‘Man of Steel' puts Superman back in spotlight, revealing character's strengths and frailties

Can "Man of Steel" save Superman?

It's odd to think that a strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, would need saving. In comic-book sales, the Man of Tomorrow is holding his own: At DC Comics, the Superman franchise follows only Batman and the Justice League in popularity.

But from a film standpoint, the character was "broken" and needed "to be fixed," Zack Snyder -- director of the new movie "Man of Steel," opening Friday -- told the entertainment website Hollywood Outbreak a while back. Superman is "the biggest superhero on the planet. He's the father of every superhero. Thor has a movie? Really? … And there's no Superman movie? This is, like, the world's out of balance."

Superman, at 75, has had great success on the big screen. But Snyder has a point: It's all in the past.

Superman, the first superhero, burst onto the scene in "Action Comics" No. 1 in 1938, and singlehandedly turned a fad giveaway vehicle into the comic-book industry. Hordes of imitators followed in various capes and cowls, immediately dubbed "superheroes" instead of "mystery men," in honor of the Last Son of Krypton.

But the "Superman" title, which launched in 1940, remained the best-selling solo superhero book well into the 1970s. Heck, in the 1960s, the seven books starring Superman, Superboy and their friends were lodged in the Top 10 nearly every year -- and that included "Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" and "Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen."

That's right: "Lois Lane" and "Jimmy Olsen" outsold "Batman" and "X-Men" most years.

Superman also leaped into every other media with a single bound. He starred in his own newspaper comic strip from 1940 to 1966. "The Adventures of Superman" radio show, which gave us Jimmy Olsen and green kryptonite, ran from 1940 to 1951. Seventeen theatrical cartoons from the Fleischer Studios appeared in movie houses in 1941 and 1943, paving the way for zillions of cartoons on broadcast TV beginning in the 1960s. Two movie serials, starring Kirk Alyn, debuted in 1947 and 1950. "It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's … Superman!" hit Broadway in 1966.

A big, red S has marked toys and other collectibles, from the games, dolls and lunchboxes of Superman's early years to the video games, action figures and T-shirts of today.

But he's really been a Super-gorilla on the screen, big and small.

The Big Blue Boy Scout has virtually conquered television, with four live-action shows: "Adventures of Superman" (1952-58), "Superboy" (1988-92), "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" (1993-97) and "Smallville" (2001-2011). "Smallville" continues as a comic book, currently in Season 11 at DC Comics.

Aside from his two movie serials, Superman came to the silver screen in 1951 with "Superman and the Mole-Men" -- two episodes from a proposed TV series stitched together. It was a hit, starring George Reeves, who became the Man of Tomorrow for several generations in "Adventures of Superman" TV show.

In 1978, "Superman: The Movie" -- with Christopher Reeve in the blue suit -- was such a success that it spawned sequels in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

Finally, Brian Singer, famed for the "X-Men" movie franchise, took a swing with Brandon Routh in "Superman Returns" (2006). It was an homage to the earlier films -- and it flopped.

The last Reeve movie, "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," had its heart in the right place, but not its wallet. Fans said outer space looked a lot like a black curtain and the moon looked an awful lot like a soundstage. And "Superman Returns" was off-putting, with a protagonist who had abandoned Earth for five years (ridiculous!), was a deadbeat dad to the child he left Lois (preposterous!) and spent a lot of time playing Supervoyeur with his X-ray vision (despicable!).

Snyder was right. Something had to change.

Snyder, who directed "300" and "Watchmen," may just be the guy to do it.

"I'm not apologizing for Superman in any way. I'm saying, 'Superman … must be taken seriously and embraced and understood,' " Snyder told the Los Angeles Times' Hero Complex this spring.

He's getting a lot of serious help.

One of the producers is Christopher Nolan of "Dark Knight Rises" fame. The titular character is portrayed by English thespian Henry Cavill ("Tudors"), with support from an all-star cast, including Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as Gen. Zod, Kevin Costner as Pa Kent, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Superman's biological father.

The story's basic outlines are simple. As Grant Morrison summed up baby Kal-El's trip from Krypton to the Kent farm in opening his 2011 graphic novel, "All Star Superman": "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple."

Snyder has updated our hero for the 21st century. As in writer Mark Waid's "Superman: Birthright" (2005), the young Clark Kent goes on a walkabout after high school to figure out who he is. But in today's interconnected world, a man wandering Earth -- and occasionally doing impossible things -- is impossible to hide. And a certain star reporter at the Daily Planet is on his electronic trail.

"The film is very much about choices," Snyder said in the production notes. "It's about a man with two fathers: Jor-El, Kal's Kryptonian father, and Jonathan Kent, Clark's dad on Earth. Clark/Kal has grown up with two sets of histories, though only one was known to him until now. And now he needs to reconcile those teachings if he is to become the man that, arguably, both fathers would want him to be, in their own ways."

Will it all work? Or is Superman doomed to be a bright character in a dark Batman world? Is it Superman that needs saving -- or is it us?

If that's the case, there's no one better suited to the job than the superhero dedicated to truth, justice and the American way. (The film's premiere date, appropriately, is Flag Day.)

"Superman is the jewel in the DC crown," Snyder told Hero Complex. "And really what we're trying to do is get his house in order, and then who knows what's possible."

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