Clark Kent writes for the Daily Planet but his new biographer, Larry Tye, filed his own front-page stories for the Boston Globe and Louisville Courier-Journal. Tye, author of “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend,” is fresh from Comic-Con International where he was promoting “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” the 432-page hardcover from Random House that is being billed as the first “full-fledged biography” of the character that is called both Kal-El and Kent. We talked to Tye about the ramping interest in “Man of Steel,” the Warner Bros. film that will put a new version of the hero on the screen just in time for his 75th anniversary next summer.
HC: This is an era of haunted anti-heroes like Batman, Wolverine, James Bond. We also have decadent tricksters — Jack Sparrow, Tony Stark, maybe even the new Capt. Kirk — and empowered underdogs like Harry Potter, Spider-Man and Sam Witwicky in the “Transformers” films. With all of that, is Superman even viable for a major film franchise?
LT: Yes, more than ever. It’s precisely because we have so many dark heroes (Batman), and fraught ones (Spider-Man), that we’re aching for a Big Blue Boyscout who knows right from wrong instinctively, and never wavers from the light or is sidetracked by anxieties. If we look back at history we see that Superman does best when America is doing worst, like when he came to life in 1938, in the middle of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II. It was an era much like ours, when the economy is teetering and we can’t seem to extract ourselves from overseas conflicts. The success of The Avengers suggests how anxious we are for heroes who can set things right. Man of Steel, I predict, will do an even better just lifting our spirits and offering up a welcome escape.
HC: What lesson would you hope Hollywood took away from “Superman Returns”?
LT: I liked Bryan Singer and Brandon Routh’s movie, but not enough fans did. The lesson isn’t that Superman is flawed but that somehow their film was. We’ll see, of course, next summer. But Superman’s handlers have had misses in the past (see “It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane…” on Broadway in 1966), and he’s always managed to make them look good by coming back stronger than ever.
HC: “Man of Steel” is changing some key elements of his origin tale and purists will squawk. But hasn’t Superman’s mythology always been like a beach? The shape looks the same from a distance but on closer inspection there’s constant shifting of the sand…
LT: I like to say that Superman has evolved more than the fruit fly. In the 1930s he was just the crime fighter we needed to take on Al Capone and the robber barons. In the forties he defended the home front while brave GIs battled overseas. Early in the Cold War he stood up taller than ever for his adopted country, while in its waning days he tried singlehandedly to eliminate nuclear stockpiles. For each era he zeroed in on the threats that scared us most, using powers that grew or diminished depending on the need. So did his spectacles, hair style, even his job title. Each generation got the Superman it needed and deserved. Each change offered a Rorschach test of the pulse of that time and its dreams. Superman, always a beacon of light, was a work in progress.
– Geoff Boucher
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