Super refit: Superman gets another makeover

Whether he's fighting Hitler or giving up his US citizenship, Superman is an ever-evolving character. Phil Boucher finds out about the Man of Steel's latest redux

Can't teach an old dog new tricks? Explain that to Superman.

It's 73 years since the Man Of Steel left his farm in rural Kansas to fight for "truth, justice and the American way", yet the septuagenarian superhero is about to return to these humble origins in a 21st Century reworking of the comic series by Scottish writer Grant Morrison. "We want to introduce a take on Superman that's going to be so different that no one can expect what might happen next," Morrison explained at last month's LA Times' Hero Complex Film Festival.

"We're going to show you how Superman is, who he is, why he ended up wearing the costume that he wears. And to show a kind of a different side to the character than we've ever seen before."

This brand new version of Superman will be revealed in September and superficially the most noticeable difference will be that he's missing his famous red pants and yellow belt. Yet the most substantive change is likely to occur in the subtext of the super-villains Superman finds himself pitted against. While the character has always been a source of fantasy and escapism, he's also had his red boots securely planted in the politics and social undercurrents of the United States and, since his creation in 1938, continually reflected the concerns, worries and aspirations of US society, as well as its position on the global stage.

"The whole idea of Superman is that he is super-immigrant," explains Dr Chris Murray, lecturer in comic studies at Dundee University. "He is a representation of the immigrant who comes to America and is seen as part of the American dream. In many ways he is part of the way that the American dream is sold to the world. It is stretching things to say Superman has a one-to-one relationship with US foreign policy. But he is certainly an ambassador for American values." In the 1930s this saw Superman tackle corrupt politicians and slum landlords in the guise of an avenging New Deal protector for the downtrodden masses. During the Second World War and the Cold War he metamorphosed into the alien wing of the US armed services, striding the globe as an arbiter of ultimate moral authority and self-belief who simply could not be challenged.

By the 1980s Superman had evolved once again, growing his hair into a mullet and marrying the ultimate shoulder-padded career woman, Lois Lane, while tackling Islamic terrorists, supernatural beings and his arch-enemy Lex Luthor.

Then things dramatically changed for the last son of Krypton: the Berlin Wall fell and with it Superman's position of global policeman and cheerleader for America. Things went from bad to worse as the US and the UN became humbled in Bosnia, ending any public belief that international power could be so openly exercised. It was only through the horrors of 9/11 that Superman rediscovered himself as the saviour of American values, yet even this was not to last, thanks to Iraq, extraordinary rendition and Guantanamo Bay.

All of which leaves Superman – the character who embodies the American Dream like no other – in a tricky situation: just how do you stand for the 'American Way' when that ideal has been tarnished and is itself being vehemently fought over by a polarised US public?

Tellingly, the answer may lie in a recent edition of the comic, which saw Superman travel to Tehran to take part in a non-violently demonstration against the Iranian regime. Shortly afterwards he renounced his US citizenship because he felt 'truth, justice and the American way [is] not enough any more'.

"The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw this was that the idea of everyone loving Americans or wanting to be American is no longer there – it has changed dramatically in as little as 10 years," explains New York-based Superman expert Vincent Zurzolo.

"I still think there is a tremendous love for the whole ideal of the American Dream, but because of our policies, many citizens of foreign countries now view us differently.

"In the last Superman movie they also took out 'the American way', so it was just 'truth and justice'. I was tremendously upset by that, both as an American and a comic book fan. Superman is about truth, justice and the American Way. Why is that a dirty word now?"

Whether or not this is a theme that will be continued by Grant Morrison is, as Donald Rumsfeld put it: "a known unknown". But given the rise of China, the stumbling US economy and the recent death of Osama Bin Laden, it's inevitable that Superman will tackle an array of unfamiliar and previously unseen foes, whether in the guise of a US citizen or someone with a uniquely global passport.

It may even be the case that Superman embraces this universal status to tackle the one dilemma that faces us all and which even he may be powerless to prevent: global warming.

"The only way to make things in comic books real is to make comic books about real things," explains Morrison.

"Through this terrible sense of oppression – in which we're being watched constantly, we're stuck on the internet and we're scared of everything – the superhero has surged up as an imaginative response; a reminder that there is a future: to stop telling kids that the planet is going to die and start using your minds the way that superheroes use their minds and get us out of this."

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