The Myth of Superman
The myth of Superman is one that embodies the idea of the American dream and experience. It is a myth of where we are in the reality of this country and where we imagine we could be. On one hand we are all interested in what we can do to improve our lot in life. Yet, on the other hand, we all feel the call to help others better themselves. However, what this myth shows us is the truth of this experience insofar as we are not willing to give up our own comfort for the sake of others. The myth of Superman is one that straddles the line between the real world and the imaginary, it is what shows us the hypocrisy of the American experience.
Superman, much like Captain American, has long been a symbol of American pride. He is an embodiment of morals, of the American sensibility, and all the great things that make the American people the best on the planet. His is a humble farm boy, hardworking, modest. Yet strong and powerful. More so, Superman is Christ-like in his appearance and his message. He is a statement against consumerism, though he lives in the world we live in. Superman is the mirror to our world, at once a myth and a focal point for who we are and want to become.
Superman appears to us a babe from the heaves and, as pointed out by Gustav Peebles in his own essay, God, Communism, and the WB, he is sent to us, the only son of Jor-El. Yet, the Christ analogy does not end there with Superman, as in is pointed out by Peebles. In one episode of Smallville, a series about the upbringing of Superman, “Clark appears on a crucifix,” (God, Communism, and the WB, location 1338). In yet another episode he is, “bathed in a halo of light,” (location 1338). In this way it is plain to see that Superman is no mere man, but he is a Christ figure, one to which we look up to. One that inspires us not to follow him, but to be like him.
Yet, how does this Christ analogy show us Superman as American? Superman is not merely a symbol used as Christian propaganda, but rather a display of the moral power that American culture hopes to breeds. On the surface, yes, we see Superman as the boy that fell from the stars to save us. Yet, more than anything else, Superman desires to be just like the average person. This desire to fit in is seen not in Superman, but in Clark Kent himself. A mild mannered, weak man who works a menial job, always trying to restrain himself, repress his own culture. Even when crusading under the guise of Superman, Clark looks not to be a messiah, but a force of good, one with which we aspire to be. This is something that we as Americans look to experience, look to achieve.
It is through this Christ analogy that we see the world Superman wants to present to us. A human being of moral upstanding who inspires us to live happily and without a desire for possession, but rather for the helping others. This can been best illustrated in the seminal Superman comic, “What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, And The American Way,” written by Joe Kelly. In this legendary comic Joe Kelly has Superman replaced by a more radical group of superheroes. This group does not hesitate to kill those who do wrong and will not hold back from causing destruction. It is in this comic we see Superman deal largely with the real world, one in which people want safety and want the easy answer.
Yet, through this story we see Superman trick the world at large, destroying this radical group of superheroes, killing them. Here we see the shock of what the real world is when met with hope. It is here we find that, in the eyes of Superman, the American way is the way in which we strive to better each other and, as John F. Kennedy once said, doing things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Yet this is not the only way in which we see that Superman is a character that attempts to represent the American experience. When we see the character of Lex Luther in Superman, whether it be through the comic books, the films, or the cartoon, we are presented with a man that seemingly embodies an aspect of the American experience. After all, Lex Luther himself clawed his way to the top, making a success out of himself. He owns a successful company in Metropolis, he rich, can own whatever he wishes, and is a powerful, feared, and respected name to one and all. However, despite this money, this power, and this accusation of capital, Lex Luther is a bitter, angry, and despicable man.
At all turn Lex Luther attempts to undermine and destroy Superman, who, by comparison, is a happy, loving, an honorable man. The argument could be made that, perhaps, Lex Luther wishes to undermine Superman because his worries of an over-dependence on his power, that with such a powerful figure in the public eye there will be no progression. Yet, this view of their struggle is too simplistic, too convenient. The power struggle between these men is one based on class, one based on what we want to be, what we believe we can become and what we are at are darkest.
Superman is a working class man, a farm boy, and someone that, despite his power, holds no interest in capital or in money. Rather, Superman and is concerned with helping better his fellow man. He wishes to learn from his cultures mistakes and be a symbol of hope to his adopted culture and planet. Lex Luther is, of course, the very antithesis of this point, a counterbalance to the radical left that Superman represents.
In this way, Superman is a representation of the world that we live in. We must work, we must try to do what we can to get by. Yet, unlike Lex Luther, Superman does not spend time constantly trying to gain what he does not have. Rather, Superman lives in the real world, yet works for the world in which he wants to see. This dichotomy between the real and the imaginary is a thing that any American can experience. In the real world we always search that imaginary thing, that perfect world where everything is just, just as Superman himself does.
This dream that Superman seeks is exemplified best in this excerpt from a speech give by President Obama, “What is unique about America is that we want these dreams for more than ourselves - we want them for each other. That's why we call it the American dream” (Obama, Speech on the American Dream). Both Superman and the president believe the same thing in that the experience of every American is one where they want the best for themselves. The best jobs to support their families, the best education for their kids, and the best health care for when they are sick and, deep down, many of us want the same for others. The struggle, however, comes from the desire to want things to be easy on the level of the individual, even when that same sense of ease cannot be applied to everyone. In this sense Superman shows us the hypocrisy we all experience in the quest to reach this dream while also holding true to the old communist mantra, “each according to their ability, each according to need.”
Yet, even in this struggle we see the merging of two different and strange beliefs. On one hand we have Superman as the figure of Christ. The boy who fell to Earth to save us all. Then, on the other, we see Superman as the hero of the working class. A man obsessed not with wealth or anything so petty, but with bettering his fellow man and leading them to a better world. As noted by Gustav Peebles when speaking of Superman, “This odd fusion of beliefs recalls a time inverted from our own. When the political left had not yet entrenched itself in its cosmopolitan enclave and the political right had not yet entrenched itself in the countryside” (God, Communism, and the WB, location 1362).
This very fusion is one uniquely American. At once it calls for us to take up the cross and give love to Jesus and yet, at the same time, it calls on us to renounce our materialistic views. Superman is a symbol that calls us to free ourselves and, in that sense he is a perfect show of the American experience. He is, at once, an idea that we all wish to aspire to. Yet, at the same time, he is a mocking reminder of the hypocrisy of the American culture that calls on us all at once to be pious and giving, and yet greedy and impious.
Superman, much like ourselves, lives in the real world. One in which there is greed and hate and disgust. One in which people do not always do what is right or just for those around then, but rather what is right or just for themselves. Yet, all the while, he represents the America we all want to live in, the one we write the songs about. The myth of Superman, as Gustav Peebles states, “lies behind the hidden heart of American folklore and philosophy.” This is the truth behind Superman. He is the line between what we want to be and who we are. The mirror we look into in the morning so that we can see every flaw and, perhaps, his is the image that shows us just how much better we can be.
Obama, Barack. “Speech on The American Dream.” Bettendorf, Iowa. 7 November 2007.
Peebles, Gustav. “God, Communism, and The WB.” The Man From Krypton. Dallas, Texas: Smart Pop, 2006. Book. Location 1338 to 1345.
Peebles, Gustav. “God, Communism, and The WB.” The Man From Krypton. Dallas, Texas: Smart Pop. 2006. Book. Location 1362 to 1370.