As a kid, I tried to make sure that I was always wearing clean underwear. I didn’t do this out of some innate sense of cleanliness; I did it because I was sure I was going to be whisked away by a Jedi Knight or a wizard from Lord of the Rings at any moment.
As a kid, as I say, I had a very clear sense of my destiny, and my destiny did not involve elementary school, where I was mercilessly teased for being a glasses-wearing geekazoid with a wussy name. …No, I was sure that at any moment, things would change. The Jedi or the wizard would arrive on the school playground during recess and scan eagerly around, until he located me — me out of all the kids. “Are you Oliver?” the Jedi would say. “Oliver Miller? Mm; I thought so, just checking. Well, come along then. …The galaxy needs you.” And then I would be whisked away in a spaceship, while the bullies and the popular kids stared and gaped with envious awe. I could visualize it all so clearly.
…So, and the point of the clean underwear was that it might be days or weeks before I got my new Jedi/ wizard uniform (the journey to the distant land might take a while), and I wanted to be as clean and neatly-pressed as I could be when I began my new life.
Anyway, all of this is why I have always identified with Superman.
Yeah, there are more interesting superheroes than Superman. As an acne-scarred geek, I have always identified with Spider-Man, who is definitely more accessible and approachable-seeming than the Man of Steel. And I have always secretly longed to be tough and cool like Wolverine or Batman. But as a symbol and as a metaphor, Superman is the most important hero of all to me.
I’m a half-hearted Jew, so Superman has always made sense to me on an instinctive level, since he was created by two Jews. The latest Superman movie tried to make him into a kind of Christ-like figure, but no, he’s a Jew. It’s a Jewish story. A child from a distant land arrives in America, and is taught to hide his true identity. He moves to New York, of all places, gets a job working in the media, and lusts after an unattainable shiska. That’s the story of a million Jewish immigrants; but Superman means much more than all of that.
“…Your name is Kal-El. You are the only survivor of the planet Krypton. Even though you’ve been raised as a human being, you are not one of them. You have great powers, only some of which you have as yet discovered.” Those are Jor-El’s first words to his son; his speech to Kal-El/ Superman, years after his son has arrived on planet Earth. He’s been raised by a kindly couple from Kansas — Jonathan and Martha Kent. They have given him the name Clark Kent, but that is not Kal-El’s real name.
Even though you have been raised as a human being, you are not one of them. Could there be a more universal statement of otherness? As humans, we are unique in feeling apart from things. Dogs accept their… dog-ishness, for lack of a better word. Cats accept their cat-ishness. And so on for every other species on this planet. Humans are unique, because we can stand in the middle of a crowd, and still feel lonely. No other species can feel like that. And as humans, we all feel a sense of terminal uniqueness. We all feel special, and so thus we all feel apart. Paradoxically, this is what unites us, and this is why Superman speaks to me as a metaphor. He symbolizes the feeling of apartness, and also our secret belief in our own awesomeness — the belief that I experienced as a child, as I waited on the playground for wizards to whisk me away, and to teach me my true destiny. It never happened, but I never stopped believing in it.
Superman is unique among superheroes because he is the reverse of other superheroes. This has been pointed out many times before. Batman’s true identity is Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy. Spider-Man’s true identity is Peter Parker, geeky teenager. But Superman’s true identity is Superman. The “costume” that he wears is not a costume — the red cape, the chest medallion, the boots, the belt; those are his normal clothes. When Superman dresses up and pretends, he pretends to be a normal human being; but he is not one.
We all feel like this. Every day, when we schlep off to work, wearing our foolish work clothes — we all feel this way. We feel as though we are wearing a disguise in our jobs, our relationships, even in our interactions with, say, a barista at Starbucks. We jealously hide our true, secret nature, because the world cannot know who we truly are. And why? Because the world couldn’t handle the truth.
And Superman enacts the same ritual as we do, each and every day. He could be living in a crystal palace on the North Pole. He could fly to Jupiter, or burrow through the Earth’s core to China. Instead, he plays his role as a schlubby human. He enacts the role of “Clark Kent.” He puts on the tired work suit, the busted wingtip shoes, the boring tie and the ugly glasses, and gets on the subway and rides off to his fake job as a reporter.
But inside, Superman has secret powers, because we all do. He is separate and special and different — because we all are. Even though he has been raised as a human being, he is not one of them. We are all Not One of Them. We are all Uniquely Us — just like Superman. And that’s what Superman means; and that’s why Superman matters.