That’s the question for the ages — something that has haunted every version of Superman since he debuted as a comic book character in 1938. His was one of the original “secret identities” and the concept involved the Man of Steel being accepted by everyone as an alien visitor (who looks human) known as Superman. Even so, no problem there. Part two got tricky…
When he put on a pair of glasses and a business suit and acted a little differently in order to pass as Clark Kent, however, it seemed that nobody realized they were the same person. As comic book films have gotten more and more realistic, the cognitive dissonance we experience in enjoying the character has grown greater and greater.
Back in 1994, I got a chance to wrestle with that conundrum for a while when I was supervising producer of the first season of ABC’s Lois & Clark. Now it looks like it’s Christopher Nolan’s turn since he’s been tapped as the Chosen One for the latest Superman feature reboot. He’s probably already obsessing on this and many other issues and, maybe, just maybe, he’s going to take the license to fix this one. I think he can — even while keeping the original conceit — and we’ll get to that in a minute…
For starters, let’s take a moment to appreciate how substantially the culture has changed since 1938. Those were, with no condescension implied, simpler and more innocent times. Since Superman was the original superhero there wasn’t much out there to compare the secret identity idea to (although Zorro comes to mind). The point is that readers (and then audiences) were new to the idea of a guy who could leap tall buildings in a single bound and actually put on this red, blue and yellow costume before he did it.
Now, of course, these heroes have moved beyond the pages of comic books and have started to take over the movie theaters with their exploits. With each new sophisticated re-telling, the Superman-Clark Paradox gets a little goofier. That’s okay, if the light tone of the Christopher Reeve films is all you’re shooting for, but if you’re looking to do to this character what you’ve already done to Batman (Batman Returns, The Dark Knight) then some new thinking is in order.
The Superman-Clark Kent duality is the weirdest one in comics and movies. Yes, Bruce Wayne is the Batman but no one has ever seen beneath the cowl. Secret identity intact. Yes, Tony Stark is Iron Man but he admits it. No secret identity required. Yes, Bruce Banner is the Hulk but the green behemoth bears no resemblance whatsoever to the puny scientist who spawned him. No suspicion aroused. But Clark? His mask is a pair of glasses.
In the 1950s and 1960s, audiences bought it when George Reeves put the glasses on but only because it was the price of admission to see Superman fly. We accepted Christopher Reeve because the tone of the Clark story was light and bright. In Lois & Clark, we felt the light rom-com tone of the series made it possible. Besides, we knew that we just could not win a fight with DC over changing this key element.
But in Superman Returns — even with Brandon Routh channeling Christopher Reeve’s comedy Clark — it was wearing thin. Nobody really believes that a smart, sassy investigative reporter like Lois Lane is going to be so blinded by love or lust or whatever that she won’t realize the, er, strong resemblance between these two men in her life. This, by the way, is why the comic books long ago threw in with Lois and Clark being a couple and her knowing about his secret identity. It didn’t solve why everyone else on the planet was so out-of-touch but at least it did not force Lois to look stupid. She, at least, was in on the secret.
The entire history of Clark Kent is laid out in detail in Wikipedia, and it covers this and more.
- “Various reasons over the decades have been offered for why people have never suspected Superman and Clark Kent of being one and the same. The most common offered is simply that, despite their physical resemblance, Superman and Clark are perceived as too different in mannerisms and personality to be the same individual. Another reason given in the 1987 story “The Secret Revealed” was the public simply does not know that Superman has a secret identity, considering he does not wear a mask, which implies to most that he has nothing to hide.”
Now, with the Superman re-boot looming, it’s time to re-think this. Let’s stipulate that there must be a Clark Kent and there must be a Superman. That’s a given. But it may not be a given that all six billion people on the planet have to suffer a mass hallucination and not see them for who they really are.
My first thought is to simply hang a lantern on the problem. Take it on directly. Go right through it. Here are some possible solutions:
- Have Lois confront Superman in their first meeting/interview with the fact that he looks one hell of a lot like Clark Kent. To which Superman — thinking quickly — vamps out a response along the lines that he’s an extra-terrestrial and he has altered his own DNA to hide his own unique look to provide himself some privacy. In other words, he implies that Superman is the real deal and that he has his own secret identity so he can get away from the stress of being a near-God and walk among us as a human. His explanation for the resemblance is maybe that he’d met Clark first and thought he had a friendly face and he based his own look on Clark. Now they can look alike and it’s explained. This actually isn’t such a stretch anyway, since Clark and Superman in every version seem to have a “special” relationship.
- Slightly change the origin story of how Clark comes to Metropolis. This is hardly heresy, given that it’s changed a lot over the years anyway. So let’s say that he’s still living in Smallville, taking care of things for his mom after his dad’s death. He decides to try out the Superman persona, feeling that it’s time for him to man-up and help the world with some of its problems. Naturally, this attracts attention and despite the fact that he didn’t intend to be seen and/or photographed, he is. People all over the world are buzzing about this Strange Visitor and, guess what, it turns out that this guy in Smallville looks a lot like him. Well, of course, Clark has a great alibi, being in Smallville. But he’s a journalism graduate, looking for work, and because of the hub-bub this has created, Perry White agrees to hire him provisionally to see if he works out. Lois is pissed that this hayseed has gotten such a break and resents him while, at the same time, seeing Superman (who could not possibly be the same guy) as the ultimate man.
Do I think these are the perfect solutions? No. But I’d accept either of them over another film with the Superman/Clark situation as it’s been. I’m sure with his creative brain trust and his own savvy instincts that Christopher Nolan will probably come up with something even more artful. But if he wants to to pull Superman into the cool-verse where Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman live, then he’s going to have to grapple with this one way or the other.