The Best Superman Stories Remember That He's An Immigrant

The Best Superman Stories Remember That He's an Immigrant

Despite being on television continuously from 1988 to 2010, Superman has only had two interpretations on the big screen in the past 40 years: Richard Donner's Silver Age-inspired fella who eradicates memories with a kiss, and Zack Snyder's Superman. The latter version is back this week, facing off against Batman -- and in an effort to get myself pumped for Batman v Superman, I've been mainlining Super-people stories like its my job. And I've come to one major conclusion: Immigration is the whole point of the Superman story. And if you don't keep that in mind, you don't get Superman. Spoilers for Man of Steel (and Supergirl) ahead...

As you probably know, the first Superman comics were created by the children of immigrants. Artist Joe Shuster was born to immigrants from Rotterdam and Lithuania, and writer Jerry Siegel was a first-generation American born to refugees fleeing the fall of the Russian Empire. While Siegel might have had no first hand experience with Russia's fall, he no doubt grew up on stories of its collapse, and it inspired his own stories. At the same time, he and Shuster were inspired by the John Carter of Mars stories, where a man travels to another world and gains incredible powers from his new environment. From the very beginning the story of Superman was about a stranger in a strange land.

Superman is also uniquely bound to American culture and iconography -- more so than even Marvel's Captain America. When people talk about Truth, Justice and the American Way, they're thinking of Superman, with his chest puffed out and kind, fatherly grin on his face. Superman's history as immigrant and refugee only serve to make him more American. And this is a hopeful version of the immigrant story, too. Clark arrives in the US with nothing, and builds a life for himself -- he also integrates happily and finds a balance between the ideals of Krypton and the tenets of his new home. He's welcomed with mostly open arms by the American people.

The US is a country of immigrants, despite what some people seem to think, it stands to reason that their greatest, and most iconic superhero would himself be an example of a successful immigrant.

Which is why it's so sad that the immigrant story told in Man of Steel is a deeply pessimistic one. In Zack Snyder's reimagining, the Kents worry that nobody will accept an alien living among them, and that people will react with fear and persecution. And the film actually goes to some lengths to make the Kents' fears seem plausible, showing the weird reactions that Clark gets early on, when he can't control his powers. Later, because the discovery of Superman living among them coincides with the arrival of a honking big alien spaceship spouting threats, the reaction turns full-on paranoid and violent.

Many people have criticised the extreme individualism of the Kents -- at one point, Ma Kent tells Clark "You don't owe them," referring to the human race, and Pa Kent famously suggests that Clark should have let a busload of schoolchildren drown instead of revealing his powers. This may make more sense now that we know Snyder is eager to adapt an Ayn Rand novel for the screen. But this individualism springs, at its root, from the fear that an immigrant will never be accepted.

Somewhat complicating this story of the Kents' paranoia about xenophobia is the fact that Man of Steel adds a lot of baggage to Superman's origin. As usual, he's the survivor of the destroyed planet Krypton -- but in this version, Krypton is a dystopia that's on its last legs because of genetic engineering, test tube babies and a reliance on a single genetic "codex" kept inside a humanoid skull. Because Superman is born via natural birth, he's already an iconoclast -- born to disrupt the system and tear down Krypton's institutions simply by existing.

And meanwhile, General Zod, the movie's villain, has an agenda to overthrow Krypton's government (as he usually does in the comics and other versions). But he also wants to create some kind of new eugenics movement. He tells Superman's father, Jor-El, "Help me save our race. We'll start anew. We'll sever the degenerative bloodlines that led us to this state." Zod wants to get the genetic codex (which is embedded in Superman's own DNA), so he can build a new, more genetically pure Kryptonian race.

The battle between Zod and Superman appears in virtually every iteration of the character. He will always choose his new country over his birth country. But this time around, it's complicated by the fact that Zod has such a confusing agenda. Still, the way that Superman proves himself to the human race and earns our trust is by fighting his own people. The only way Superman can ultimately embrace his role as superhero is to sever his ties with his old world (along with Zod's spinal cord) forever.

To find a version of the Superman myth that preserves his past as an immigrant and the hopeful notion that we will welcome people from foreign lands with open arms, you have to look elsewhere. Like Supergirl, the new CBS TV show that spends a lot of time exploring the impact on her psyche of her time as an immigrant and refugee.

Unlike her cousin, Supergirl actually remembers living on Krypton and she's absolutely, positively furious over the loss of her home. Her rage, simmering just beneath her cheerful disposition, likes to pop up in fights and when she's pressed too hard. Her constant sense of alienation, and the frustration she struggles to put into words, are constantly there in the background. And yet Supergirl is also a deeply hopeful story, in which people are ready to embrace Kara even when she makes mistakes.

Let's hope the next people who interpret Superman for the big screen (or the small) pay attention to Supergirl -- and to other great portrayals of immigration in comics, like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, which is as dark as Man of Steel but carries more emotional realism. At a time when xenophobia is becoming as common as the housefly, we need more than ever, to have creators who are committed to finding ways to tell the uplifting story of the world's best known immigrant.

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    If batman can be beaten up by a big bloke (see last batman movie) then how is he going to take on superman who got shot in the eye with a bullet and he didn't flinch. The batman vs Superman movie might be good but in reality (although they're not real) superman would cream batman.

      I take it you haven't read Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns where Batman plans out his encounter with superman including power armour.

      Plus there's always kryptonite

        Superman could throw a thousand ton weight at supersonic speed at batman so A. Kryptonite would be of no use and B. No man made suit would help in that case. Other than that, supes could swing bathead into space and into the sun. It's a given that supes would win. Hell, he could go back in time and squash Batman's head while he was still a child.

          The thing about every Batman -v- Superman fight is that neither of them kill. In at least two of the ones I've read in comics the fact Superman loses comes down to him *not* wanting to seriously hurt Batman let alone kill him. Now if Superman had no moral compunctions (like Zod) then yes you're right Batman would be dead before he realised he was in a fight. The comic Irredeemable is a good example of this idea.

          As for the whole immigrant thing, while I agree he is an immigrant the big distinction between him and say Supergirl is what you mentioned - he came to Earth as a baby. His entire life he's only known what it is to be American. All his Kryptonian heritage is learned a distant second or third hand way.

          Also most times the Kents are depicted as the most apple pie and baseball family in the world. Basically the ideal of an American family implying (none too subtly) that is where Superman gets his impeccable moral values from not from his original Kryptonian heritage.

          Now to be honest, this is where the current take on Superman gets me upset, instead of being a nice guy raised by a nice family he seems to be a bitter, resentful emo who just happens to be able to juggle ocean liners >_

            I think another aspect to it is that he's not particularly cautious (being invulnerable will tend to put some blinkers on you). In general when it's come down to the actual fight Superman just barges straight in whilst Batman has already planned out the encounter and has contingencies for his contingencies.

            So I think that even if Superman didn't have his morals, Batman would still be able to at the very least, put up a decent fight

    Superman is not an immigrant, he's an alien. Otherwise by your logic, E.T. was also an immigrant, so were all the Kaijus in Pacific Rim, etc etc etc.

      Not really. The main difference is that Superman for all intents and purposes is a permanent resident of earth, having moved from Krypton and living (mostly) peacefully within society.

      ET would be more akin to a tourist who is stranded after missing the only flight out and Kaijus would be more akin to an invading army.

        You can be pedantic about how great an earth citizen they may be, but at the end of the day, a human or earthling they both are not.

    Superman has only had two interpretations on the big screen in the past 40 years: Richard Donner’s Silver Age-inspired fella who eradicates memories with a kiss, and Zack Snyder’s Superman

    I'm not sure what the author means by this: hasn't there been plenty of Superman movies over the past forty years?

      There were 4 movies as a part of the Richard Donner era Superman.
      And Superman Returns was then added as a part of that. It came after Superman II, and ignored 3 and 4.

      Then there's Man of Steel from Snyder.

      So there's 6 movies, but 2 "versions" of Supes in the last 40 years :)

      Donner - Superman
      Donner - Superman II
      Donner - Superman Returns
      Donner - Superman III (no longer canon)
      Donner - Superman IV (no longer canon)
      Snyder - Man of Steel

    Ridiculous on so many levels, why not leave the interpretations to the actual writers, and keep your bullshit lens to yourself.

    Besides, immigrant or not he should check his privilege, White, Straight, Cis Male, that's got to equal scum on any planet ... right?

    "Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it. "George Bernard Shaw
    The best patriots are often immigrants. Those born in a country often take it for granted.

    Why would anybody be pumped for Batman vs Superman? Young handsome, broody, muscly dude in tight black leather suit gazes broodily at young handsome muscly dude in tight latex suit, then wrestles with him. Right. I'm not pumped to watch that.

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