The Man of Angst and Steel

A Heady Review of Superman Returns

by D.J. Palladino

Every time we saw a preview, my spouse asked: Where is he returning from? Don’t know, I said, maybe the Phantom Zone, the drawing board. Now that I’ve seen the picture, I realize the question is wrong; the better query is: Where is he returning to? The big screen is the cynical reply. But in truth, Superman always returns to us.

Like many a comic-book superhero, Superman was born during the Depression, times of gnawing fears and lopsided hopes as even casual fans of the era’s music can affirm. Comic books reflected both hyped-up fantasy and menace, which is why horror, war, and crime books outsold the so-called funnies. Superman fought burglars with striped shirts and black masks before he met Brainiac and Bizarro.

Comics are also caricatured emotion; every sentence ends in an exclamation point. But the subtext is anxiety. From Mickey Mouse to Zap Comix, four-color magazines love characters with sweat drops popping from their heads. Most heroes are worry warts obsessed with self-improvement, family, girlfriends, and rivals­ — from Donald Duck to Peter Parker. Think about Peanuts’ Charlie Brown and you have summoned the poster boy for 20th-century angst.

But Superman, who seems so cool — so godlike, really — isn’t. Picture the big guy for a moment. It’s not Nietzsche’s Übermensch, but bumbling Clark Kent, insensitive Lois Lane, brusque Perry White, family dog Krypto, and Mr. Mxyzptlk, the implacable imp from the fifth dimension. You probably laugh at Clark’s eyeglass disguise ruse, but not at his seemingly axiomatic need for it. Whether it’s TV’s Adventures of Superman’s George Reeves (who allegedly committed suicide), or the late ’70s/early ’80s cinematic Kal-El Christopher Reeve (whose fate was so sad), or the Man of Steel’s newer pop incarnations like Lois and Clark or the eerie Smallville, all Supermans are surrounded by characters about whom to constantly worry. In the 1960s’ Superman, the sex attraction for Lois was potent, but marriage and even dating were taboo — abstinence was key. Bad guys would get her. Superman, who can bend steel in his bare hands, could not hook up.

With a persona slashed into three already — he is the alien Kal-El from Krypton, the hero Superman, and the mild-mannered reporter Kent — our boy had a deeper well of worry than most mere mortals do. He was an impostor at work. Identity anxiety compounded by sexual frustration, Kal-El was a mess.

It went deeper — Superman as a literary device is us (as in U.S.), pure allegory for the American experience. He comes from a different place, and all Americans were once aliens. He’s rooted in Smallville farm life with a Ma and a Pa and a sweetheart next door. Coming of age meant relocation to a big city with another corny allegorical name: Metropolis. He works in media, the Daily Planet, because, since 1949 at least, America tells the world what to think. He polices despots urging truth, justice, and the American way. As a myth, he represents the power of democracy located in a plain human being. He inherited greatness leaving a dying world.

The problem with Superman, now, though, is the failure of America. Clark Kent worked in the 1960s, before sex was invented by Heffner and the Pill. But by the 1970s, lily-white values seem dated, as was the policing of despots. After Vietnam and Watergate, few smart people believed America’s pure super-ness. His comic sales fell, too, despite several attempts to make him more vulnerable. So why does Hollywood want to bring him back if his market’s down and he has lost hype as an archetype?

Superman’s got legs because he can fly. We like that. He satisfies us on a level psychologists call the omnipotence phase. He is sexy; he floats Lois’s boat in this film.

But it’s a long way from the Depression to Christopher Reeve and now this. Remember Nietzsche? His Superman was about social evolution. Zarathustra said that man is to ape as superman is to man. Cinema Superman evolved too, or changed with us. This one has a bastard child with Lois Lane. This Superman went away to get his head on straight. He “met the lamas,” says an adoring Jimmy. He came back to take Lois for a ride again, but now she has to choose between stable boyfriend and flighty bad boy. Imagine reading that in a 1960s comic book.

Our anxieties today have less to do with identities and more with our children inheriting a world Lex Luthor can destroy. Superman is still an inconvenient Boomer fable. We used to think we were cool enough to save the world and fly a little on weekends, too. But now we realize we need home. The planet’s endangered and we must worry very much what powers our children might inherit to survive under the yellow sun. We can only hope anxiously they’ll be met with superness, too.

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