Once upon a time, superheroes were a source of comfort and escape from the difficulties and ugliness of real life. While real-life recession and terrorism aren’t likely to meet any tidy resolutions soon, we can always count on Batman to solve the Riddler’s latest puzzle just in time, or Spider-Man to save the damsel in distress (well, usually).
Somewhere along the line, though, it was decided that our heroes had to grapple with real-world issues. When done sparingly and handled well, this can elevate the genre, such as Harry Osborn’s battle with drugs or 2008’s brilliant The Dark Knight. But more often than not, such efforts these days instead result in train wrecks of heavy-handed political proselytizing and moral confusion.
Such is the case with the latest development in DC Comics’ Action Comics #900, in which Superman decides he has to renounce his U.S. citizenship:
In it, Superman consults with the President’s national security advisor, who is incensed that Superman appeared in Tehran to non-violently support the protesters demonstrating against the Iranian regime, no doubt an analogue for the recent real-life protests in the Middle East. However, since Superman is viewed as an American icon in the DC Universe as well as our own, the Iranian government has construed his actions as the will of the American President, and indeed, an act of war.
Superman replies that it was foolish to think that his actions would not reflect politically on the American government, and that he therefore plans to renounce his American citizenship at the United Nations the next day — and to continue working as a superhero from a more global than national perspective. From a “realistic” standpoint it makes sense; it would indeed be impossible for a nigh-omnipotent being ideologically aligned with America to intercede against injustice beyond American borders without creating enormous political fallout for the U.S. government.
First, it’s interesting to note that the story’s starting dispute comes dangerously close to a damning indictment of Barack Obama for not taking a stronger stand on the Iranian protests of summer 2009, which is surprising coming from an iconic cultural mainstay and a major entertainment company. And while John Hawkins is right to note that there are certain practical difficulties with throwing someone as powerful as Superman into geopolitical situations, I can see definite story potential in exploring the tension between Superman’s no-nonsense moral clarity and the empty suits on Capitol Hill.
But renouncing his citizenship? That goes far beyond distancing himself from any particular policy or administration. As an alien raised on a Kansas farm who grows up to fight for truth, justice, and the American way both as a superhero and as a newspaper reporter, Superman’s American identity and values have always been central to the character. That’s not to say he should be a pawn of the government, or that he should never save the day overseas, but it does mean he can’t simply switch who he is at will.
At the heart of this concept seems to be a recurring leftist inability to distinguish a nation’s citizens from her government. Superman’s not a government agent; he doesn’t need to be a “global citizen” to act independently of Uncle Sam.
Gutting his patriotism isn’t the only way the Man of Steel has been badly mishandled in recent years; remember when 2006’s lukewarm Superman Returns had him impregnate Lois Lane, then leave the planet for years? It makes you wonder: who do we turn to when our heroes are the ones who need saving?