Ted Anthony of the Associated Press considers the legend — and the passport — of Superman.
There is a scene in the 2006 movie “Superman Returns” that captures the fabled Man of Steel in an extraordinary moment. Floating high above the Earth, gazing down upon America, he listens with his super-hearing for cries of help as a cacophony of people, in all the world’s languages, live their lives.
The message is clear: Kal-El of Krypton – strange visitor from another world and, let’s face it, America’s ultimate illegal immigrant – is a citizen and protector of the entire planet Earth, not merely the 50 United States. For 73 years, Superman walked, leaped and flew through the skies as a presumed American, his red, yellow and blue a stand-in for the red, white and blue of the nation he adopted as a boy when his spacecraft crash-landed smack in the middle of a Kansas farmer’s field.
Until now. In the latest issue of “Action Comics,” 900 issues after he first appeared in 1938, Superman stood on the grounds of Camp David on a foggy afternoon and told the president’s national security adviser that he planned to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Seems Washington didn’t much like Superman showing up at a peaceful protest in Tehran, Iran. Also seems Superman didn’t much like Washington calling him out on it.
“I’ve been thinking too small. I realize that now,” the Man of Steel says in the story by David S. Goyer. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy. `Truth, justice and the American way’ – it’s not enough anymore.”
Backlash came quickly, if predictably. Republican politician Mike Huckabee called it “disturbing,” Bill O’Reilly weighed in, and already there is talk that the brief story was just a one-off – or even that it never really “happened” in the larger continuity of the Superman saga. In the world of comics writing, such things are easily solved.
However it turns out, though, a point long implied has been made explicit: Whether in fact or perception, the character of Superman has been loosely cast for generations as an instrument of American policy, spreading democracy’s ideals around the planet even as he becomes more of a global citizen with each passing decade.
From the earliest comics by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was positioned as a defender of America. By the time Max and Dave Fleischer made the first cartoons about the character in the early 1940s, it was more explicit: He battled caricatured “Japoteurs” and was clearly on the side of the Allies during World War II.
“American soldiers cheering me, when all civilized people in the world are cheering them,” Superman says in “America’s Secret Weapon,” a comic from 1943. “It’s the grandest tribute I’ve ever had.”
As the years passed, the quest for “truth and justice” became, for the 1940s radio serial and the 1950s TV series “The Adventures of Superman,” a battle for “truth, justice and the American way” – an unsurprising turn of phrase for a TV show that debuted two months before the dawn of Eisenhower-era America.
By the 1960s, Superman was visiting JFK in the White House and trusting the president with his secret identity (though the planned story was shelved for months after Kennedy was assassinated), while also stopping by the United Nations. In the Christopher Reeve movies of the 1970s and 1980s, too, the Man of Tomorrow seems clearly on the side of the American government most of the time. And after 9/11, Superman made an appearance, albeit a very nonpartisan one, in a compilation of comics about the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Nowhere is the tension between Superman’s outsiderness and Americanness more evident than in the decade-long TV series “Smallville,” which wrapped up Friday with a two-hour series finale man fans hoped would finally find star Tom Welling in the famous cape and tights for the first time.
With the luxury of 10 years to play with, “Smallville” reframed Clark Kent’s coming of age in Smallville, Kan., as an angsty, conspiracy-ridden epic full of beautiful young American faces – “The X-Files” meets “Dawson’s Creek,” in a way, though it escaped that box years ago.
In recent years Smallville’s producers have teased out the theme of an outsider who arrived in America the day a meteor shower rained down upon the heartland. Young Clark Kent – called “The Blur” in his mysterious pre-Superman displays of heroics – is pursued relentlessly by shady agents of the American military-industrial complex.
In secret installations dappled with light and checkered with shadows, these covert operatives plot the undoing of Clark and his hero friends. They consider The Blur a dangerous interloper with a hidden agenda who may not have the country’s best interests at heart. We, the viewers, know better.
When you look at the history of American superhero comics, you realize that the most memorable good guys have one thing in common: Like Clark Kent, they’re outsiders, whether by birth, choice or accident. That gives them the narrative tension of a built-in internal struggle.
Batman was pushed to a darker side by the murder of his parents. Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four: All were turned into freaks by experiments gone awry. Even Captain America is a scientific guinea pig of the military and the government, albeit voluntarily; he is the only one of his kind, with nobody to truly understand his supersoldier existence.
Then there’s Superman, who stands alone. His planet is in fragments, his people dead except for the odd superpowered straggler who turns up now and then. He has grown up in an archetypal American childhood – a farm outside a small Midwestern town – but is, despite everything about him, an impostor. He is very much American, and he is very much alien – not unlike the waves of immigrants, legal and otherwise, who have spent the last two centuries coming here to make, or remake, their lives against a blank canvas.
But does that Americanness, that happenstance of arrival and upbringing, truly matter so much? Is it a truly integral part of the Man of Steel, inseparable from his flying and super-breath and X-ray vision?
Eight years ago, a DC Comics story line called “Red Son” speculated what might have happened if that spaceship from Krypton had landed on a collective farm in Ukraine instead of in Kansas. That Superman, the comic postulated, “fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.”
And yet despite the change of venue, despite the politics in which that Superman came of age, in the end he does the right thing for the world, American or not.
Kansas farm boy though he may be, Clark Kent is always an outsider in every incarnation of the character. He is struggling to assimilate in a society whose identity is built upon both accepting immigrants and being suspicious of them. As “Smallville” wound down, there was the distinct sense that as American as he feels, Tom Welling’s Clark Kent is – like many of Superman’s previous incarnations in recent years – just as concerned about the larger family of man.
Which brings us back to “Action Comics” No. 900 and the Superman who, in that one short story buried deep in the book, balks at being pushed around by the White House. It’s easy to wonder: Would this Superman have helped the Navy SEALs who raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan earlier this month? For a hero who wrestles with the moral murk of the 21st century, are today’s al-Qaida masterminds the same as the “Japoteurs” of yesteryear?
Truth and justice are doable. Figuring out the American way – the way of 300 million vibrant, ambitious, cantankerous people who find reasons to disagree on just about everything? That’s the hard part, even in comic books. Even for someone faster than a speeding bullet.
– Ted Anthony
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