Superman managed to insinuate himself in the pop culture pantheon of greatest American icons as the result of personifying a number of metaphorical aspects of culture deemed distinctively “American” in nature. Superman is an immigrant (and an illegal one and unregistered one at that!) who embodies the frontier spirit of mobility as a key to finding personal success. That success through mobility comes about as a result of America’s rejection of rigid class consciousness in which birth determines one’s future; like any good American, Superman takes advantage of America’s system which allows anyone to reinvent themselves as something new and different as the need arises.
Part of that effort at reinvention involves the act of creating a new identity in the form of Clark Kent that is distinctly at odds with his actual reality. That persona becomes vital to the enduring status of Superman as a cultural icon specifically due to that element of polar opposition to the nearly-invulnerable alien from Krypton. Few people ever rise to their feet to root on the powerhouse team who haven’t lost a game in four years; they are far more likely to root for the hapless team that hasn’t come to a championship in half a century. Without the nerdy Clark Kent to endow the unbeatable powerhouse that Superman really is, the potential exists for Superman inevitably to become more a figure that inspires fear that a figure truth and justice.
Superman’s evolution to remain relevant has taken him from overly muscled Greek God to a noticeably more average build for the 1950’s TV series that cast him closer to the image of the suburban fathers of all those kids who gathered in front of the TV to watch. By the time of his color resurrection on the big screen in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, he had regained a more cut muscularity, but was equipped with a winking ironic self-awareness of the underlying ridiculousness of his Clark Kent differentiation. Most attempt to implicate a religious subtext to Superman have stayed clear of his more mainstream appearances on TV and in the movies. This may be partially due to the distinctly Jewish overtones of Superman as messiah created very much in the image of the type of hero that his young Jewish creators likely knew quite well through their shared Semitic heritage.
That religious component of heroism as part of the American ideal has disappeared from much of the landscape as well. America is a much different place today than it was at any time during the heights of Superman’s popularity and his identification as an iconic personification of the American Ideal. An understanding and appreciation of the evolution of those ideals constituting what it means to be an iconic American can be demonstrated precisely through pop culture’s fictional heroes which most exemplify those changing conventions and traditions. For instance, one can forward a very strong argument that the popularity of Breaking Bad can be attribute in no small way to protagonist Walter White coming to be viewed as embodying the true spirit of the American business man. Walter White embodies the desire for to educate young Americans to become energetic young capitalists forwarding the god of free market enterprise; that he makes his fortune producing a product with the capability of killing his very customers hardly enters the discourse. After all, in the ultimate scheme of things, how is Walter White really any different at all from American business icons Philip Morris, Samuel Colt or Jasper Newton Daniel?