Arthur Asa Berger
In recent years Superman has been changing…. When we discarded our old legacy of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, we also abandoned the view that a heroic super-powerful individual might solve all our problems with some magnificent gesture.
But what is important about Superman is not that he is changing…. It is what Superman represents, as a symbol, before he started changing that I am most interested in; and it is his symbolic significance that is most important, I feel, for our purposes.
Though he may have been a relatively simple-minded hero in the old days before he became socially conscious, as a symbolic figure he presents many difficulties. This is because his symbolic significance has many different dimensions. For example, the notion of a superman, a strong, heroic figure who transcends ordinary man, has obvious Oedipal interpretations. The desire of young boys to rid themselves of their fathers coupled with their need for the knowledge and protection of their fathers is very closely realized in the role Superman plays in his adventures.
Superman also is a superego figure, a symbol of conscience. He is pledged to be a champion of the oppressed and to help people in need. In the course of his activities he often must fight with evil, and his triumphs can be seen, from a Freudian perspective, as representing the dominance of a highly developed superego…. Superman's fantastic powers make the superego's dominance most apparent. (pp. 147-49)
[Superman] may also be analyzed from a sociological and political standpoint. After all, there is something strange about a democratic, equalitarian society having a hero who represents values that are antithetical to our basic beliefs, and which have been associated with Nazi Germany, in particular, and European elitist culture in general.
There is a fairly close relationship, generally, between a society and its heroes; if a hero does not espouse values that are meaningful to his readers, there seems little likelihood that he will be popular. The term "super" means over, above, higher in quantity, quality, or degree, all of which conflict with the American equalitarian ethos. I believe the answer to this dilemma lies in Superman's qualities and character. He is, despite his awesome powers, rather ordinary—so much so that he poses as a spectacled nonentity of a reporter in order to avoid publicity and maintain some kind of privacy.
His superiority lies in his powers, and though he possesses great physical attributes and abilities, they are always at the service of his fellow man. He is not, by any means, an aristocrat who values "breeding" and has a sense of superiority. What [Ralph Waldo] Emerson said about Napoleon, an everyman with superhuman capacities, can also be said of Superman; he is "the idol of the common men because he had in transcendent degree the qualities and powers of common men" ("Napoleon, Man of the World").
Thus a difference in degree (of power) has not led to a difference in kind (sense of superiority). It might even be said that Superman is rather shy and quite bland. In a society which will not tolerate pretensions, which has no hereditary aristocracy, even Superman is forced to present himself as a supreme democrat. He is an ordinary person who just happens to be the strongest man in the world. (pp. 151-52)
The problem that Superman faces is that, as a superior man in a society which is stridently equalitarian, he must disguise himself, lest people be envious and cause difficulties. In the tale of his origin this is made evident. A scientist from the doomed planet Krypton sends his infant child to earth, where it is discovered by an elderly couple, the Kents. (p. 152)
As he grows older, his powers develop. After his fosterparents die, we find the following:
Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created—Superman, champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his...
(The entire section is 1,506 words.)