So, Superman has finally returned.
Everyone knows the story of how Superman was born on the doomed planet Krypton and sent to Earth where he grew up a farm boy in Kansas. Why has this character endured for now almost 70 years? With his super-strength, speed, indestructibility, heat, X-ray, telescopic and microscopic vision and ability to fly, he would seem to have little relevance to you or me and any challenges we might encounter in our daily lives.
The character of Superman was created by two Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (a Canadian!) leading many to identify several Jewish cues in Superman’s origin. Like Moses set loose on a river in his basket, the son of a doomed people, Superman was sent to Earth in a rocket ship, and like Moses, was raised in a mysterious land. However, most people don’t know that Superman’s powers are the unforeseen byproduct of Kryptonian eugenics, although this was added decades later as part of the back story to explain why Krypton exploded.
Famously, Superman uses these powers to defend u2018Truth, Justice and the American Way’ and is considered in his comic books as the most powerful man in Metropolis, if not on Earth. Actually, the dispute over this status is the revised origin for Lex Luthor’s vendetta against Superman. Originally, many decades ago, Superman inadvertently caused Luthor’s hair to fall out, causing Luthor to swear revenge for this humiliation. This is a pretty lame origin story for a supervillain, but on the other hand, it shows how, as a rival to a super-man, his arch-nemesis is a small and petty man. However, when Superman was reinvented in the 80’s, Lex Luthor was also given a tune up, so that their rivalry stems from Luthor’s claim, as the wealthiest and most influential man in Metropolis, to also be the most powerful man in the city … until Superman arrived on the scene. And instead of the humiliation of going bald, Luthor was now humiliated when he was sent to jail for staging a fake terrorist attack on his yacht in order to lure Superman into the open to meet him.
But why is Superman relevant to today’s world and to you and me? The key to the answer is that in fiction, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out in his criticism of detective stories, the reader is encouraged to imagine or identify themselves as the heroes of the story. Who hasn’t wondered what they would do if they had all the powers of Superman?
The real underlying moral theme of Superman is the recurring unasked, but obvious question to readers, of what would you do if you were Superman in this situation? What would you do with the powers of Superman if you had them? Would you use them for personal wealth and glory? Conversely, what would you do if you had all the wealth and influence of Lex Luthor? Would you use that wealth to pursue petty vendetta’s and endanger the innocent with your schemes for revenge?
With all the powers of Superman no crime would be impossible for you. Who could stop you? What could stop you?
Of course, what makes Superman Superman is not his Kryptonian heritage and the yellow Sun of Earth, but his childhood in Kansas and his parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. It is his upbringing, the ideals and morals taught and lived out by Clark Kent that makes Superman a hero instead of the global conqueror that he was originally sent to Earth to be, sent to impose on humanity "proper Kryptonian ideals" as his mother put it.
What does all this say about another person who is described as "the most powerful man on Earth?" A man who endlessly lectures all within range of his voice of his noble intentions, his superior morality and the power of his corrupt office? "I’m the decider" he famously taunted. So much for democracy.
George W. Bush, sadly and frighteningly, is indeed the most powerful man on Earth, made so by the inhumanity of the U.S. military machine, able to rain death down from the skies on thousands, and potentially billions. And this is not mere hyperbole. When presented with the opportunity to use this awesome and evil power that he wields, he had a choice, to choose between the moral, Good choice, and the immoral and Evil one. Sadly, we know which he chose. W. bombs because he loves.
When the public was clamoring for revenge, eager to strike out and kill any target that could be claimed to have even the faintest connection to the wound of 9/11, did George W. Bush urge caution and restraint? Did he recognize that with great power comes great responsibility for how that power is used (and abused)? Did he marshal arguments against the use of violence and the murder of the innocent?
When the choice came, Bush chose to use his power to further the cause of Evil and further the enslavement of the human race under despotism and war, and looting present and future generations to fund his cronies. When presented with a crisis, Bush didn’t hesitate to tip his power onto the evil side of the moral scale, promoting and extending a fearsome regime of perpetual war, militarism, empire, torture, fear mongering, a burgeoning police-state, and crony capitalism.
When the choice came, Bush, like every depraved madman, embraced not the ways of peace, but any excuse to revel in the martial spirit and kill at will. Instead of arguing for the dignity of every human being, he seized the opportunity, like any other tyrant throughout history, to engage in human experimentation through violence. His whims would redesign societies both abroad … and at home. Thinking he was the greatest man alive, Bush became nothing more than a cartoonish supervillain, bristling with dire warnings and threatening to hold the world hostage to his whims with machines of mass destruction. "You’re either with us, or with the turrists" he famously bellowed.
Instead of behaving like how we would all expect everyone to act, with restraint, patience and consideration for guilt and innocence, before considering a proportional response, Bush unleashed a wave of violence and murder. All because he had the power to. And that is why he has failed.
The extraordinary character of Superman perhaps inadvertently provides an important and everlasting moral example to us all. Power does not determine right and wrong. Rather it is one’s ideas and principles that in turn determine the choices we all make. Superman is a hero, not because of his Kryptonian powers, but because of his moral character and how he chooses to use his power.
All fantasy is typically about a struggle between Good and Evil, which has obvious application to the real world (especially in these dark times). Even when faced with extraordinary circumstances, the Good Man will not succumb to Evil, whether it’s Evil Men and their works, or just Evil ideas, but will fight ever more enthusiastically against it. As all moral storytelling teaches, every man (or woman) has it within them to do heroic deeds, to make heroic choices, to be more than what is expected of the average man, to be in a certain sense, supra-men — and super heroic.
There is much to value in fantasy and sci-fi precisely because it allows moral dilemmas to be presented and considered fresh from the commonplace world that we actually live in. After all, isn’t the moral of The Lord of the Rings that even the smallest and weakest can defeat evil, not just the stereotypical mighty hero. And what is the moral of Star Wars but that although evil can rise and triumph, it can also be defeated, even from the most unlikely sources and opportunities. Liberty can triumph over slavery.
Adam Young [send him mail] has never undressed in a phone booth.