Truth, justice, and the American way. These are the virtues that Superman lives by. But why would an uber powerful alien from space adopt these humanistic ideals? Is the story of Superman meant to inspire people to rise above prejudice? Is it to teach kids about the values of being good? To perpetuate the American machine as a world power? Or is there another side to the story? I propose that the Man of Steel may have a tough exterior, but under those blue tights and red cape is a story of a man who is searching for something he will never get….acceptance. Superman’s real kryptonite is loneliness.
Lets start with Superman’s origin story. Superman was born Kal-El from the planet Krypton. He was rocketed off the planet by his parents moments before Krypton exploded. His rocket landed in a place in Kansas called Smallville, where he is found by Martha and Jonathan Kent. The Kents raise Kal-El as their own and rename him Clark Kent because lets face it, Kal-El is a ridiculous name. As Clark goes up he learns that he is different from everyone else. He notices that nobody else in Smallville can fly, have incredible strength and durability, or shoot beams of intense heat from their eyes. The Kents raised Clark to use these abilities responsibly and to protect the helpless by creating the alter ego of Superman. A number of elements are added to each identity to keep them distinct enough to prevent the casual observer from matching them. Superman wears long-johns with his underwear on the outside and ties a bed sheet around his neck to use as a cape. Clark Kent takes to wearing glasses, styling his hair differently, changing his body language, significantly altering his voice, and wearing looser clothing and suits that hide his physique. Lucky for him that humans are stupid and cant tell the difference.
Now lets pick apart the pieces of his origin story. Krypton blows up making him the only survivor. The last of his kind. The only one. And as the song says, “one is the loneliest number.” It must be tough learning that you will always be different than everyone else. He knows nothing about Krypton’s culture. He doesn’t know what food they ate, their traditions, or history. Essentially he doesn’t know what he is. He doesn’t feel Kryptonian because he knows nothing of Krypton. He knows he’s not an earthling because he displays non-human traits. He doesn’t fit into either of those cultures.
As a child, he grows up thinking that he was normal. He starts to develop super powers during his adolescence and that’s when his “parents” had to spill the beans about how they found him in a rocketship. Basically his entire upbringing was a lie. The Kents took advantage of the situation and influenced the alien to help those in need by using his natural gifts. Why? He could of easily used his powers to oppress the humans and take over the world with strength and fear. But Kal-El’s psyche is so fragile that he helps people in order to gain favor in their eyes. He thinks, “If I help them then they’ll like me!” His desire for acceptance is what justifies why he remains the big blue boyscout. He figures if strayed off the path of goodness then it would further distance himself from humans and will only make him feel more alone.
Kal-El pretends to be a helpless human named Clark Kent. When he is Clark he blends in with everyone else around him. No one fears him. No one asks for help. He has nothing to worry about. As far as what everyone thinks, Clark is human. This is the closest that Kal-El can get to feeling normal. He has to downplay everything that he is in order to fit in. He cant go out and start lifting cars off of babies or stop bank robbery shoot outs as Clark Kent. Normal humans can’t do that. So what does Clark Kent do? He’s a reporter for a newspaper. Clark Kent has a 9-5 job to pay the bills like most humans in the American economy. Deep down Kal-El knows he’s not Clark Kent. He’s pretending to be someone that he’s not just to feel like all the other humans because that’s what he wants. He wants to be involved in a culture that is not his own because he doesn’t know his own.
Its easy to see Superman as the paragon of good. He has a long list of super powers. He is looked up to by other heroes. He’s a very well liked person because of what he does. But at the end of the day, real Fortress of Solitude is in his heart.