It’s a bird, it’s a plane … no, it’s a geek. Superman just ain’t what he used to be.
Warner Bros. has retooled the man of steel into the man who feels. The newest Superman has become an angst-ridden teen-ager named Clark, edgy about his superpowers, family secrets and judgmental friends.
The name Superman, in fact, doesn’t even come up.
“Smallville,” which debuts on the WB network Oct. 16, is a saga with “no tights and no flights,” according to Alfred Gough, the 31-year-old screenwriter who has taken liberties with Superman mythology without a touch of guilt.
“It is difficult to really connect with someone wearing their underpants over their tights,” he added.
Indeed, there is no cape, no “S” emblem, no flying over municipal buildings. The cape is just too “cheesy,” according to the series’ producer, Miles Millar. “Let’s get to the heart of teen alienation. He’s like a freak. It’s puberty with superpowers,” he said.
This has not been settling well with fans who remain loyal to the well-adjusted Superman of yore, including LA Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal, who has the Superman emblem tattooed on his own left bicep and custom-woven into the floor mats of his car.
“How can people determine who Superman is?” he asked reporters recently. “That’s crazy.”
An online poll of Superman fans found that only 23 percent of them thought the cape-free version would fly.
The remaining 77 percent hoped to see the familiar red, blue and gold-trimmed duds somewhere in the show, even if it was only in the final episode.
“Superman is an icon, and his costume is a huge part of that iconic image” noted one fan.”WB owes it to us to present Superman in his full caped glory.”
“Nothing compares to that costume,” said Bradford Wright, who wrote the book “Comic Book America.”
It is, he said, more recognizable than Santa’s red velvet duds and Elvis’ bejeweled jumpsuit.
The producers had something other in mind, however. They auditioned 500 young men for the part, finally settling upon actor Tom Welling, a relative unknown who has yet to see a Superman movie or comic book.
“He had the right look,” said producer Mr. Millar. “A presence, a sweetness, an innocence and a strength.”
The new Superman’s wardrobe looks like it came from the Gap; he does his rescuing and heavy lifting in work shirts and cargo pants.
“Is he ever pretty,” wrote one female fan at a Warner Brothers Web site devoted to the new show. “Who in heck picked a guy with such feminine features? It’s bad enough he won’t have his Superman outfit, but to look like a girl — I’m not against a gay Superman at all, but let’s be up front about it.”
Like Batman and other supertypes, the traditional Superman has been under seige over the past decade as various writers and producers tweaked the character to suit the times. In print and on screen, Superman has been killed, killed three criminals himself, lost his powers, gotten married, gone crazy, changed his hair around and misbehaved on more than one occasion.
“Is anything really permanent in comics?” asked Superman writer/ artist Dan Jergen when incredulous fans questioned new permutations in the character.
Mr. Millar agrees.
“The mythology has changed through the years. It wasn’t set in stone in the 1930s,” he told the Los Angeles Times this week. “It’s OK to see if new things can fly.”