What Quentin Tarantino Got Wrong About Superman
Over the last few months, I have been making my way through the earliest comic book appearances of the Man of Steel. It’s interesting to see how Superman gradually transformed into the character most audiences would be familiar with today. For example, it wasn’t until his third year of publication that Superman actually performed a feat that could, conceivably, be defined as flying. For the first thirty or so issues of ACTION COMICS, Superman merely jumped really far distances.
While reading the early comic book appearances of Superman, I have found myself endlessly fascinated by Clark Kent’s relationship with Lois Lane. Lois hates Clark - this isn’t an example of “will they, won’t they” sexual tension, this is a strong, capable female reporter despising the cowardly sad sack lump of farmboy meat she is so frequently saddled up with when put on assignment by their editor Perry White. Clark, of course, is just pretending to be a milquetoast sap. In the truest sense of the word, Clark frequently gaslights Lois in his attempt to conceal his true identity as Superman. Eventually, this relationship will change and Lois will begin to suspect that Clark is really Superman and will spend so much of her time trying to expose the truth. In these earliest issues, though, Lois could never conceive that a man so week-kneed and adverse to any display of violence could in fact be the hunky hero who keeps saving her.
This pull and play between Clark Kent and Superman is something that a lot of modern writers pick up on. Is Clark Kent pretending to be Superman or is Superman pretending to be Clark Kent? Quentin Tarantino masterfully made the case in KILL BILL, VOL. 2 that Clark Kent is the real disguise - a critique on how he saw humanity.
One thing that is important in these early issues of ACTION COMICS and SUPERMAN, I think, is the fact that Superman’s identity as an alien is almost never really remarked upon. This externalized “outsider” approach to Superman that a lot of modern creators have clung to just doesn't exist in the early comics by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I don’t fault people like Tarantino in their reading of the character as an alien pretending to be a human. After all, there are plenty of stories by various Superman creators who take this approach.
I think it’s the far less interesting take on the character, though.
Superman is an immigrant story - I’ve written about this in the past. He was sent as a baby to an adopted homeworld and raised by two loving, all-American parents. As he grew older, he began to learn more about his Kryptonian heritage and even started, on occasion, to use his birth name, Kal-El. He hangs Kryptonian artifacts and artwork on the walls of his “study” (aka, his Fortress of Solitude) and various storylines have given him opportunities to visit his homeworld whether via time travel, shrunken preserved cities, or visiting relatives. He knows the language, owns a few traditional outfits, and probably, when the occasion calls for it, has a few good recipes for Kryptonian food. But none of this erases the fact that Clark Kent was raised in Kansas on a farm by two white Americans. Superman has the same basic experiences with his heritage that a second or third-generation immigrant has.
Growing up, I used to be called a coconut. This playful slur (?) referred to the fact that my skin was brown but inside I was all creamy nougat center. I grew up 45 minutes from the Texas/Mexican border but I still do not know Spanish. Depending on who I tell this to, I have come to expect either shock and confusion or disappointment. When I was younger, I would claim to be Middle Eastern so that the older Hispanics I met did not shake their heads and mumble various proclamations of disappointment. My usual go-to excuse for explaining why I don’t speak Spanish is to point out the fact that my parents would use the language as a way to speak to each other without my sisters and me understanding them. They enjoyed have private conversations with each other right in front of us – why give that up by teaching their children Spanish?
The truth, though, was that I just didn’t care. My parents would have taught me Spanish if I had shown interest. But, as a Hispanic kid growing up in South Texas where 90 percent of the population looked like me, I didn’t identify as a Mexican-American, a Latino, or Chicano. I actually remember crying when my parents first told me I was Mexican-American. It was, I imagine, a very similar experience to when Clark Kent found out he was Kryptonian.
How and where you are raised is a humongous part of your identity - more than any ancestral heritage that might be coursing through your blood. DNA controls the color of your skin, the consistency of your hair, and some specific behavioral tendencies but it does not control your personality. Superman is not Kryptonian just because he was born there - he would have had to learn to be Kryptonian by throwing himself into what artifacts remain of his culture. His overwhelming identity, though, would have come from the fact that he grew up in Kansas on a farm.
I might understand an argument that, when somebody like Tarantino says Superman is pretending to be Clark Kent, he’s not referring to the fact it’s an alien pretending to be a human but instead is referring to the idea that Superman - with his godlike powers - is pretending to be mortal. I can totally get where that is coming from - but I just don’t agree with it.
When Clark Kent makes himself look like a coward in front of the woman he loves in order to protect his identity as Superman, he’s doing it at a great cost. I truly believe that Clark Kent loves Lois Lane in these early Superman comics. He pines for her in a way that I understand. But, even still, Clark knows that his role and responsibilities as Superman come first and he must give up any chance of impressing Lois by hiding the fact that he is a capable man in his identity as Clark Kent. Remember - the only physical thing disguising the fact that Clark Kent and Superman are the same is a pair of glasses and the way he parts his hair. Everything else Clark does to obscure his identity of Superman comes down to the way he carries his person as Clark Kent. He knows that in order to truly convince people that Kent and Superman are different entities, he must take each identity to the extreme. Look at the masterful way that Christopher Reeve portrayed the character in 1978's SUPERMAN or the truly fantastic way Frank Quitely drew Superman's transformation into Clark Kent in ALL-STAR SUPERMAN.
Maybe it’s because we have been inundated so much in the last few years with stories of godlike superheroes turning dark and murderous because their unlimited powers, but I just don’t care about an extremely powerful superhero pretending to be a human. I think it’s much more interesting a story to explore a human superhero understanding that he must make sacrifices to do the greater good - even if that means sacrificing the reputation of his true, human identity.
I also think Clark’s willingness to make himself look like a coward in order to let Superman save the day is an interesting thing to explore in today’s societal landscape.
Social media is a necessary evil in today’s world. We need it to promote ourselves and connect with opportunities and some real positive change has come about because of movements started and spread through social media. I can’t help but feel, though, that these few examples of the positive effect of social media don’t measure up with the real damage happening to society because of it. From the anger and frustration that places like Twitter and Facebook breed to the distraction that social media gives us in thinking we’re making everlasting change through hashtag activism, people have become overwhelmingly vocal in their outward philanthropy and activism on social media but what is all of this actually mean?
I see posts about signed petitions, and donated funds and selfies at marches - but is this externalized, amplified action really helping the cause, or is it helping people feel better about themselves? Is there a better way to make real change in the world happen than by posting about it on Twitter, Facebook or TikTok?
I don’t want to dismiss social media activism altogether. There’s something important about the amplification of underrepresented voices. That said, I can’t help but worry that people are shouting into a large void via social media when the real change and the real progress needed to make the world a better place comes through quiet, unseen acts of kindness.
Social media activism preaches to the choir. It’s telling things to people who already agree with them and all it does is rile them up even more, and add to the general feeling of overwhelming anger about the injustice of the world. I’d love to be proven wrong but I just don’t think people will have their viewpoint changed by a meme they saw posted on Facebook or a retweeted article on Twitter. I think the real way to make a difference in the world is to go out there into the world and, without broadcasting it on social media or making a huge deal out of it, just do something good for somebody else.
A friend of mine recently told me that she takes care of a homeless man who lives near her home. She brings him food, supplies, clothing. She checked in with him before a recent hurricane. This is an example of real heroism, this is the kind of behavior Superman would do. Is it surprising then that this friend is the biggest fan of Superman that I know?
What does this have to do with Quentin Tarantino's analysis of Superman in KILL BILL, VOL. 2? I think removing Superman from humanity robs readers and fans of the fictional character's aspirational heroics. By saying that Superman and his upmost kindness, courage, and dedication to truth, justice, and the American Way is something that only an alien or a god could achieve, it takes away from humanity's portrayal.
Superman makes a fool out of himself as Clark Kent and this cost is important to him because Clark Kent is his real identity - not Superman. By making Superman the driving personality and Clark Kent the mask he wears, Kent’s sacrifice is rendered meaningless. If Superman doesn’t care about what his friends and colleagues think of Clark Kent, it strips so much of the humanistic heroism from Superman’s actions.
Superman is not a superhero because he was born on Krypton - he's a hero because he was raised by good people who taught him to do the right thing.