What makes a superhero? Is it the otherworldly powers and abilities, or the strength of character. While it may seem like these fictional myths are popular because or their powers, it is their nature that makes them truly resonate. The same applies to Superman.
Superman is one of the most recognizable superheroes of all time. At times, he gets the reputation of being less relatable than other heroes. But the question that arises is; since when did virtuousness become unrealistic? Superman doesn’t have to be considered as an alien who is too much unlike us when two humans, who instilled basic human values in him, raised him. We don’t have to compare ourselves with Superman because he represents all the physical powers that regular human being can’t possess. Instead, a comparison can be drawn with Clark Kent, who represents all the human attributes of the character in the best way possible.
The age-old question surrounding Superman is whether Clark Kent or Kal-El is his true self. I would argue that Kal-El was who he was on Krypton. Upon entering a foreign planet, he was essentially a blank canvas. Whereas Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van made him into who he was on a much deeper level, just like any child, his character could have been influenced by many factors. On Earth, Martha and Jonathan’s influenced shaped him into a true Superman and it wasn’t because of his super strength or heat vision, it was solely due to the strength of his character.
“You just have to decide what kind of a man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Because whoever that man is, good character or bad, he’s going to change the world.”
The Superman Comics are essential in highlighting the strength of Clark Kent’s character and they serve as evidence to the claim that Clark Kent is more Superman than any alien can ever be.
Superman: Earth One is an insight into Clark’s early years. In the comic, we see Clark trying to get a job that fulfills the promise he made to his deceased father; that he would take care of his mother. He is unsure of the path he wants to take so he calls his mother. This moment in the comic highlights his dependence on his family and truly illustrates the influence his human parents had on him. “I’ve got this place, my retirement, my memories of Jonathan… and I’ve got you. That’s a whole galaxy right there, Clark. What else do I need?” Martha tells Clark. All she needs is for Clark to follow his dreams but Clark wonders if that would be selfish for him. Martha tells him that that is how futures get built. Instead of instilling material values in him, she taught him the importance of contentment. That was perhaps why Clark Kent always chose to keep a low profile. He never wanted recognition as Clark Kent; all he wanted was to help people.
Martha later tells him that if she does want something it is the same as what Jonathan had wanted but she leaves that decision up to him. She tells him that just because he can do something, doesn’t mean that it’s right for him to do. “If you do go down that road you’ll probably lose more than you’d ever stand to gain from it.” She says and tells him that she would be happy with whatever decision he decides to make. When Clark makes the decision, he flies to Jonathan’s grave to tell his father that he has decided to do something that makes him happy. “I just didn’t want you to think that I’d forgotten everything you taught me. There’s still a lot I can do to help people openly or otherwise. I can find cures… expose corruption…give the average guy a leg up when the world wants to crush him.” He tells his father. He goes on to say that things like that meant as much to him as they did to Jonathan. But even after he decides that he is incapable of being the superhero his parents envisioned, when Tyrell attacks Earth, he becomes that very superhero. He decides that he’s ready to lose more than he’d ever stand to gain from it, if it meant that he would be doing the right thing.
“There’s one thing I do know, son. And that is, you are here for a reason.”
Superman: Secret Identity has a different take on Superman. Even though its non-canonical, it still highlights the importance of the character and what makes him the superhero we know and appreciate. In the comic, Superman’s a fictional character and the story revolves around a regular boy living in Kansas who was named after Clark Kent. He gets bullied for his name and for not being a superhero when he is named after one. Like every other person, he, too, wishes to have superpowers but he mentions that if he envies Superman for one thing, it’s that he gets to have a normal life. He suddenly attains superpowers and even though he isn’t the fictional ‘Superman’, he ends up helping people more than he ends up enjoying having those powers because he is Clark Kent before he is a superhero. It is his humanity that makes him the real superhero.
Superman: Birthright explores a story much like that of what we know Superman’s story to be like. The comics explores the influence that Clark Kent’s character has on Superman and we see Clark telling his parents that the fact that they had taught him to do right by people was the greatest gift they had ever given him. This shows that ever since Martha and Jonathan took him in, they recognized the good inside him and instead of trying to benefit from his super powers for material gains, they taught him the importance of virtuousness. Later, when Jonathan is worried, Martha consoles him. “You were always good at keeping his feet on the ground, Jonathan. Talk to him. Maybe he comes from the stars but he needs to be reminded he’s just like you and me.” Clark knows that by choosing to be a superhero he’s adopting a new identity but he reassures his father than he doesn’t want to stop being Clark Kent. Later, he decides that he won’t put on a mask because he wants the people to see a human face and for them to trust him. Martha gives him glasses to conceal his eyes and he is told to conceal his physique and slouch.
This can be directly linked to Superman: The Movie, where as soon as Clark took off his glasses, his posture improved and he started radiating confidence. But it is to be realized that Superman and Clark Kent were never supposed to be different. They are the same. In fact, Clark Kent’s humanity compliments Superman’s super powers because without his virtuousness, Superman would never be able to use his power for good. And without his super powers, Clark Kent wouldn’t have been able to save the world the way his virtuousness required for him to.
“I don’t care where he came from. All I know is that he needs us.”
Clark Kent’s character was also seen in Superman: The Animated Series and the series portrays him brilliantly and emphasizes on the factors that played a role in making him a true Superman. One thing that was highlighted in the series was the fact that upon finding Clark, Jonathan and Martha kept the truth from him and decided to raise him as if he were an ordinary human. Jonathan worries about his origins but Martha says that she doesn’t care about where he came from and that all she knows is that he needs them. They keep the ship he arrived in but they raise him as a human and he goes to school just like any other child. But the difference between Clark Kent and any other child is that Clark Kent is not biologically human and so he is confused by the powers he possesses. In school, he trusts Lana Lang and tells her that he is confused by the sounds he hears and the power of his sight. But as he mentions this, he hears a vehicle get into an accident and without being told what to do; he goes and saves the victims of the accident. He doesn’t know who he is but his instinct is to save people through whatever power he possesses. He doesn’t even know if he can save those people and manage to survive but he does so because that’s what the human side of him requires of him.
Upon talking to his parents about his increasing powers, Jonathan and Martha decide to tell him the truth. But when his biological parents tell him about his origins, he mentions that he doesn’t believe it and instead chooses to find comfort in his existence as Clark Kent, a human. Jor-El and Lara tell their son about his powers and advise him to not use those powers in anger but they don’t have to tell him that. Before learning the truth about himself, Clark still possessed those powers but he never used them to hurt anyone. It wasn’t like he couldn’t; he just chose to use them to save people. That’s something that was human about him. That illustrates the importance of Jonathan and Martha’s influence on him. Because they raised him as a human before anything else, his humanity came before any powers and thus turned him into a beloved superhero.
His humanity is also highlighted in another episode; Brave New Metropolis. In another dimension, Superman is Superman, but he isn’t Clark Kent. He has become a tyrant, wears a black suit, and instills fear in the hearts of the people. It is all because he has lost his connection to his human side; Lois Lane. Upon her death, Clark feels disconnected with everything that made him human and instead values his power over everything that made him human. When he sees Lois from another dimension, the change in his facial expressions says it all. Then, when he talks to Lois, she helps him relocate his connection to humanity and brings back Clark Kent. Therefore, when he becomes Clark Kent again, he becomes Superman again, truly showing us that Clark Kent is why Superman is who we know him to be.
“It doesn’t matter where you were, or what you can do, you’ll always be Clark Kent. Superman just helps out now and then.”
Bizarro is also shown in the series and I believe that the existence of Bizarro simply emphasizes the importance of Clark Kent. In the episode, Bizarro has the same DNA as Superman and in the beginning acts just like him, aiming to save people but the difference between him and the real Superman becomes evident quickly. Bizarro’s face becomes deformed and his skin starts to come off. Instead of forming coherent sentences, him saying “I am Superman” changes into “Me am Superman” and he becomes aware that he really isn’t the true Superman. It isn’t that he isn’t Superman, it’s that he can’t be and despite possessing his DNA he isn’t Superman because he isn’t Clark Kent. He doesn’t possess that human side that is the true essence of who Superman is and he knows it.
In terms of cinema, Christopher Reeve reinvented the character of Superman and while doing so; he invented the character of Clark Kent. He contains all the qualities of Clark Kent mentioned in the comics but while highlighting the similarities between Clark and Superman, he did something important. His portrayal showed the difference between the two and how those differences complemented each other. In the first film, as soon as Clark takes off his glasses, his demeanor changes and he starts exuding more confidence. He has been taught to be humble, mellow and over-all human, and he’s able to differentiate between being a regular human and being an all-powerful alien. When it comes to being Superman though, he merges two of those identities and guides the use of his powers through his human nature to help people.
“I’ve got to try something. Anything.”
In Superman II, when he doesn’t have his powers, he is driven by his intention to protect when he fights a truck driver. He knows he doesn’t have his powers and still fights the driver, getting beat up only because his good intentions demanded him to do everything in his power to protect those around him and to fight for good. However, when the threat of Zod is made known to the world and he demands Superman to “kneel before Zod”, he wants to regain his power so that he can save the world. He wants to do anything and everything in his power to save the world.
Films like Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice are no different.
Man of Steel shows glimpses of Clark’s moments with Jonathan and Martha. When Jonathan decides to tell Clark the truth, he tells him that he believes that he was sent to Earth for a reason. He tells him that all the changes he is going through will be considered as a blessing one day. “And when that day comes, you’re gonna have to make a choice; a choice of whether to stand proud in front of the human race or not.” He says. Clark is comfortable in being a regular human and asks him whether or not he can keep pretending to be Jonathan and Martha’s son. “You are my son” Jonathan says to him, proving that Clark was raised to be a human before anything else.
“Be their hero, Clark. Be their monument, be their angel, be anything they need you to be, or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.”
Jor-El and Lara’s true purpose was fulfilled when Jonathan and Martha instilled basic human values in their son and it is evident when Jor-El tells his son that they wanted him to learn what it meant to be human first so that when the right time arrived, he could be the bridge between two people. At the end of the film, Clark decides to get a mundane job – being a reporter. He does this so that he can keep being a regular human while saving the world.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice highlights Superman’s humanity as well. Lex Luthor believes him to be all-powerful and some sort of a tyrannical figure but instead of challenging him in a physical fight, he plays with his human emotions, he captures his mother. “Now God bends to my will,” Lex says, which shows that Superman doesn’t claim to be all-powerful, he experiences the same emotions as any human would. Confused and distressed, Clark goes to his mother. Martha Kent tells him that people hate what they cannot understand and that he could be their hero or their angel or he could decide to be none of it because he didn’t owe anyone anything. However, at the end of the film, he sacrifices himself to save the world not just because his parents, both biological and adoptive, taught him to do the right thing but because this was the character Clark had chosen for himself. He sacrificed his life to save the world because he loved his home and felt the need to save it.
“This is my world.”
In Superman Returns, Lois writes the article ‘Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman’ and despite the fact that it was written because of Lois’ anger, it doesn’t have to be wrong. Maybe the world doesn’t need a Superman. All it needs is someone that has Superman’s intentions and that someone is Clark Kent. The world wouldn’t need a Superman if it had a Clark Kent because Clark Kent truly represents the values of Superman. He is the real Superman, and his physical powers only allow him to carry out his well-intentioned deeds. The world would be a different place if only someone like Clark Kent existed because he wouldn’t need any physical powers to make the world a better place, he would simply be prepared to do anything and everything to do the right thing and that is all we need.