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Lessons on Geek Anthropology: Superman’s layered identity, a child from two worlds

We return to our lessons on Geek Anthropology after a hiatus due to moving home. I’m back with a hot potato! Superman’s layered identity, a child from two worlds. When we take a look at Superman, we always think of him as Superman and Clark Kent while forgetting that he is from Krypton and Kansas. So, what is Superman’s layered identity telling us? Is he an example of someone who belongs to more than one community? Is his personality revealing to us anything else than just hints of his personality?

Let’s remember a bit about Superman first. He was born in Krypton and sent away by his parents to Earth to save him. So, he is a super baby, with super strength when he arrives on planet Earth. However, he isn’t raised with Kryptonian standards, but by the Kents, his adoptive parents, who happen to be from a small town in Kansas.

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Superman’s original name, the Kryptonian one, is Kal-el. He was loved by his parents, but they had to send him away because the planet was in danger. Kal-el was adopted by the Kents and was given the name of Clark. So, Superman has three different identities: Clark, the boy from Kansas; Kal-el, the alien from Krypton; and Superman, the savior of Earth.

When Superman achieved puberty, all the superpowers started to flourish. And so, his human dad gave him two pieces of advice: to help those in need and save lives, and to hide his superpowers so the rest won’t fear him.

While he was with his parents, the Kents, Clark was only Clark and Kal-el. But when he moved to Metropolis, he became his alter-ego, Superman.

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Superman has a double identity due to his origins: he is an alien, and yet he is an earthling. Many people who belong to two different cultures feel the tear apart, or the double identity, all of them in their own ways. Superman just happens to be an example of that: Clark and Kal-el are the same people. However, they might feel in a collision from time to time. Clark has had a very Kansas-like education, but even if he might feel integrated within his environment, his superpowers just remind him of how alien he is. Think for a while about gifted children who are way more intelligent than their mates their same age. They either hide it to be able to fit in the group, or parents send them to special schools where they can show up all their capabilities. If other children feel that they’re different, these kids might meet some bullying. So we can see in the case of Superman. Clark does not show up, and is quite clumsy so that he can fit in! His nature is constantly reminding him how alien he is!

So Clark is a clumsy version of himself. Or, said in better words, what Kal-el thinks a human is. So, Clark is a disaster! Since he is so clumsy, he can be adequately powerful with his alter-ego: Superman. But, from where does the simplistic morality that Superman has about good and evil? From Krypton? Or from Kansas?

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His education and his environment look like the means from which his personality developed, rather than the genes. True, his nature reminds him that he is alien, that he is Kal-el, but his education has given him a simple morality, a compass by which he can develop his alter-ego. His parents are farmers from Kansas, so they might have had simple views that Clark took in easily. He was a loving child, and since he was the only child, it’s natural that he wants to maintain the status quo. Usually, younger-borns are those who challenge the status quo within the family because their position and status in it aren’t that clear. However, this is not always the case.

It looks like he is a sweet guy because of his family and his education. And since the Klarks are quite simple, so he envisions the world and a morality that is also quite simple (and quite naïve at times).

While his nature as a Kryptonian reminds him that, in showing it fully, he won’t be fuly accepted within the community (very much like gifted children); his simplicity makes of him quite predictable, and so he can finally fit it. [Maybe this is a way to let humans know that he is not a threat.]

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Remember that I said that Clark is the version of the human Superman, or at least, what he thinks humans are? So, Superman’s simple morality and predictability are just a way to make people comfortable with his superpowers. Because his morals are simple, humans let him run free and save the planet. If the alien had been too complicated to understand, they then would feel nervous and make everything possible to stop him.

So, Superman’s layered personality makes of him a complex character. He shares experiences with gifted children, but also with people who belong to two or more different cultures or communities. While his nature reminds him of his origins, the Kents gave him his humanity and the key to being almost accepted on Earth as another earthling. This does not erase negative views that Superman has about us. We only need to take a look at Clark going up and down Metropolis.

Want to know more about Superman’s personality? Give The Psychology of Superheroes : An Unauthorized Exploration a go!

  • Kay

    Superman has always been my least favorite superhero. Despite having the potential to be a very interesting character, I feel like they films always just tell the same story over and over and over, and it just makes me bored with the character. He has a lot of complex emotions happening given that he was raised an Earthling, but really isn’t human at all. That’s a struggle. But I don’t know, nothing I’ve seen has just ever really resonated with me at all.

    • I don’t particularly like Superman, tbh. I just like that he is quite layered and he is much more complex than the films have portrayed. For example: Clark, his human clumsy version, is how he sees us. Only with that topic we could explore tons about his personality! He is a child of two worlds, and in essence someone who is searching for his place in the world. And yet he is torn appart. [I’m not a fan of DC comics… so it’s difficult for me to be objective here.]

      • Kay

        I completely agree! He has some really complex stuff going on, but is always presented in such a boring manner. :/

        • Movies have been bad with Superman 😮

  • So listen. I’ve never been a fan of Superman. I think he isn’t conflicted enough as a character and films and comics do a great job of telling the story over and over again. I had to give up on Smallville because I couldn’t watch another season of Clark adamantly denying his powers.

    It wasn’t until my son wanted to watch “Young Justice” that I saw WHAT Kal-El could have become. Kon-El or Superboy had so much potential and he was so angry with so many things in the world. I’m much more interested in the flight of Kon-El and how his world is shaped by being a genetic mix of Kal-El and Lex Luther.

    It is too bad DC couldn’t try to invent a new telling of Kal-El like they did with Superboy.

    • And that’s one of the reasons I have issues with DC!!! They could do much more with their characters and they don’t. Superman is crying in despair! I had to stop Smallville to because I couldn’t manage watching it… at all… At a certain point I drop DC (I always expect more and they don’t deliver). I know Marvel isn’t perfect, but I feel happier with their multilayered, complex and ever changing superheroes.

      I haven’t watched Young Justice, so I might give it a try just for Kal-El. What you say it’s interesting!

      Sigh… I really hope DC does sth and improveeees –; Again, I’m a Marvelite, so my views might be not objective at all, so please take them with a pinch of salt.

      • Of course! I think with Young Justice they did a much better job of exploring the younger versions of The Justice League. Although, the team are the young side kicks or in some cases family of the Justice League these teens seem to deal with a lot more trouble and they are developed better in one single season that the entire DC Universe has managed to create in years of making comics and films.

        • You’ve convinced me then! I’ll give them a try! Usually I have issues with DC. I’ve tried to read some of their comics but I stop reading because I find the whole thing too flat –; [With one exception: Wonder Woman, old comics] Let’s hope DC will keep on creating more layered stories from now on!!!