The Why of Superman
Superman is largely regarded as the world’s first superhero, and is probably the most iconic comic book character out there. He has been the subject of comics, movies, video games, TV shows, and more. Throughout his various depictions, he is almost always portrayed as being an unflappable boy scout who always strives to do the right thing. (The exception to this rule, in my mind, is the Silver Age Superman, who was an utter jackass who seemed to abuse his powers for fun while claiming that he was trying to do a good deed in a ridiculously roundabout way.) Superman has been the iconic do-gooder for 70 years now, but one question that is rarely asked is why Superman does the things he does. With the vast powers he possesses, he could easily have set himself up as a god or he could be a villain. Instead he has always managed to resist temptation and walk on the path of the angels. Why would Superman choose such a difficult road instead of going down the easier path of villainy or at least antiheroism?
There have been almost as many theories behind Superman’s motivations as there have been retellings of his origins. Some stories claim that his values were instilled in him by his parents who promoted those mythical “small town values” that America idealizes. (Having grown up in Vermont, I can tell you that real small town values often involve bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and a refusal to adapt to change, but that’s another rant for another time.) Mark Waid, in his essay in Superheroes and Philosophy, suggested that Superman’s actions come out of a desire to continue the traditions of the dead planet Krypton while merging those values with his new home on Earth. Other explanations range from something as simple as the urge to do good being part of his genetic makeup to the more cynical explanation that he can literally hear suffering around the globe and desires to stop it simply so he can get some peace. The explanation I’m putting forth here, which is by no means definitive, is that Superman is driven by a deep sense of inadequacy.
Up until he was a teenager, Clark Kent did not know his origins. He was a simple farm boy out of Smallville. This was probably the happiest point of his life – given the chance, it seems likely that Clark would never have gone to Metropolis and would have spent his life working on a farm. That notion is supported by stories such as the Elseworlds tale Kingdom Come, where after removing himself from society Superman comes to stay in a simulated version of a Kansas farm. Despite all of his other responsibilities, Superman keeps close ties to his family. He needs them. In Superman/Batman #49, the entire Earth is covered in a fine kryptonite dust, forcing Superman into space. Superman admits then that his secret identity of Clark Kent is not a mere convenience – he needs to be Clark, and facing an exile from Earth is among the worst fates he can imagine.
In an issue in the 1990s, Superman confesses in a conversation with Superboy that learning about his Kryptonian heritage was one of the most traumatic experiences of his childhood. Up until that point, he was an ordinary boy. Then suddenly he found out that he had the power to move planets, to fly back in time, and to do all other manner of godlike feats. Even with all that power, though, Superman could easily hide behind a pair of glasses and pretend to be Clark Kent. In the Silver Age, he even had the power of super-hypnosis, which would have enabled him to effectively brainwash people into believing that he was a mild-mannered mortal. Unlike Batman and Spider-Man, Superman has no childhood trauma that made him decide to become a hero. Unlike the members of the Green Lantern Corps or Captain America, he was not chosen by a higher power to do what he does. Unlike the Hulk or the X-Men, he wasn’t born with a mental or physical anomaly that forced him along one path. Superman one day made a costume for himself, went to Metropolis, and decided to start saving the world. Why?
The thing most teenagers – most people, even – want is to fit in somewhere. Even people who identify themselves as outcasts usually have a group where they fit in and have others who are like them. Superman, on the other hand, is the last Kryptonian in the universe (or at least he was; there’s an entirely new Krypton now). He was given powers that he didn’t ask for and thrust into the role of the last representative of his home planet. When his powers manifested, Clark Kent went from being a real person to being a secret identity. All of the values and beliefs that he had grown up with turned out to be borrowed pieces of a foreign culture. He went from being a native to an immigrant, surrounded by people who could never identify with him.
Early on, Superman’s powers were almost a curse. They took away the identity he needed, the one he had grown up with. Clark Kent became an alien – something to be feared. He was an outsider in a world that hates outsiders. But he still wanted the life he had built for himself, with his small-town ethics and his loving family. He wanted to fit in, but he was stuck in a world that he would always be different. So he chose to take that difference and make himself accepted.
Superman’s motivations have changed over the years as he got more time to start enjoying being the superhero. At first, though, I believe he chose to become a superhero almost as penance for being different. He wanted to be human, but he couldn’t be. Instead, he tried to earn his way into the human race, using his powers to help those he wished to be a part of. By being their hero, perhaps he could eventually become accepted by them. People had previously seen aliens as a threat. If they could see one who looked like them, acted like them, and devoted his life to protecting them, maybe they would start to see him as one of them.
The tragedy in Superman’s hope for acceptance is that while he did ensure that people weren’t afraid of him, he never got to really be human. What might have been fear turned into adoration, and the common masses idolized the hero, turning him into a Christ-like figure. Even among other superheroes, everyone looks up to Superman as the embodiment of heroism. With the possible exception of Batman, whose cynicism keeps him grounded, and Wonder Woman, who knows what it is like to be idealized that way, Superman is largely alone, even as the DC Universe continues to add more heroes. Moreover, the world has now come to depend on him. He receives more letters than Santa Claus. People call his name asking for help, knowing that the odds of even him hearing it are slim. So Superman is left rocketing around the world at near light speeds, constantly saving lives and trying to be a hero to the race he used to belong to. He can’t stop now, for giving up would be betraying the people he was always wanted to be among. And the more he presses on, the more godlike people see him as, and the less a chance he has to ever be human again.
So there’s my theory on Superman’s early motivations. This rambling and $3.99 will buy you an issue of Action Comics.