SUPERMAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN the most uncomplicated of superheroes. He's all-powerful, as long as there's no kryptonite around. He's not conflicted, except occasionally about his feelings for Lois Lane. He's good, and kind, and really does believe in "truth, justice and the American way." He's not prone to melancholia, or skirting the law, or wishing he were someone else.
Compared to other superheroes, the Man of Steel's practically Mother Teresa. Consider the brooding Batman, who these days is more vigilante than hero. Or Spider-Man, who's given to ruing the day that radioactive spider bit him. Or the X-Men, feared and persecuted by the very humans they try to protect.
Not Superman. His character has been fine-tuned over the years, but he's still essentially the same pure-at-heart superhero his creators envisioned back in 1938, when he made his debut. That may be the key to Superman's longevity, and the reason the filmmakers behind Superman Returns, which opens Tuesday night, have pretty much left the character alone.
"Superman's great strength is the absolute simplicity of concept," says writer Kurt Busiek, currently chronicling the character in both Superman and Action comics. "He fits into our communal sense of legend. You can think of him as a Christ figure, you can think of him as a Moses figure, and there's a wellspring of mythic structure that he taps into there. But he's also just really, really simple."
Even people who have never read a comic book, and who never will, know the story of Superman: Raised by kindly Ma and Pa Kent on their Midwestern farm; a reporter for Metropolis' Daily Planet in his secret identity as mild-mannered Clark Kent; beloved by ace reporter Lois Lane (who finds Clark something of a bore); faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
What's not to love?
"Superman represents the good we all want to have in us," says writer Marv Wolfman, who has been penning Superman stories since the late 1960s. "I think he represents the idea that the common person can do something special. Clark Kent is about as common a person as possible, and yet inside him is this other person who can do good, who can do things that all of us would like to be able to do, or would like to think we could do."
"There is no other character like Superman," insists artist Neal Adams, who illustrated (and sometimes wrote) many of the great Superman stories of the 1970s, and has written for just about every other major comic-book character as well, including Batman and the X-Men. "He is the best."
He was, inarguably, the first. But on the comics pages, at least, Superman has been re-thought constantly. He's lost his powers and gained new ones. He's become cynical and jaded, even tried to take over the world himself. He's been jeered and cheered, seemed helpless in the face of great social ills, fought the urge to use his powers for partisan purposes. His one-time best friend, Batman, has been known to refer to him derisively as a goodie-two-shoes.
Such tinkering shouldn't come as a surprise; after all, Superman's been around for nearly seven decades, and it undoubtedly is difficult to keep the character fresh. Nonetheless, outside the comics pages, Superman has stuck with the bedrock values and uncomplicated sense of morality that made him popular in the first place.
In its earliest stages, Superman Returns -- which has been in the works for more than a decade -- seemed to be headed in a new direction. Entertainment Weekly reports that a version to be directed by Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand) and written by J.J. Abrams (TV's Alias) would have had the Kents teaching young Clark to fear his powers, which wouldn't have done much for their son's confidence level.
But in the end, the filmmakers stuck with what had worked before. Superman Returns continues the story line of 1978's Superman and 1980's Superman II, both of which starred Christopher Reeve as the embodiment of every virtue a mother would want for her son.
"I think people who want to make Superman flawed or brooding are kind of missing the point a little bit," says Busiek. "We're all Clark Kents on the outside, and we all know that, deep in our hearts, we're Superman."
That idea, of power and virility just below the surface, is central to Superman as originally envisioned by his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. As early as 1933, the two friends produced a story in comic-strip form, called "Reign of the Super-Man," in which the main character was an evil telepath. The two soon decided to concentrate on heroic characters. Siegel, who wrote most of the stories and came up with the idea of making Superman an alien sent to Earth by desperate parents, also dreamed up the idea of giving him a secret identity -- an idea that reflected the bespectacled Siegel's attempts to impress his own versions of Lois Lane.