Every three seconds, a human being dies. Whether it’s by murder, an insidious disease, or another crime makes no difference. I cannot say if this is what the two inventors of the world’s first superhero had in mind, but surely looking at the misery of the world must have inspired them. It was in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War II, when two sons of Jewish immigrants, Joel Siegel and Jerry Schuster, conceived a savior of mankind clothed in blue tights.
His name is Kal-El, aka Superman, aka Clark Kent, and he is the last survivor of the planet Krypton. Before the destruction of his home planet, his father sent him on a long journey to Earth in an effort to save his life. Once he grew old enough to learn of his true identity, he assumed the responsibility of preventing humanity from suffering the same fate as Krypton. This is the story of Superman in a nutshell, but the mythology of this supernatural character is far more complex than many people would even care to know.
The 1930s superhero received little critical acclaim upon his cinematic return in the 2006 film Superman Returns, in which he appears to be more like a modern Christian savior. It is yet to be seen how he will be presented in the upcoming 2013 Man of Steel, yet it is undeniably true that Superman is a God-like figure as far as judgment and power go. Superman’s Kryptonian name Kal-El translates phonetically to the Hebrew phrase “all that is God.” Bryan Singer, the director of Superman Returns, conceives Superman as a superhero who cares less about himself than about the well-being of mankind. His only two weaknesses are kryptonite — radioactive material from his destroyed home world — and Lois Lane, his once great love.
The story of Superman starts at the end of the planet Krypton — home to a highly advanced civilization, too corrupted to accept the imminent death of their nearest star. Just before the fall of his people, Jor-El, a respected scientist on Krypton, sends his son Kal-El, whom we know as Superman, earthward in a crystal spaceship. All of Krypton’s technology is based on crystals, the idea behind it being the fact that crystals inherit the traits of the minerals around them. “You will travel far, my little Kal-El.” Marlon Brando’s majestic voice, as his father Jor-El, sounds in our ears as he sends his son on his way in the 1978 Superman. On his journey, which lasts many years, he learns everything there is to know about the human race.
Embedded within his spaceship is one special green crystal, which will enable him to build a Fortress of Solitude on Earth. In this crystal fortress, Clark Kent — his human alias — will learn of his real identity as Kal-El, the last survivor of the planet Krypton. His father reveals to him why he chose Earth to become his new home. His Fortress of Solitude is both a tribute and a gravestone of his alien heritage. “They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all — their capacity for good — I have sent them you, my only son.” Partly, the presence of a yellow sun in our solar system is another reason. The light of a yellow star enhances Superman’s powers even more so than Krypton’s own red star. When Lois Lane, whom he later falls in love with, asks him why he’s here, he says plainly “I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.”
Now we come to the pertinent question: Why do people enjoy stories of saviors who give all they have in the name of love and compassion? Stories such as these inspire people to their own capacity of moral betterment, but it is ironic that it requires a comic book figure to show the world that humanity can be a great people. The mythology of Superman — or any superhero, for that matter — is simple in its substance, but profound in its symbolic nature. Superman is an exaggerated representation of humanism and self-sacrifice. Yet, like us, he becomes victim to the most powerful drive in any spirit. As his alter-ego Clark Kent, he falls in love with his fellow reporter Lois Lane. This makes him as vulnerable almost as humans, whom he was destined to save and help endure difficult times. Together with his Achilles’ heel Kryptonite, his nemesis Lex Luthor almost defeats him.
However, Superman wasn’t always the mild-mannered superhero audiences today know. His moral code was much looser and his character was rough and destructive in the very first stories by his inventors Siegel and Schuster. But over time he became used to the vagaries of the human spirit, including love, and this turned him into the man who his father wished he would become. Only through love is he able to learn the complete spectrum of human feelings.
Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer said that it was Superman’s alter-ego Clark Joseph Kent that made Superman extraordinary. At the same time of being supernaturally empowered, Superman had a vulnerable core that was susceptible to the same deceits as a human heart. Siegel and Schuster supported this argument themselves. Siegel commented that “If you’re interested in what made Superman what it is, here’s one of the keys to what made it universally acceptable. Joe and I had certain inhibitions… which led to wish-fulfillment, which we expressed through our interest in science fiction and our comic strip. That’s where the dual-identity came from.”
People can relate to Superman because he represents all that people wish they could or would do. He can fly, and he has the charisma and the power to save anyone he wishes with or without having to connect emotionally. He simply saves people out of personal responsibility as a son and because, to his mind, it is the only right thing to do. This is precisely why his father sent him to Earth: the faint hope that he can drive a civilization to excel. Jor-El tells his son that “If Krypton hadn’t fallen, I could embrace you in my arms, my son.” It is the simple wish that other families won’t have to endure such loss that keeps Superman focused on his mission to prevent humanity from suffering the same fate as Krypton.
Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and power are needed — but always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage.
Your being is both separate and your own, but I have caused your earthly presence and must share responsibility for your actions. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all — their capacity for good — I have sent them you. My only son.
This is an extended excerpt from the famous speech Jor-El gives his son, in the form of a holographic image floating in the vast space of his Fortress of Solitude. Over the next 75 years, counting onwards from his creation in 1938, Superman became a vast success for DC Comics, and an example for what an ultimate human being should be like. This is why people enjoy these stories — as they do love stories, for that matter. They inspire them and show them that it is all right to be cheesy every once in a while as long as you stay true to your own word. At one point, there was a story in which Superman died, which was only one scenario from many alternative universes. Superman has superpowers, yes, but he is as vulnerable as anyone is because his heart can feel love and hatred. More than supernatural abilities it is the altruism and the sacrifice of these characters that people admire.
As such, the mythology of superheroes gives a fascinating insight into dreams and aspirations of humanity. They reflect the needs, wants, and hopes of real life. Though they have a supernatural nature, all of them are, at heart, connected with the human spirit.
Nietzsche might have called him Übermensch — though, for his taste, Superman might have been too optimistic and not distanced enough from his mortal cohabitants on Earth. Superman may have been the first true superhero in the way that we understand the word today. Superman is also a close facsimile of Jesus Christ, at least in the character’s more recent iterations. He is not a savior sent by any God, but simply an incarnation of human spirituality: an idealized human being.
CC licensed Flickr photo by CavinB