Man of Steel, Man of Faith? Part 5: “And the American Way”

How does one define “Americana?”

Anything that represents American culture? Baseball, apple pie, and the Fourth of July? Whatever’s decorating the walls at Applebee’s?Smallville

No doubt, there are images, music, and movies that everyone would agree is considered “Americana.” Elvis Presley. Norman Rockwell. Gone with the Wind. That famous black and white photo of the sailor kissing his girl after returning from combat in World War II. If “Americana” is defined as whatever represents the American culture, the American Dream, then Siegel and Shuster’s most iconic creation embodies the best of all of it.

Why, you may ask, would Superman be considered “Americana,” if the character is firmly grounded in science fiction? Does he represent a certain part of the country? A particular era of the nation’s history, which would fall into the category of Americana?

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“Superman For All Seasons” (1998)

Although Kal-El’s journey began on a fictional planet in outer space, and was intentionally written to be a metaphor for the most famous Old Testament prophet, at its heart, his is the ultimate immigrant story (see Part 3). Like any immigrant (one of many in the early 20th century), he was born elsewhere, yet came to America and became part of the tapestry of the country. As the children of Jewish immigrants who migrated to the US between the World Wars, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster very consciously wrote this into their character’s story.

But Krypton’s Last Son didn’t land just anywhere on planet earth, he landed in Smallville, Kansas. Although his upbringing is a detail added by subsequent writers, young Clark Kent growing up in America’s heartland made him an embodiment of the soul of the country in many ways- old-fashioned (dare we say, Christian?) values, respect for one’s neighbor, an old trade (farming), and opportunity for one to realize their potential in the future, i.e. growing up and finding a job in the big city.

I-1-

“It’s A Bird.” (2004)

By the early 20th century, the US had experienced a transformation in its identity. It had grown beyond fledgling nation and had become an international superpower. Its cultural and ethnic identity- the oft-coined “melting pot”- had never been more apparent as waves of new immigrants poured into Ellis Island each day. Given this context, is it any wonder that Superman caught on immediately in the public consciousness? As a powerful “immigrant” man who could bend steel with his bare hands and right whatever wrong he saw, Superman quickly became a reflection of the country itself. He became Americana.

MoS Costner 1Watching Man of Steel again recently, I can safely say that the strongest scenes in the movie are those with Clark’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner, as I mentioned briefly in Part 3. Pa Kent, the hard-working, down to earth, blue collar American meant to represent the backbone of the country, has been represented well in almost every adaptation, but Costner’s portrayal of Superman’s adoptive father teaching his son life lessons was perfect. Despite the other shortcomings of the director’s vision (at least in the opinion of this blogger), I was glad to see that the spirit of Clark’s formative years, in many ways meant to represent the spirit of the country itself, was not one of them. My favorite aspect of the character and Superman’s greatest power- always doing the right thing (see Part 1)- ironically, is the only one of his powers that doesn’t come from his Kryptonian DNA, but from his upbringing.

Inspiring.

And yes, on occasion, you do see him decorating the walls at Applebee’s.

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2

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