Kindly Couple: Why The Kents Are Vital To The Superman Mythos
Superman is often defined by his powers or his quite literal alienation, but the Man of Steel is so much more than that. Superman represents the potential of humanity through his kindness, his empathy and his generosity. All of these qualities he learned directly from two people, Jonathan and Martha Kent, and when you change anything about that dynamic, you wind up with a very different Superman.
In John Byrne’s classic reinvention, Man of Steel, there’s no mention made of ancient Kryptonian family crests; instead, Clark sits down with his dad and designs a logo based on the “Superman” name already coined for him by the Daily Planet, while Ma works on the costume. It isn’t all fun family crafts however, as it’s Pa Kent who takes Clark aside when he’s young and inspires him to be more than just a high school football star.
Pa Kent is where Clark learns how to stand up for himself, and more importantly, how to stand up for others. Jonathan Kent will always go out of his way to help out his neighbors and look after his family. In Mark Waid and Leinil Yu's Birthright, Clark cites his father's courage and individualism as reasons why he looks up to him as a hero, despite Jonathan's very human anxiety that his son embracing his alien heritage with pull them apart.
Clark gets his inquisitive nature from his mother Martha, who remains active and engaged with the wider world, even into her older years. In Byrne's post-Crisis take, Ma Kent scours newspapers for every possible mention of her son, even before he debuts as Superman, and in Birthright, she's somewhat of a UFO truther, who keeps in touch with Clark via email and helps him understand the tablet left behind by Jor-El and Lara.
Even as an adult, well into his career as Superman, the role of The Kents remain vital to Clark. They keep Superman human, should he ever feel alienated, and their farm in Smallville provides a refuge that’s more welcoming and less sterile than the Fortress of Solitude. The world may look up to Superman, but Superman looks up to his parents, who taught him the values of Truth, Justice, and The American Way.
Perhaps one of the greatest depictions of the Kent family unit is in the Christmas episode of the Justice League cartoon, titled Comfort & Joy. Ma Kent invites the seven foot green alien Martian Manhunter into her home without hesitation, and gives him a Christmas sweater. Home for Christmas, Clark Kent relaxes and reverts to the farmer's’ son that he is, correcting his mother that Santa provides the presents, and getting frustrated with the lead wrapping on his presents.
When you consider how important The Kents are to Clark Kent’s development into Superman, his depiction in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel starts to make more sense. Pa Kent spends every flashback scene reminding Clark Kent that he should hide away, and eventually sacrifices himself in a tornado to prevent Clark from outing himself as a hero. There’s a line in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice where Ma Kent tells her son, “You don’t owe them anything.”
I don’t think Man of Steel delivers an accurate depiction of Superman, but given what we see of his parents, it’s at least a consistent one.
When it came time to reboot Superman with The New 52, Grant Morrison made the decision to have both Kents dead by the time Clark becomes Superman. While I personally dislike with that choice, it isn’t necessarily a wrong move. Clark was still raised by the Kents, and grew up with their values. But without his parents to return to in Smallville, he’s a noticeably different character. Superman in the New 52 is more cocksure, more likely to punch first rather than take the time to talk. It all comes back to how involved his parents are in his day-to-day life.
A contentious issue in fan circles is the question of whether Superman is Clark Kent or Kal-El, but to me, there’s no question. He grew up Clark Kent, son of Jonathan and Martha, who raised him to be a sweet, good-natured farm boy who always has time for everyone, and will do anything to help. He might never have become Superman if he didn't have his powers, but the Kents raised to be a hero, regardless of his abilities.