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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 June 2006, 07:04 GMT 08:04 UK
The secret of Superman's success
By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Superman Comic, Issue 1
Superman was given his own self-titled comic book in 1939

The release of Superman Returns marks a new chapter in the legendary superhero's remarkable career. But what is the secret behind his lasting popularity?

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Oh, and able to leap tall buildings with a single bound.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Superman, the world's most durable superhero.

After almost 70 years of fighting for truth, justice and the American way, the Man of Steel makes his big screen comeback this summer.

In a way, of course, he has never been away, his enduring appeal evident in the wealth of comic books, TV series, films and cartoons in which he has appeared.

You would have to live in a Fortress of Solitude not to know of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel's creation, who made his debut in the first edition of Action Comics in 1938.

And though one would need Lex Luthor's brain to keep track of his history, that iconic letter S remains as instantly identifiable as ever.

'Appealing fantasy'

Anita O'Brien, curator of the Cartoon Museum in London, attributes Superman's success in the US to his status as an outsider.

"The fact he comes from another planet chimes very well with the American way and its experience of being a country of immigrants," she told the BBC News website.

Christopher Reeve as Superman
Christopher Reeve played the Man of Steel in four films
But US comics critic Danny Fingeroth sees a resonance that reaches beyond America.

"The thing that's most appealing about superheroes is the idea of someone who has great power and knows how to use it wisely.

"If you think of the time Superman emerged from, with the rise of Fascism in Europe and a world still in the throes of the Great Depression, you can see it would be an appealing fantasy."

While other staples like Batman and the X-Men are often presented as flawed or damaged, Superman offers a more idealised vision of the superhero model.

"It's different with Superman," says Ms O'Brien. "He has that possibility of being an Everyman, raised to a higher level."

'Everyone's property'

Some have made connections with the notion of the 'Ubermensch' or 'Overman', explored by German writer Friedrich Nietzsche in his philosophical work Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

But the fact his creators were Jewish and that his birth name, Kal-El, resembles the Hebrew words for "voice of God", has led others to see a religious dimension.

The infant Superman's expulsion from Krypton moments before its destruction is often compared to the Moses story.

Brandon Routh in Superman Returns
Brandon Routh is the latest actor to don Superman's iconic costume

The 1977 film has clear parallels to Christian beliefs, with Jor-El (played by Marlon Brando) sending "his only son... to show the way" to mankind.

Mr Fingeroth, author of the upcoming Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero, admits the Superman myth has "echoes of religious lore".

"Yet it's the fact it is not directly associated with any one religion or belief system that makes it so universal," he says.

"Once something is sent into the world, it then becomes everyone's property.

"That's the beauty of Superman: everyone can take solace and inspiration from the character."

Both Mr Fingeroth and Ms O'Brien highlight the duality between Superman and his "mild-mannered" alter-ego Clark Kent.

"People like the idea of someone who seems ordinary and is ignored, being able to transform themselves," says Ms O'Brien.

"It's the idea of 'If they only knew the real me'," adds Mr Fingeroth.

"If only we were not hampered by the part of us who has to be Clark Kent, people would know and respect and admire us."

See clips from the new Superman film

New Superman actor tries on suit
22 Apr 05 |  Entertainment
Superman is 'greatest superhero'
12 Dec 04 |  Entertainment
In the shadow of Superman
11 Oct 04 |  Entertainment


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