Superman: An American Myth in the Movies

Superman is an embodiment of classic American myths. He is the small town boy who comes to the big city to make a place for himself, yet never forgets his roots. He is the self-made man who can rise to become the best at his job, yet does not become corrupted. He is the man who gives up everything for the woman he loves. He is the legendary champion of Democracy: the mythic hero fighting a “never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.”

Superman, although born on the planet Krypton, was raised on Earth, in Smallville. Smallville, as its name implies, is the mythical small town. It is here that Superman, as Clark Kent, grows to maturity. Clark’s adoptive parents are Martha and Jonathan (Ma and Pa) Kent, a childless couple well into middle-age. They take the baby Superman and raise him on the values of the mythical small-town. He goes to school, helps pa with the farm, and even develops a crush on ‘the girl next door.’ Such an idyllic existence, however, cannot last forever. When the Kents found Clark, they were already getting old. Near the end of Clark’s high school years, Jonathan has a heart-attack, and their is nothing that Clark, with all his powers, can do to save him. Clark realizes that it is time to grow up. He can no longer use his powers simply for such frivolous pursuits as racing trains or kicking a football a few miles. At his father’s funeral he bids farewell to his mother, and leaves for the city—Metropolis! Like Smallville, this name also has connotations other than simply being a name for a city. A “metropolis” is a large city, and Metropolis is the largest city in the world. As such it has all the crime and pollution that come with the city. Clark—now as Superman—has traveled from the ‘small’ village to the greatest metropolis on Earth, a test not only for his physical prowess, but for his morals as well. Like his body, his mind is also up to the challenge. Even though he is the most powerful person on Earth, he can still be embarrassed when Lois wants proof that he has X-ray vision—and asks him what color panties she is wearing.

The Daily Planet is the largest newspaper in Metropolis. It is here that Clark Kent comes to work. As Clark Kent—not as Superman—he becomes one of the Planet’s two star reporters. He is able to do this in a very short time, without any formal training. Clark is a self-made man in the tradition of Horatio Alger and the Protestant work ethic. He puts his mind to something and accomplished is. Superman, as of the second movie, is a self-made man similar to Clark. In this film Superman decides to marry Lois, and goes to get his mother’s approval. He can do this because his father saved a computer replication of his parent’s minds in the crystals which make up his Fortress of Solitude. His mother tells him that to marry Lois he must give up his powers, and that if he does, the process is irreversible. He goes ahead with it, but on the way back to Metropolis he discovers that Superman is once more needed to save the world. He travels back into the arctic to his Fortress of Solitude, across the snow and ice without his powers, and finds a way to regain them. The movie did not show how he did this. The scene fades out with Clark finally inside the Fortress, and the next time we see Superman he is flying over Metropolis. Even without his strength and vision, he takes it on himself to become a hero, against odds which, the movie implies, could not even be shown.

Superman, for all his strength and power, still falls prey to love. He is in love with Clark’s fellow reporter Lois Lane and she in turn is in love with him. When she discovers that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same, he must make a choice: is he willing to give up his powers for that love? His answer is yes. He gives up the persona of Superman, and only Clark Kent remains. Yet, as is so true in real life, the past cannot be escaped. Earlier, Superman had unknowingly released some Kryptonian criminals from their bondage. He now discovers that once he has taken up the mantle of Superman, he cannot give it up—so he finds a way to regain his powers and defeat the criminals. But what now of Clark and Lois? Alas, their love can no longer be! But he does not simply leave Lois to her feelings, for they are driving her crazy. He takes away her memory of the past few days, so that she no longer remembers who he is, and what they could have had. This is the ultimate act of love, for he has not forgotten it himself—and he must act as if nothing has happened.

In the original radio broadcasts of Superman, the introduction ended with these words: “fights a never-ending battle for truth, and justice.” In the later television shows which started in the midst of the cold war years, this was changed to “truth, justice, and the American way.” (said while Superman stood in front of a flying American flag) Ever since, Superman has always been equated with America. The advertisements for Superman II (near the Fourth of July) said “Celebrate truth, justice, and the American way of life with the Man of Steel.” In this movie, one of the ending scenes showed him returning the roof and flag to the White House, since the criminals had taken the roof off when they invaded the White House. During the aerial battle scene with the three super-powered villains, the Statue of Liberty can be seen in the distance. Although the villains have taken over the entire world, Superman saves the United States of America first.

Superman is everything that we can never be. From his ability to fly to his ability to throw off his ‘mild- mannered’ Clark Kent persona and become perfect, we can fulfill our dreams through him. He is able to triumph completely uncorrupted over the powers of the large city. Over the years he has come to symbolize democracy. Superman is, first and foremost, an American myth.