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Superman's real identity: America's everyman

Since he landed in Kansas, the Man of Steel has reflected the values of the United States and its changing times.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2006



HOLLYWOOD

The nation's first superhero is back on the big screen, and in true movie-star style, he's had a bit of a makeover. The insignia is smaller and the snappy shorts are tighter. Although 26-year-old Brandon Routh is the same age as Christopher Reeve was when he first assumed the red mantle in 1978, the new Man of Steel looks younger. (Eat your hearts out, mere mortals.) And in a crowning special-effects moment, the signature dark curl on Superman's forehead finally flutters when he flies.

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But while the cut of the cape may change, certain essentials about the crusader remain from his creation in 1938. Through more than six decades of life in the comics, radio, TV, and movies, his basic moral code of doing good for its own sake has been unwavering. And, perhaps more important, while he may see Clark Kent in his daily mirror, when he peers into his heart and soul, Superman's real secret identity is America itself.

"He's very American," says Brad Ricca, lecturer at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. From the creation of our country, Mr. Ricca explains, the US has had a healthy tradition of looking to men who embody the nation, people like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. These figures have personified all that's good and patriotic about America. Of course, Superman is fiction, but, adds Ricca, "those men have been fictionalized, too."

An alien among us

Equally important, the Man of Steel is the ultimate immigrant, created by two shy Jewish teenagers from Cleveland. These Depression-era boys, Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster, were science-fiction fans from immigrant families who poured their own anxieties about being outsiders into an idealized superfigure from another planet.

"He comes from somewhere else, and goes through a rebirth on a new planet," says Gareth Barkin, assistant professor of media anthropology at Centre College in Danville, Ky. This godlike origin story, with echoes of Greco-Roman mythology as well as the births of Moses and Jesus, reinforces the idea that American values of truth, liberty, and justice are universal, because they come from above. This emphasis on cosmic ideals from the heavens is significant because the US is the only nation based on an idea, rather than geography; it has philosophical rather than national roots. "This turning to figures like Superman, with an inalienable moral center," says Mr. Barkin, "is how the US sees itself and, in its heart, distinguishes itself from other nations."

Even the question of "Who am I?" that Superman must face when Ma and Pa Kent reveal his true origin is fundamentally American. "This question of, 'What do I symbolize, what do I stand for,' " says Michael Uslan, executive producer of the Batman movies, "this is something the Founding Fathers were doing by asking, 'What is the essence of this new country, America?' " Thus, he adds, Superman's perpetual fight to feel at home in his earthly costume has mirrored America's own struggle to define its role in the world.

Battling Nazis and Lex Luthor

For Kal-El, the boy who fell from Krypton, this has meant an endless stream of costume changes, not to mention an expanding – and occasionally shrinking – menu of superpowers. (After all, if you can juggle planets in space, what challenge is left?) The son of Jor-El was little more than a superthug when he began, using threats and implied violence against Depression-era malcontents such as wife beaters and corrupt politicians.

"The key aspects of the comic clearly resonated for that time period," says Joseph Darowski, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University writing his thesis on the evolution of superheroes. "Superman could be seen as the New Deal government that would come and fix everyone's problems while Clark Kent, with all his insecurities, was like the people who had lost all their confidence and [had] become emasculated."

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