Last year, Man of Steel proved to be a commercially successful reinvigoration of the Superman film franchise. It wasn’t a critical darling, and the reaction to the film by Superman comics fans can likely be generously described as “mixed.” If you began a debate surrounding the film in a comic book store, you’d likely find both ardent defenders and detractors of the finished product. The usual suspects for conversation include Superman’s method for defeating Zod and the film’s inability to give credence to the idea of hope, along with the heavy levels of violence in Smallville and Metropolis.
Another area that some fans take issue with is the fact that we never got to meet the new incarnation of Clark Kent as a reporter; the bespectacled mild-mannered identity that roams the halls of the Daily Planet. While general audiences and comics fans have different ideas of what constitutes the “true” Clark Kent, we can dig a little deeper in this piece to give people a broader perspective on the secret identity of Superman.
The Purpose of Clark Kent, and Why Kill Bill Vol. 2 is Wrong
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten into a conversation with someone about Clark Kent, until they inevitably bring up the “Clark Kent monologue” delivered by David Carradine as Bill in Quentin Tarrantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2. Sometimes they actually attribute it to the movie, other times they pass this idea off as their own.
I hate to tell you guys that are so devoted to this idea, but Bill is completely wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the only character he may be accurately describing is Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, who does nothing but see everyone else as inferior to himself (consider the source, right?).
In his explanation, Bill basically says that Superman’s use of the Clark Kent identity is as a critique of humanity. On his own, Superman is so powerful that his transformation into a meek, bumbling, soft-spoken person is how he sees the rest of us, or so Bill says. What Bill fails to understand is that the creation of the Clark Kent persona across multiple eras and adaptations of the Superman character instead shows the attitude of someone who knows he is not like us, but still wants to belong to us. As Superman, and even as the boy raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, Kal-El knows that he will always have a higher responsibility to defend those that are weaker than him — meaning everyone else.
Superman doesn’t critique humanity from a pedestal. He lives among us simply because more than anything he desires to be one of us. Superman loves humanity’s greatest traits (like freedom, curiosity, and the immense capability of the human spirit) and will protect that at all costs. In a lot of ways, he’s too hard on himself and doesn’t exactly see that he exhibits those traits himself. Even though he’s an alien, Superman’s humanity is one of his strongest, most defining traits, fed by his experiences growing up in Kansas, as well as his time living as one of us under the guise of Clark Kent.
Clark Kent himself hasn’t always been meek and bumbling, though.
Clark Kent’s Past
While the original live-action Clark Kent portrayed by Kirk Alyn in the Superman serials of the 1940s was probably more mild-mannered than is actually possible, the first substantive look at the Man of Steel’s alter-ego came in the form of the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Superman, played by the incomparable George Reeves.
While some modern audiences may think that a 1950s TV show is incapable of having a lot of pathos or nuance, this series–and Reeves’ role in it–may completely shock them. Probably the most surprising thing to people checking in on this show for the first time is that Clark Kent, with glasses, is a bad ass.
He’s not afraid to knock a couple of heads together to get to the heart of a story, and is more than willing to get a little scrappy himself until the absolute last second possible before having to change into his caped suit.
The more familiar version of Clark, and the one cited by Bill in the above clip, is the soft-spoken persona crafted by Christopher Reeve in the 1978 Superman film. Reeve said that much of that persona is based on Cary Grant, and that he felt making a totally different personality would help the audience more plausibly accept that a pair of glasses could fool somebody. The acting on display when Reeve shuffles between the Superman persona to Clark and back is one of superhero cinema’s greatest scenes, and certainly helps establish the overt differences between the characters.
Brandon Routh’s portrayal in Superman Returns was basically the 1978 conception resurgent. While shows like Lois and Clark and Smallville delved a bit deeper into the modern conventions of the Clark Kent character, the former stayed true to the comics of the late 80s/90s while the latter decided to push toward a 1970s status quo.
Clark in the DC Movie Universe
While detractors are objectively correct in pointing out that we haven’t really seen any of how Clark will perform in his role as a Planet reporter in the new series started by Man of Steel, the content of the film itself seems to point to some specific elements of modern Superman comics as a starting point.
1986’s The Man of Steel by John Byrne is one of the single biggest projects created to try and modernize Superman for the late 20th century, and stood as the character’s origin for nearly 20 years. A fair amount of concepts in the Man of Steel film felt inspired by Byrne’s work, including his life in Smallville and the overall tenor of Kryptonian society.
2004’s Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Yu was also a hugely important and informing work on Clark’s pre-Superman life, with a lot of tone and style from this series informing what would become his life as a superhero. Birthright introduced the idea of tension between Clark and his father over their differences and Jonathan’s overriding desire to keep his son safe from people who wouldn’t understand him. Birthright also gives creative purpose to the use of Clark’s glasses as a key element of his disguise, in an idea that has never been used before or since.
2009’s Superman: Secret Origin was also an inspiring work, and in at leats one case had a scene adapted nearly verbatim into Man of Steel. Through these modern takes on Superman’s origin, we see a Clark Kent that isn’t as theatrically different from the real person: Clark is the dominant personality, while Superman himself is Clark truly “at work.”
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Beyond
Recently, we got our first look at Clark’s wardrobe in the upcoming film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It seems to show a more traditional suit for Clark in the vein of the 1978 film and even Smallville, but with a little more of the color palette we saw at the end of Man of Steel
Overall, whatever version of Clark is used for the newly burgeoning DC movie universe going forward, there are a few misconceptions it can potentially clear up about Superman’s alter ego, as well as a plethora of great comics that it can take inspiration from.
Clark Kent is far more than just a pair of glasses, and if the writing of the new film wants to excel, then it will give the proper attention to the man with and without the eyewear. The trick isn’t simply wearing glasses and hoping for the best. Instead, it’s becoming one of us so effectively that they don’t need to look deeper to find who the real man is.