In just over the last decade, superhero movies have become among some of the most popular and even beloved forms of entertainment. What used to be popular comic books for kids and teens has become a movie and television staple. Like stories of Greek and Roman myths, the superheroes are powerful figures that protect, provide and even love us. They are aspirational figures that point us to a noble purpose, even as the villains depict an ignoble purpose and descent.
While there have been many popular superhero television series and movies over the years, the intense new revolution of interest in superheroes began with the Marvel Universe movies, beginning with ‘Iron Man’ and showing no signs of stopping of late. In the DC movie and television universe, the most popular superhero is Superman. Whether it is the movie series starring the late Christopher Reeve, many different television series over the years, or the more recent movie installments starring Henry Cavill, Superman is extremely familiar to us and his origin story is one that is well remembered. For this blog post, the story of Superman via the 1978 movie is the version being referenced. What is it about this story that gets retold again and again? What resonates within us about this story?
For those of you less aware of Superman (or in the interest of jogging your memory), the Superman origin story begins in another planet, Krypton, in another universe. Superman’s first and biological father Jor-El predicts that their planet will soon explode and after presenting his theories, which are rejected, he is made to promise that neither he nor his wife will leave and escape the pending disaster that he firmly believes is coming.
Jor-El makes no such promises regarding his infant son, Kal-El, and decides to save his life by sending him to Earth in a spaceship. While his appearance will be of a human being, his alien genetic makeup will allow for him to have extraordinary powers. Soon after the small spaceship is launched, Krypton does indeed explode, killing all inhabitants, including the parents of Jor-El.
When Kal-El’s spaceship crashes into Earth, he is discovered by an older childless couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent. Martha Clark Kent has “prayed and prayed for a child” and now to discover this now toddler on an ordinary drive near their home feels like answered prayers. She convinces her husband to raise Kal-El as their son in the Middle West, in a town called Smallville, even the name speaks of extreme humility. A cover story is quickly used to explain the baby’s sudden appearance in their lives; he is the son of a cousin another state. Aware of the superpowers the child has, the couple will do their best to hide his powers and give him a loving family in which to grow up. Kal-El will now be called Clark Kent. Echoing the Biblical stories of Moses and Christ, the child-figure does not fully belong to Earth and Earth’s human species but is fully embraced and loved by his new family, who will raise him as their own. His life, however, will need to move beyond his family. The psychological need to individuate will haunt him until he must take leave of his family and pursue his own separate individual identity.
Keeping his identity and powers secret alienates from his peers, which proves deeply frustrating and sad. Kal-El /now Clark Kent would love to revel in his powers and become the high school star football player, which is discouraged by his second father, Jonathan Kent, who encourages him to search and find the meaning of his powers and his life. Once completely revealed, his super powers are super strength, flight, almost impervious to physical harm or injury, eyes able to cause intense heat and see through the material world. Obviously, cloaking these super powers becomes a necessity for the character.
Much like fairy tales, the Superman myth begins with trauma and loss. Kal-El loses not only his first parents and his home planet but also his identity. His new identity does not feel like an entirely true and authentic reflection of himself, even as he loves and is securely attached to his second parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. For every person, the eternal question, “Who Am I?” becomes necessary. Superman looks to integrate the various facets of his life, as each of us faces how can we integrate the many influences in our lives: family, community, education, profession, and avocation? Each affect and change us.
Soon after his second father stresses to him to find the reason behind his powers, he dies from a heart attack, leaving Martha and Clark in shock. During sleep, Clark feels a ‘call’ from a shard of a glass-like substance, which lies buried on the Kent property. After he discovers it, he feels that it is time for him to truly begin a search for who he is; this search is fully supported by his second mother with whom he will remain in contact with and later, he will materially provide for her with a portion of his salary as a journalist. His profession as a journalist allows for another key to the character: he is true outside and an observer. This professional life highlights his identity as an outsider. At times, it is a burden but it also allows for for the character to have a different perspective.
Following his own intuition, Clark begins a journey and walks north for miles and miles. He is unsure of where he is going but is following an inner prompting, a feeling of certitude that his trek will correctly allow him to land in the right spot. Arriving at a deserted spot in the North Pole, he throws his small shard of the spaceship into the air.
When it lands, a formation grows and grows. This place, called his Fortress of Solitude, will become both a home and a university. Here, his first parents have provided him with an education. Equivalent to videotapes or audio recordings (which also played during his spaceship ride to Earth), a deeper education emerges. Listening and learning from these recordings, Clark begins to form ideas about his sense of mission in life; a mission that will energize his choices and give his life a purpose and clear focus. Inside this education experience which lasts several years, Clark will be able to begin to form his own ideas about who he is. His identity as Kal-El and Clark Kent merge and form a new identity, ultimately becoming Superman. Both his first and second families speak and model to him high ideals, thoughts of serving others, honesty and hard work will be among his personal drives.
This fusion of influences in the character’s lives speaks to the audience on many levels. Certainly people who were adopted into their families often speak of the emotional challenges and difficulties of their individual identities. The question of which family is ‘truly’ their own is often stressed. The popular Hans Christian Anderson story of the Ugly Duckling tells a story of a duckling not quite fitting into his family, feeling different and rejected by his family. That is until he discovers his true self: a swan.
The individuation process in discovering who we are and how we connect to our families, while also being an individual, is not simple. For people who were not adopted, the complicated question of identity, attachment and purpose is, of course, different. The writers of the Superman story tap into this brilliantly, as well as utilizing the psychological narrative of adoption to highlight the character’s ‘otherness’. His differences, which caused pain, bullying and ostracizing from peers, will ultimately allow him to step into himself in a new way that reveals him to be a hero.
The Fortress of Solitude is a a home for the character, which will be particularly meaningful for him after his series of traumatic losses. What is your Fortress of Solitude? It certainly does not necessarily need to be a physical place but a place for being your true self. A place that allows you to be full relaxed and after feeling recharged, ready to engage with the hectic demands of the world.
For some people, reading, physical exercise, making music, watching television or movies, drawing, cooking or even cleaning the physical space in which they live provide time to calm their mind, focus on an activity, and center themselves, readying themselves for the world. For some people, meditation, a spiritual and/or religious practice allows them to feel refreshed. Some people value the ‘ritual’ of cleaning their home and doing laundry on the weekend, making a few meals that will be enjoyed later in the week, provide them with a ‘Fortress of Solitude’ that will give them space and energy to begin the week.
The Fortress of Solitude in the Superman story also has a mirror concept, a total opposite idea held in stark contrast. Superman’s powers are vast and formidable, he loses his powers and becomes extremely weak if he is physically close to Kryptonite, a physical remnant from his home planet Krypton. In storylines, this weakness is exploited by his enemies whenever possible.
This fascinating piece of emotional trauma is played out in the story using the physicality of our world to reveal a psychological truth. For Superman, something from his past causes a loss of physical energy and a loss of his superpowers, forcing him to withdraw from his active mission in life until someone helps him or he can somehow outsmart and eliminate the destructive influence from his past.
For each of us, there are many things in life that haunt us and affect us in various ways emotionally, psychologically and sometimes, even physically. As a psychotherapist, I’ve been privileged to see and be involved with how people deal with emotional stress from the past. In some clients’ lives, illness, death of a loved one, an accident, physical or sexual abuse, bullying in the past, emotional stress from a particular time in their lives can cause a loss of energy, feeling ‘wiped out’ and unable to move forward. I know a man whose wife died tragically young and he typically becomes physically ill around the anniversary of her death. The reminders can be highly specific or random; the effects can be difficult to feel and integrate.
For Superman, the Kryptonite needs to be physically away from him or encased in lead; in this way, the pain from the past is not present. We all have wounds in our lives and how do we deal with them? How can we contain them in a way that allows us to move forward?
Psychotherapy is certainly a powerful avenue to address wounds in our past and to provide a place for healing and integration. As a therapist, the techniques I use with clients suffering from difficulties and distress vary from case to case. EMDR, Brainspotting and Hypnosis can each be extremely effective and helpful to identify and release the trauma, helping people to move forward with energy and focus in their lives. It is extremely rewarding to be able to help people who struggle with their past (whether trauma is the word chosen to describe the emotional distress or not). Identifying and naming the ‘Kryptonite’ from the past helps us to move forward, allowing us to eventually understand and integrate it so we can move forward in life with freedom and energy.
For Superman, the Kryptonite has been simplified by the writers of his origin story and represented physically in a way that is easily understood by audience members of various ages. For each of us, the ‘Kryptonite’ is more complex and challenging. The rewards of feeling liberated from deep pain in the past is incalculable.
The question of your personal ‘Kryptonite’ is essential to ask yourself, as well as give yourself the time and resources to discover and contain the answer in a way that allows you to have the personal freedom you desire.