[Image from here.]
Last night while working on a crazy embroidery project (note: I have never actually completed an embroidery project, so this is kind of a leap), I watched some old Superman cartoons on Netflix.
I never really realized (okay, so maybe I did but wasn’t thinking about it) what a great record of popular American sentiment Superman is.
I mean here’s what you’ve got: A superhero that was created as a super alter-ego of a regular, boring working guy (Clark Kent), at a time when life was hard for the working guy. The cartoons from the 40s see him as the icon of America, fighting the Axis (the criminals in the sampling I watched were Japanese, German, Italian, etc.). Then you see him fighting Communists, and he grows into an atomic age figure, adding “and the American way” to his list of things he fights for. I’m sure other superheroes do this, too – progress through a series of politically-relevant foes, creating a record of the things America has feared as a collective public over the years. Crazy scientists, politicians bent on world domination, and his greatest foe, Lex Luthor, all reflect what people are worried about. Superman is the fantasy solution to all those problems.
I wonder, then, why he hasn’t seen a renaissance lately, aside from Smallville (which is a very clever show). Lex Luthor, from what I can tell, represents a conscience-less wealth machine, somebody who is out to make money no matter who falls by the wayside. Isn’t that how many people see politicians today? Isn’t that how a lot of people feel about the big banks? Is Lex Luthor too close to the truth?
Maybe we need Superman now, more than ever (although you really have to rethink Clark Kent and Lois Lane, since their sort of investigative reporting is an endangered thing these days; maybe they’re mild-mannered bloggers).
Maybe flawed heroes are what we’ve come to need more, though. Like Iron Man (everybody knows that Tony Stark is kind of a jerk) or Wolverine or Batman. We like our heroes to have problems. I think that’s why that unfortunate fifth Superman movie was made, to try and show that even Superman makes really dumb mistakes. It’s unfortunate because it made the attempt in an uncomfortable, overly hamfisted way (I think I’ve heard it referred to as “white trash trucker Superman”), which is more off-putting than approachable.
So here’s my request to all those out there with the power to evolve the Man of Steel, and continue the record of history he has become: give me a Superman for 2011, one who can do all the things Superman can, but who lives in a globally connected world with a warming climate. Give me one who has to fight intangibles like greed and callousness and ignorance. Give me one who does his best to help earthquake and tsunami victims but can’t save them all. Let me see him feel that. Let me see Clark Kent struggle with his mundane life, paying his bills, loving Lois Lane, figuring out how to be a journalist today, when journalism is suspect and newspapers are on their way out. Give me a superhero who has to work to keep his secret identity, because everyone wants to know all the details of people’s lives. Give me one who can’t do a blasted thing in the Middle East, except to keep a few more civilians from being killed.
I need another Superman. It’s about time.
“Give me one who has to fight intangibles like greed and callousness and ignorance.”
If you haven’t read it already, I think you’d really enjoy “Superman: Peace on Earth.”
I think we may have that one at home, but if we don’t I’ll be sure to pick up a copy. I love me some Alex Ross. Kingdom Come? Brilliant.
Don’t have it yet, but he is indeed correct, and that is the one I have been recommending to you.
This is really a great post! Like mouse, I prefer my superheroes flawed, but you make a solid case, and it also says something about why Superman has always been *the* superhero of superheroes.
Perhaps only tangentially relevant, this reminds me of something else I’ve been reflecting on: monsters. The prevalent monsters of the 1990s were vampires, which made sense for the murky, introspective self-dwelling of that time. In the last ten years they’ve been superseded by zombies (Twilight notwithstanding). You know, unthinking hordes incapable of thought or agency. I guess the connection is just that we can ask the question (of timeliness) across a spectrum of possibilities. Who would the best supervillians be today? What of Gotham vs. Metropolis? And so on.
I think Lex Luthor, in a less vaudevillian incarnation, is still a totally relevant supervillain. I also think that Gotham is more relevant than Metropolis, but only because it’s hard to see Metropolis in the absence of Superman, whose presence whitewashes it somewhat. I’d be interested in seeing a more modern Metropolis, that reflects the modern American city. How could Metropolis be more like New York, which is what it’s supposed to be? I get the feeling that Gotham is just a darker version of Chicago, and it feels fairly consistent. Metropolis, though? Not the same at all.
Horror gives a chronology of popular thought, as well, but it’s more heavily coded than comic books, which are pretty direct 1-to-1 translations. Problem is commies? Heroes fight commies! Problem is big business? Heroes fight big business! As opposed to problem is the fear of a loss of individuality and control over one’s actions? Everyone is a zombie! It’s more of an emotional translation, I think.
Definitely interesting thoughts! I have to admit that I never cared for Superman and that I never even saw the remake movie that came out a few years ago… I do prefer “flawed” heros such as Van Helsing, LXG, Wolverine (and the other X-men) & Batman mostly because they were human.. and Superman wasn’t. I guess I also don’t buy into the whole “flag waving patriotism” of Superman or Captain America either.. which is why he really doesn’t appeal to me at all in his current embodiment. I would be very interested in seeing someone else (Neil Gaiman?) write a modern, darker Superman.. I would definitely read/watch that!
I suppose I am biased because Superman was the first superhero I ever really encountered, and so will always be my favorite. But I also feel like sometimes you need a polarized figure, especially when things look so totally awful. I need somebody who is absolute, detached good. But I think also that it’s interesting to put that figure into situations that are grey, and see what happens. It’s sort of like parameters in a design project – having limitations makes for a more interesting end product, and a Superman who is binary is more interesting to me that a hero with fewer limitations, emotionally. Batman is a nice foil to Superman, but like many DC heroes, he’s still very removed from society. Bruce Wayne is sort of connected, but Batman isn’t really terribly social.
I’m thinking maybe I work through this Superman stuff by writing it. I’ll be sure to send it to you if it’s any good!