Since he landed in Kansas, the Man of Steel has reflected the values of the United States and its changing times.
The nation's first superhero is back on the big screen, and in true movie-star style, he's had a bit of a makeover. The insignia is smaller and the snappy shorts are tighter. Although 26-year-old Brandon Routh is the same age as Christopher Reeve was when he first assumed the red mantle in 1978, the new Man of Steel looks younger. (Eat your hearts out, mere mortals.) And in a crowning special-effects moment, the signature dark curl on Superman's forehead finally flutters when he flies.
But while the cut of the cape may change, certain essentials about the crusader remain from his creation in 1938. Through more than six decades of life in the comics, radio, TV, and movies, his basic moral code of doing good for its own sake has been unwavering. And, perhaps more important, while he may see Clark Kent in his daily mirror, when he peers into his heart and soul, Superman's real secret identity is America itself.
"He's very American," says Brad Ricca, lecturer at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. From the creation of our country, Mr. Ricca explains, the US has had a healthy tradition of looking to men who embody the nation, people like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. These figures have personified all that's good and patriotic about America. Of course, Superman is fiction, but, adds Ricca, "those men have been fictionalized, too."
Equally important, the Man of Steel is the ultimate immigrant, created by two shy Jewish teenagers from Cleveland. These Depression-era boys, Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster, were science-fiction fans from immigrant families who poured their own anxieties about being outsiders into an idealized superfigure from another planet.
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