I’ve got Superman on the brain, folks.
While I am more widely known as a Batman devotee, I enjoy the Last Son of Krypton as well. Next week comes Man of Steel, so it’s time for the Superman fans to shine.
I also have been reading Superman comics off-and-on for the past 20 years, and watching the DC Animated projects over the years. I am hoping that we finally have the modern Superman movie.
There’s a lot to like about Superman.
Of course, the grab bag of superpowers. The parallels and contrasts of his Kryptonian parents versus his Earth ones. The preponderance of the letter L: the family El, Lana Lang and Lois Lane, Lex Luthor. The impossible physics of Superman that actual scientists have tried to explain, such as how he can hold up a plane rather than slicing straight through it because he’s far stronger structurally.
My favorite Superman moves: When criminals on the 1950s TV show would, after emptying their guns at Superman, throw it at him in terror. Any time Superman spins himself so fast that he turns himself into a drill bit that can bore through solid rock. Punching at lightning bolts. Picking up two cars and smashing them together on a supervillain. When he uses his super-brain to put together information like 10,000 cray computers working together.
As a blerd adult, there are two big parts of the Superman story that resonate more than anything: his restraint, and his sense of heritage.
We all know Superman’s powers. He has a ton of them and set the tone for all subsequent superpowers: flight, speed, X-ray vision, heat vision, invulnerability, strength, ice breath, intellect.
But to me, Superman’s greatest power is restraint.
As any world-class achiever will tell you, it’s all mental. They mean that whatever your gifts, there’s a presence of mind and a way of thinking that goes into producing at a high level and overcoming challenges. Mental toughness is key.
Superman must have a superhuman amount of mental toughness. He lives in a world where everything can turn to splinters at his touch. All everyday actions – turning a door handle, sitting on a couch, running for the subway – carry the potential for destruction and disaster.
Think of how you lose sight of your own strength when emotional. When you see a loved one after a long absence, and you run into their arms and damn near tackle the person. Superman can’t do that.
He’s always holding back. He can’t even shout at a football game, lest he deafen everyone and blow the stadium apart.
He holds back even with most of his super-powered villains. Superman doesn’t quite know what will hurt a little, hurt a lot, or destroy beyond all recognition. Not exactly the way I’d want to operate in a fistfight.
No wonder he gets punched around a lot.
Because of all this restraint and self-control, it’s all the more awesome when Superman lets loose. When Superman is mad as hell and isn’t gonna take it anymore? Woe betide thee. The most famous of super-freakouts in the comics is the classic “Burn” showdown versus Mongul, unleashing the fiercest wave of heat vision committed to paper.
I also am particularly found of DC Animated’s saga of Superman versus Darkseid, in which over years of cartoons, Superman is nothing but a ball of rage anytime Darkseid shows up. Out of all the epic showdowns, this speech by Supes in the series finale of Justice League Unlimited sums it all up.
And all that restraint, all that self-control in a cardboard world, happens under the pressure of living two identities and an unresolved heritage.
Superman can be viewed many ways: Moses allegory, Christian allegory, a meditation on American power. The immigration story is another of those enduring themes: Leaving one home and one name to pick up another one in America. For Siegel and Schuster, a pair of Jewish kids in 1938, the Hebrew-sounding Kal-El becomes the Anglo-sounding Clark Kent in America.
The strength of his heritage is woven with his new land’s way of life to create a symbol spanning both places, both identities.
As a black man, I think of how Superman lives a life in double-consciousness and the aspects of majority-minority relations in his story. Because Superman was raised as a human, Clark Kent is no disguise. Kill Bill had it wrong. Clark Kent is as real as Kal-El, if not more, because that is the life Superman has lived. He did not grow up being Kal-El.
In some ways, Superman may yearn for his ancestral home. But he doesn’t truly know it, and never can, because it’s gone. As a descendent of Africans enslaved and stolen to America, I have an idea of what it’s like to think of how things might have been. What my name might have been. Of wanting to know who else share’s my blood, an ocean away, and that I may never truly know.
As the descendent of unwilling immigrants, I’ve always been a tiny bit jealous of people who can claim their exact heritage and lineage. So much harder with Afro-Americans, especially when family doesn’t want to talk about the past and dig up centuries of pain, deprivation and degradation.
At least Superman has his exact heritage as Kal-El, son of Jor-El. At least he can go to his Fortress of Solitude and learn about his people. He’ll never know it firsthand, but he’ll know it.
And in his case, his Kryptonian heritage literally empowers him and encases him in an unbreakable shield, protecting and emboldening his human heart and ideals.
Ultimately, Clark Kent had to learn of his Kryptonian self to become Superman, just as Superman needed Clark’s human life to ground Kal-El. By knowing both worlds, Superman took the best of them and forged ahead in his own unique identity for the world to see.
For that alone, he is an inspiration.