What is it about the ‘man of steel’ that makes him such an enduring figure for Americans? For Spain’s El Pais, columnist Álvaro Vargas Llosa writes that Superman embodies three items that are embedded in the American psyche: Religion, immigration, and morality. Superman bears close resemblance to Moses and Jesus; he is an immigrant; and he defends the legal code of Metropolis, which stands for the morality of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But even more, Llosa writes, Superman defends values that transcend America, and which appeal to people around the world.
When he was born at the time of the Great Depression, Superman was more left-wing. In the wake of Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” he fought for the poor and against the capitalist exploiter. During the Second World War, he was an enemy of the “Japanazis” (Goebbels, accusing Stiegel, the creator, of being a propagandist, called him “intellectually circumcised”). During the Cold War, Superman, now on the right, became the guardian of world peace and promoter of the “American dream.” More recently it has been suggested that he has an environmental dimension.
The key, however, is that he is neither left nor right. Superman brings together three elements that have become embedded in the psyche of successive generations of Americans. One is religious. Religion, along with individual freedom, is the clay that the country is made of. In Superman there is something of Moses and Jesus. In the boy whose parents removed him from of their planet Krypton to save him, and who arrives in another planet as an orphan with a mission, there is something of the Hebrew prophet. In the son sent by the father to earth to incarnate as a man (Clark Kent), there is something of Jesus.
The second element is immigration. Superman is an immigrant. When the character was created, one such stage had just ended: from 1870 to 1920, tens of millions of Europeans from very different backgrounds had enriched and diversified the composition of the country. That Jews had been the creators of Superman reinforced this connection, as Jews from Central and Eastern Europe had made up a substantial part of this recent immigration. The trauma of the Holocaust strengthened Superman’s immigrant dimension.
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