The Politics of Superman
By Michael Bradley
Superman is the only comic superhero whose alter-ego is the weakling. Clark Kent is a portrayal of how Superman, or Kal-El, views us. In order to fit in and be anonymous, he gets a mainstream, average salary job of news reporter. He wears standard clothing, not too fancy, pretends to be scared of conflict and myopic to the point he has to wear glasses to see anything. It is interesting that our protector views us as weak, lacking vision and plain. In his real persona, he has a Fortress of Solitude, to get away from all the humans and their problems, rises above the planet to get strength from the Sun, and flies around in a bright outfit.
This superficial look at the character is instructive. What makes Superman such a lasting character in our comic canon then? Superman has always been portrayed as the personification of the average, common sense, moral Mid-Western farm boy given super power to do what is right. His character is most successful when fighting villains that portray what we are angry at, fear, or hate at any given time. He gives strength for us to defeat these "villains" of our collective conscience for us, so we can deal psychologically with our own real world limitations to solve these issues.
Superman crash lands in Kansas and is raised by the Kent family with good solid values. When he learns about his superpowers, he keeps then hidden, then makes a choice to use for them good based on his adoptive upbringing. These adoptive parents are the entire basis for the longevity of the character. He is after all an alien, come to America, adopted and culturally mixed into the melting pot, and he becomes one of us. That is the American story. His tagline, less popular in this self-questioning era where patriotism is no longer viewed with universal approval was "Truth, Justice, and the American Way."
What if he had landed elsewhere? At the 2011 Phoenix ComicCon film festival I had the unique pleasure to watch an indie film that explored this issue. Unfortunately, I can no longer find the person who made it to give them credit. (Please let us know.) As memory serves, the title of the short was "Ubermensch" and it had Superman landing and growing up in Germany, prior to World War 2. As a result, he adopted their nationalism and fought for the Third Reich, saying something like, "Hard-Work, Discipline and the German Way." The film shows him in prison, being asked to execute himself for supporting a country that committed the holocaust since no one had the means to carry out the sentence themselves. Wow.
What if Superman landed in a different country or a different time period? You can see that regardless of when and where, he would be different. In fact, one can hardly see him as a hero to many of us under those circumstances. It is his rural American upbringing that makes him our standard-bearer.
Now it is 2013, and America is divided on a political map nearly 50-50 red vs. blue. Many believe in a Creator, many do not. Many believe America is the greatest nation on Earth, many believe we have only gained greatness by using too many resources and impoverishing others. So what is a movie maker to do? I believe that Superman: The Man of Steel contains both messages, playing subtly to both belief systems.
First, for the red staters - Jor-El can be viewed as a Holy Father sending his son to Earth as a sacrifice for our sins to live his life as our Savior and point us to the true path of righteousness. He is adopted after being in a barn by a childless couple and raised by a simple man who uses his hands and believes. He spends times hiding his powers, knowing that when he reveals them, the current powers will try to deny him and maybe persecute him. Finally, he risks all, he is tempted by the enemy of his father in the wilderness to betray the world, but chooses to help and protect the weak. He is hurt and seemingly destroyed, but rises up to rescue people who might not deserve it. Sounds a lot like the gospel stories, doesn't it?
What factors lead to his decision? The good red state upbringings, the traditional family, being humble and working hard are among the key factors. He falls for the sweet, successful and witty girl next door type, gets angry when his Mom is harmed, and chooses the moral path. All that has led several to see this as a pro-red state movie. I can see that too.
Now, for you blue staters - At the beginning, the movie almost has sympathetic feelings toward General Zod and his team. After all, they tried to stop the government of Krypton from destroying its environment through force and were imprisoned even though they were right. They are somewhat reminiscent of Occupy Wallstreet protesters willing to take the fight to the authorities while Jor-El simply lets the establishment ruin their world. The recent Sci-fi series Continuum plays this same thread of emotion showing the fine line between fighting the system and terrorism.
General Zod only wants to find a new home to rebuild his race. If we needed a new planet and found a perfect one full of rats, we would have no problem killing the rats and moving in. That is his perspective. Here is where the movie tells you Zod is wrong. That he has crossed the line.
Kal-El has lived with the rats, likes them, and likes his Mom and Lois Lane a lot, so he is ok with more Kryptons, but not by killing humans. Kal-El is the key as he holds the entire genetic code for his people. In the end, they had to add lines to make him kill Zod, because he was not really anti-Zod. In fact, the humans in the background were helpless and just stood staring. So why does Kal-El choose to destroy his own people?
He says to Zod, "Your people they had their chance." In my opinion, Kal-El is indicting western civilization and the United States as having had our chance, using up too many resources, living too well and now it is time for "others," the weak onlookers of the world to get their chance. So, Kal-El destroys the ship with the baby nursery, basically aborting or euthanizing, the future of Krypton's population. He chooses to destroy the advanced environment-ruining people for the less advanced people of Earth.
When asked at the end if he was a friend of America or not, he does not mention truth, justice and the American way. Instead, he appears by destroying a reconnaissance drone, telling the military they cannot spy on him and he will do whatever he thinks is right. It is very much an anti-drone strike, moral relativistic, non-patriotic response to the question. To help smooth over the red staters, he adds - "Hey, I grew up in Kansas, how more American can you get that that?"
How more American indeed? It seems the latest film has masterfully included both the blue stater and the red stater viewpoints in an ambiguous new hero in the latest Superman film. It is masterfully accomplished so that all audiences can enjoy the film and see what they want to see. As with Superman through the last 75 years, this one is also a product of the current political viewpoints in our nation.