Why Superman is the greatest American hero
05:00 AM, Jun 14, 2013
“I’m from Kansas. It’s about as American as it gets.”
Superman (Henry Cavill) tells a couple of confrontational soldiers about his Midwestern upbringing by way of the doomed planet Krypton in director Zack Snyder’s new Man of Steel (opening wide Friday). He’s also giving moviegoers a little history lesson on the fact that he’s been arguably this country’s most iconic superhero for the past 75 years.
“For me, he’s that perfect mix of Americana,” Snyder says. “I really tried to do The Right Stuff-meets-Norman Rockwell with a strong dose of angst and ‘who am I and where do I belong?’ “
Searching for identity is a very human concept, for sure. But what makes Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent the ultimate American hero is that he has reflected our culture and society, ever since his first appearance in DC Comics’ Action Comics No. 1, cover-dated June 1938. And his crash-landing in a cornfield as a baby and being raised by two Kansas farmers is, in a way, the story of the American immigrant.
Not surprisingly, it was hatched by a pair of men from Cleveland, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, whose parents themselves were immigrants from Europe looking for a new start in North America.
Since they created the Man of Steel in the 1930s, “the core narrative in Superman has been and continues to be the values and belief about the U.S. experience being strong enough and good enough to address the troubles facing the generation engaged with the character,” says Julian Chambliss, a history professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., who specializes in superheroes and the American experience.
During the Great Depression, Tarzan and Flash Gordon were popular in comics because they transported Americans elsewhere, says Brad Meltzer, a novelist and host of History Channel’s Decoded. When World War II encroached on our shores, though, “America starts getting scared and here comes this giant, almost straight-from-the-flag character who’s come to save us.”
“The Big Blue Boy Scout” marched with the troops and fought Nazis in the late 1930s and into the ’40s, but he was also “a reaction to industrialization, to the power of big business,” says comic-book writer Mark Waid. “He was created as a social agitator, a character who fought for the oppressed and the weak.”
In the 1950s, Superman went from anti-authority to a sort of “uber-cop,” since the postwar era is “where we saw ourselves as the world’s peacekeepers,” says Waid. And then the Man of Steel of the ’60s and ’70s had stories that touched on the counterculture and “young people not really having a good sense of who they were or where they came from or where they were going.”
When Christopher Reeve flew onto the big screen in 1978’s Superman, he had to save the world and Lois Lane, of course, but Waid also found that he exuded a relaxed attitude. “He didn’t have to be histrionic, he didn’t have to be war-mongery, he didn’t have to be antagonistic because he’s Superman for God’s sake. What threatens him? We’re in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era, in that brief period in American history where we felt confident and almost complacent in our place in the world.”
The 1980s featured Superman fighting his own hubris and self-importance, Meltzer says. The Man of Steel who appeared in Frank Miller’s seminal Batman comic-book series The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 was “a perfect reflection of Reagan politics and being a heel to the government.”
And the ’90s pit Superman against not only a bad mullet but also big corporations his arch-enemy Lex Luthor is even redefined as a cunning millionaire businessman.
The decade also featured a memorable “Death of Superman” story line that becomes “the peak of the gritty mountain” that the comic-book industry was climbing, Meltzer says. “We’re going to take our heroes down so many pegs and (be) so realistic. And the pinnacle of that (is) death itself.
“When they kill him,” he adds, “it’s almost like America, for that small moment, thinks they can do without him, that they almost don’t need him anymore. In a strange odd way, the moment he disappears is when you hear the outcry of how much we need him again, and that’s where we are right now.”
One aspect that remains timeless about Superman’s origin story is how his mom and dad put their son Kal-El in a space capsule as a baby before his home planet of Krypton explodes. They send him to Earth so he will lead a good life and have opportunities to be of service for the world.
“He’s always been the ultimate immigrant story,” Waid says. “What is the hope of the immigrant than at core a promise that it would be better in America? That no matter what your situation is, it will be better here.”
That aspect of the Man of Steel has always been close to the heart of Jim Lee, artist on DC’s new Superman Unchained comic, who moved from South Korea to like Superman the Midwest when he was 5.
“It was all about, can you adapt and fit into a society. What’s aspirational about Superman is that he is about truth, justice and the American way, but he seeks to be a global champion,” Lee says.
“His story is the story that all of us share in one way or another, depending on how far back you go in our genealogy,” adds Unchained writer Scott Snyder. “What also makes him quintessentially American is he’s a superhero who looks out for all of us. You always get the sense that Superman is protecting everyone and he sees everyone as equals.”
Steel director Snyder plays up Superman as champion in the film and also focuses on him as an alien in America who will do anything to help his adopted people.
Snyder actually had to fight for that “I’m from Kansas” line because some around the production felt it might be “too American,” he says.
The director points out a line by Daily Planet editor Perry White in the 2006 film Superman Returns when he says, “Does he still stand for truth, justice, all that other stuff?”
“I found that insulting,” Snyder says. “It’s freaking Superman, for God’s sake. It’s not like the world doesn’t know where he comes from.”
Superman really is all about the American way, says Chambliss, and part of that is inspiring us to be the people we believe we can be.
“This is a core element of the character’s appeal, and it is the thing that makes him hard to translate in people’s mind,” he explains. “How can you believe so completely in a country when bad things that violate those ideas happen?”
Chambliss believes that Superman’s strength “comes from his family and his values, both biological and cultural. He is the ultimate example of the American self at some level. While it may seem hokey, it never goes out of style.”