By Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Over the weekend, DC Comics announced a change to Superman’s mission statement. Instead of fighting the never-ending battle for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” the Man of Steel would instead be working for “Truth, Justice, and a Better Tomorrow.”
Superman is one of the best-known fictional creations in the world. For this reason, everyone, from the most ardent fan to the least interested person, has some idea of who they think Superman is and what they believe Superman ought to be.
Given this perspective, it is possible for some to see this reconfiguration as a political statement and a dismissal of American values. On the next slow news day, pundits and talking heads on certain channels will decry this as the latest evidence that a liberal media elite hates the country. These commenters will yearn for a simpler time when Superman was not so controversial.
Of course, that time never existed.
Superheroes are inherently political creations. The genre was born at the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. Arguably the first true superhero, Superman arrived in 1938 as a heroic figure who sought to help. He was a progressive vision, a champion who used his powers to right the wrongs of society. In his earliest days, Superman fought corrupt industrialists and criminals. Superman was also quite good at punching fascists.
Curiously, a few decades later Superman was actually ridiculed for not being progressive enough. In the 1960s, young people thought of Superman as an establishment figure and a square. Superman was a bit too close to being “The Man,” particularly when compared to the many Marvel superheroes who were just bursting into popularity.
Over the years, Superman’s popularity has waxed and waned. Controversies have come and gone. In the 1980s, Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor was recast as a villain masquerading as a wealthy industrialist. Was this change a rejection of American business or a much-needed exploration of the dangers of 1980s capitalism? Or both? Or neither?
The list goes on and on. A decade ago, Superman renounced his American citizenship in order to take on what he saw as a wider role in protecting the world. Recently, Superman’s son Jonathan, who also fights crime as Superman, was reveled to be bi-sexual. That story development provoked simultaneous praise and criticism.
The answer to a lot of these changes depends, of course, on who you ask. That is what makes the study of popular culture so fascinating. These moments reveal the thoughts, traditions, and perspectives that creators and audiences bring to the stories they enjoy or dislike.
As much as I academically thrive on the kind of situation that forces me to consider many different viewpoints, like anyone else, I find that this choice affects me a bit. Superman was the subject of the undergrad paper I wrote that helped me decide on my academic path. Superman was also the subject of my very first publication. Superman matters to me as a fan and as an academic.
I know that Superman had many different mission statements over the years, but I really do like “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” the most. That phrase thrills me whenever I hear it, particularly in the opening of the old 1950s The Adventures of Superman TV show. Superman represents our highest aspirations. I believe that making a better tomorrow is part of the American Dream.
In liking the old phrasing though, I don’t want to support reactionary takes. I do not believe that DC Comics hates America. I do wish though that they’d thought this through a bit more. I’m not sure why there has to be such finality in the choice. Just as Superman has many nicknames, from the Last Son of Krypton to the Man of Tomorrow, surely he can also have many different missions.