line because some around the production felt it might be "too
American," he says.
The director points out a line by Daily Planet editor Perry White in the 2006 film Superman Returns when he says, "Does he still stand for truth, justice all that other stuff?"
found that insulting," Snyder says. "It's freaking Superman, for God's
sake. It's not like the world doesn't know where he comes from."
really is all about the American way, says Chambliss, and part of that
is inspiring us to be the people we believe we can be.
"This is a
core element of the character's appeal, and it is the thing that makes
him hard to translate in people's mind," he explains. "How can you
believe so completely in a country when bad things that violate those
Chambliss believes that Superman's strength
"comes from his family and his values, both biological and cultural. He
is the ultimate example of the American self at some level. While it may
seem hokey, it never goes out of style."