Show Business: Up, Up and Awaaay!!!

America's favorite hero turns 50, ever changing but indestructible

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In this month's 50th-anniversary issue of Action Comics, one episode opens with the man of steel indulging in a long and steamy kiss with Wonder Woman. After a good deal of fisticuffs and flying around, though, the tale ends with Superman saying "I was fooling myself when I thought there might be a chance for romance between the two of us, Wonder Woman . . . I admire you, Wonder Woman. I respect you. But I really am just a boy from Kansas." From which it seems clear that the comic-book Superman, at least, remains as squarely virtuous as ever.

The movie Superman is a different matter. He has to contend with Margot Kidder as a liberated Lois Lane who can look on him with an earthy yen ("How big are you?" she asks in a tone that even Superman can almost understand). In Superman II she throws herself into the Niagara River just above the falls to tempt Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent into revealing his identity by rescuing her. Kent avoids the trap by helping her out with a tree branch. Only when they are drying off in front of a fireplace does his failure to be scorched by a flame inspire Lois to try again: "You are Superman!"

Before they go any further, a message from Superman's mother tells him he must give up all his superpowers before he can get involved with a mortal. This raises a philosophic question of Thomist subtlety: Can the figure subsequently seen naked under the sheets with Lois be considered the real Superman? Or is he now just a newspaper reporter on a spree? To eradicate all such problems, the screenwriters magically imbue his kiss with the power to make Lois forget her discovery.

If I were asked to express in a single sentence what has happened mentally to many American children I would say that they were conquered by Superman.

-- Dr. Fredric Wertham, in Seduction of the Innocent

Much of Superman's complex evolution derived from his reincarnations in different media. On radio, for example, which could not show the red-caped hero in full flight, an imaginative scriptwriter dreamed up the deathless lines: "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" Because radio shows had to be performed by real people, and because Actor Bud Collyer demanded a vacation, the writers invented the Kryptonite meteorite. For two weeks, all that was heard of Superman was muffled moaning from a closet, until Collyer returned.

Partly, too, Superman evolved in response to changes in American society, starting with the cataclysm of World War II. In one misguided early effort, his creators had him fly to Berchtesgaden and Moscow and haul both Hitler and Stalin before a League of Nations tribunal in Geneva. Believers in verisimilitude began wondering how Superman avoided getting drafted. Simple. Clark Kent patriotically went to take his physical exam, but when he looked at the eye chart, his X-ray vision caused him to read figures from a chart in the next room. He was rated 4-F.

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