"What's your name?"
"No, tell me your real name."
"Oh, I'm Clark Kent!"
So went an exchange between a waiter and my three-year-old self. As a child, I loved all things Superman: I wore a red cape everywhere, avoided the color green (because it was the color of kryptonite) and forced my mom to spend extra time every morning putting my hair in the signature curl. In my mind, Superman was a hero because he had superhuman abilities and was nearly-invincible; I never understood his importance as a cultural icon until seeing the newly-released movie The Man of Steel. Although this is not explicitly stated in the film, Superman allegedly fights for "truth, justice, and the American way." By emphasizing the religious and philosophical roots of its titular character, The Man of Steel reminds us of America's heritage and many of the values we hold in high regard.
(Spoiler Warning: Important plot details for the film will be discussed)
Superman's origin story is clearly inspired from that of Moses in the Abrahamic religions. Similar to Moses, Superman is sent far from his birthplace by his parents in the hope that he will have a better chance to live. A native of the distant planet Krypton, Superman is adopted by human parents and given the name Clark Kent; as he grows up, he discovers his Kryptonian heritage and attempts to bridge the differences between his two cultures. This aspect of Superman's story references the American ideal of E Pluribus Unum, the idea that our commonalities as Americans supersede our individual differences. To push the metaphor even further, Superman is technically an immigrant to the United States; his origin story emphasizes that any person can eventually be accepted as American, even if they were (literally) an alien from another planet. It is especially important for us to reflect on this concept as our nation decides the future of immigration reform; regardless of our policy preferences, we must remember that the promise of acceptance represented by Superman is essential to our nation's identity.
In continuing the trend of Biblical inspirations, Superman is often portrayed as a Christ figure. The Man of Steel emphasizes the universalist, redemptive aspect of the Jesus parallel; in the new film, Superman's father Jor-El narrates that Krypton was doomed as a result of its people's own hubris and avarice. By stripping their civilization of all morality and prioritizing technology as an end in and of itself, its people destroyed their own planet in a quest for natural resources. Therefore, Superman is sent to Earth to prevent humans from making the same mistakes as the Kryptonians. This is analogous to both Christian and Muslim understandings of Jesus as an individual sent by God to steer humans back towards His original message and away from desiring only worldly possessions. Also, just as Satan tempts Jesus with the promise of wealth and power, the film's antagonist General Zod tempts Superman to rule Earth using his near-invulnerability and superhuman abilities. Instead, Superman displays humility and strives to motivate each human to pursue good. Superman's human upbringing has taught him to control not only his abilities, but also his human emotions. In one scene, a young Clark Kent refuses to fight back despite being tormented by bullies; in this way, he shows the importance of Jesus's message of "turning the other cheek" and that violence should only be a last resort for solving problems.
These references to Jesus are also reflective of America's heritage, since our Founding Fathers were strongly influenced by Europe's Enlightenment and its Judeo-Christian tradition. They envisioned an enlightened society governed by science and rational thought, but also highly valued the presence of morality in creating a more perfect union. Also, by contrasting Superman with the violent General Zod, the film demonstrates the dangers of power without restraint. That inherent fear led the Founding Fathers to devise the system of checks and balances that still exists, mostly in its original form, in the contemporary U.S. government.
Another significant theme in The Man of Steel comes not from religion, but from classical philosophy. According to Jor-El, one of Krypton's weaknesses stemmed from state-sponsored genetic engineering, where all children were genetically bred for an eventual profession such as warrior, scientist, etc. This concept comes from Plato's Republic, where the ideal city "constructed in speech" would separate children from their parents and allow the state to decide their fate based on the "composition" of their soul. However, The Man of Steel argues against this so-called "perfect" society by demonstrating the problems with Krypton's approach. By removing the element of choice, Krypton doomed itself to an amoral, authoritarian system unable to respond to novel challenges such as the destruction of the planet itself. One of the hallmarks of the American mindset -- especially the liberal arts college -- is that people can reach their full potential when allowed the element of choice. Superman embodies this ideal, since as a superhuman being he chooses to help rather than rule mankind.
Superman has often fallen out of favor in the last few years because people cannot relate to him. However, the rebooted origin story of The Man of Steel film not only "updates" the Superman franchise into a serious, modern tone reminiscent of the Batman movies, but stays faithful to the amalgamation of religious and philosophical themes that made Superman one of the foremost symbols of American values. Although our nation remains intensely divided, we can all look up to Superman as what we can, and perhaps should be. Superman's greatness lies in his humility. As it goes with America: the famous political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults." Let us hope we can repair our faults while staying true to the values that really make U.S. great.
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.