Superman, Clark Kent, Kal-El, The Man of Tomorrow, The Man of Steel. So many names, so many faces, for one iconic character. Superman, and the nature of the character has become a hot topic with the release of Zack Snyder's most recent hot mess of a film. This has caught my attention as someone for whom Superman has had a major influence on their life. He is the original Superhero, a key figure in American pop culture, and, in modern mythology, as written extensively about by writers such as Grant Morrison. While I could discuss the nature of Superman as a god or messianic figure all day, that is not going to be the focus of this article, per say. Rather, I intend to discuss what role Superman plays in our mythologized pop culture. I am asking the cliched question about the character: What role does Superman have to play in 21st century society? However, I intend to find a metamodernist answer to this question.
To talk about Superman today, however, we must first discuss Superman's past. To start with the basics, Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. We can easily see where they were coming from when creating him. I am far from the first person to note that these are two young Jewish men, disenfranchised and feeling like outsiders, watching the rise of fascism in Europe. They drew from older pulp heroes and ancient mythology to create a character with all the power they felt they lacked. And with this power, this character tried to bring change they could not. Superman in the 30s and 40s was, as Grant Morrison has noted, a socialist crusader. This Superman was brash and targeted corrupt politicians, bankers, and domestic abusers. There's a story from this era involving Superman destroying a slum with the intent of forcing the local government to build safe, affordable housing for the poor. We even saw Superman deal a blow to the real-life KKK during a time they were seeing a resurgence in popularity. This was a Superman born towards the end of the Modernist era, a character representing enlightenment values, being a survivor of an, in the canon of the times, utopian, scientific planet. He, like the modernists, wanted to use these values to bring about a new, better order, disrupting the old one. He wanted to create a better world for the downtrodden who couldn't fight for themselves. During World War Two, a time comics are famous for being American military propaganda, Superman is never seen fighting the Nazis or the Japanese. Sure, there were covers depicting him punching Hitler or Hirohito, but the stories were the classic stories of the time, him targeting bank robbers, mad scientists, and the corruption at home previously mentioned. Superman was a distraction to boost the morale of the troops and a general fighter of bullies, including the fascists, not yet a part of the American power structure later portrayals would entail. If you watch the classic animated shorts by the genius Fleischer brothers, even his classic motto of what he stood for at the time was simply “Truth and Justice,” note the lack of “and the American Way.”
We see Superman start to change in the 50s. With the moral panic launching the Comics Code Authority and the rise of anti-communist paranoia, we see Superman changed into a symbol of the perfect American. He settles down with Lois Lane. We start to see his family grow, with his niece Lara (Supergirl), and his pet Krypto the Superdog. He becomes less violent and more of a role model, of how the perfect 1950s American should behave: With reverence to authority and conformity to the social status quo. We see this throughout his comics, with Lois becoming a more docile woman, departing from her more fiery, hard-hitting nature as an even better journalist than Clark Kent that she was in the 40s. As the new protector of the nuclear family and traditional American values, we see his motto changed to “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
This of course wouldn't last as postmodernism began to come to the forefront of American culture in the 60s and 70s. We began to question the narratives we had been told throughout our lives. We see the rise of second wave feminism and the Civil Rights movement. American exceptionalism took on a dark turn with the Vietnam war. With this the American idealism of Superman seemed naive. We began to lose interest in his stories and we see sales during this time drop.
In the 80s, we see major changes to Superman's mythos. Krypton was no longer the utopia of enlightenment ideals it once was, now being the dystopian nightmare of the modernist era, a cold sterile world where science had removed the inherent humanity of its inhabitants. Lex Luthor, in the past just another mad scientist, becomes a ruthless businessman, reflecting the rampancy of capitalism during this era. Despite Lex Luthor representing the dark side of American values however, we see no major change in Superman's character at this time, still representing the perfect American, even at times being seen as a part of the American military machine.
We first see postmodernism's deconstruction of this in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a major influence on the most recent film. In this dystopia where Cold War fears bring the world to the brink of apocalypse, Reaganomics reign supreme, and vicious gangs of violent punks roam the streets, Superman is seen as a fascist tool of Reagan's America, having helped force all the other superheroes into retirement and now explicitly working as part of the military. Superman is a force of modernist neoconservative, working to spread and enforce America's will, set against Batman, in the role of a modernist libertarian. While I could write a whole piece on the politics of Frank Miller's so-called heroes, and how he, intentionally or not, demonstrates how both lead to fascism, my focus here is how they come to their political conclusions. Superman sincerely believes that working with the government to maintain peace and order through strength is the best way to make a better world. Batman is the rugged individualist who rejects the narratives being forwarded by the establishment moralizing of Reagan and Superman, and the nihilism of the street punks he's fighting, and, in the manner of the Nietzchean Ubermensch, rejects their morality, adopting his own, and enforcing it in a ‘might makes right’ manner. What makes Batman significant in this conversation is that Frank Miller isn't simply setting the tone for how postmodernism is going to tear apart the Man of Tomorrow and everything he'd come to represent, but he attempts to offer an alternative in Batman. The issue here is Frank's Batman is also working in a modernist paradigm, albeit one that accepts the nihilism of the postmodernist era it is rebelling against. Batman is the modernist looking for the truth, and, as many modernists inspired by Nietzsche and existentialist thought, tried to make his own truth. This is important to us as an acknowledgment that the answer to the nihilism of postmodernism isn't going backwards and clinging to the values of modernism, postmodernism did come about for a reason. We have to move forward, as will be discussed in part two.
This is one of the first of many times we will see the Man of Steel deconstructed. Eventually these deconstructions were adopted into the mainstream portrayals of Superman, as they always do. And this is not a bad thing. Deconstruction is critical to culture's evolution. However, for Superman, as with a great deal of our culture, postmodern deconstruction has ran its course. The Dark Knight Returns, Superman: Red Son, and The Death of Superman are all great stories that help analyze what makes Superman a great character by tearing him apart and analyzing the pieces. However, all this culminated in the hopeless, gloomy film Man of Steel. We no longer believe in Superman the god of hope. We don't believe in someone desiring to do good deeds with power. At one time, this was an important idea for a culture raised to believe in the authorities and ideals passed onto them unquestioningly. But now we've come around and believe in nothing. Superman is due for some reconstruction. We need to put the pieces back together, incorporate what we've learned, and update Superman, resurrect the modern god of hope for a new generation.