In the comic-book world, he is sometimes derided as "the big blue Boy Scout."
In the movies, he's been surpassed -- both in box-office fortunes and popularity -- by his DC Comics stablemate Batman and the wisecracking Marvel gang. His recent TV shows, never highly rated, are off the air. His sunny, selfless side is seen as passé in an age of dark knights and troubled mutants.
Is this any way to treat Superman?
This year marks 75 years since the creation of the superhero who essentially started it all. Though his image is secure and he still has abilities far beyond those known to mortal men, it's an open question whether one of those powers still works: the ability to draw audiences.
On Friday, "Man of Steel" opens. The film, backed by a reported budget of $225 million -- not to mention more than 100 promotional partners, enough to make "The Great Gatsby" envious -- is yet another attempt to reboot the Superman legend, just seven years after "Superman Returns" hit screens.
The new work, directed by Zack Snyder ("Watchmen"), written by David S. Goyer ("Batman Begins") and starring Henry Cavill as Superman, hopes to surpass the lackluster returns of "Returns," which made $200 million at the domestic box office but was widely seen as a disappointment.
Indeed, Warner Bros. head Jeff Rubinov has expressed high hopes for the film, which is key to a rumored strategy to bring the entire Justice League to theaters. According to ticket-seller Fandango, advance sales have been promising. (Warner Bros. and DC Comics, the publisher of "Superman" titles, are both units of Time Warner, as is CNN.)
It all seems poised to put Supes back on top of the superhero heap, a place that he once had all to himself.
But that was decades ago. The world has turned many times since then; we've fought draining wars, dealt with horrific acts of terror, even entered an age where bespectacled Clark Kent types are cooler than six-packed musclemen.
Horrors! Has time passed by the Man of Tomorrow?
'More layered than you think'
Arie Kaplan, an executive with Meetinghouse Productions and prolific comic-book writer, says that there's more to Superman than meets the X-ray eye.
"He's more layered than you think," he says, reeling off the Superman personas: the alien from another planet, the Midwestern farm boy and the bumbling alter ego Clark Kent. Each must be kept in mind when writing the character, says Kaplan, who has one Superman tale to his credit; each enriches Superman's, well, humanity.
The fact that those aspects of Superman all came together in one figure was, for the most part, an accident, says Brad Ricca, author of "Super Boys," a new biography of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
"The character is a patchwork," he says. "There's a little bit of Tarzan in him, the circus strongman, the athlete -- so it's drawing on all these different things that were going around in their pop culture, and it's stuck around." Even the term "superman" was in the air: it was used to describe Franklin D. Roosevelt, says Ricca.
There are also deeper currents. Siegel and Shuster were the sons of Orthodox Jews, and there's no question that religious imagery infuses the Superman story and character, whether it's bits of Moses, Jesus or the golem -- the latter a clay figure, brought to life, who was used as a defender of the Jewish faith.
Indeed, so much of Superman's story echoes that of classic archetypes that it has kept a generation of Joseph Campbell-referencing scholars busy.
He is an immigrant. He is an orphan. He is blessed with intelligence and athleticism. He is troubled by shyness and insecurity. He is a divided person -- man and superman, Clark Kent and Kal-El.
It's no wonder Superman caught on with Depression-era readers, and his popularity has continued through the ages.
"I think there's something very primal about Superman," says comic-book historian Mark Evanier. "Jerry and Joe tapped into some basic human fantasies that are very natural and very understandable in the world. Everybody wishes they were stronger, everybody wishes they were invulnerable, everybody wishes they were much more than they appear to be."
That secret identity -- the uncertain, nerdy Clark Kent hiding a powerful figure behind his glasses -- is probably the key to Superman's fame, Evanier adds.
"When you felt oppressed, when you felt people were treating you like a weakling or a person of no consequence, you could fantasize in your head: 'Ah yes, but secretly I could go into the phone booth and change into a god,' " he says. "It's a very natural fantasy. I think every kid my age imagined it when they were 8 or 10, and many of them probably still do."
A pop culture bonanza
Superman became the template for many superheroes to come. He had the tights, the cape, the insignia on his chest and the abilities far beyond those known to mortal men.
"When Jerry and Joe started the character, it was revolutionary," says Evanier. The individual elements had existed in characters before, he observes, but "that particular mix of ingredients, and the sheer appeal of the character visually, were irresistible to people."