Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
A child is born under the threat of immediate death. Desperate to save the boy’s life, his parents place him in a basket and abandon him to the wilderness. A kind family takes the baby in and raises him as their own. But as the boy grows up he realizes he is different from his family, his friends, from everyone he knows, and upon becoming a man, he learns the truth of his heritage.
Now, at this point of the story, whether you’re talking about King Arthur, or Moses, or Oedipus, or Tarzan, our hero leaves his adopted family to take his rightful place among his birth people. But we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman. And Superman stays on Earth.
What’s great about Superman, what makes him a modern hero, a populist hero, and an American hero, is that Superman upends the myth of aristocracy.
To begin, the myth of aristocracy is that moral quality exists in the blood and therefore some people are just born better than others. Thus, if the father is a good person then the son will be good too. I think we can all look at examples, from history and from our own lives, of that just not being true. Of bad children born to great parents, or of great people coming from the worst parents. And yet the myth continues to be present in all genre fiction, especially fantasy. So what makes the story of the boy who fell to Earth special it that it goes completely against that toxic myth.
If Superman were to follow the myth, he would rejoin his “morally superior” birth people, or bring the morality of Krypton to Earth. But instead Superman identifies with the people who raised him and chooses to use his powers to help humans. Following the teaching of his morally upstanding foster parents Jon and Martha, and inspired by the bravery of his rival and best friend Lois Lane, Superman chooses to be a reporter. He chooses to be a nice guy with a regular day job and a boss and co-workers. It’s a job that allows him to tell the stories of the people around him, elevate them, and maybe help them. And that’s what he does most of the time.
In its own way, being Superman, being a superhero, is a remarkably restrained use of Clark’s powers. He does the jobs only someone with inhuman strength, unbreakable endurance, and unimaginable speed can do. But he doesn’t break the laws of man, he doesn’t depose rulers he disagrees with, and he does not impose his morality on others. He works with the established powers and if he’s not the best person for a job he backs off. He lives as a human being helping his fellow humans as much as possible.
Ruling by right of birth and might is clearly anathema to Superman, most clearly seen in the villains Superman fights. Lex Luthor is a brilliant, powerful CEO and at one point President of the United States. Zod is a general with an army of ultrapowerful aliens. Brainiac is a supreme intelligence with aspirations of universal control. Mr. Mxyzptlk uses humans as puppets. Darkseid is a god. Superman’s best villains are figures of authority, those who seek to dominate the lives of people they consider inferiors, and Superman is at his best fighting for individuality and respect for all people.
Furthermore, Superman can never rejoin the morally superior Kryptonians, because Kryptonians aren’t morally superior. His birth parents, Jor-El and Lara, may have been good scientists, but by and large Kryptonians are the assholes of space. Even under the best of circumstances, Krypton was ruled by arrogant morons who couldn’t see their planet was crumbling around them, despite their top scientist yelling in their ears.
And every time a new Kryptonian arrives on Earth preaching the superiority of Krypton, giving Superman the chance to return to his otherwise lost world, they turn out to be really, really terrible people, such as General Zod and the Phantom Zone criminals, the Eradicator, the Superman: the Animated Series version of Brainiac, or the recent invasion of the Kandorians. The exception to this rule is Kara Zor-El, Supergirl, who is good because she follows Clark’s lead and sides with Earth.
Superman rejects the idea that DNA is destiny, and instead chooses exactly who he will be. When he’s offered a choice between living as a Kryptonian or living as a human, Superman chooses Earth, every time, and embraces his life as Clark Kent.
But among superheroes, Superman is the exception here, not the rule. By nature, a superhero is someone whose unique abilities place them apart and above, sometimes literally above, most of society. That these unique beings then go on to be vigilantes, placing their own personal definition of justice above those of the police and democratically elected government, is elitist, aristocratic, and borderline fascist.
It’s directly the opposite origin of Aquaman, for example, who was also abandoned as a baby and raised by a kindly human lighthouse keeper. But when young Arthur Curry discovered he was really the heir to the throne of an undersea kingdom, he rejected the surface world and turned his loyalties whole-heartedly to Atlantis. (Ironically, to truly become King Arthur Under the Sea, Aquaman had to reject his human name of “Arthur”). In contrast, Superman would never give up the Earth to return to Krypton.
I talked about this earlier with regards to Batman. Bruce Wayne is definitely the prodigal prince, returning to retake his father’s kingdom. Batman believes it is his right and his duty to conquer Gotham for its own good. The only thing that stops Batman from taking over the world is the limits of what one human can do. Superman has no real limits, and tellingly chooses not to take over the world.
Thus, by action and by example, Superman embodies a populist ideal, that it doesn’t matter who one’s parents are, no one can impose their will on the world. And it doesn’t matter how powerful one is, it matters how one chooses to use that power. Superman is great because he believes that everyone is worthy of respect, and everyone is worthy of aid. Everyone has some power to help change the world, and everyone is in this together.
Superman shows we are not slaves to our genetics, that DNA is not destiny, and that all people are capable of greatness. Superman is not a king in disguise. Superman is an immigrant, a survivor, and a democratic, progressive hero. Superman is an American who believes everyone should be given a fair chance.