Superman: What You Need to Know Before You See the Movie

This is probably the nerdiest thing ever, but I’m about to share a research paper I wrote about the cultural significance of Superman in the twentieth century. It’s pretty long, so I doubt anyone will actually read it. But hey, I added some pictures. And it’s skimmable if you’re too lazy like me. Topic sentences were required so you could just read those. I just felt obliged to share, what with the new movie coming out. But I digress…

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The conditions were never more suitable for the birth of a superhero than the year 1938. America stood at the crossroads of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II, faced with political and social chaos. Americans, low in morale, desperately needed a source of inspiration and strength. Fittingly, that year, DC Comics, then known as Detective Comics, published the first issue of Action Comics, featuring the debut of Superman. In 1938, Superman, lifting a damaged car up out of chaos, made his first mark on the world. Since then, the superhero blazed his way through the twentieth century and inspired Americans through his defense of “truth, justice, and the American way.” In response, twentieth-century America rallied behind this new, indestructible American crusader. Superman served as the American myth that reinforced American ideals while reflecting the different aspects of, as well as changes in, American society.

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Superman became the myth that embodied and inspired the American spirit. David Newman, a screenwriter who helped write the first three original Superman films and the Broadway play, implied that Superman is to America as King Arthur is to England (Friedrich). Like all myths, he served as a key role in society by simplifying complex issues into understandable conflicts and then presenting a solution to address them. Mythology, such as Superman, is “a complex of narratives that dramatizes the world vision and historical sense of culture, reducing centuries of experience into a constellation of compelling metaphors” (Slotkin 6). Superman made the complexities of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War easier to understand by reducing them to the basic conflict of good versus evil. He presented himself and the country as the good force in the universe and through his battles and adventures he conquered the evils of corruption and communism. Besides boiling down convoluted problems, myths like Superman also gave “a scenario or prescription for action, defining and limiting the possibilities for human response to the universe” (Slotkin 7). He provided an example of how Americans should think like and what they should strive to do if they wanted to solve the problems, both individual and national, of the twentieth century.

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Furthermore, building on his role as the American legend, Superman acted as a non-secular idol for American society. At first, his Christ-like qualities may pass overlooked, but with closer inspection they become almost glaringly obvious. Newman, the screenwriter, says, “It begins with a father who lives up in heaven, who says, ‘I will send my only son to save earth.’ The son takes on the guise of a man but is not a man. The religious overtones are so clear” (Friedrich). Superman’s story as a son sent by his father, the Kryptonian scientist Jor-El, who goes on to save humanity starkly resembles the story of Christ. Furthermore, his actions and adventures teach morals to American citizens, functioning like Christ’s miracles and lesson-filled parables. Still others believe Superman is an angel and that “it is no accident that when [he] is in full flight, his flared collar and flowing cape resemble wings” (Friedrich). Both angelic and god-like, Superman has a divine aura about him that separated him from other idols and heroes of the time period.

He came at a time when Americans needed a change from mortal heroes to superheroes. Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, explains how “America, in the midst of the Great Depression, became aware of the fragility of monomythic illusion…Real-life heroes proved too fragile to meet the responsibilities of a true American monomythic superhero” (Tye). While old American heroes of politicians and icons, like Theodore Roosevelt and Babe Ruth, proved vulnerable to the adversities every American faced at the time, the Man of Steel represented an invincible and uplifting new alternative. Where religion and politics failed, Superman redeemed the dreams of the common man and “showed us all how wide the sky can be” (Lang). Superman acted as the Christ figure for Americans during the twentieth century, teaching them fundamental American morals and saving them from the destruction and harm of the era’s political upheaval.

Through his actions and message, Superman represented and reinforced American ideals. He embodied “all the values that Americans cherished in the 1930s…For Superman, truth was not an abstract concept but the blueprint for action” (Tye).  The foundations of his morals directly mirrored those of America’s and included individual dignity and egalitarianism. Superman attacked each of his foes with these principles in mind, reinforcing them into the tired morale of twentieth-century Americans. In the words of Christopher Reeves, who played Superman in recent movie adaptations of the character, Superman inspired in people “the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand difficulty and to turn your back on it” (Friedrich). While Reeves was referring to modern audiences of the Superman movies, Superman as a source of inspiration was just as relevant for twentieth-century America, if not more.  He helped carry Americans through the Great Depression and World War II, boosting their confidence and prompting them to take action.

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In the context of World War II, Superman advocated American equality and justice while shaping public opinion about the war and Axis powers. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators and writers behind the comic book character, used Superman as a form of war propaganda. Not only did they make Superman push for the American principles of democracy abroad, they portrayed the “Axis menace” in the enemies Superman fought. They used Superman to shape people’s perceptions of the Axis powers, including the Nazis and Japanese, by presenting them as deformed, evil villains and by making racially inferior references to them (Murphy). Illustrations in the comics drew on “stereotypic images of Japan popular at the time: Japanese as de-personalized, diminutive, sub-human creatures with fangs and yellow skin…a foe scarcely worth Superman’s time” (Munson). The comics featured stories of Superman defeating various “Japanazi” enemies, showing their injuries and wounds while Superman escaped without a scratch or hair out of place. Superman helped to emphasize American dominance and undermine the power of foreign opponents.

During the Great Depression, Superman catered to the needs of a struggling society, offering hope and strength. Because of his background as an orphan, Superman embodied the intrinsic urge of Americans to make something of themselves (Engle). He provided an example for those hit hard by the Depression to rise above their situations and to keep working for something better. “The Depression enlivened the American dream that anyone could make it, and that’s what Superman did” (Friedrich). Once again, the writers of Superman adapted to a society facing an economic depression and in the midst of entering a world war. “They leveled the playing field for Superman, upped the action, and escalated the escapism” (Tye). During a bleak cultural climate in America, Superman offered people an escape from difficult circumstances and a motivation to push forward.

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People could relate to Superman since he reflected both the typical, all-American social class and the inherent aspect of immigration in American society. For example, Superman’s disguise as Clark Kent symbolized mainstream, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans (Engle). Clark, raised by a typical middle-class family in twentieth-century America, represented a significant cultural component of American society. Along with the Kents, Clark embodied those Americans of the suburban Sunbelt. However, this part of the superhero paled in comparison to Superman’s true identity as an immigrant from outer space. “The myth of Superman asserts with total confidence and a childlike innocence the value of the immigrant in American culture” (Engle). After the Immigration and Nationality Act of1965, as immigration and multiple cultures increased in America, themes of cultural assimilation versus embracing one’s heritage became much more prominent. Superman’s situation closely reflected the situation of immigrants to America, and he revealed the tensions and issues these immigrants faced.

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As an alien from outer space, Superman empathized with immigrants’ feelings of displacement. Moreover, in the words of John Byrne, a screenwriter who created Superman comics during the 1980s, he resembled the “ultimate American success story – a foreigner who comes to America, and is more successful here than he would ever be anywhere else” (qtd. in Friedrich). Gary Engle, editor of Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend, describes Superman as “the consummate and totally uncompromised alien, an immigrant whose visible difference from the norm is underscored by his decision to wear a costume of bold primary colors so tight as to be his very skin” (Engle).  Therefore, the Kryptonian pride of Superman supported the growing cultural pluralism in America. It reflected the sense of heritage that immigrants felt and embraced when they established ethnic communities in American cities. Superman, with his “ironclad immunity to the anxiety of dislocation,” appealed to immigrants and Americans from all backgrounds that shared this feeling of cultural displacement (Engle).

However, the Clark Kent in Superman also mirrored the cultural assimilation and dual identity many immigrants faced. “The shape-shifting between Clark Kent and Superman is the means by which this mid-twentieth-century, urban story…addresses in dramatic terms the theme of cultural assimilation” (Engle). Without Clark Kent, Superman could not truly capture the situation of an American immigrant. Clark Kent represented the “consummate figure of total cultural assimilation” (Engle). As Superman shifted between Kent and his true alien identity he perfectly mirrored the way immigrants transitioned between their own ethnic backgrounds and new American culture. Immigrants to America balanced the act of preserving their heritage with that of assimilating into American society. Superman and Clark Kent seamlessly embodied this phenomenon and reflected the important role that immigration has played in America.

By reading the Superman comic books, one can learn much about the culture of American society in the mid-twentieth century. His message of American egalitarianism, his immigrant status, his incorruptible purity, these and many more qualities explain why Superman grew into something much more than a comic book character. He became the American myth, representing the trials, triumphs, and culture of a formative era for our nation. Through the Great Depression, World War II, and the beginnings of the Cold War, Superman led America with his super strength, x-ray vision, and power to fly. From little boys to soldiers on the battlefield, the Man of Steel inspired and appealed to many, giving them confidence in America and spreading a message of hope. He has changed to fit the times and each succeeding era has interpreted him differently, but Superman has undeniably altered American culture since the very start.

Thoughts or comments? Does the new movie, Man of Steel, have a different take on Superman?

Works Cited

Tye, Larry. Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. New York: Random: Random, 2012. Print.

Engle, Gary. “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend. Ed. Gary Engle and Dennis Dooley. Cleveland: Octavia, 1987. 79-87. American Studies at the University of Virginia. Web. 28 May 2013.

Friedrich, Otto. “Show Business: Up, Up and Awaaay!!!” Time 14 Mar. 1988: n. pag. Time Magazine. Web. 28 May 2013.

Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero.” Journal of Popular Culture (1988): 157-73. Concordia University-Wisconsin Department of History. Web. 24 May 2013.

“Man and Superman.” Tomorrow’s Morning 11 Mar. 1996: 2. SIRS Discoverer. Web. 24 May 2013.

Munson, Todd S. “‘Superman Says You Can Slap a Jap!’ The Man of Steel and Race Hatred.” Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing Times. Ed. Joseph Darwoski. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 5-15. Print.

Murphy, Keith. “Comic Books.” World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 22 May 2013.

Slotkin, Richard. “Mythogenesis.” Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. N.p.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973. 6-14. Print.


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