Last week was a rough week. Already fraught questions and debates got derailed by events, and may get derailed even more as we learn more about this week. In the midst of it all, a little frivolity, a trailer for the latest Superman movie was released. I think it’s exactly what we need right now. Not because we need to be reminded that massive media companies are releasing movies, and not because we need to narcotize our brains forget our troubles in a rush of special effects and not because we need to believe in invincible heroes who can’t be hurt by bombs. What we need is to be reminded of what America is, and Superman is uniquely equipped to do this because of what his story is.
Superheroes may have started as convenient hooks growing out of the pulp tradition, but their persistence seems to speak the folk tale and myth-shaped void in the American consciousness. In lieu of the legends of Robin Hood, Cu Chulainn, Siegfried, Sinbad, and Musashi Miyamoto, our youth and disparate origins led us to make fanciful tales of people in colorful tights, and as much as those other figures tell you about the concerns of their cultures, superheroes can tell you about the concerns of America. In particular, it seems to me that Superman and Batman are the yin and yang of the American spirit. Day and night, strength and intellect, force and fineness, nature and nurture, one uses shadows and darkness against his enemies and the other literally draws power from the sun. They both operate out of thinly veiled mirror reflections of New York—Gotham, all crumbling and Metropolis, all glimmering.
By now, we’re quite familiar with Batman’s origins—Superman’s too, but his are key to my point. Unlike Batman, his city’s favorite son from birth, Superman comes from much more humble origins as a Kansas farm boy who’s come to the Big City, usually to be some sort of reporter. Of course, in true Joe Campbell secret orphan with special destiny fashion, Smallville isn’t really where he’s from. No, Superman arrived in America’s heartland, having been sent from the dying planet Krypton. He’s a refugee. Superman is an immigrant.
This isn’t terribly surprising given that he was created by immigrants—Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, both second-generation, both Jewish, with Siegel’s parents coming from Lithuania, and Shuster’s from the Netherlands and Ukraine (and they based Supe’s appearance on Douglas Fairbanks, born Douglas Ullman, also of Jewish descent). How much their experience colored their creation is both tough to say and beside the point, the fact is, they created a character who, through the synthesis of his heritage far away and his upbringing here in America, became the best of us. A potent tale, built upon and clarified over the past 80 years, but the basic framework has remain unchanged, because it speaks to us so powerfully.That’s why it’s been so alarming, watching some of the political discussions break out over the past two weeks. The discovery that the Boston bombings were carried out by people born elsewhere were enough to derail discussion of the immigration bill, and cause people to say we should “reconsider” letting people in, and forced the Czech embassy to explain they represented the Czech Republic not Chechnya, where the suspects were said to be from, though in reality they never lived there. But in the midst of this new zeal, we should remember Superman, and keep in mind that cracking down on immigration won’t close us off from danger, it will close off a part of ourselves.