If Superman had an office, he’d be sitting in it right now, superfingers massaging his supertemples, staring at a phone that won’t stop ringing. “Man, oh man,” he’d sigh, “everybody wants a piece of Superman. Can’t a guy just Return already?”
Everyone does want a piece of Supes, of course. Because Superman belongs to everyone. For weeks, the Superman-is-gay debate has raged, focusing on the duality of Supes’ personality, his hidden identity, his suppressed fabulousness. (No, no, no! say the filmmakers, with utter predictability.)
There’s the Superman-is-Jesus thesis, centering on his function as a “savior” and the fact that he’s a man, yet not a man. There’s also the reading of Superman-as-immigrant, or, more specifically, as the quintessential American Jew: Cast out of his birthplace, his power waxes as he assimilates. And, theologically speaking, that’s not incompatible with the idea of a Messiah. (Supes was created by two Jews, after all.)
And then there’s the idea that Superman is, well, a superman, in the Nietzschean sense, an idea best advanced by David Carradine’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 speech, which notes that Clark Kent is Superman’s chosen disguise, his imitation of the typical human: weak, cowardly, “a critique of the whole human race.” On a possibly related note, Frank Miller (and others before him) saw Superman as an embodiment of the American superpower: proud, mighty, and blinkered. (He set him in opposition to Batman, the American id.)
So who/what is Superman? It seems pretty certain that Superman, like every icon, is all of the above, and more. The test of a good icon is its ability to absorb a multitude of interpretations. Like mine, for example: Superman, clearly, is a vertically challenged entertainment writer from North Carolina. What’s the Kryptonite in this metaphor? Oh, like I’m telling you.