"He comes from somewhere else, and goes through a rebirth on a new planet," says Gareth Barkin, assistant professor of media anthropology at Centre College in Danville, Ky. This godlike origin story, with echoes of Greco-Roman mythology as well as the births of Moses and Jesus, reinforces the idea that American values of truth, liberty, and justice are universal, because they come from above. This emphasis on cosmic ideals from the heavens is significant because the US is the only nation based on an idea, rather than geography; it has philosophical rather than national roots. "This turning to figures like Superman, with an inalienable moral center," says Mr. Barkin, "is how the US sees itself and, in its heart, distinguishes itself from other nations."
Even the question of "Who am I?" that Superman must face when Ma and Pa Kent reveal his true origin is fundamentally American. "This question of, 'What do I symbolize, what do I stand for,' " says Michael Uslan, executive producer of the Batman movies, "this is something the Founding Fathers were doing by asking, 'What is the essence of this new country, America?' " Thus, he adds, Superman's perpetual fight to feel at home in his earthly costume has mirrored America's own struggle to define its role in the world.
For Kal-El, the boy who fell from Krypton, this has meant an endless stream of costume changes, not to mention an expanding – and occasionally shrinking – menu of superpowers. (After all, if you can juggle planets in space, what challenge is left?) The son of Jor-El was little more than a superthug when he began, using threats and implied violence against Depression-era malcontents such as wife beaters and corrupt politicians.
"The key aspects of the comic clearly resonated for that time period," says Joseph Darowski, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University writing his thesis on the evolution of superheroes. "Superman could be seen as the New Deal government that would come and fix everyone's problems while Clark Kent, with all his insecurities, was like the people who had lost all their confidence and [had] become emasculated."