The Oedipal complex is an important aspect of the Superman mythos. Clark does not want to marry Martha or Lara—he doesn’t want to kill Jonathan or Jor-El. But by broadening the traditional Freudian analysis, we can discover the contrasting worlds and ideologies the character does encounter. We can better understand and draw meaning from what drives Earth’s adoptive last son of Krytpon. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie presents this aspect beautifully, though not many, at least on a conscious level, realize it.
Long before he becomes Superman, Clark is raised in Smallville, a rural Kansas town, and lives as an only child on his adoptive parents’ farm. He learns middle American values. Donner shows the Kents providing him with confidence and a bright sense of destiny, and visually, the light is always warm in Smallville, the sky always clear, and the landscape as vast and sunny as Clark’s future (count how many times you see people staring into the horizon, usually into a sunrise or sunset). This safe, nurturing childhood is Superman’s metaphorical mother. Its values, comforts, and ideals become the standard he strives for as he wrestles with the metaphorical father.
That father is the world he came from, the reality of his history and the powers, differences, and responsibilities it gives him. Donner shows this world call to Clark through a Kryptonian crystal (call it a phallic symbol, if you will, but only in that it represents the patriarchal aspect of the metaphor). Clark follows the crystal’s call to the arctic where it penetrates the ice to create the Fortress of Solitude, in the manner of the Kryptonian architecture from the film’s opening (more subtly phallic crystals). This redesign of Krypton and the fortress was Donner’s unique addition to the mythos, and it works so well because of the stark visual contrast to Clark’s Smallville upbringing.
The Fortress is cold, closed in, and monochromatic. But it is white and still bright rather than dark and gloomy because it is a place of knowledge and yet another path to Clark’s destiny. Donner has him stay there with the recorded consciousness of Jor-El for years, learning about his heritage, powers, and responsibilities. When he leaves, he does not return to Smallville. He settles in Metropolis, a city also with grand architecture yet a color scheme closer to Kansas.
Clark honors what he learned from Jor-El in the fortress. Yet throughout the course of the film, he progresses into his own decisions. The first is to reveal himself to the world. Jor-El accepts the choice, but Clark is still forbidden to interfere with Earth’s history. Of course he does, though, in the climax of the film when he turns back time to save Lois as well as the other earth quake victims. He couldn’t stand by with the power to save and do nothing. His feelings for Lois are human from his human upbringing, not those of a superior being. In that moment, he chooses to make his own destiny. It’s not a full rebellion. He honors Jor-El, his Kryptonian heritage, and what he’s learned from both. It’s rather a subtle assertion of priorities. Above all else Clark as Superman will serve as a human for humans, fighting for the safe, comforting acceptance that comes through “truth, justice and the American way.”
Superman doesn’t want to kill his father or marry his mother. Instead, and more profoundly, he overcomes restrictions of his metaphorical father to remain true to the ideals of his metaphorical mother. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie shows this aspect of the character better than any other film. It connects the character to an audience who has their own conflict between ideals and world realities and inspires us to fulfill our own bright destinies.