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You can't escape the Man of Steel

Superman's pervasive presence in popular culture

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Superman
Brandon Routh plays Superman in "Superman Returns."

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(CNN) -- Look! Everywhere! It's ... Superman!

Yes, Superman, visitor from another planet who came to Earth thanks to two Cleveland wunderkinder, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who created the tale of the Man of Steel for Action Comics No. 1 in 1938.

And, in the process, created one of the most ubiquitous figures in American history. (Watch the Man of Steel return -- 2:34)

You know all about him already. There's the outfit, complete with bright red cape, blue unitard and red-and-yellow "S" shield. Bespectacled, awkward Clark Kent. Kryptonite, no doubt better known than its similar-sounding element cousin, the noble gas krypton (No. 36 on your periodic table).

The quotations, many from the 1950s television show: "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" Astonished bystanders uttering, "It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" And what is he fighting for? Why, "truth, justice and the American Way."

Perhaps some people even associate Superman with telephone booths, where Kent was known to change into his heroic alter ego. (I'm not even going to get into the philosophical rootsexternal link or religious imagery. )

Superman is so well known he's worked his way into nooks and crannies of our culture far removed from Krypton. Jerry Seinfeld is a fan: There is a representation of Superman in every "Seinfeld" episode, and the two co-starred in an American Express commercial. A town in Illinois named Metropolis (and it's been called that since 1839, 99 years before Superman's birth) promotes itself as "Superman's Home Town."

And the songs: R.E.M.'s "Superman" (a remake of the Clique's 1969 tune), Laurie Anderson's "O Superman," the Crash Test Dummies' "Superman's Song" ("Supe had a straight job/ Even though he could have smashed through any bank in the United States ... but he would not"), Donovan's "Sunshine Superman," the Spin Doctors' album "Pocket Full of Kryptonite," 3 Doors Down's "Kryptonite," and Sufjan Stevens' "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," which honors both the Illinois town and the former Kal-El. (And that's just to name a few of the many songs about Superman.)

Superman's newspaper pals are also known far and wide: heartthrob Lois Lane, photographer Jimmy Olsen, curmudgeon Perry White. So are his foes: egotistical Lex Luthor, superintelligent Brainiac, devilish Mr. Mxyzptlk -- the latter who must unwittingly pronounce his name backward to be returned to the fifth dimension. (He is not to be confused with Joe Btfsplk, Lil' Abner's cloud-covered cohort, nor the eighth dimension, which is crossed by Buckaroo Banzai. But I digress.)

It all gives one pause. What if Superman were really among us? Would he save us from tyranny and terrorists? (What if he'd been a Nazi? a "Saturday Night Live" skit once askedexternal link.) And how would he live?

To this end, the science fiction writer Larry Niven wrote a story, "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex."external link If you've ever wondered what would happen if Superman attempted to reproduce, Niven has thought through the possibilities. (Physics professor Jim Kalakiosexternal link has thought through other facets of the superhero life. )

All this means it may be time to go to the cinema, where "Superman Returns" is now playing. Eye on Entertainment emerges from his Fortress of Solitude.

Eye-opener

"Superman Returns," which opened Wednesday, is the latest in a long line of Superman-based works. (Check out this gallery for some of the actors who have portrayed him.) Though the Man of Steel is very much present on television, he's been away from the movie screen for almost 20 years -- a gap that allowed director Bryan Singer and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris to try some new ideas.

This time around, Superman has returned to Earth after visiting what's left of Krypton. He's been gone five years, and in that time Lois Lane has moved on from Clark Kent in more ways than one: Besides writing an editorial about why the world doesn't need Superman, she's the mother of a young son and engaged to Perry White's nephew.

Lex Luthor hasn't moved on, however. He's still furious about all the Man of Steel represents, and this time -- this time -- he will exact his revenge.

Critics have generally been approving -- the film is doing close to 80 percent on the review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com -- though lamenting "Superman Returns" isn't the home run they were hoping for. Newcomer Brandon Routh, who plays Superman, has gotten good reviews, as has most of the cast (though some critics wish Kate Bosworth, as Lois, had more of Margot Kidder's spark).

Sounds like Superman has won again.

Superman, the character, is part of the DC Comics empire. "Superman Returns," the movie, was produced by Warner Bros. Both companies are units of Time Warner, as is CNN.

On screen

  • "The Devil Wears Prada," the film version of Lauren Weisberger's roman a clef about an assistant and her boss from hell, with Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, opens Friday.
  • "Strangers With Candy," with Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert, is the movie version of their Comedy Central series. The film, which includes cameos by Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker and Philip Seymour Hoffman, opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • "Boffo! Tinseltown's Bombs & Blockbusters" offers a breezy look at some of Hollywood's ... well, bombs and blockbusters. It airs 9 p.m. Thursday on HBO.
  • "VH1 Storytellers: Pearl Jam" airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on VH1.
  • Sound waves

  • The last album Johnny Cash recorded before his death, "American V: A Hundred Highways" (American), comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • "Brethren" (Dutton), a novel about the Knights Templar by Robyn Young, comes out July 6.
  • "The Big Happy" (Miramax), about a TV producer who gives up that life to find happiness ... by a former MTV producer-turned-writer, Scott Mebus, comes out Friday.
  • Two very different graphic works are due out: "A Scanner Darkly" (Pantheon) is drawn from (no pun intended) Richard Linklater's film version of Philip K. Dick's 1970s novel; and "Epileptic" (Pantheon), by David B., is a memoir about growing up with an epileptic brother that has received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Both come out Tuesday.
  • Video center

  • Three movies that received little play in theaters are due out on video Tuesday: "The Matador," "The Libertine" and "Stoned."
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