Stories that Shaped my Faith
Superman’s Crisis of Identity
By Mark Tao | December 16, 2015
I remember my first and favorite toy well: Superman. My miniature Christopher Reeves spent countless hours flying around my grandmother’s Buddha and hammering his way past lotus candies. But as well as Superman served me as a faithful companion, in time he became something more. He became a guide to Americanization—a symbol of truth, justice, and the American way.
But if childhood is idyllic, adolescence is mercurial. Growing older I began to see things differently. As I wrestled with identity politics and encountered orientalism for the first time, it dawned on me that I would always be a “perpetual foreigner” on the basis of my ancestry and complexion. I learned what it meant to be made subject to a racial binary; inhabiting both whiteness and blackness in accordance with the logic of capitalism, becoming a pawn in the race wars so whites could continue to prosper and blacks could be kept disenfranchised.
As I became disillusioned with American attitudes toward the foreigner, I unsurprisingly lost interest in the Superman of my childhood. What was to be gained from the story of an alien who came to earth, blended in, became accepted as a native son—all so he could use his powers to sell war bonds, hold bald eagles, and perpetuate whiteness and U.S. exceptionalism? That immigrant story was not at all consonant with my own.
As I wrestled with identity politics, it began to dawn on me that I would always be a perpetual foreigner.
But symbols are subject to re-interpretation. Over the years, the Golden Era Superman has given way to other multiform visions of Superman. Mark Millar’s three-issue mini-series, Red Son, re-envisioned baby Kal-El crash-landing on a Ukrainian collective farm in the Soviet Republic and becoming the super-comrade who defended Stalin and socialism. David S. Goyer’s work in Action Comics #900 has Kal renounce his American citizenship. Superman Earth One, written by J. Michael Straczynski, depicts Kal as a teenager grappling with issues of his own coming of age, social belonging, and transnationalism—a citizen of two worlds but home in none.
In each of these works, Superman’s nativism and nationalism are problematized. No longer is Kal naïvely using his powers in blind support of a triumphalist patriotism. No longer does Kal enjoy the status of complete social acceptance as the people’s hero. Rather, in each account, he experiences the strain of liminality, and is subject to the fickleness of the human condition. He grapples with what it means to be an outsider who, despite sharing similar insider values, remains socially isolated—solicited for aid when politically expedient and scorned when not. In short, Kal suffers from a crisis of identity; and this crisis more often than not places him in a position of resisting empire, powers, and principalities and standing in solidarity with all others who are considered “alien” by the world.
This crisis of identity has been perhaps most codified in Goyer/Nolan’s 2013 film Man of Steel. The plot is formulaic: Kal is sent to earth, grows up, and protects earth’s citizens from imminent invasion at the hands of Kryptonian General Zod. But what is of worthy of note is the amount of time the film spends intently framing Kal’s nomadic existence as Clark Kent. Recognizing society’s fear of the foreigner, Kal migrates from locale to locale in isolation, a proverbial ghost, wishing to be neither recognized nor remembered. There is a kind of messianic secret at work here; Kal, who will come to be viewed as savior, wishes to remain anonymous for fear he will be misconstrued. Though difficult, he embraces the “betwixt and between” spaces he must occupy as a necessary good.
Here, in comparing messianic accounts (Kal vs. Christ) a door is opened for fresh Christological reflection. Did Jesus Christ, too, not suffer human loneliness on the basis of his foreignness? Was he captive to the power of the state, or did he seek to subvert it? Was he pained by those in power who looked on him with suspicion and mistrust? Did his own foreignness cause him to be that much more attentive to those in our world who themselves lack protections in our societies? Did he suffer crisis of identity when considering what it was he was tasked to do?
While Superman is a woefully inadequate messianic analogy, Kal’s struggle between his natures does resemble Christ’s. Even with his full divinity and power, Jesus had to experience kenosis, contending with the reality of his own fleshly embodiment and accompanying human angst. This struggle reminds us that our savior was not a triumphalist messiah coming with swiftness and fury to put all nations under his dominion. Nor is he a tool through which we express our own ideological agendas. Rather, Jesus embraced liminality as a way of life, accepted his status as an outsider, practiced civil disobedience, stood with the marginalized, and called us to view the “foreigner” as “neighbor.” May we be empowered to do the same.