George Reeves. Chris Reeve. The father figure beautifully drawn by Curt Swan in the sixties. Joe Shuster’s grinning, leaping strongman of the thirties. A digital comic’s white-haired, black-garbed hero of the future. Smallville’s reluctant champion, dressed like a cross between Johnny Cash and a gunfighter in a spaghetti western. Animated, live-action, daily-stripped, serialized, radio-waved, Youtubed, now in four-colors on the comic page, now in IMAX and 3-D. Look! Up in the sky! It’s… 

Superman slim and Superman stout,
Sometimes with trunks and sometimes without,
Sometimes laughing, sometimes mad,
Sometimes silly, sometimes sad. 
Now he loves his Lois Lane,
Now a princess with a plane! 

After seventy-five years of iterations and incarnations, re-runs and reboots, there’s a Superman for everyone.   (If you care to know mine, it’s the guy I grew up with, George Reeves, though I’m also partial to the comic book version of the early sixties.) But here’s the wondrous thing. After seven-and-half-decades, he’s still recognizably Superman.  

So what makes him so super, what has given him such staying power? We could answer cynically, pointing out that he’s a corporate commodity worth millions in licensing. But surely, after all these years, there’s more to him than that. Why does a teen-age girl choose to buy a t-shirt emblazoned with a pink version of the famous ‘S’ shield? Why does a friend of mine get comments every time he wears a tie featuring that spit-curled visage?      

His continued existence is ironic at least, given that we don’t care for real-life supermen. In his book, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon writes: “Superman is every handsome, athletic trust-fund kid who roars his convertible into the high school parking lot as the sweater around his neck flutters in the breeze.” He’s the fellow for whom everything comes easy. Who admires that? Isn’t it the struggling schmucks we root for, the scarred survivors? What is there in Kal-El of Krypton’s extraterrestrial heredity with which we can identify? 

“Superman isn’t brave,” says George C. Scott in the film Angus. “He's smart, handsome, even decent. But he's not brave. Superman is indestructible, and you can't be brave if you're indestructible.”

It’s a problem that’s dogged Superman, the series character, since the beginning. How can you create tension, drama, with an invulnerable hero? Back in the forties, someone wrote a clever short story about some rural children who are devoted to “The Super Duper.” A pastiche of Superman, the Super Duper can do anything--except keep his stories from being all the same. When the actor who portrays their hero gets caught in a barb wire fence, the kids must rescue him. Their ardor cooled, they turn to more interesting reading material.    

It’s a criticism Superman’s always had to endure, a bullet he used to be able to outrun. Lately, however, the milieu has changed and now the last son of Krypton struggles to stay in the public consciousness. At least, he’s had a hard time getting movies. After the last Christopher Reeve film, nineteen years went by before Superman returned to the Cineplex. Though it made money world-wide, Superman Returns didn’t meet studio execs’ financial expectations. When Man of Steel opens, seven more years will have passed. During that time, we’ve seen Spider-Man twice, Iron Man and Batman three times each. We’ve seen super-heroes with flawed bodies and personalities, problems with co-workers and girlfriends, heroes struggling as much with the darkness in their own souls as with their evil adversaries.