These challenges have been put in place by the very people responsible for maintaining Superman's cultural integrity: The folks who control his image for DC Comics and its corporate sibling, Warner Bros.
Consider the news in which Superman has recently popped up:
• Warner Bros. is building up anticipation for "Man of Steel," the latest attempt to make a movie franchise out of the character. The trailer for the film, directed by Zack Snyder ("Watchmen," "300"), emphasizes the angst-ridden Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill) contemplating the burdens of his superpowers – and in one scene, shows Superman being led away in handcuffs.
• The comic book Injustice: Gods Among Us (a tie-in to a videogame landing in stores April 16) is set in an alternate DC universe where the line between good and evil is blurred. In a recent issue of Injustice, a drugged Superman punching his love, Lois Lane, into space killing her and their unborn child, and hastening (thanks to The Joker, who plotted it all) the nuclear annihilation of Metropolis.
• And an upcoming Adventures of Superman comic book will now be shy a story, because of controversy over one of the authors DC Comics commissioned. That author is Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender's Game. News that Card would write a "Superman" comic prompted protests from fans and LGBT activists, who decried Card's harsh writings against same-sex marriage. (Card is a devout Mormon, a Brigham Young University alum and a columnist for the LDS Church-owned Deseret News.) After comic artist Chris Sprouse withdrew from the project last month, DC Comics shelved Card's story.
These three items bring into sharp focus the question of Superman's continued relevance in the cultural landscape. Simply put: Can a superhero who can stand up to a speeding locomotive also be agile enough to adapt to the times?
Superman has been featured in many media over the years movie serials in the '30s; TV series in the '50s (with George Reeves), '80s ("Lois & Clark") and '00s ("Smallville"); Christopher Reeves' movies in the '70s and '80s; the failed "Superman Returns" in 2006; and a myriad of comic books since the first Action Comics in 1938. In that time, it's gotten hard to come up with new story lines for a true-blue hero who always tells the truth and is impervious to almost everything.
The Injustice storyline, and to a lesser extent the "Man of Steel" plot points (like the handcuffs), are the result of writers so hard up for a fresh angle that they aren't above mussing up Superman's squeaky-clean image. That may solve the writers' short-term problems, but at the risk of sullying an American icon.
The fact that Superman is a such an icon, famously fighting for "truth, justice and the American way," is at the heart of the Orson Scott Card controversy. With the U.S. Supreme Court hearing cases involving California's Prop. 8 and the "Defense of Marriage Act" last week, and with public opinion and even a few Republicans turning toward support of same-sex marriage, it's now arguable that "the American way" now allows gay couples to get married the position Card vehemently opposes.
Why do we put so much stock in a comic-book character? Because Superman represents the best in us, the save-the-day hero that we look for in others and in ourselves.
He is an alien who chooses to live among humans, using his alter ego as the four-eyed Clark Kent as cover (The Daily Planet's newsroom being a perch to observe Metropolis) and as a disguise reflecting back on human weaknesses. (Watch David Carradine deliver Quentin Tarantino's brilliant monologue at the end of "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" for a perfect appraisal of Superman's dual identities.)
Superman matters – still matters, even 75 years later – because we all wish we could be as strong, as fair, and as constant as he is.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.