The History of Liberal Superman
Regardless of your political leanings or personal beliefs, you have to accept the fact that it’s a very rough time for the world right now. In the US alone, 8 out of 10 Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck and some 18% of US adults suffer from depression. Anyway you slice it, our current world is kind of crappy for a lot of folks. In a time when the rich are getting richer and, even with historic low unemployment and low world poverty rates, wages for most Middle and Lower Class folks are stagnating in the face of rising prices due to general inflation and a looming trade war. Farmers are facing questions about their ability to make ends meet. All of our grand technology can’t save us alone.
There’s a lot of hopeless people in this world. I know some of them. And many of those folks are friends and family in the middle of our country – the “Flyover States” – which those of us are insulated slightly by our coastal leanings. Oh, and though many of us white and semi-successful folks forget them, minorities are facing a terrible backlash and racism in the open not seen in a long time.
Which brings me to the point of my grand musings. We need Superman back. We need a return to the real, classic, populist hero of his origins well though the Silver Age.
Regardless of what you angrily shout on social media, art has been and always will be political. Superman, the harbinger of American exceptionalism and flag-waving love, was not always this way. The Superman many folks under 30 think of is the Big Blue Boy Scout, the joke licking at Presidential boots in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight or suffering troubled decisions lead by an erratic parent on whether or not to use his powers at all. For a long, long time Superman was a hero for the masses, a populist in the sense of caring about the needs of the common man, above all else, who brought hope. He obeyed laws and respected Presidents, but he wasn’t afraid to go against evil and corruption to help people. In the comics, Superman would renounce his citizenship or give up his life if it went being a better person.
Superman the character was created by Middle Class Jewish Americans living in a flyover state suffering from economic devastation, racism, and all the other stuff that comes from living in Cleveland, Ohio. I know more than most as I grew up in Cleveland. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, both Jewish Americans from a recent immigrant lineage, built the archetype of the Aryan hero we all know and accept from a simple, Jewish heritage. Superman’s creators had parents that may have barely spoken English and had childhoods steeped in the Jewish-American experience, for better or worse. Thus at it’s heart Superman and his creators are both the true American success stories: immigrants or children of immigrants who make a major, positive impact on the world.
In those early stories, Superman was doing one thing consistently: Fighting for the common man. Superman might have been an alien that was essentially a Greek god come to America, but he was also much more. He was built from the ground up as an illegal alien crashed in Kansas, the breadbasket of American that was currently suffering the results of decades of poor land management, who moved to a big city modeled after that bastion of multiculturalism in the Midwest, Chicago, becoming the Metropolis we know and love. Superman was a man who loved his adopted parents and became a news reporter bent on rooting out the corruption and crime in the city while his alter ego could tackle those things that a normal man – or the police – could not.
Superman, the man who was the champion of American exceptionalism and justice for so many decades, would now be a villain to many Americans supporting the far-right. He was an illegal immigrant reporter with a liberal bias. His origins and history are sprinkled with a little bit of Jewish heritage, and he was good friends JFK with Muhammad Ali.
We need to inject politics and hope into Superman again, especially in the movies. Superman doesn’t need to go to a voting booth or announce his presidential choice. In fact, he has actively been against doing so for fear or swaying elections in the comics. Though, sorry fans, Wonder Woman is a Republican and Batman is a Democrat. So, Superman shouldn’t be waving a flag and shouting pro-Democrat or pro-Republican statements. That’s not my Superman and he’s not the one we deserve right now. That isn’t hope and that isn’t a populist hero.
Superman is the guy who fights the 80’s archetype of the corrupt billionaire with misplaced importance, Lex Luthor, because he believes in the good of the common man. Superman fights for miners, farmers, minorities, and anyone who needs a hand and isn’t as likely to get one as someone like Lex Luthor. Yes, he should fight monsters and have big epic battles, but this isn’t 1976 and we aren’t children anymore. As a collective society, we are intelligent people and we deserve intelligent art.
Superman should be a hopeful, optimistic populist who stands opposed to corrupt businesses and evil men. He’s the guy who stops and spends 5 minutes to help a suicidal girl down from a ledge. He’s not and should never be the idiot who destroys a city or kills someone before trying every possible option. He should be, above all else, a symbol of hope for the normal person. This is in opposition to many of the genius and billionaire characters like Batman and Iron Man. He’s a guy from Kansas created by Jews from Cleveland for the purpose of telling fun, hopeful stories. There’s no reason DC can’t bring that to our time now make his world look like the one we live in: gangsters replaced by gangs, Nazi threats replaced by drug addiction, and villains that have leanings in the issues of today… extremist on the right and left, environmental disasters, terrorism…
Historically, all of your favorite heroes have been born by and molded by politics and have expounded hope. The X-Men and Black Panther lept from the Civil Rights Movement and into comics. Iron Man and his villains were a reflection of the Cold War. Wonder Woman was designed to be a positive heroic model for women. Batman stood against the crime and corruption of the classic Boss era of New York politics and the suffering of the depression and prohibition. The Silver Surfer became a symbol of counter culture. The Green Arrow and Green Lantern became a duo of opposition – one left, one right – working to battle drug addiction and crime while overcoming their issues.
Above all else, we need a Superman who fights for the people AND for a reason, AND to bring us all a little bit of hope at the end of the day… Heroes are designed to do that. Violence and moping and suffering can make for fantastic stories, but Superman isn’t Batman or Wolverine. Superman is the guy who winks at the camera, knowingly, to remind you that he’s out there… and you aren’t alone. It’s ok to enjoy yourself. Not everything needs to be grim.
And if demanding Superman be more man and less super, while still being more of a hero and less of a punching idiot bothers you, then that’s fine. If you hate the idea of a Superman who once again fights for the underdog with classical liberal populist ideas of equality, hard work, help, hope, and equity, then that’s fine too. If you’re disgusted by a Superman who once renounced his citizenship and wanted to be a man of the world, not just an American, then that’s your choice. But remember that Superman’s original motto wasn’t just “truth, justice, and the American way”, but rather was a “champion of the oppressed… sworn to help those in need” without considering if that person was a Republican, Democrat, America, illegal immigrant, rich, or poor. Superman was never the guy who punches a person through a building or mopes around about whether he SHOULD help anyone… He was the person who knew he HAD to help others because he COULD.
Sorry, fans of Batman v. Superman and vocal fans who hate political stories and hopeful endings, Superman was never meant for you. He was meant for the poor kids from Cleveland who needed a little bit of hope… Kids like Siegel, Schuster, and me. He was meant for those of us who couldn’t fly, but wanted to. Superman is and should always be an illegal immigrant raised on a Kansas farm with Midwestern values who wants to root out evil as a reporter and be a genuinely good person. Then, Superman should end his adventures with a sly wink… “Hey guys, I get it. I’m Clark Kent, too. Let’s all have a bit of fun and take a bit of hope home.”
Do you agree that Superman needs to be more hopeful and heroic? Should superhero movies and TV shows continue the tradition from the comics of reflecting the current fears and dreams on screen? Let Nerdbot know in the comments!