We left off with the death of the Man of Steel. The public no longer believe in Superman, so DC Comics and Warner Bros. have tried to force him to conform to modern expectations, a hero who doesn’t know what right and wrong is, who kills and causes massive destruction with little regard for the people around him. They’ve turned Superman into every other brooding hero we have these days. Like they did with the infamous 1992 Death of Superman story arc, they’ve killed the hero as part of a cynical attempt to market him to new audiences. Postmodern capitalism killed Superman. Lex Luthor won, and we allowed it to happen. So the question is, what now?
Since the turn of the millennium, we have seen a couple attempts to reconstruct the Man of Steel. Among the most notable of these is Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. In it, we see a return to the silliness of the Silver Age Superman comics. However, more notably, we see a Superman being Superman. In this story, the big blue boyscout is dying, yet, instead of brooding, he spends the story trying to prepare his loved ones, and the world, for a world without Superman. Throughout the story many characters note that the world may need Superman after all. This is demonstrated best in what is often considered one of the most heartfelt moments in comic book history. A depressed teenage girl is preparing to commit suicide, and the dying Superman takes time to stop her, assuring her that things are not as bad as they seem, and that we are all better than we think we are. This is the ultimate Superman moment. Not when he is in a punching match with monsters like Doomsday, or foiling Luthor’s latest scheme, but this low-key moment. Just a desperate person, who needs a light more than anything, and the man willing to be that light. There have been many accounts of fans who are willing to say that this comic book moment saved their own lives, including the great Mark Waid. This is where my own personal connection comes from too, as one of those depressed fans who will, unashamed, admit to having cried while reading that. Superman at his best has caused change in the real world, whether it be discrediting hate groups, or even saving lives.
Unfortunately DC Comics and Warner Bros. did not get the memo. We have seen more attempts to make Kal-El gritty and more antiheroic. So how could a modern writer deal with Superman? A big clue comes from, ironically, DC’s rival company. Taken at face value, Captain America, a character created in WWII literally personifying the moral righteousness of the American military, has no right being relevant in 2016. However, Marvel has over the years implemented stories reacting to the times. Whether they be inspired by Watergate or Abu Ghraib, there has been many stories in which Cap has spoken against the American government. He has somehow come to represent an idealized, egalitarian America that truly stands for freedom and equality, while still calling out the country’s hypocrisy when it goes against those ideals. Even the staunchest anti-nationalist like myself can see the appeal to this character. Perhaps this is a clue as to what to do with the problem of Superman.
As metamodernists, we look for and create our own narratives to explain our world, even though we know they are just stories. Steve Rogers always stands for the egalitarian American Dream, even when he knows that Dream is a sham. He chooses to live as if it is true, thus fighting to make his narrative reality. A metamodern Superman must do the same. This Superman is not naive or ignorant of the world’s problems, he can see the worst in humanity. In fact he does every time he deals with men like Luthor. However he chooses to live as if humanity is good and capable of great things, in hopes of inspiring them to make his narrative true. After all, this is a hero who has faced a being like Darkseid, who represents authoritarian nihilism, who possesses a mathematical formula that literally proves the meaninglessness of life and forces those exposed to it to give up and serve him. Superman can never destroy the god, Darkseid can never be truly killed, he always comes back.
In this way, the metamodern hero is a reflection of Albert Camus’s philosophy. In the face of the absurd, or the inherent contradiction between the meaninglessness of the universe and our desire for meaning, Camus advocates embracing the absurd. He retells the Greek myth of Sisyphus, cursed to forever roll a boulder up a hill, just to see it roll back down, over and over. However, in Camus’s version Sisyphus accepts his fate and chooses to be happy in it, for Camus, happiness is the only true act of rebellion in the face of the absurd. In this way, Superman is Sisyphus, forever fighting for his idealistic values against both the nihilism of the universe and against the inherent selfishness of mankind, despite the fact it may indeed be pointless. The metamodern hero accepts the absurd, both the meaninglessness of life and that humanity will always be searching for meaning, and uses both to his advantage.
This is why we still need Superman. It is not that he gives us something to believe in, but he represents our ability to do good, to care for and help one another, despite the lack of things to believe in. He takes the best of Enlightenment and Modernist ideals, embracing rationalism and the idea that humanity can better itself, while accepting the Romanticist and Postmodern individualistic, emotional need for significance once filled by spirituality and religious belief. He recognizes the validity of the latters skepticism of those who claim to have the all the answers, like Luthor. This Superman is utopia personified, the ideal to strive for that we may never reach, but we keep moving forward as if we can, with both sincerity and skepticism, and in the process, progress as human beings.