I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking, “Meredith, I can’t believe what I’m reading – Batman is so cool, his name is literally synonymous with JUSTICE. And Superman? He’s just so, you know, basic. He can do anything, defeat anything, and even with kryptonite, he’s so boring. You’re a writer; you understand, right?”
Listen to me: Batman is a dweeb who literally can’t stop naming things after bats. Batmobile. Batcave. Bat signal. Face it, nerds, your favorite hero can’t even look in a thesaurus or a city zoo to find another animal to pattern his entire life after. So much for the brooding vigilante archetype.
And as for Superman, I’m out to blow your mind as I explain to you why he’s my favorite superhero of all time. But to do that, we’re going to have to go…BACK IN TIME.
It’s 1933. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both children of Jewish immigrants, are still in high school when Siegel writers “The Reign of Superman,” which was originally the story of a villain. In time, however, Superman evolved into a superhero, eventually published in 1938 by Detective Comics (DC). (However, despite Superman’s success, Siegel and Shuster saw practically none of the sudden windfall from their venture, but that’s a tragic story for another day).
Aside from the brief history lesson, the creation of Superman seems like an interesting, albeit bland, piece of pop culture. But, as I soon discovered after researching and reading other articles after recently rediscovering my love for the man of steel, the origins of Superman are more culturally significant than you would think (also, on an unrelated note, but one that I absolutely had to include, modern scientists have postulated that realistically, due to the constant exposure to the source of his powers, if Superman actually existed, he probably would have been black. Sorry, Henry Cavill.).
First of all, both Siegel and Shuster were familiar with the worldwide Jewish diaspora, especially as Hitler and Nazism began to rise to power in Europe. Antisemitism had always been popular, ever since before the Middle Ages, but Siegel and Shuster were inspired by their Jewish heritage to write a character that displayed three key values of the Jewish faith: truth, justice, and peace (although obviously, the best was to bring about peace is through conflict – go figure). Presented in the figure of an alien, the last of his race in a strange land, it isn’t difficult to trace the threads of Jewish history found in Superman’s backstory.
The story of Superman even mirrors that of several Old Testament and the Tanakh, starting with the story of Moses. Moses was sent down the Nile river in a basket as a baby by his mother to avoid certain death; Superman, or Kal-El, was sent down from the planet Krypton after being placed in a spaceship by his parents to avoid certain death. Moses eventually ran off into the wilderness and came back wielding the power of God; Kal-El came to earth with God-like powers, courtesy of our yellow sun.
Siegel and Shuster were also inspired by the story of Samson, who was almost the original Superman, with an even worse weakness than Superman. He had been blessed by God with superhuman strength, which he eventually lost after getting a haircut(granted, his barber was a beautiful woman, so whether or his real weakness was his lack of hair or his sinfulness goes hand in hand). At least Superman could get a buzz-cut without fear of becoming powerless like the rest of us.
One could even point out how Superman could be a direct reference to the concept of the Jewish messiah, or even to the figure of Jesus Christ (as pop culture has already explained for me). But there are even more examples of Superman’s inherent Jewishness to be discovered, like the fact that he wears a symbol across his chest that is constantly misinterpreted because it looks like something it’s not (that’s not an S on his chest, that’s Kal-El’s family crest, signifying hope, which mirrors the frequent misinterpretation of the Star of David, but I digress.). Even Superman’s real name is Jewish: Kal-El translates directly to “the voice of God.”
So let’s review for a moment, because we’re still got a long way to go: the modern myth of Superman has direct correlation with the narrative of the Jewish people.
But what about his “alter ego?” What about Clark Kent?
You see, here’s where we get into some interesting differences between the mythos of Superman and the mythos of Batman. The thing about Batman is, almost all of his significant relationships stem from the fact that he’s Batman, not because his real name is Bruce Wayne. When Batman is Bruce Wayne, he’s constantly fooling the people around him, putting on an act of being a playboy, a Tony-Stark, a man who doesn’t care about the wellbeing of Gotham City. But when Batman is Batman, he flirts with Catwoman, he fights the Joker, he adopts three different proteges as Robin (with often disastrous results, but what do you expect from a guy who runs around his basement at midnight making bat puns?).
Superman, on the other hand, is just a face. Yes, he has the powers of a God, but who do his friends know him as? Clark Kent. Clark Kent is the one who’s friends with Jimmy Olsen, who works under Perry White, who’s in love with Lois Lane. Superman has no one – he sits in his Fortress of Solitude and waits for desperate cries for help. Clark Kent is the one with a family, Clark Kent is the one with friends. We always think of Clark Kent hiding behind his glasses, when in reality, Superman seems to be his real mask.
So if Bruce Wayne is Batman’s mask, and Clark Kent’s mask is Superman, what does that even mean?
It means that Clark Kent, the mild-mannered bumbling reporter, is the one who lives out Superman’s morals daily. Yes, he lies to protect his identity, and just like Bruce Wayne, he does his own fair share of play-acting, but it’s only to take care of the people he loves. And it’s Clark Kent’s inherent goodness, his ingrained morality, which threatens his loved ones most of all.
Buckle in, kids. This is about to get real.
Many people like to compare and contrast Batman versus Superman (see what I did there?) in terms of the means to their ends. Batman tends to kill his adversaries, whereas Superman usually tries (and sometimes fails) not to. Batman doesn’t really have any superpowers, and a few of his villains don’t either, but he usually gets the job done. Superman’s adversaries, however, tend to be a little less straightforward.
Take, for example, Superman’s archnemesis Lex Luthor. In most of the comics, Lex has no superpowers, only occasionally wearing a Warsuit that enhances his natural abilities, and yet he’s Superman’s most dangerous enemy.
Because Lex Luthor represents THE SYSTEM.
Lex Luthor doesn’t walk into the middle of Metropolis and start shooting people like the Joker. Lex Luthor organizes crime rings; Lex Luthor funds scientific experiments to create superhumans; Lex Luthor does respectable business. Lex Luthor uses other people for his dirty work and somehow keeps his own hands clean.
And Superman can’t do a thing about it.
Because of course Superman knows Lex Luthor is evil. This isn’t Lois Lane we’re talking about (you brave, capable, clueless woman); Clark knows exactly what’s going on, but his hands are tied. If Lex Luthor came at him with a knife, a gun, even a stapler, he would have just cause to fight him, but if Lex Luthor isn’t linked to any of the crimes, how can Superman take action against him?
He can’t, and that’s the point. Lex Luthor, the bald, rich white man who holds all of the power, cannot be stopped unless he makes a mistake or unless Superman betrays his core values of justice (which of course, begs the questions that if Superman values justice so much, why didn’t Clark join the police force? Because men like Lex Luthor own the police force; corruption in Metropolis runs that deep.).
And of course, if Superman can’t even defeat Lex Luthor, who looks as dangerous as a half-gallon of spoiled milk, then what’s going to stop Lex or his other enemies from taking his loved ones and using them as bait, leverage, or blackmail?
Which conveniently brings me to my next point: Lois Lane(who is not, in fact, so much a damsel in distress as she is a busybody who literally can’t stay out of anybody’s business.). She is Superman’s greatest weakness, even more so than kryptonite, because although that can break his body, only Lois can break his heart. She is the love of Clark Kent’s life, and he would do literally anything to keep her safe.
Even at the cost of his own morality.
It’s inherently selfish. It stands in direct contrast to everything Superman is supposed to stand for. He would risk the welfare of the greater good for one headstrong, nosy reporter, and do it over and over again (although he does usually find a way to save both, thankfully). In every situation, Superman chooses her.
The truth is, kryptonite isn’t even Superman’s kryptonite: his real kryptonite is the deep and constant conflict between his morality and his humanity.
“But Meredith!” you say. “That’s my inherent struggle, too!”
That’s because Superman doesn’t really represent God, no matter what the media says: he represents the every man. Clark Kent, an alien from another planet, who is faster than planes, trains, and speeding bullets, is just like us. He tries his best to do what is right, he fails, and then he tries again, a universal symbol of hope.
Batman’s narrative, in my opinion, has always displayed more godlike themes than Superman’s. If Superman’s story is one of morality and humanity, then Batman’s is one of the balance between revenge, justice, and mercy. This is the crux of the issue: Superman has the power of a god, but Batman is the one who acts like one.
To conclude: Superman, who might be best described culturally as a black Jew, represents the ideals of a persecuted race while displaying the virtues and vices of a man trying his best to protect and promote humanity. He is a messiah figure, he is a message of hope in an otherwise Batman-centric universe, and he is one of us.
Now what’s so boring about that?