The most popular kind of Superman story these days seems to be one where Superman is corrupted, violent and cynical. A story wherein he fails his never-ending battle and spends most of his time moping about his lack of relevance in an increasingly cold world. Grant Morrison once summarized the Superman character in two words: selfless act. It is a simple yet accurate summary of one called the Man of Tomorrow. Then one day, tomorrow arrived and frankly, it doesn’t seem like a place that rewards or even cares for selflessness.
If anything, tomorrow comes across as a dark and cynical place with nary an opening for hope to flourish. Superman suddenly went from a simple parable regarding the compassionate use of power to a complex and cynical reflection of how society in the 21st century views anyone who would dare be decent in an indecent world.
Famed comic book writer Mark Waid, in his proposal to the 2003 Superman: Birthright series (a retelling of Superman’s origin), made the following claim:
“There are entire generations to whom Superman is about as meaningful and significant as Woody Woodpecker or Marmaduke…and to be honest, I don’t think it has nearly as much to do with comics’ availability as it does with the undeniable fact that the Gen-X and Gen-next audience perceive the world around them as far more dangerous, far more unfair and far more screwed-up than we ever did. To them, and probably more accurately so than we’d like to believe, their world is one where capitalism always wins, where politicians always lie, where sports idols take drugs and beat their wives, where white picket fences are suspect because they hide dark things – and to them, that’s the world Superman REPRESENTS and the status quo he DEFENDS.”
One could argue that the cultural and, more specifically, the deontological downfall of the Superman archetype started in the 1990s. I am referring to the seminal Death of Superman comic book event. I won’t bother summarizing the entire death and return of Superman. Suffice to say, sales and media attention for the comics centering on Superman’s death were extremely high. What that says about our culture is pretty disturbing, especially when we consider what has followed.
The Death of Superman was not just the public saying “we want to see the good guy die,” it served to denounce the public’s obsession with the failure of the selfless act, the failure of the hero in their great struggle. This failure didn’t just manifest in a heroic death. I would argue its primary manifestation is the corruption of the selfless act.
One of the earliest instances of this is the episode “Brave New Metropolis” from SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. The episode, one of many alternate universe tales, deals with Superman having lost Lois in a bombing and in response, teams up with Luthor and decides to impose a fascist dictatorship over Metropolis.
The iconography in this alternate Metropolis brings to mind the Nazi aesthetic. Even Superman’s iconic S shield is replaced by a red lightning bolt, evoking the German SS. People are rounded up in cells for speaking out against Luthor and Superman, and of course, the episode’s title is an homage to Aldous Huxley’s literary masterpiece.
One could consign this episode to the realm of simple one-offs. Nothing more than a curious and well-told what-if story. After all, the world didn’t seem that scary in 1997, hence why the iconography felt exaggerated, befitting of a cartoon. Ultimately, the story didn’t come off as a commentary on current events or phobias of the time. It didn’t seem that the producers had anything in mind other than to show what would happen if Superman had lost Lois to wanton violence. It was not until 2003, in a sequel animated series titled JUSTICE LEAGUE, that we would see a much darker thematic follow-up, one perhaps too close for comfort.
“I Did Love Being The Hero…”
I have written about the considerable influence the episode in question, “A Better World,” has had over popular culture since its debut but that was in the context of a different work. In this particular case, the episode was a case of art reflecting on itself whilst simultaneously being a reflection of the socio-political environment of the time. It had only been 2 years since 9/11, and the invasion of Iraq has only occurred a few months prior. In this episode, we are shown not just a totalitarian Superman, but an entire pantheon of super-fascists called the Justice Lords, with Superman as their leader.
There are many horrible events, alluded and shown, throughout the episode. The most disturbing ones are those involving Superman. The episode opens with Superman killing President Lex Luthor after a debate regarding their relationship as hero and villain. Having finally realized the cyclical nature of this relationship, simply says “I *did* love being a hero. But if this is where it leads, I’m done with it.” Batman and Wonder Woman join him afterwards, with Batman simply “It had to be done.” This was only a prologue to the story proper and yet would serve to announce the new role for Superman in the 21st century.
Another disturbing detail is the seeming absence of supervillains. We are then clued into the fact that most of the villains are either dead or lobotomized, courtesy of Superman’s heat vision. This is made shockingly clear when the true Justice League visits the Arkham Asylum of the Lords’ reality and sees all of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, quiet and obedient. The Justice Lords even hold the concept of free elections hostage and suppress any attempts at free speech, all in the name of security. Given what was happening in the U.S. and abroad at the time, it was a terrifying parallel dressed as a kid’s cartoon.
It was almost as if the episode was trying to prove Waid’s thesis; Superman was not only a terrifying representative of the status quo, he was its strictest enforcer. Of course, when Waid references the status quo, he hardly meant one that espoused fascistic tendencies, but the principle remains the same.
Case in point, the event that denounces this evil Superman’s role as the imposer of the status quo is his and his fellow Justice Lords invasion of the true Justice League’s home reality. They arrive just in time to witness the arrival of Doomsday. History would dictate that the Lords would fail and Superman would fall in battle while killing Doomsday. This expectation is circumvented, however, in narrative and metaphoric levels.
Superman interrogates the creature mid-battle, simply asking what it wants. It replies “Same as you, I imagine. Power. Control.” The theme of art reflecting on itself returns, and we see the metaphoric intention in full display.
While this is only one version of Superman, Doomsday’s response metaphorically applies to the Superman archetype as it stands in the 21st century. The Superman we seemingly want is nothing more than a powerful coercive force.
To illustrate that point, this Superman promptly lobotomizes Doomsday mid-monologue while reporters and bystanders observe. In the aftermath, the Lois Lane of this reality points out how lobotomy is out of character for Superman, immediately followed by the comment from an onlooker “It’s about time if you asked me.” Compassion and understanding are seemingly too old fashioned for the denizens of the 21st century. Cruelty and coercion are not only what we see in the Superman archetype, it is also what we have come to expect and even demand.
Justice Is Blind, Not Heartless.
If this theory still seems far-fetched, it is important to remember that the follow-up to JUSTICE LEAGUE, JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED, was a massive overarching story that was constantly threatening with reaching a conclusion wherein Superman and the League would go, rogue, much like the Justice Lords. While it ultimately did not happen, it evidences the producers’ fascination with the trope.
This theme of a Superman willing to forego moral and ethical boundaries would present itself yet again in the JUSTICE LEAGUE: GODS AND MONSTERS multimedia project, produced by the same individuals who spearheaded previous DC animated series. Not even the origin of Superman was safe from this dark revisionism. While the project’s focus was on darker heroes, Superman was yet again the beating heart of this new, more proactive and violent take on the superhero.
Son of Lara and General Zod as opposed to Jor-El, this Superman was genetically imbued with a predisposition for aggression. Honing this anger was the lack of an upbringing by the Kents. Instead, he is taken in by illegal Mexican immigrants and raised as their own. Witnessing a harsher side to life, though, has made him more prone to lethal violence.
While this approach was understandable since it was a completely alternate universe, it happened to be within a product that was launched while the video game INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US was overtaking the public perception regarding Superman.
The plot of the video game and the tie-in comics was an amalgamation of “Brave New Metropolis” and “A Better World,” complete with the death of Lois and a fascist Justice League under Superman’s command. The narrative depicted in both would have Superman perform some incredibly dark acts, with the murder of Billy Batson/Shazam being the pinnacle of them. Superman murders a teenager in a T-Rated game that sold over 5 million copies. A sequel, INJUSTICE 2, is on the way and it looks to keep up this take on a tyrannical and unhinged Superman.
No One Stays Good In This World.
By far the most public downfall of Superman lies within Warner Brothers’ attempt at a cinematic universe, the DCEU. The first movie of this extended universe, MAN OF STEEL, was nothing but a desperate attempt to refute the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner take on Superman and to a point, I can understand why. It was a take that suited its time well but felt out of place in the 21st century, as SUPERMAN RETURNS evidenced.
However, director Zack Snyder’s take on Superman was rooted in faux realism that clearly catered more to Batman fans than it did to fans of Superman. Make no mistake, MAN OF STEEL is a Superman movie made for Batman fans. For one, none of the flashbacks within the movie remotely hint that Clark was ever happy throughout his childhood. He even loses his father as he watches helplessly from the sidelines, being traumatized by this for over 15 years. Sound familiar?
The movie treated his powers as sources of terror and isolation. He is always depicted as alone and misunderstood, and throughout the movie, his father does nothing to alleviate his confusion. If anything, he propels his son’s fear of himself and tells him that despite having gifts, he should hide them away in shame because the world isn’t ready. I think he might be absolutely right. We’re not ready for anyone as good as Superman.
All these deviations are completely at odds with the ideal of Superman. Even in the comic eras where Pa Kent died like the Silver Age or the New 52 or even in All-Star Superman, Clark learned the same lesson: that he is not a god despite having powers that would point to the contrary. That life and death are still very real to a being as powerful as himself. It is because he can’t stop death from happening to others that he realizes that life is to be cherished and protected, no matter the personal cost to himself. The movie misses this point entirely.
The film also contrives a scenario wherein Superman’s only way to victory is through killing his enemy, General Zod. While the aforementioned works have all depicted Superman doing the same, it was always a moment from which there would be no return. This film would have us believe that Superman kills and everything is just fine afterward, with nary a mention of it happening. According to Snyder’s logic, Superman needed to kill once to learn to never do it again. Barring how twisted that sounds just from a storytelling point of view, that is one disturbing perspective.
Then BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE happened. A masterclass film in the art of missing the point. While all previous products have been dark, here came a film that was not just willing to kill Superman by the end, it needed to humiliate him before doing so. In a single film, we had to have a Superman who questioned his every move and his relevance to humanity. He is depicted as a murdering tyrant in a dream sequence for no reason other than to have a sequence where Superman kills.
None of this is helped by the fact that Superman murders a man in the first 20 minutes of the movie. So much for learning to not kill. However, the most egregious act of these movies is the association of any heroic act with a negative side effect. Both movies attempt to create a moral dilemma for most of Superman’s heroic acts. As if it was a crime to imagine that performing good deeds would render only good outcomes.
This stems from the fact that Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer both aimed for a more grounded and realistic take on superheroes within these movies. There’s a difference between taking the source material seriously and thinking the source material is serious. If a creator is aiming to ground the story of a man who can fly and does nothing but good deeds and expects nothing in return, it is safe to say you have little to no care or understanding for what the character stands for.
Will Superman Return?
By pointing out this fascination with the darkening of Superman, this is not meant to indict the creators. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a fan of many of these works and the creative minds behind them. Many of these narratives are exemplary of their respective mediums and do tell their stories in entertaining and mature manners. What is worrisome is how often creators, good and bad, decide that the Superman archetype must be put through some moral crucible. The end result of this being a violent, troubled anti-hero at best and a morally deficient failure of a hero at worst. And for what?
What is the purpose of driving the paragon of the superhero form through the mud only to leave him there? We can only use this metaphor to reflect our own troubled world so many times before we realize that escapism is necessary. Grant Morrison, in his autobiography Supergods, said that superheroes are a bright, flickering sign of our need to move on, to imagine the better, more just, and more proactive people we can be.
Maybe it is time we join Kal-El in the sun. Maybe it is time to stop reflecting how the world looks in our fictions and start trying to emulate our best fictions in the real world.