If you know who Superman is, then it’s a pretty safe bet that you know who Clark Kent is, but how about his mother Martha? Casual fans of the famed super hero might be less familiar with Martha Kent, the Krypton-born crusader’s adoptive mother. While you might think of Martha Kent as gray-haired, wholesome, and motherly, actress Diane Lane could change perceptions when she takes on the role in director Zack Snyder’s upcoming “Superman” reboot.
Diane Lane isn’t exactly the first woman to pop into mind when remembering the humble Smallville, Kansas woman first depicted in the comic books. The young actress (she’s 46) is tough to pigeonhole as a type when it comes to the roles she’s portrayed, but she could easily be described as a sultry sex symbol. Her seductive good looks have landed her in a fair share of steamy romances over the years.
Lane’s portrayal of a lustful housewife in 2002’s “Unfaithful” was arguably the only memorable aspect of an otherwise forgettable film. My personal favorite was her turn as Toni Mannix, the wife of a rich studio head in the underrated 2006 film “Hollywoodland.” Ironically, Lane’s character was having an affair with George Reeves, best known as TV’s Superman in the 1950s. In both films, Lane portrayed unhappy women whose sexuality couldn’t be contained by a patina of domestic marital bliss.
A woman embroiled in secret sexual liaisons doesn’t exactly come to mind when I think of Clark Kent’s mom. Then again, Martha Kent’s persona has gradually changed in the decades since the Superman comics of the 1940s. Martha and her husband Johnathan, who found the infant son of Krypton and raised him as their own, were “Ma” and “Pa” to Clark. The fictional town of Smallville, Kansas, was as wholesome a setting as could be imagined for the humble farmers.
Film portrayals hewed pretty close to the image of Martha and her husband as clean, hard-working Midwesterners. The 1978 classic “Superman”, starring Christopher Reeve, saw Martha portrayed by Phyllis Thaxter, a doting mother who mostly stays in the background as Johnathan steers Clark into manhood. In the ’90s TV series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” Martha (K Callan) became a decidedly different character. Her adventurous, fun-loving nature (which included yoga classes) reflected the changing times as baby boomers became active seniors.
Of course, the Kents’ hometown “Smallville” eventually became the title of the popular series which has irrevocably changed the way younger audiences think of Martha. In the series, Martha was portrayed by Annette O’Toole. The character was decidedly younger than previous incarnations (Clark is a teenager in the series, after all), but O’Toole’s portrayal arguably drew more from the original mythos than Callan’s light-hearted take in “Lois & Clark.” Nevertheless, this Martha was more than a one-dimensional side character. Her relationship with Jonathan was complex, sometimes strained. Involved in a love triangle, standing in for her husband as state senator, and eventually leaving for Washington as a U.S. Senator, she was undoubtedly a more dynamic character.
The last time audiences saw Martha on the big screen was in 2006’s “Superman Returns.” She was then played by Oscar-winner Eva Marie Saint. The venerable actress had relatively little screen time, playing the character as a hard-working farmer. Saint’s portrayal did justice to the character, but O’Toole’s remains the more memorable in this writer’s mind.
Though Diane Lane’s portrayal will follow in the footsteps of “Smallville,” it remains to be seen what kind of a woman her Martha will be. Lane has shown in films like 2010’s “Secretariat” and the romantic comedy “Under the Tuscan Sun” that, despite her seductive charm, she’s impossible to typecast. She should be able to bring dignified wisdom, toughness, or even light-hearted humor to the role. My only quibble is her age, but that’s something easily (and convincingly) changed in movies these days.