11/07/2011 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2012

Superman's Secret Identity Crisis

Whether we're talking about TV shows, movies, or red underoos, there's no shortage of Superman news lately, and I think a big reason why we continue to find the character so interesting is his role as a kind of cultural arbiter in our society, with an elastic appeal that makes him ripe for reinvention generation after generation. One of the most important aspects of this appeal -- and also of these reinventions -- is the ongoing tug-of-war, both textual and meta-textual, between his twin roles as "mild mannered reporter" and "strange visitor from another planet."

Unlike DC Comics counterpart Batman, whose "millionaire playboy" act has long been accepted as a public front in service of the masked vigilante, the question of whether Clark Kent or Superman is the "real" persona (bearing in mind, of course, that these are all imaginary stories -- but then, aren't they all?) has remained unsettled for decades, with the answer dependent almost entirely upon which portrayal or which era one chooses to focus on.

The iconic Christopher Reeve depiction of Superman and Clark in the '70s and '80s Superman movies, close to gospel for many and gamely aped by Brandon Routh in 2006's Superman Returns, hinged on the idea that Superman was a brilliant, Olivier-level actor who had erected the "bumbling reporter" facade to draw attention away from what was so obviously apparent to anyone who chose to look past the oversized eyeglasses.

This notion, that milquetoast Clark is actually Superman's sly "screw you" to humanity, remained in place for much of the character's publication history (with Quentin Tarentino spinning screenwriting gold from the metaphor in his Kill Bill duology), and it wasn't until comic writer/artist John Byrne reinvented the Super-wheel with 1986's ground-up The Man of Steel that the paradigm shifted, with cool, confident Clark becoming the "true" identity, and Superman merely the job he does occasionally.

In this sense, Byrne was clearly inspired by the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series with which he grew up, wherein actor George Reeves played a much more at-ease Clark who could hold his own as a crusading reporter, but who was barely different from his superheroic identity except for the clothes he happened to be wearing at any given time.

The Byrne model, with the "man" retaining primacy over the "Super," was status quo from the late '80s into the late '90s, reflected in Dean Cain's portrayal on TV's Lois & Clark from 1993-'97, and the '90s animated Superman series. In fact, wasn't until Smallville premiered in '01, with its angsty take on Kent's tormented teen years finding a wide new audience, that the dividing line between man and Superman came back into question. The comic books soon followed suit, with subsequent reboots all arriving at different points on the map.

For director Bryan Singer, whose stint guiding the Man of Tomorrow began and ended with Superman Returns, as well as comic writer Mark Waid, who took a crack at rethinking Superman's origins in 2003's Birthright miniseries, the idea presented was that there are actually three different identities at play, with both the costumed Superman and bespectacled Clark serving as disguised reflections of of the real Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal-El, the star-born orphan raised with Earthly values by Kansas farmers.

Ultimately, regardless of where one chooses to land on the great Clark-Superman divide, it's a question whose answers can offer some very telling insights into our own long-held notions of identity, self, and desire, and it's one that author Elliot S. Maggin, having written two very good prose Superman novels in the '70s in addition to his longterm role as the character's comic book chronicler during that era, tackles to great effect in an essay reposted by, of all places, Says he:

When the rest of us create a character, that character is as well defined as we can make him. The comic book medium gave birth to our own classical hero because only in a medium that crude, whose end product is that apparently unfinished, can a creator so effectively suggest a concept of such endless potency. Clark is a complete creation of Superman, so complete that he's effectively real. Clark is a natural born citizen. He votes. He has jealousies and shortcomings. He has opinions, real ones that occasionally diverge from those of Superman. They have altogether different spiritual beliefs, for example. Clark has appropriately nerdy hobbies. He scrapbooks, for heaven's sakes. He collects his favorite classic TV commercials on DVD. His favorite is the one for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce where the old man skips out of the retirement home to meet his grandson in the parking lot ("Hey, Boo-boo.") and rides off for a weekend of gambling and debauchery. Superman can't do the stuff Clark can do. Not that he wouldn't if he didn't have a sacred duty to perform, but he can't. So not only is Clark a construct for the purposes of guarding what measure of privacy he requires for his own emotional self-preservation, but Clark is the outlet that allows Superman to do the things that a Superman can't do in public. Clark can, and that makes him Superman's saving grace. Clark, the character, doesn't need Superman, but Superman, the real deal, absolutely needs Clark. That's why Superman created Clark and not the other way around. He created Clark and re-creates him every day.

From my end of things, having grown up with the '80s-'90s iteration of the hero firmly ensconced in my longterm memory as the take on Superman that's closest to "mine," I tend to gravitate most readily towards the "Clark is who he is, Superman is what he does" school of thinking, as reflected in the John Byrne-Lois & Clark-Superman: Animated trifecta, but I still love the fact that there are so many different and distinct answers one can come away with to what is, on the surface anyway, the same question.

And all of them, as Maggin's treatise above readily demonstrates, manage to shed some light in a very profound way on why the character endures and will likely continue to do so. As I said in my review of Superman Returns five years ago, "Clark Kent isn't just how Superman relates to us; it's how we relate to him." With their Man of Steel feature reboot now lensing, I'm anxious to see what angle director Zack Snyder and writer David Goyer will choose to tackle the dichotomy from.