The Superhuman Appeal of Superman
When Superman returns to the big screen on June 14 as the star of "Man of Steel," he'll be doing a lot of heavy lifting for a character who turned 75 this year. Untold legions of Superman fans spanning both the continents and the decades can rattle off his celebrated "powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men": super strength, super speed, super vision, and the ability to fly. But not least among his more amazing powers has been a superhuman charisma and ever-enduring appeal.
In Superman's various incarnations over the years, he usually isn't reborn as someone fundamentally different from the character first seen in Action Comics No. 1—except in alternate-universe and "elseworlds" stories, like the intriguing "Red Son" comic book miniseries of 2003, which postulated what might have happened had the Kryptonian rocket landed in the Soviet Union rather than the American Midwest. Just the same, Superman's mythology has been continually fine-tuned and rewritten, most recently in the 2009 series "Secret Origins," and expanded in the two bestselling "Earth One" graphic novels of 2010 and 2012. One point that seems constantly up for grabs: the number of individuals, both heroes (Supergirl) and villains (General Zod)—and even animals (Krypto the Superdog)—who actually survived the destruction of Krypton.
The recasting began early. When Superman made his first appearance in print, it was explained that he was raised in an orphanage on Earth after a "passing motorist" stumbled across the rocket containing the superinfant. Then, in June 1939, when Superman became the first comic-book character to star in his own self-titled publication, his background was retrofitted to become somewhat closer to the story we know today, in which the toddler of steel was raised by a kindly elderly couple named Kent. It wasn't until 1949 that Superman himself became aware that he was a "strange visitor from another planet."
Superman stories have proliferated in every medium, beginning with his two extremely long-running comic-book titles and a newspaper comic strip that launched in 1938-39. A radio series aired from 1940 to 1951, and Max Fleischer, best known for Betty Boop, produced the original animated series, which ran in movie theaters in 1941-1943. The first live-action depiction—a pair of Saturday-morning serials—arrived in 1948 and 1950.
These, in turn, led to a true classic of early television, the 104 episodes of "Adventures of Superman" (1952-58), which continue to captivate millions of kids in perpetual reruns and home-video releases. Lovers of "I Love Lucy" also have long cherished the unforgettable 1957 episode of that series in which TV's Superman (George Reeves) rescues Lucy (Lucille Ball) after one of her harebrained schemes backfires. "Do you mean to say that you've been married to her for 15 years?" Superman asks Ricky (Desi Arnaz). "And they call me Superman!" Clearly, Jerry Seinfeld was right: the Man of Steel's most compelling power is a super sense of humor.
For the past 35 years, in particular, Superman has been especially omnipresent. Four big-screen, big-budget features, from 1978 to 1987, starred Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. In 1989, Superman launched a marathon run of TV series that only a superhero could keep up with: "Superboy," "Lois and Clark," "Superman: the Animated Series" and "Smallville" have kept him in front of viewers with barely a pause to change his tights from 1988 to 2011.
The expectations for a Superman project have soared so high that the 2006 theatrical feature "Superman Returns" was considered a failure even though it grossed nearly $400 million. The new "Man of Steel" will have what this 21st-century predecessor didn't: an origin story, which brings it more in line with such successes as "Batman Begins," as well as biopics like "Ray" and "Walk the Line."
Superman has also been a persistent icon in popular music, from a dedicatory piece by Benny Goodman in 1940 to the ingenious 1966 Broadway musical "It's a Bird . . . It's a Plane . . . It's Superman," which was recently restaged by City Center Encores! in New York with Edward Watts as the Baritone of Steel. There were also less flattering musical depictions, such as the 1979 "Rapper's Delight," in which the Sugar Hill Gang denigrates him as someone "flying through the air in pantyhose."
In print, even more than in movies and on TV, Superman continues to be a juggernaut. He still appears in multiple comic-book titles a month and is the subject of at least three serious "biographies" in the past year, including Larry Tye's "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero" and Brad Ricca's "Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—the Creators of Superman."
Apart from his obvious gifts, Superman's capacity for continual rebooting has kept him fresh from generation to generation: from leaping tall buildings in 1938 to traversing the solar system and even traveling through time in the 1960s and '70s, to surviving both death and matrimony in more recent decades. With "Man of Steel," it's a sure bet that yet another generation of youngsters will be tying red towels around their necks and pretending that they can fly.
Mr. Friedwald writes the weekly "Jazz Scene" column for the Journal.