Who is Superman, really? That’s one of the more compelling questions about one of the most interesting figures in world culture. (I don’t think of Superman as being a “comic book” character. Since at least the 1940s, he’s been a lot more than that.) Some of the best Superman stories from over the years are about that very issue. It’s a question he often asks himself. It was so central to the character that in Donner’s Superman film from 1978, the prototype of a whole genre, it’s the first question he asks Jor-El. “Who am I?”
One of the more interesting takes on this question came in the form of Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, which postulated that he landed in the Soviet Union in 1937, rather than Kansas. A take-home message from that book is that Superman is still basically the same guy: caring, warm-hearted, deeply sympathetic an capable of enormous loyalty and love. But Millar skates a bit over the issues of why Superman has that character. After all, he landed on earth as a baby.
Developmental biology and Anthropology, as well as Psychology or just about any other legitimate science you can name has evolved far past “nature vs nurture” in terms of explaining why biological organisms are the way they are. It’s obvious to any intelligent observer that the answer is always emphatically both. In fact, if anything, genetics are more important than we as a society are willing to admit, having based our whole philosophy since the Enlightenment on the idea that anyone, given the right circumstances, can achieve anything. That’s simply not true, however noble a sentiment. Genetics play an enormous role in determining what an organism is and is not capable of achieving, but the environment also plays a role, particularly in giving shape to an individual’s sense of their place in the world and their responsibility towards it.
Perhaps it’s different for Kryptonians, one could argue, but I’ve never met a Kryptonian, only humans. (If you think have met a Kryptonian… Let me introduce you to my friend Agent Mulder.) Let’s proceed from the notion that Kal-El arrived on earth with his genetics intact, and they obviously play a big role in his physical development. He’s Superman, after all. All of those powers come from his genes, his biological nature. The only question is how much of his personality also comes from those genes, and how much from nature.
Again and again in the Superman mythos over the years, it’s emphasized that he’s an “All American Guy” with “good midwestern values”. That comes from Martha and Jonathan Kent (aka “Ma” and “Pa”). It’s under their guidance that this super-being gains the moral foundations upon which his entire mission on earth is based. He is an American mythic hero precisely because of Ma and Pa Kent fusing their midwestern values of caring, sharing, community-mindedness, family loyalty, simple kindness to animals, a respect for nature, etc onto this incredible super-being from another world who can lift cars and fly. Without their guidance, Superman isn’t Superman. He could be another character, certainly, but he’s not Superman.
Of all the DC characters, in fact, Superman is probably the most challenging to write, because he is so clearly defined. His conflicts have to come from not being able to save everyone, not being able to love as he wishes, and yearning for a place where he truly belongs. All of that comes from his deep moral core. That’s not an accessory quality for this character. That’s who the character is. Superman isn’t just a guy who can fly – lots of superheroes can do that. He’s a guy from Kansas who loves his Mom and wants to save the world. Because his parents taught him that this is what you’re obliged to do, if you can. As another comics creator put it, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
What happens to Superman when you completely remove Ma and Pa Kent, or reverse their teachings? Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Of all the atrocities committed on the Superman mythos by that movie, easily the worst was the desecration of Ma and Pa Kent. As usual in that movie, it wasn’t the actors’ fault: in fact, Kevin Costner plays Pa Kent with a deeply moving reality, and Diane Lane plays Ma Kent with a similar warmth. They’re wonderful. But what the characters are made to do is horrendous, and clearly written by people who fundamentally don’t understand Superman. Whatever else Man of Steel is, it isn’t a Superman movie. Because Superman isn’t in it.
In Man of Steel, and, from the previews, its sequel, the overriding message given to Clark Kent by his parents is, “Hide your power away. Don’t save anyone. Don’t do anything. Blend in. Conform. Live in fear.” As if this wasn’t on the nose enough, Clark literally hides in a closet! And his mother actually encourages him to not only stay in the closet, but to make the closet even smaller and tighter around him, in a figurative sense. Compare this to Superman, from the movie called Superman, where Pa Kent has a heart attack and Clark’s response is, “All those things I could do. All those powers. And I couldn’t even save him.” That’s Superman. He wants to save everyone, because he loves everyone, most of all his parents. Pa Kent’s last advice to him was to find a way to use his power for good, “You were put here for a reason,” he says. In Man of Steel, Pa Kent’s last advice to Clark was to not use his powers, never use his powers, even to save people right in front of his face. Let people die. Heck: watch people die. Because, in some ridiculous way, that’s better than showing the world what you can do. Call that character whatever you like, but Superman, he is not.
Of all the flaws in Man of Steel, and I think there are many, that’s the one that sticks in the craw of us fans with a heart, who grew up with this character. The violation of the soul of the character was nauseating to watch. Ma and Pa Kent deserved better. And the film shows the consequences of their absence: destruction, fights, darkness, more destruction. That could be excused if the filmmakers didn’t seem to revel in every moment of destructo-porn and ultra violence. And the sequel seems like more of the same, except with Batman constantly getting angry at the sky. When “Superman” says, “it’s a sign of hope,” when explaining what the “S” sign signifies in Kryptonian culture, it’s almost a laugh line in a movie so completely bereft of a sense of hope. Snyder even brings back Jor-El in the film, erasing one of Superman’s most long-standing personal demons: to speak with his birth parents one last time. Compare this to Superman: Birthright, which led up to a heartbreaking finale with a distant message from across time. One message, earned dramatically is approximately a trillion times more effective than Jor-El essentially serving as his Angelo Dundee during fight sequences.
Who is Superman? He’s a good guy from Kansas who just happens to be a superhero. He loves everyone and wants to save the world. That’s where you start with Superman. To disregard that is to simply disregard the character. So here’s to Ma and Pa Kent, the people most responsible for giving Superman his critically important identity in the landscape not only of comics, but of world popular culture.