Thursday, November 03, 2011

Secret Identity Crisis

Whether we're talking about TV shows, movies, or red underoos, there's no shortage of Superman posts on this site, and I think a big reason why I 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. In the meantime though, click over to Forbes to read the rest of what Maggin has to say.


Abdul-Halim V. said...

I think Bill's little speech in Kill Bill 2 is pretty compelling on the issue.

Zaki said...

I think Tarentino was only half right, in that, as I said a few years back when I reviewed RETURNS, "human Clark" isn’t just a vehicle for Superman to relate to us, he's a way for us to relate to Superman.

Anonymous said...

Thinking about this is interesting. (Love your blog, BTW.) My belief is that there are four personas.

1. The Young Kent, who grew up not knowing he was anything more. This would be his "true" self, because he would not know differently. When he came of age, realizing who he was, this persona effectively died.

2. Kal-El was born, as Young Kent awakened and died. But maybe "died" is too harsh a term. He was internalized, forever a part of Kal-El.

3. Clark Kent became the public image wherein Kal-El hides. When he was Young Kent, the two were the same. But his true self, Kal-El, had to be hidden. As he further awakened, his true self diverged even further from the Young Kent. Clark Kent constructed and carefully maintained. An image of what he would have been, had he not known the truth. An image that is false.

4. The Superman personal itself is also false. It is a public image - engraved in everyone's minds. Superman to the world represents Purity, Goodness, Courage, and Strength. But the man's true self knows he cannot possibly live up to this expectation. Still he maintains the ideal as best he can, to give people Hope.

Kal-El is the "true" persona, the one that he keeps hidden from all others, including his closest friends. Even Lois can never understand the true burden that he carries. There are very few who ever will. Among them are Jor-El, long dead. Martha Kent. General Zod. Possibly Batman...

The man is truly alone in this world.

Zaki said...

Thanks for the kind words about the site! Glad to have you onboard!

I think you broke it down quite well. For all my issues with SMALLVILLE over the years, one thing I think it got absolutely right was the line from the Jor-El AI in the finale, when he says, "You abilities may be of my blood, but it's your time in Smallville that made you a hero." That sums it up nicely, I think.

Kirk Hastings said...

I just read your article on The Huffington Post about "Superman's Secret Identity Crisis".

However, as a long-time fan of Superman (and the 1950s "Adventures of Superman" TV show in particular), I would like to tell you why I prefer George Reeves's portrayal of Superman/Clark Kent far above all the others.

The main reason? George's Superman/Clark Kent HAD no "secret identity crisis"!

George played Superman/Kent as the same person (which of course, he is). He had no "split personality" issues like the other film Supermen. His Clark is not a buffoon like Christopher Reeve's portrayal. He doesn't collect TV commercials or scrapbook like the current comic book version. And he isn't obsessed with making out with Lois Lane like Dean Cain's Clark was. George's Clark is Superman without the costume on. They are both a single, somewhat narrow-minded individual, with his all-consuming focus being to help those in need, and to fight criminals who would prey on innocent people. He has great compassion for the underdog, and he is almost fanatically dedicated to the welfare of innocent people in general -- and his friends in particular. (Example: his response in the TV episode "The Evil Three" when his friends' lives are threatened: "Tell me where they are or I'll break every bone in your body!")

It is his single-minded dedication to "truth, justice and the American Way" that makes George's Clark so strong, so noble, and so admirable a character. And both his Clark Kent and his Superman are both equally dedicated to that cause. That's why they are so much alike. George's Superman is too grounded in reality to "play act" for half of his life as another person. He is what he is, like it or not, and this shows through in both his "identities". (Like in the TV episode "Shot In The Dark" where he says, "Sorry, I don't make deals": he is fully dedicated to the idea of fair play, justice, and law and order -- and it's either his way or the highway, buster!) A psychiatrist would have nothing at all to work with here: Clark/Superman is about as mentally healthy as they come. There is no angst or inner conflict or indecisiveness going on here. He knows exactly who he is and what he believes in -- whether he's wearing his Clark Kent double-breasted suit, or his Superman cape and costume.

George's Superman is a very, very focused individual. That, plus his superhuman power, makes him about as close to invincible (both physically and morally) as you can get. Just the kind of guy you want on your side when the going gets rough!

Geez, how unique: a character with absolutely no angst, inner conflict, or psychological problems. Just a plain old fashioned all-American hero dedicated to doing what's right without any self-centered motivations involved!

Kirk Hastings
Somers Point, NJ