By Tony Norman
Superman may have been raised in rural Kansas, but deep down in his impenetrable Kryptonian chest beats a globalist heart. He can’t help it. That enviable ability of his to have a bird’s-eye view of just about everything in the world eventually imparts a more nuanced perspective on the whole human enterprise.
“Truth, Justice and the American Way”: What does that mean when the majority of Americans no longer agree on what any of those concepts mean? Besides, being yoked to the “American way,” whatever that means, is way too parochial for someone who has seen as much as Superman has seen in eight decades.
A new mantra defining his broader mission was rolled out over the weekend by DC Comics to get beyond our nationalistic conundrum during a time of COVID-19 and climate change: “Truth, Justice and a Better Tomorrow.”
Put yourself in Superman’s enormous blue boots. Gliding 100 feet above a football stadium, it would still be possible to distinguish the fans of one team from another by their tribal colors that are as distinct at that altitude as fall’s changing foliage.
A thousand feet above the game, it gets trickier. Someone without Superman’s extraordinary powers of telescopic vision would see only an undifferentiated mass of humanity.
From the edge of space, the fragile beauty of the planet crowds out the specifics of race, creed or color. Humans aren’t even visible. It is a view of the world fewer than 1,000 people have seen for themselves.
Those who have seen the curvature of the planet from that perspective all testify to being deeply moved by it. There’s something almost supernatural about the sudden reversal of perspective thrust upon them from that height. Lightning flashes above the Atlantic suddenly appear below them, a sight that was formerly accessible only to the gods of antiquity.
Great land masses roll by below, some partially hidden by swirling clouds, but the oceans are never out of sight for long, no matter which way a head turns in wonder. Everything from the Amazon rainforest, to the Gobi Desert, to the Cape of Good Hope, to the Philippine archipelago is separated by only a few heartbeats the higher one gets above the Karman line. The familiar borders etched on maps and schoolroom globes mean nothing from that perspective. Those lines of demarcation amount to pure vanity on an impossibly beautiful blue orb circling a 4.6 billion-year-old star we call the sun.
So, what does Superman, a character who first leapt from the imaginations of two Jewish teenagers in Cleveland into comic books eight decades ago, think as he navigates the vacuum of space above the planet that took him in as an alien infant?
He’s seen so many stupid wars during his time on Earth. How many genocides have occurred on his watch? It has taken all of his strength to resist the urge to take over the affairs of humans by subjecting every nation to his benign rule whether they willingly comply or not.
When someone has heard as many screams in the night from political prisoners, sexual assault victims, the unjustly incarcerated and victims of urban violence as he has while flying above the planet, there’s a real temptation to become the “superman” that Nietzsche called for before syphilis and insanity shattered what had once been a very fine mind in its day.
Despite his great power, Superman has no “will to power,” as Nietzsche called it. Superman has always believed it was enough to intervene in narrow circumstances involving intergalactic interlopers, supervillain machinations and apocalyptic threats to the planet like extinction-level asteroids.
He kept a low profile during WWII, limiting the exercise of his power to foiling bank robbers and clumsy plots by a menagerie of forgettable villains with primitive ray guns, robots and flying cars. He wanted to but didn’t intervene during the Korean or Vietnam wars because even-handed justice would’ve compelled him to destroy the American planes that dropped napalm on Vietnamese villages filled with women and children.
Because of the murkiness of wars launched by his adoptive nation, Superman has kept his distance from its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Africa and other secret conflicts around the globe he spots easily from his vantage points above the horizon.
It would be easy for him to melt the American drones with lasers from his squinted eyes before they are deployed, but that would invite an open conflict with the only home he’s ever known. He may be the Man of Steel, but he doesn’t want to risk exile. He wouldn’t be welcome in many other countries, either, if they, too, feared the eventual awakening of his super conscience.
For all of his great power, he has no idea how to deal with climate change. No matter how many fires he puts out in the rainforest with his super breath, more fires are lit and trees bulldozed by logging and farming interests the moment his red cape has retreated into the distance.
Of course, there are the inevitable complaints by despots whenever he leaves the United States to deal with some world-spanning disaster that would affect fictional Metropolis, a gleaming American city with no infrastructure problems, thanks to him. Meanwhile, the world’s autocrats and dictators say he violates their territorial sovereignty and flaunts international law whenever he intervenes in their countries — even in a limited way.
This has frustrated the Man of Steel to no end. He’s done walking tours across the country to ask his fellow citizens what he should do to be a better American. He’s been given a laundry list of sensible to-dos by ordinary citizens all too happy to help him reset his priorities. He’s renounced his American citizenship more than once in disgust, but he always finds a reason to reclaim the Superman mantle. What else could he do given his unique skill set?
His narrative has been updated in dramatic ways over the past few decades. He’s been killed off and replaced by other “Supermen” waiting in the wings. After each not-so-surprising resurrection, he proceeds with renewed vigor to engage life. He married his longtime “frenemy,” Lois Lane, and had a son with her. Last year, he revealed his secret identity to the world when the cognitive dissonance of constantly lying about who he really was became too much. Now everyone knows Clark Kent is Superman, including his longtime foes.
A few weeks ago, Kal Kent, the teenage son of Clark and Lois, declared he was bisexual. Kal joins Tim Drake, the third iteration of Batman’s sidekick, Robin, as a member of the LGBTQ community. Drake came out as bisexual in August. There’s a big rush to relevance and diversity at DC Comics that is spilling over on all of its platforms.
Famed essayist and comic book scribe Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing the script for the next Superman movie, and there’s talk that big changes to the Superman myth are afoot. Some have speculated that Mr. Coates may opt to turn Superman Black, which will cause more heads to explode than the announcement that Kal Kent isn’t going to be the straight white millennial super dude disgruntled white fans would’ve preferred.
Meanwhile, a Black Superman is going to generate an uprising by older conservative fans against the company’s recent gestures toward a more inclusive superhero universe in comics and on the big screen. As perennial also-rans to Marvel/Disney’s multibillion-dollar big screen juggernauts, Time-Warner/DC Entertainment has decided to populate its fictional universe with heroes that average folks can relate to no matter how damaged they may be. This is a fascinating strategy. Consequently, we’ve never lived at a time when there were so many Black Green Lanterns and Black Hawkmen, not to mention gay Flashes and Batwomen running around.
So, in order to be the best version of himself, Superman has to give up the “American way” so he can engage the world more authentically. “Truth, Justice and a Better Tomorrow” reflects a hope that encompasses the entire world, he says to himself as he circles a beautiful blue world in search of injustices to make right.
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