S is for Superman

You know the S. For 75 years this iconic shield has adorned countless T-shirts and, more properly, comic books as mild mannered Clark Kent ripped his shirt to reveal a superhero beneath. Now the S shield is back in Zack Snyder’s blockbuster, Man of Steel, though it appears to mean something rather different amidst the CGI collateral damage…

Superman first debuted in Action Comics 1 in 1938, created by the teenage sons of Jewish immigrants. Reminiscent of Biblical figures like Moses and Samson, Superman also embodied the powers of Greek gods like Heracles and Hermes. Over time, the hero accrued Christological parallels too numerous to mention. However, Superman was the son of an alien scientist, deriving his powers from solar energy. Thus he became a secular saviour, the title ‘superman’ reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical anti-Christ.

This superman was American too. Politically, the character helps humanity through a positive democratic example of the US’ isolationist/interventionist ambivalences (particularly explored in the luminous book Superman: Peace on Earth). Culturally, Superman may have come to represent post-war immigration, where many fled the destruction of Europe to pose as humble Americans with new names and identities.

So the superhero was born and quickly became a vehicle for values of social justice during the Great Depression. In the early days, this “champion of the oppressed” stopped gangsters, slumlords and wife beaters, those comics also ideologically reflective of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Superman also took on the KKK in his radio serial when a sly writer/activist, Stetson Kennedy, used the broadcast as an embarrassing expose on the racist mob’s tactics.

During World War II, Superman became something of a mascot, selling war bonds back home as his name was graffitied on Allied vehicles in the battlefield. Consequently the actors who portrayed the character took to the airwaves during blood drives and soldiers read Superman comics at the Normandy landing. At one point, the Nazi High Command had even released a critique of this Jewish creation, a superman who stood up for the small instead of ruling over them. In wartime, the S shield subverted the swastika.

Sometimes, Superman failed. There were some racist cartoons in the 1940s, an alcoholic George Reeves’ committed suicide in 1959 and our hero was accused of fascism by weirdo Fredric Wertham. From 1939 through to last year even, there’s been no end of corporate struggle over the creative rights (comic’s grumpy Gandalf Alan Moore details the mess here). For many, the S shield still stands for the best of Western ideology.

Now, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel states that the S shield on Superman’s chest is an alien glyph representing hope. As a detail, this is fine (hope is an undeniable element of the character). After all, it appears rather conceited to brand yourself ‘Superman’, even if this is what occurred in the comics of old when the S shield simply stood for the name Clark Kent chose for his heroic identity. At first, it’s a horrifying notion (‘super race’ anyone?), though Superman is obviously incompatible with Hitler’s Third Reich or Nietzsche’s ubermensch. Indeed, in all his adventures, Superman does not redefine humanity through power and force, but inspires by an example of goodness and compassion. Superman doesn’t believe himself to be better than us, but rather believes all humanity can be better.  Simply put, super-man can be paraphrased as better-humanity. Since 1938, this controversial title, and the S shield, have come to represent a mythic humanist ethic.

Superman at the 1939 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Superman at the 1939 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Apart from the monthly comics, this humanist fantasy is wondrously expressed in the classic novels of Elliot S! Maggin and the charming graphic novel Superman For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb, but never more clearly than in All Star Superman, the 12 issue comic series penned by wondrous maniac Grant Morrison. All Star depicts a Superman who betters all around by his moral example. Superman saves one suicidal teenager, not by catching her mid-air, but by embracing her and asking her not to jump to begin with. Superman visits children in a local cancer ward, flying them in a school bus to spend the afternoon at the pyramids (Batman couldn’t do that, nor would he). Superman goes on to share his powers, answer an unanswerable question and offer mercy to violent invaders. Finally, he saves the world and redeems the villainous Lex Luthor by helping him see the unity of humanity, (before sinking the crook with a right hook).

Sure, Superman is an action hero. He can be conflicted, even flawed, and it’s his job to beat the crap out of countless bad guys and monsters (the biggest and smartest smack down being The Death and Return of Superman). However, All Star offers a simple, moral maxim in one of Superman’s best lines: there’s always a way. Over and over again, when all seems lost, Superman finds a way to be good and compassionate. He saves the day. There’s always a way.

Former film Superman Christopher Reeve, who for many is indistinguishable from the character, spoke of the superhero’s significance in a 1988 issue of Time:

It’s very hard for me to be silly about Superman, because I’ve seen firsthand how he actually transforms people’s lives. I have seen children dying of brain tumors who wanted as their last request to talk to me, and have gone to their graves with a peace brought on by knowing that their belief in this kind of character really matters. It’s not Superman the tongue-in-cheek cartoon character they’re connecting with; they’re connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles.

Reeve knew this more than anyone. After suffering a devastating paralysis in 1995, Christopher Reeve defied the prognosis of doctors to live on as a tireless activist for disability rights. Christopher Reeve lived, struggled and died, inspired by the character that made his name. This is the core of Superman’s iconography: in facing obstacles, we are stronger than we think. No matter the circumstances, we can be good and compassionate. When all is lost, we can save the day. We can be better. There is always a way.

Reeve discussing stem cell research at a conference at MIT, March 2, 2003.

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel would have us believe that the S shield stands for hope, though the film climaxes with countless lives lost, cities reduced to ash and Superman screaming in despair. One scene in particular brings disgrace to the character and should rightly embarrass the otherwise skilled and accomplished writer and director whose dash for controversy has revealed their ignorance of the mythos (even as they laugh all the way to the bank). We are free to discuss what our heroes might be forced to do when faced with hard choices, but we’d do better to question why filmmakers put heroic characters in unheroic scenarios to begin with, only to degrade their iconic values with the inevitable consequences. In a world ill with urban terrorism, collateral damage and extra-judicial killing, Superman should appear as the cure, not the cause (the strengths and failures of this film to which I refer are definitively outlined by comic author Mark Waid here, spoiler alert, and a sound condemnation from EW and TIME here).

By all means, enjoy Man of Steel. It boasts a fine cast, composer, a mostly good script and Henry Cavill is a brilliant leading man. Some of it is wondrous and stunning to behold. However, in Man of Steel, Superman is hardly bettered by his experiences, nor is anyone else. In fact, it depicts a world that would have benefitted if Superman had not arrived here at all. While fans will discuss what this film should have been, and critics will discus what it actually is, many agree that there’s much more it could have been. For the sequels slated to shoot, let’s invoke a little of that hope and look up in the sky. We might see Superman.

If at some point in the Man of Steel merchandising storm you happen to grab a branded T-shirt, just remember that the S shield stands for Superman: an icon of better humanity. It teaches us that in the face of obstacles, we are stronger than we think. We may seem mundane and mild mannered on the outside, but within we bear the image of invincible goodness and compassion. Traditionally, that is why Clark Kent rips his shirt to reveal the S shield beneath. This truth is carried within us all: when all is lost, we can be better. There is always a way

A

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