Superman: Our Ideals in a Cape


Image via Wikipedia

This is the first in my odd little series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. How does Superman, probably the most famous of this clan, fit?

The Hero

The last survivor of the planet Krypton, Kal-El was sent to Earth by his loving parents as his planet exploded. Found by a loving Kansas farm couple, the Kents, he was raised as Clark Kent and taught to believe in solid American, midwestern, values.  As his powers began to develop, fueled by our yellow sun, he discovered he was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. To protect his identity he took up the mantle of Superman and became a defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Why We Love Him

Superman is our ultimate, idealized version of ourselves and humanity. All the things we believe we can accomplish, and all the best we see in ourselves.

Superman making his debut in Action Comics #1 ...

His name applying originally to a telepathic villain, but over time writers took the tough character that appeared in Action Comics and turned him nearly into a God. At one point he was so overpowered, with crazy things like super-ventriloquism and super disguises and the power to move the moon from its orbit, that it became difficult to even tell new stories. When you can time travel and have your own super-horse, what else is left to do. The multi-dimensional comic event Crisis On Infinite Earths was needed to clean up this silliness and just make Superman “really, really tough”, but again his powers began to grow. He is our domination over the forces of the world, the power we like to imagine within ourselves as a species, and that’s projected in the near invincibility Superman inherits.

While his powers reflect our interpretation of our own might, Superman’s human side also reflects our ideal view of what it means to be human. He is just, uncorruptable, kind, merciful, tolerant, and resolute. Take the best traits of man, assemble them together, and you’ll have Superman’s psychological profile.  It’s admittedly an American take on values, but since Superman is an American creation that isn’t much of a surprise. Many of Superman’s greatest battles take place within the sphere of his character – pursuing Lois Lane, refusing to kill, accepting his role as a leader and inspiration. Yet these are always struggles of his better nature, and you never see Superman struggling to pay the bills or grappling with insecurity. He is a “Big Blue Boy Scout”, carrying our ideal moral code.

So great is our idealization of ourselves in Superman, that some argue he has become a Christ figure: the son coming to earth with his incredible power and wisdom to protect and guide us. Others argue that he is so idealized that he has a reverse-identity: that Superman is his normal self, and Clark Kent is the being he dresses up and pretends to be.  I think both of these carry it too far, but are good examples of how much has been poured into this character so that he even stretches the boundaries of normal superheroes.

As A Character

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 23:  The Superman c...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

As much as I’ve loved Superman since I was a kid, he is a poor character for storytelling. He has few flaws, and few challenges left to face. He has no story arc. He is enduring. Death holds no fear for him, and neither do horrible movies. He will always return to being the shining example, the icon we created to carry all our hopes and dreams for what we think makes humanity great.

It’s a good thing he has strong shoulders.

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Superheroes: The Character of the Gods

The Legion of Super-Heroes during the 1970s. A...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been a fan of comics and superheroes most of my life, but it wasn’t until I was an adult (or ‘adultish’) that I began to appreciate their roots are much deeper than just fueling the imaginings of geek kids. In some ways, the superhero is the reincarnation of the classical Gods – powerful yet flawed beings that populated incredible tales to show what it means to be human.

Gods as Humans

The Greek Gods were fallible beings created by the people of the time to help explain their world. They had incredible power, but also had human weakness exaggerated to the extreme. Hera was majestic but insanely jealous, Zeus was powerful but insatiably lustful, and Poseidon was both protector and tempestuous earth-shaker. They contained everything it meant to be human, yet rose above it in epic battles and tales that helped people understand their own lives and gave them an escape.

Superheroes as Gods

Comic book superheroes, with their own ability to hurl thunderbolts and shake the earth, are the modern equivalent. Batman struggles with internal rage and frustration, while Spider-Man fights his own insecurities and guilt. Their biggest difference to the Gods of old may only be their colorful costumes and masks. The best of them are more than just shallow cartoons, but have traits that embeds them deeply in our minds and resonant with parts of our own lives. You can see their connection beautifully and amusingly captured in the blog Growing Up Heroes.

I’m going to crack open some of these modern pulp heroes (and in some cases movie-stars) and look at what makes them work as characters and archetypes. What do their origin stories say about them? How have they changed over time? And what do the most enduring of these heroes say about us and our values?

My first hero-focused post in this series will cover the nearly archetypal Superman, but I plan to cross the Marvel and DC Universes to visit some of my favorite heroes and some of the ones I’ve struggled to understand. If you have a favorite, let me know and I’ll share my thoughts.

These imaginary characters have captured our imaginations for decades now, and I think they are worth stopping to pay homage.

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