Truth, Justice and the American Psyche

This one, written for WIRED, goes waaaay back — it was written to accompany the release of Man of Steel last summer. I seem to remember something similar eventually saw the light of day in connection with Superman’s 75th anniversary later in the year.

This week’s Man of Steel gives us the latest in a long line of “new” Supermen, another attempt to retool the long-lived character for contemporary audiences. In this case, it’s a Superman who is neither entirely comfortable with himself nor the world he lives in, and is arguably more concerned with a need for secrecy than he is in doing the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. In other words, a Superman that’s worryingly in step with contemporary America.

It’s just coincidence, of course, that our newly paranoid cinematic Kal-El debuts at a time when we as a nation are reading news reports that the government is tapping into people’s Internet use and phone calls, but hardly a surprising one given the contemporary themes that the moviemakers were clearly attempting to touch upon.

Much of the movie revolves around Kal-El’s paranoia about being revealed to be something other than a regular guy, but instead a literal alien — A nod, perhaps, to the increasing xenophobia present in a modern-day America that is, in part, obsessed with where its leaders were actually born — and in a strange way, that paranoia may make him more empathetic for American audiences increasingly convinced that they are under constant surveillance.

The source of Kal-El’s paranoia comes from Jonathan “Pa” Kent who, in a break from tradition — and to the upset of many hardcore Superman fans — essentially tells his adopted son to never use his powers in public for fear of being discovered. On the face of it, this sounds like sacrilege; Jonathan Kent is historically the one who teaches Superman about the need to do the right thing no matter what, as many have pointed out. And yet, in today’s world, it makes a depressing amount of sense.

Consider the world in which Superman would be born into, today. Unlike in the days of yore, there is no realistic way that Superman — or younger Clark, for that matter — could operate publicly without being discovered by the world at large. Think about the number of camera phone videos that would appear on YouTube, or the ease of which satellite imagery would catch a super-speed blur lifting a bus out of a river, for example.

Pa’s advice to his son may have been overly cautious — Really, kids should die just to keep your son’s secret? — but hardly surprising or unrealistic in a country that is warned of increasing surveillance on behalf of the authorities (and other sources).

Add to that, the fact that the movie then goes on to prove Pa correct to some extent when Lois uses her Mad Google Skillz to find Clark Kent with an ease that seems unusual in movies, and yet feels oddly realistic for the world we actually live in today. This is, perhaps, the first true Superman for a digital age that we have yet seen.

Man of Steel, then, demonstrates one of the benefits of Superman as a character; he is just filled with subtext and potential metaphor, and is so versatile that he can be — and has been — reinvented for each new generation as an icon oddly in touch with the zeitgeist despite being invented three quarters of a century earlier.

This flexibility is, most likely, a lucky side-effect of his longevity. When Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, he may have given some thought as to what their contemporary audience wanted — Someone to defend them from an uncaring authority and “stick up for the little guy” — but both men’s eyes seemed to be on the prize of something that would be successful in the moment, as opposed to for all time.

(It’s no mistake that Superman is an immigrant, either; in that, he not only personifies the American ideal at a time where the country, emerging from the Great Depression, needed to believe in that ideal more than ever, but ties in with much of the literature of the time, with books like James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan series displaying the downside of the world that Superman — and Siegel and Shuster — strove to escape.)

Instead, it was the various ways in which various writers and artists added to Superman’s mythos, supporting cast and surrounding environment, trying to find more reasons for readers to come back month after month, that gave us an icon so filled with potential that he could easily say something about any period — and answer any need — that his adopted home country demanded of him.

Because of attempts to appeal to patriotic fervor in the 1940s, Superman went from being a believer in social justice to being a proud upholder of the status quo, with National Periodicals — the company that would later become DC Comics — going so far as to create special editions of Superman comics specifically for the U.S. Army in order to entertain (and, at times, educate) the troops, even as the regular editions promoted war bonds and offered propaganda back home.

As post-war America focused on rebuilding the family unit — The term “nuclear family” dates back to 1947, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary — Superman did his part, gaining a cousin, a pet and an increasing number of women who dreamt of being his wife, as the writers, artists and editors sought out new ways to keep their character relevant for the contemporary audience.

Less obviously, Superman stories of that 1950s took a different route to reflecting what was happening in the U.S., as a twist on the already-tired trope of the deadly kryptonite offered a chance for Superman to pave the way for the burgeoning counter-culture to go mainstream. “Red K[ryptonite] was LSD for superheroes,” Grant Morrison wrote in his 2011 book about the history of the superhero genre Supergods, pointing out the similarity between the fictional radioactive meteor and the surreal body paranoiac work of writers like William S. Burroughs emerging at the same time. While most of America hadn’t read The Naked Lunch or The Soft Machine, Superman was unwittingly preparing them for an altered state of being and idea of fluid identity that would finally break through to the mainstream a decade later thanks to the hippies and psychedelia.

By the 1970s, Superman — who, by this point, could seemingly manifest new powers as needed, and had quietly slipped into the role of benevolent face of authority — seemed out of touch with the world around him. Not only was he seemingly safe from any and all dangers that were thrown at him, but even Clark Kent, still a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, felt too distant from the common man in an era where television news was replacing print for most people.

The solution to this came in the form of a number of small course corrections for the character. The most dramatic of these — a drastic scaling back of his super-powers that coincided with a seeming end to his vulnerability to Kryptonite — proved short-lived (Kids, it turned out, preferred their hero to have powers seemingly limited only by imagination), but both Clark Kent’s career shift to television news anchorman and a renewed focus on stories exploring more relatable, human-scale events — including a series called “The Private Life of Clark Kent” — were more successful, remaking the Man of Steel as someone more likely to, in the words of a then-contemporary commercial, “reach out and touch someone” instead of punch something to solve his problems. You would believe Alan Alda could fly, perhaps.

And then came the 1980s.

Of all the makeovers that Superman has undergone throughout the years, writer/artist John Byrne’s 1986 comic The Man of Steel is arguably the most dramatic. Amidst the rise of Reaganomics, yuppies and “Greed is Good” as a lifestyle choice, Byrne removed many of the more tragic elements of Superman’s origin — Ma and Pa Kent’s deaths were undone, and Clark went from nebbish, clumsy loser to successful novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and high-school football hero — transforming the character’s dual-identity dynamic so that he was now a winner in both guises, as the audience demanded of its heroes at the time.

(The 1990s Lois and Clark TV show drew a lot from Byrne’s take on the Superman mythos, which makes a lot of sense; in a lot of ways, Byrne’s re-imagining of the character drew from the glossy, success-worshipping soap operas of the 1980s as much as previous versions of Superman, easing a translation into that format.)

There have even been times, as with Man of Steel‘s combination of the U.S. military and the fear of loss of privacy, when random coincidence put Superman in step with the American hive mind. The 2001 storyline Our Worlds At War told of an intergalactic battle that left Earth in mourning, and Superman taking it harder than most — He even adopted a black armband in memory of those who had died. The armband debuted in Superman Vol. 2 #174, which was released less than a week before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11. Even more unfortunately, the day after the 9/11 attacks, The Adventures of Superman #596 was released, a comic which opened with the sight of twin towers partially destroyed as a result of the intergalactic war. Needless to say, Superman’s mourning period had more resonance in the real world than originally intended.

Recently, Superman’s status as avatar of the American psyche has become a murkier proposition as creators became overly aware of the potential for the character as stand-in for a country’s soul and attempt to use it to “say something” about the country as a whole. We’ve seen Superman renounce his U.S. citizenship in response to his perceived connection to American foreign policy, and the character undertake a year-long walk across the country to get back in touch with the American people for reasons that, to be blunt, still make little sense three years later. Instead of reflecting what America was feeling or thinking, the character was being used to lecture the country, instead.

Man of Steel, then, may not be entirely in line with what many people expect from a Superman story — or Superman himself, for that matter — but it does manage to return the character to his rightful place at the heart of the American psyche, even if what we find isn’t what we’d hope. We may not get the Superman we want, but as history as proven countless times, we almost always get the Superman we deserve.