What Superman Means

As a kid, I tried to make sure that I was always wearing clean underwear. I didn’t do this out of some innate sense of cleanliness; I did it because I was sure I was going to be whisked away by a Jedi Knight or a wizard from Lord of the Rings at any moment.

As a kid, as I say, I had a very clear sense of my destiny, and my destiny did not involve elementary school, where I was mercilessly teased for being a glasses-wearing geekazoid with a wussy name. …No, I was sure that at any moment, things would change. The Jedi or the wizard would arrive on the school playground during recess and scan eagerly around, until he located me — me out of all the kids. “Are you Oliver?” the Jedi would say. “Oliver Miller? Mm; I thought so, just checking. Well, come along then. …The galaxy needs you.” And then I would be whisked away in a spaceship, while the bullies and the popular kids stared and gaped with envious awe. I could visualize it all so clearly.

…So, and the point of the clean underwear was that it might be days or weeks before I got my new Jedi/ wizard uniform (the journey to the distant land might take a while), and I wanted to be as clean and neatly-pressed as I could be when I began my new life.

Anyway, all of this is why I have always identified with Superman.

_____

Yeah, there are more interesting superheroes than Superman. As an acne-scarred geek, I have always identified with Spider-Man, who is definitely more accessible and approachable-seeming than the Man of Steel. And I have always secretly longed to be tough and cool like Wolverine or Batman. But as a symbol and as a metaphor, Superman is the most important hero of all to me.

I’m a half-hearted Jew, so Superman has always made sense to me on an instinctive level, since he was created by two Jews. The latest Superman movie tried to make him into a kind of Christ-like figure, but no, he’s a Jew. It’s a Jewish story. A child from a distant land arrives in America, and is taught to hide his true identity. He moves to New York, of all places, gets a job working in the media, and lusts after an unattainable shiska. That’s the story of a million Jewish immigrants; but Superman means much more than all of that.

“…Your name is Kal-El. You are the only survivor of the planet Krypton. Even though you’ve been raised as a human being, you are not one of them. You have great powers, only some of which you have as yet discovered.” Those are Jor-El’s first words to his son; his speech to Kal-El/ Superman, years after his son has arrived on planet Earth. He’s been raised by a kindly couple from Kansas — Jonathan and Martha Kent. They have given him the name Clark Kent, but that is not Kal-El’s real name.

Even though you have been raised as a human being, you are not one of them. Could there be a more universal statement of otherness? As humans, we are unique in feeling apart from things. Dogs accept their… dog-ishness, for lack of a better word. Cats accept their cat-ishness. And so on for every other species on this planet. Humans are unique, because we can stand in the middle of a crowd, and still feel lonely. No other species can feel like that. And as humans, we all feel a sense of terminal uniqueness. We all feel special, and so thus we all feel apart. Paradoxically, this is what unites us, and this is why Superman speaks to me as a metaphor. He symbolizes the feeling of apartness, and also our secret belief in our own awesomeness — the belief that I experienced as a child, as I waited on the playground for wizards to whisk me away, and to teach me my true destiny. It never happened, but I never stopped believing in it.

_____

Superman is unique among superheroes because he is the reverse of other superheroes. This has been pointed out many times before. Batman’s true identity is Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy. Spider-Man’s true identity is Peter Parker, geeky teenager. But Superman’s true identity is Superman. The “costume” that he wears is not a costume — the red cape, the chest medallion, the boots, the belt; those are his normal clothes. When Superman dresses up and pretends, he pretends to be a normal human being; but he is not one.

We all feel like this. Every day, when we schlep off to work, wearing our foolish work clothes — we all feel this way. We feel as though we are wearing a disguise in our jobs, our relationships, even in our interactions with, say, a barista at Starbucks. We jealously hide our true, secret nature, because the world cannot know who we truly are. And why? Because the world couldn’t handle the truth.

And Superman enacts the same ritual as we do, each and every day. He could be living in a crystal palace on the North Pole. He could fly to Jupiter, or burrow through the Earth’s core to China. Instead, he plays his role as a schlubby human. He enacts the role of “Clark Kent.” He puts on the tired work suit, the busted wingtip shoes, the boring tie and the ugly glasses, and gets on the subway and rides off to his fake job as a reporter.

But inside, Superman has secret powers, because we all do. He is separate and special and different — because we all are. Even though he has been raised as a human being, he is not one of them. We are all Not One of Them. We are all Uniquely Us —  just like Superman. And that’s what Superman means; and that’s why Superman matters. TC mark

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  • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

    Depends on which version of the character you’re talking about, you could argue that if he was raised by Jon and Martha, he is Clark Kent first and Superman second, for it’s their values, the fact that he’s the man they taught everything to, who shines through in Superman’s actions. The movies  (and the most recent version in the comics) kind of lose that part.

    I always saw it as Clark Kent being the man, Superman the power set.

    Also, dorkiest comment I’ve ever made on Thought Catalog.

  • Maja

    Never thought of looking at Superman from this angle. Great analysis. Fun, too :)

  • http://twitter.com/JacqValencia Jacqueline Valencia

    You hit the nail on the head with this post. Thanks for writing it. I also, agree with Emil before me, but either way Superman stands apart because of his unique condition. We all have unique conditions. 

  • Michaelwg

    I understand that Bruce Wayne was born Bruce Wayne and not with a mask and cape; I get it, but if we are talking about persona, what makes him tick, what occupies his thoughts and how he acts when no one is around. Well then I would argue that Bruce Wayne the foppish billionaire is the costume, the false identity, the play acting. Batman is his true self. (P.S I do not feel cool in any way after having wrote this…I need to date more…)

    • Oliver Miller

      You should date more!  People are out there!  I get the play-acting bit — especially in, say, the Frank Miller comics/Nolan movies — but I find it hard to imagine that Bruce Wayne would argue that Batman is his “normal” life.  Whereas Kal-El has to make a specific decision to pretend to be a human, with fake glasses, etc; and there’s always the constant threat of him exposing his true self, by accidentally revealing his super-strength, etc. … But it’s arguable, sure.

  • Oliver Miller

    I was going to try to get a firstie, but I guess I’m too late.  Anyway, semi-related question to the article:  am I alone in thinking that “Superman Returns” was an underrated movie?  Brandon Routh is really good, and he has a tough row to hoe, what with following up Christopher Reeves.  Kevin Spacey is really good!  Parker Posey!  And, um, Kate Bosworth does a highly serviceable job of looking hot and reciting her lines poorly.

    • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

       I really enjoyed Brandon Routh as Superman, and even more so as Clark. Sadly the only part of the movie that I rewatch is the airplane scene (because AWESOME) and the credits for the Superman song (because there is no better.)

      • Oliver Miller

        The airplane scene is weird, because why does Superman think grabbing the wings of the plane will accomplish anything?

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

         Why does he think going around the world faster and faster will rewind time? Why are you questioning Superman?

      • Oliver Miller

        But he’s flying faster than LIGHT; that would work.  The question is:  why doesn’t he just rewind time when anything goes wrong ever?

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

         And really, if he were traveling back in time, why didn’t he do it before the damn dam was blown up? It’s the whole “Kirk and Picard travel through time in the nick of time” argument again.

      • Oliver Miller

        I love the part where he reassures the crowd that airplanes are still the safest form of travel.  …That’s so Superman.

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

         Statistically speaking, of course.

    • Ben Empey

      Meh.

    • Shinki_kiitsu

      I liked it too, Oliver. Certainly I am aware of the film’s shortcomings, but Routh did an excellent job of connecting it to the earlier films by making his performance Reeves-esque. Bottom line is, when I walked outside after the movie I felt uplifted. Actually, I felt like I was a considerably better person than I was when I entered. The whole week afterward I was abnormally positive. I don’t remember any other movie affecting me like that.

  • http://twitter.com/annie_roo annie

    Why did this read as one of the best motivational speeches ever? Hold on while I go put my homemade cape on so I can wear it around the house like a badass. 

    • Oliver Miller

      I mean, if you just watch the second video with the full Superman song, you’ll feel great for like a half hour afterwards.  I do that all the time.  All… the time.

      • http://twitter.com/annie_roo annie

        I tried this. It worked. Had a champion thirty-seven and one half minutes

  • http://twitter.com/MissKimball misskimball

    I get the sensible stuff at the end but I still believe I have a secret birthright with special powers and crossing over thresholds and shit

  • Anonymous

    My first foray into the Internet was a Superman messageboard. Oh yeeeeah. Very nice look into the icon, Oliver. <3

  • http://raymondthimmes.com/ Raymond Thimmes

    Bruce Wayne is my favorite because he gets to be Christian Bale.

  • http://twitter.com/galette_rois Julian Galette

    Have you ever even read a Superman comic? Unless we’re talking Silver Age where Superman went out of his way to parody humanity, pretty much every Superman comic written since either of us was born has displayed the exact opposite of what you wrote about.

    And I hate Tarantino for inflicting that rumination on Superman onto the world.

    But I do see what you’re getting at and I think there were better ways you could have gotten there.

    • Oliver Miller

      Tarantino was just ripping off Jules Feiffer who pointed it out decades ago.

      • http://twitter.com/galette_rois Julian Galette

        I plan on checking out his book, never heard of him before.

      • Oliver Miller

        He’s awesome.  He used to help draw “The Spirit,” etc.

  • Tiffany

    Remember when that girl thought I was secretly in love with you because I said Olives were my favorite food?

    • Oliver Miller

      Try and stay on topic, Tiffers.

      • Tiffany

        I was. You linked to your old name article and I read that one instead. Supermaazzzzzzzzzz

  • uptown1train

    Oliver, I appreciate your analysis of Superman, but I strongly disagree with your conclusions.

    Superman is, above all else, Clark Kent. There is a reason he didn’t end up trying to take over the earth like General Zod: he is a farm boy from Kansas raised by two loving parents who instilled in him American ideals and a gargantuan sense of responsibility. He has no memory of life on Krypton or of his birth parents; all he knows is Smallville and Martha and Jonathan Kent. He is like most other adopted babies: products of their environment. Superman is just a costume he puts on to fight crime and save the world. Being Superman is a burden for him. The movie Superman Returns does a nice job of exploring this burden. I loved the scene when he’s racing at hyperspeed around the city trying to do everything and save everyone, but not even Superman can do it all. In the end, the burden almost kills him. It’s hard being Superman. It would be a lot easier for him to show up to the office each day, write his news stories, marry Lois, and buy a nice retirement farm back home in Kansas.

    Batman, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Bruce Wayne was a normal kid until his parents were murdered in front of him. In that moment, he lost his humanity and became Batman. He threw himself into years of discipline and training. He doesn’t know how to be normal; he’d prefer to wear the cape and cowl all the time. Instead, he has to wear a metaphorical “Bruce Wayne”  mask every day,  put on his business suit and run board meetings at Wayne Enterprises. He’s much more comfortable staking out gargoyles on roof tops throughout the seediest ghettos of Gotham City late into the night.

    • Oliver Miller

      He has plenty of memories of his parents; he spends seven years doing nothing but talking to the ghost of his real father — before that, he’s just a confused dork.

      In Superman, being Clark Kent is presented as sort of an exhausting burden.  If he revealed his true nature to Lois, she’d fall in love with him, and he’d have a better life — but he can’t do that.  In Batman, being Batman is the thing that keeps him from having a normal life.  They’re the reverse of each other, I think.

  • Steve

    Where the hell are the singing cats?

    • Oliver Miller

      The nyan nyan cat is readily available on Youtube.  Also:  what?

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    […] it’s Superman! Whom some of us have always preferred to Batman. But most people aren’t as into Superman as I am. …Over time, Superman has […]

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    […] it’s Superman! Whom some of us have always preferred to Batman. But most people aren’t as into Superman as I am. …Over time, Superman has […]

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