The more I think about Superman and all he’s come to represent in America, the more I believe that he speaks to yet another contradiction of ideals. There is the obvious “American Dream” connection – immigrant comes to America, grows up in a small working-class town, works hard, gets job, does well. There are elements of the American cowboy as well – as Weinstein notes, “the misunderstood outcast, the rootless wanderer,” even as he classifies those themes as particularly Jewish. Then, of course, follow the typical tropes of masculinity – Superman is really strong, really fast, really muscular, really handsome, and really good with the ladies. All of these elements are portrayed in a positive light, which makes their underlying reality all the more interesting: in America, you will be praised and idolized for everything you are as long as you are not really yourself.
In short, Superman is the hero – not Clark Kent. Definitely not Kal-El.
Jonathan Kent captures it pretty accurately when he talks with Clark about his super strength at the beginning of the movie: “You’ve got to hide it from people or they’ll be scared of you.” Although “it” now refers to Clark’s inherent difference as, well, an alien. Weinstein hints at this idea throughout his article but never quite says it outright, merely sticking to assimilation as a driving force for the Jewish people even as it wasn’t wholly successful – particularly evidenced by Superman’s two creators, who published the comic under a decidedly non-Jewish name and sold the rights long before receiving their due credit. You will be praised and idolized for everything you are as long as you are not really yourself.
That seems to be a pretty American concept when you get right down to it. You can be a military hero, but only if you’re straight (and a man). You can be a successful politician, but only if you don’t do anything too “weird.” You can be a great woman, but only if you’ve never had an abortion, or slept with too many men, or slept with other women, or got divorced. You can be an American hero, but only if you’re really from America, or your parents are white.
Superman didn’t have two identities to protect himself – he had three. One he used in everyday life, where hiding his powers meant hiding his heroism and therefore being ignored; one he used while donning a suit made of colors that called to mind the American flag; and the one he has had from the very beginning, his arguably true self, who he can be with absolutely no one on planet Earth. I think we can all identify with that a lot more than any of us would like to admit, and I think that’s definitely part of the reason behind Superman’s staying power.
You will be praised and idolized for everything you are as long as you are not really yourself.