When Henry Cavill was first cast as Superman for the new film Man of Steel, there were a number of questions he simply couldn’t, and often still can’t, talk about. One of the most popular questions he had to dodge was “Who is the REAL character, Clark Kent or Superman.” Of course, revealing the answer would have given away major plot points of the film. It may not sound like a big deal, but serious Superman fans can put together the things they hear and see to figure out aspects of the movie that the filmmakers would rather keep hidden until the release.
As a Superman fan, the second biggest question I’m regularly asked is, “Who is the real character? Clark Kent or Superman?” (The first is, “Who would win a fight, Batman or Superman?” And the third is “who would win a race, Flash or Superman?”) Well, the answer is far more complicated than it sounds, but ultimately it depends on the continuity.
“And who, disguised as Clark Kent”
For the first half of Superman’s existence in the comics, the radio series, the George Reeves TV series and so on, Superman was the real guy. He would disguise himself as Clark Kent with a pair of glasses and a suit so that he could work as a reporter at The Daily Planet, a major metropolitan newspaper. This was specifically to help him learn of threats and situations where his unique brand of help would be required. By working with a news engine, he would be among the first to hear when an alien invasion was taking place so he could take off as Superman, save the day, change back to Clark and hopefully get the story written before Lois could beat him to it.
This introduced the “bumbling” Clark who was mild-mannered enough to blend into a crowd and never be recognized as Superman. The glasses were only part of the disguise, as Bud Collyer represented in the radio series from the 1940s. When he voiced Clark Kent, he would raise the tenor of his voice and added an aspect that can only be described as nervousness or insecurity. Then as Superman he would lower his range to a rich baritone. Thus, during the famous costume-change moments he would speak the line “This looks like a job…” as Clark, then deepen “…for Superman!”
In all of those continuities, Superman was the real guy and Clark Kent was the mask, but the comics of the 1950s and 60s added a new layer to the character. Superman met many other Kryptonian’s like his cousin Supergirl, the menagerie of Super-Pets like Krypto the Super-dog and Streaky the Super-Cat, as well as villains who survived the planet’s destruction via imprisonment in the Phantom Zone, just like General Zod. Superman began to embrace his Kryptonian roots and would even pronounce exclamations like “Great Rao.” Rao was Krypton’s highest religious figure, or “God.”
Clearly Superman was the reality of the character.
As Superman fans, we were incredibly lucky to have such a talented and well-trained actor like Christopher Reeve for the film series beginning in 1978, who not only showed how different Clark Kent and Superman could be, he could also visibly transform on the screen from one to the other without the need of a costume change. As Clark he would raise the tenor of his voice, slump his shoulders and even take on a different spine. Plus he had particular mannerisms that brought off the character as “nervous, but trying.” Then as Superman, he would stand up straight with his shoulders back and speak directly with a deeper voice. For those familiar with the film, there is a brilliantly acted scene where Clark visits Lois’s apartment for a date and intends to reveal his dual identity. While Lois’s back is turned, he removes his glasses and visibly turns into Superman without actually revealing his costume, but then changes his mind, puts his glasses back on and goes back to being Clark.
This version of the character always begged the question: If he’s really Superman, why does he need a secret identity at all?
“Clark Kent is who I am. Superman is what I can do.”
Enter the 1986 comic book reboot. One of the aims of recreating Superman for a modern audience was to bring to character back to human terms that readers could more directly relate to. Gone were the exclamations of a Kryptonian deity, as well as the wide cast of heroes, super-pets and villains from Kal-El’s home planet. Superman was truly the Last Son of Krypton. While much of the origin story remained the same, Clark Kent’s parents in Smallville both survived to see him grow up and eventually don the tights and cape. Clark spent a good deal of his young adulthood saving people in need, but hiding in the shadows because he identified himself as Clark, and not as Superman.
One day while he was living in Metropolis, an experimental space-plane had a fatal accident, forcing him to save the day in plain clothes in front of onlookers and press. In order to live a normal life as Clark Kent, he would have to disguise himself both as Clark with glasses and slicked-back hair, and as Superman so he could more freely help the people who most needed it. In a lot of ways, both were disguises.
This era of the comics directly influenced Superman’s character in other media, including Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Superman: The Animated Series and even Smallville.
For Lois & Clark, Dean Cain was more subtle with his differentiation of the two characters, but the writing suggested that Clark Kent was ultimately the real person at all times. He would hide his identity with the glasses and different hair style, but he clearly lived his life with friends and coworkers without adding the “bumbling” aspect to his persona. So Clark was the real character and he would disguise himself as Superman whenever he needed to go out and save the day.
“Because no one else can.”
So why does Superman need Clark Kent? Or more to the point, why does Clark Kent need Superman? My favorite answer to this question comes from Superman (vol 2) #59 from cover date September 1991, written by Dan Jurgens. Clark Kent had revealed his dual identity to Lois after they were engaged to be married and once they finally had a moment alone together she asked him why he decided to be Superman. Why did he need to be both?
He said, “You’re right. With my powers I could have become anything. But even as a boy, long before those powers emerged, I knew I wanted to make a contribution somehow! That’s one of the things that attracted me to journalism! It’s one of the few professions that exists where I can compete on equal footing with everybody else! Imagine the advantages of being an invulnerable cop, a flying fireman or doctor with X-ray vision!”
But the ultimate answer speaks volumes of who Superman really is. He replied, “Because no one else can.”
If Clark Kent is the normal life Superman needs to ground him, there must be a better reason for being a reporter at the Daily Planet than the simple need to hear about disasters while they’re happening. It’s his sense of fair play that made him decide to embark on that career. His super powers certainly don’t affect his prose.
So if Superman is a mask-less disguise that allows Clark to live a normal life, and at the same time Clark Kent is a disguise that allows Superman to be seen by the public without eradicating his privacy, who is the real character?
And the answer is ... really quite simple.
The reality of Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El is the one with nothing to hide. Superman and Clark both have to lie and keep secrets to maintain the one honest side of his existence. It’s that honesty with himself and the few people who know all his secrets that make him the real person. When he’s at home in Smallville on the farm with Jonathan and Martha Kent, that’s when we as the audience get to see the real character. Once Lois knows his secret and they share an honest life together, that’s when the real guy shows up. It’s not Clark at the Daily Planet with Perry and Jimmy, and it’s not Superman saving the day or making a public appearance. It’s simply when he’s alone or with the people he can truly let into his life.
What are your thoughts?
Jeffrey Taylor is a staff writer/moderator at The Superman Homepage, co-host of From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast, available at the Superman Homepage, iTunes and The Superman PodcastNetwork.You can find his new Man of Steel Countdown column here at Movies.com every other Tuesday.