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Consider: how does your notion of superheroes shape your perception of truth and justice? Who is narrating those stories? What virtues do they center?
Last week, actor Ray Fisher shared the racism and inappropriate conduct he experienced while working onset for several superhero movies (The Hollywood Reporter). One of his allegations references discrimination that he heard happened on the set Krypton, a Syfy series that focuses on Seg-El, Superman’s grandfather. Actor Regé-Jean Page, the star of Netflix phenomenon Bridgerton, had auditioned for the role. But the producer rescinded, stating that Superman could not have a Black grandfather. The role was ultimately given to Cameron Cuffe, and the show was canceled after two seasons.
This particular bit of the story circulated widely on social media, perhaps because of the new fandom Page has accumulated since Bridgerton. It only emphasized a long-standing frustration with the superhero canon, that its characters are overwhelmingly white, male, and heterosexual. Characters of color, like The Avengers’ Nick Fury, Man of Steel’s Perry White, and Captain America: Winter Soldier’s Sam Wilson, are all secondary characters, never the lead (Harvard Political Review). And many of the few non-white superheroes have been played by white actors, only exacerbating the erasure (Quartz).
But the controversy was also accelerated by the absurdity of it. People were quick to note that both Superman and his grandfather aren’t actually white men, but a fictional alien species where race and genetics don’t have to work within the lens of human evolution. There’s no reason why Superman or his grandfather, or any Kryptonian, have to be depicted as Caucasian.
However, in today’s day and age, Superman doesn’t just look like a white man. He represents whiteness – and the carefully constructed ideals and values that come with it. Superman was an essential symbol of the American dream, and as he grew as a cultural icon, helped to protect it.
Ironically, Superman wasn’t initially built in this image. The character was created by two Jewish teens from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Both children of Jewish immigrants, the duo created a superhero that wasn’t afraid of his differences and unafraid to stand against injustice. Superman particularly stood against antisemitism, even confronting Hitler on the atrocities inflicted on the Jewish people of Europe (Ohio History).
Superman! Champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.
Jerry Siegel, Action Comics issue #1 (Ohio History)
Superman became an influential figure during World War II. Comics during that time didn’t place him directly on the battlefield, but he was still fighting against supervillains that bore a significant resemblance to Nazis. The creators worked closely with the U.S. government to handle these topics and ensured they were aligned with their goals and objectives in the war. These comics became essential forms of wartime propaganda; one in four magazines shipped to troops overseas was a comic. Superman wasn’t alone. Captain America, Batman, and Robin all appeared in solidarity with the U.S. war efforts (liveaboutdotcom).
But Superman’s narrative didn’t back down from home-grown threats, either. In the summer of 1946, the radio serial Adventures of Superman played a 16-part series called “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” which depicted Superman taking down a racist, bigoted group of terrorists based on the real-life Ku Klux Klan. The series used real intel collected by activist Stetson Kennedy, who had infiltrated the KKK. He provided real Klan rituals and secret code words to the show producers, who exposed them live on-air through the narrative. The show significantly damaged the group’s reputation and led to a steep decline in membership (Inverse). “Superman Smashes the Klan,” by Chinese American cartoonist Gene Luen Yang, revisits this narrative from a modern-day perspective (DC Comics).
But in the 1950s, Superman’s focus went from fighting against external threats to fighting for America. This was accelerated by the paranoia of the Cold War era and the rise of anti-war sentiment after the end of World War II. It was also prompted by his introduction to a new channel, television, in 1952, which meant that he needed a more family-friendly appeal. His mainstream identity evolved to become more accessible, friendly, and gentle (he stopped killing his villains, and sometimes they even knocked themselves out, so he didn’t have to be violent). His tagline changed to “…a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!” (McGill Tribune).
Instead of focusing on systemic issues like he had before, Superman was now focused on protecting his city from one isolated “bad guy” at a time. Many of these were caricatures of villains to minimize causing fear in young viewers. Some perpetuated stereotypes of communities of color (Gizmodo). But the prominent narratives looked at isolated acts of threat instead of systemic or coordinated attacks.
It also doubled-down on the main narrative of Superman, reinforcing the story of the American dream: A young, orphaned boy from a small town who makes it to the big city and achieves greatness. An “immigrant” from another planet who was able to assimilate to a foreign society and take on the responsibility of protecting it. And, above all, a “man” who loves his wife, his family, and his community. In essence, the embodiment of the American dream: that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in society. Superheroes included. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the American dream, of course. But we know that the U.S. doesn’t allow that dream to become a reality for everyone (The Atlantic) and leverages that dream to perpetuate racism and systemic oppression (Time).
Perhaps that’s partially why interest in the hero waned in the late 80s. By then, Superman had a long-standing cartoon series Super Friends for years and was depicted in three feature-length movies by Christopher Reeves as a romantic, thoughtful leader (Rolling Stone). Meanwhile, a new narrative of superheroes was emerging, led by Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. These stories, in contrast, were dark and gritty, both set in alternative realities that were far grimmer than the bright, idealized world Superman protected. The heroes these stories centered were far more complex and flawed than Superman’s simplistic narrative. In 1992, DC Comics decided to kill off Superman, which felt equal parts narrative and publicity stunt (Polygon). He was, of course, resurrected shortly after.
Since the early 2000s, few Superman stories have reached critical acclaim. The show Smallville, which hones in on Superman’s upbringing, was a commercial success. But major motion pictures depicting Superman have faltered, especially in comparison to blockbuster superhero films like The Avengers, Black Panther, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – stories reshaping the definition of what superheroes look like in today’s age. I really enjoyed this interview on the role of Black superheroes in today’s time.
What does it mean to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way” in today’s time? What role, if any, does Superman play in the future we’re envisioning? Is it possible for Superman to rise to this challenge, and is what he represents the future we need? I don’t have the answers to these questions. However, I am excited to see that author Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose work analyzes the fallacies of the American Dream, is writing a reboot of Superman for 2023.
But we also need to answer the questions and make these decisions for ourselves. We don’t need to be super to be the heroes our community deserves. And we can choose what kinds of heroes we emulate in our lives, protect in our communities, and allow us to shape our identities. After all, unlike the comics, no one is coming to save us.