Superheroes in general are representatives of ideas. As such, from our perspective as an audience, they can serve as inspirations for the way we ought to live. We can fight crime and struggle for justice; bring families together and save the world. If only we try hard enough. The great ones are great literary figures that will live in our imaginations for a long, long time.
We, the audience, inhabit a separate world from all of that. We are the ones who determine whether superheroes live or die or matter. For us they are characters in literature; representatives of ideas and ideals. Our superpower as an audience is that we have the ability to look at superpowered characters from multiple perspectives.We can analyze their actions and even influence the way they are written with our collective voice.
We can look at a character's psyche and juxtapose that with their politics, and we can look at what it means to be superhero with a particular identity be they Alien, Woman, Black or Youth. We can critique the idea that any one individual could have so much power while accepting inspiration from their example.
The common thread for most of these characters is that they are dealing with a reality in which they have a great deal of power, the question that each of them faces is how they with interact wield that power.
Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the early 20th century, is the super-powered fantasy of two products of a time in Jewish (and world) history when many were fleeing crumbling Jewish life in “old world” during the years leading to the Shoah in order to find some semblance of freedom and opportunity in the “new world”.
Literary characters are often a product of the times and places of their creators. Those same characters are understood through the prism of the audience’s time and place.
Superman, whose real name is Kal-El, wears the disguise of a human, but he is an alien. He grew up in the world of humans, but knows throughout his childhood and adolescence that there is something different about him. He is one of the few superheroes who actually is his tights-wearing, death defying persona and who hides in the glasses and ties of his alter ego, Clark Kent, but it isn’t that simple. He was born as Kal-El and is Kyptonian, but he has become Clark Kent. The culture of agriculture and responsibility that he has lived in has been his guiding light. He is the product of two planets and two peoples.
Superman’s condition is very much that of the Jewish people throughout much of history: His home world is lost and he is never quite sure if his adopted home is safe or not. He holds an important and precarious place in his civilization: He is seen as a powerful asset by those in authority positions when he is needed and as an alien threat by those who don’t trust his intentions. To his enemies he is bent on global domination, to others he is a victim of a perpetual state of homelessness. He sees his uniqueness as a potential example.
The most recent iteration of his story has him being sent to Earth with the intention of re-sparking Kryptonian life, after learning what it means to be human by living as much like a human as is possible for him. The idea is for him to recreate “home” in a place that others call home too. His arch-nemesis, Zod wants to bring Krypton to Earth by way of killing all the humans.
Kal-El is the representative figure of our ability to create new cultures and societies by understanding where partnership is possible, while Zod is our capacity to draw lines in our blood that tell us who we are and who we are not.
It is this exact dichotomy that stands at the root of my context. Here, in Israel and Palestine, it is the capacity for partnership and solidarity versus the capacity for destroying the “other” that is at war.
Superman, in this case, still represents power concentrated in one being, but it is Zod who uses that power for ill. The story of Superman, then, is the story of the power and capacity to use that power for positive or negative that each of us holds.
As a member of the audience, I may draw connections simply because I was watching this particular piece of literature in a movie theatre in Tel Aviv, or it may be that Superman really does represent something deeply important in the history and future of the Jewish people.
The Superman character takes great leaps in order to act responsibly with his power. That is something that we all must strive for.