Granted, I don’t write about DC often on this site. Yet just because Marvel has always held my heart doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy DC’s characters in their own way. Nor does it mean I don’t spend time thinking about them. In fact, Superman is one of the heroes who most often rattles around in my head. There is a story I’ve always wanted to see, a struggle that’s uniquely Superman’s. And I think about it all the time.
I read again and again in books, articles, online comment sections, and in interviews of the perceived struggle of writing a Superman story. The arguments usually go that he’s too morally pure to be interesting and/or just too darn powerful to ever put in plausible danger. Without real risk or conflict, where’s the story? Now these opinions are often debated and our 75+ years of loving Superman clearly points to the fact that these critiques aren’t entirely true. For the better part of a century Superman’s entertained us in every media and pop culture avenue available. More than a few creators have given us exciting Superman stories and far more than a few fans have passionately embraced him. There’s a reason he’s iconic. He is the first superhero. He is the archetype. He is the best of them. And we love him.
However, there’s a Superman story I always think about and one – to the best of my (admittedly limited) knowledge of DC – that has never been written. I’d like to see Superman honestly struggling with the weight of the world and how he can make a legitimate difference with his powers. (Reader’s note: If this story already exists, please, please, please, tell me what the title is and where to find it because I will read this so fast. Thank you.) Yes, Superman is always fighting to protect the world from Lex Luthor, Doomsday, Metallo, Darkseid, Mongul, Zod, and the like. But let’s put the monsters and madmen aside for a moment and look at this in a different context.
Looking at his incredible power set we have a man who is completely invulnerable (save Kryptonite and magic), super strong, faster than the speed of sound, has super hearing, super vision (x-ray, telescopic, and heat ray), doesn’t need to breathe as we do (since he’s fine in outer space and underwater), possesses a perfect eidetic memory and the ability to understand/speak any language he encounters, a genius-level mind that works faster than a supercomputer, and all of these abilities are guided by his well developed, inner moral compass. We’re looking at a god-like being with no conceivable limits. He can do whatever he wants and no one can stop him. In the comics he uses those powers to protect the earth while fighting for truth, justice, and (depending on how we’re defining the phrase) the American way. But our world can be a dark and troubling place. If Superman were really living on our world, where would he draw the line with intervening?
As an example, let’s consider Syria. The Syrian Civil War has ravaged the country for five years, leaving nearly 500,000 dead and over 12 million refugees fleeing their country in search of safety according to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). At present, the residents of the devastated city of Aleppo have less than ten days until they die of starvation according to aid workers. These are human beings dying every day. Superman could stop it. He could fly to Syria, find the leaders (Russian, Syrian, and rebel) of the conflict and offer two choices – they immediately cease all hostilities forever or he stops them himself. They couldn’t possibly prevent him from doing so. He could gather all their weapons (hell, he could gather all weapons everywhere) and either toss them into the sun like in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace or leave them floating in some distant, uninhabited corner of space. He could forcibly remove those in power from their positions of power and put them somewhere (a Fortress of Solitude-like prison, maybe in space?) where they could do no more harm. This is not a difficult task for a man of unlimited strength and beyond genius-level intelligence who also happens to be invulnerable, faster than sound, and has the hearing and vision abilities he does. His mind and super senses would allow him to assess the situation with incredible accuracy and then he could act with maximum efficiency. Then, through the threat of force, force that would be impossible for anyone to begin to counter, Superman could halt the hostilities. The choice would be clear, govern compassionately with respect for all human life or you don’t govern.
How about the issue of the rise of hate groups and hate crimes? Since election day, reported incidents of racist crimes or racist actions/demonstrations have more than doubled in the United States. The focus has been overwhelmingly anti-immigrant in the incidents’ tone and focus. Then there was the alt-right rally in Washington D.C. last week that had crowd members offering the Nazi salute while Richard Spencer (a leader of the alt-right movement (which we need to stop legitimating by saying “alt-right” and just call it what it is – the Neo Nazi movement)) shouted, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” For those rusty on their immediate English-to-German translation, “Hail victory” is “Sieg Heil” in German…the classic Nazi victory salute used at political rallies. Hate is growing in its sense of legitimacy. These groups see Trump’s presidential victory as an endorsement for their views, their ideology, their way of life. While the president-elect has “condemn[ed]” and “disavow[ed]” the actions of those at the rally, it hasn’t slowed their enthusiasm. But imagine the effect of Superman descending into the middle of the rally and firmly saying, “This is over. You’re wrong. I won’t allow this sort of intolerance.” Whether disbanding rallies (and by extension political parties) fuelled by hate or stopping their actions in the streets, there would be nothing these hate-mongers could do to stop him. What good is any weapon or any hateful ideology against the Man of Steel? As with Syria, you comply or Superman removes you.
The same sort of logic applies to the Dakota Access Pipeline. As the Standing Rock Sioux and all those who stand with them peacefully protest the government’s plans to illegally run the pipeline through hallowed ground, they are greeted with police in riot gear and armored police trucks using sound canons, tear gas, firing bean bag rounds and rubber bullets, tossing concussion grenades, and spraying them with water cannons in freezing temperatures. It wouldn’t take Superman long to disperse the police officers and those trying to illegally sully the sacred land of the Sioux, putting the indigenous people at risk of poisoning. How could he do anything else, in the face of such horrifyingly unjust and ridiculously disproportionate use of force? Again, he offers a simple choice. The U.S government honors their treaties and leave the Sioux alone, scraping the plans for the pipeline, or he stops them. There would be nothing the local law enforcement or the federal government could do to stop him.
The ethnic cleansing which has erupted against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar couldn’t last long after Superman shows up either. The UNHCR has reported that roughly 30,000 members of the community have fled their homes in Myanmar, seeking shelter in Bangladesh. Myanmar’s army has been raping women, killing men and children, looting homes, and burning towns to the ground in genocidal attacks against Muslims increasing in their brutality. However it would be literally impossible for this to continue once Superman intervenes. If Myanmar’s government would be foolish enough to refuse his order to stop, (without breaking a sweat) he could force those conducting the ethnic cleansing from power, strip them of their weapons of war, and take apart their armies as though they were nothing more than paper dolls.
These are but four examples pulled from our current events. Speaking more generally, Superman could find and stop everyone who makes and sells weapons, everyone who makes and sells drugs, everyone who profits from death. With his super senses, mental capabilities, and speed, it wouldn’t take him long to find every weapon on the planet or every illicit substance and destroy them all. And, as with all the other examples, there is nothing anyone could do to stop him. You abandon the trade of drugs and machines of death or Superman makes you do so. Similarly, all the medicine and food we hoard in the First World could easily be collected by Superman and distributed the world over where it’s needed.
This potential (a potential that comes only because of his godlike power set and impeccable moral compass) naturally raises a slew of moral/ethical issues Superman must deal with. How would he choose when to intervene? Does he set limits? How does he deal with what he misses?? Let’s say he’s stopping a shooting in Chicago’s Gage Park when someone is gunned down in the Bronx? Yes, he is incredibly fast but even Superman can’t be everywhere at once. Over time, he’d be able to pull everything together safely. But until then he’d have to wrestle with the guilt of all those he couldn’t save.
But looking at those he could save, it begs an even more complex question. Does Superman become a benevolent dictator, making the world run in everyone’s best interests? With his morals, incredible mind, and superhuman abilities, he could force justice on us even if we are not quick to accept it. Simply put, if Superman wants it so, there’s no force on earth that could stop him from making it so. But, if he pursues that line of action, how does he deal with the taking of human freedom? Conversely, if he has these abilities and refuses to act, how could he possibly deal with all the death and destruction that follows from his inaction? This is the problem of a god that God, God’s Self (at least as we traditionally conceive of God) doesn’t have to deal with.
To be ridiculously simplistic, when we look at the problem of evil in the world there are two general theological responses. The first affirms a belief that everything happens for a reason. So we try to take solace in God’s grand design even if we can’t see the plan. If evil happens, it somehow serves God’s will. The second accepts that, in making us beings of free will God must choose to limit God’s Self in the process. So evil is not so much the will of God but our collective failure to work with God and transform the world as God sees it. Neither of these factors would affect Superman’s actions though. Superman wouldn’t be guiding the universe with some unknowable plan. Nor would Superman have limits on his abilities that ensure our free will. Superman too is free. Superman could act. He could stand between oppression and all those oppressed. He could literally forge a better, brighter, safer world through the strength of his will. But he’d have to remove our right to govern ourselves in the process.
It seems an impossible ethical conundrum…and reading a story where Superman wrestles with this exact situation seems endlessly fascinating to me. There is a second layer to this issue though that I find even more fascinating.
If we refuse to become aware and take action, if we allow the world to continue going to hell, does Superman not then have a greater moral duty to force justice upon us on behalf of those who are oppressed and in danger? Those of us sitting in our (so often white) first world comfort, wrapped in first world privilege can ignore the cries of the many. We can also fix things by refusing to be so selfishly near-sighted in our approach to the world. If we abandon our duty to help, does Superman then not have every right to force justice upon the world? If we are complicit in social sin by our silent apathy (which we are) then we are certainly complicit in our inaction. So if we refuse to act, don’t we waive our right to govern ourselves? If Superman could stop the world from going to hell doesn’t he have the responsibility to make that happen? So what does Superman do? And how does the world react to a godlike being forcing us to halt our hate, violence, and corruption? Lastly, what does a world with a Superman reigning look like? So often the fear of a corrupt Superman reigning is the fuel of a narrative…but what if he forces us to live in a just world? Seeing this struggle play out would be an incredibly engaging story as far as I’m concerned.
I know I couldn’t handle being Superman. It would probably break me morally and spiritually in a matter of months at best. I could see myself weeping in the corner, unable to make even the simplest of choices anymore as I feared for the world I was letting down. Or, conversely, I could see myself embracing the call to build a just world with my own two superhuman hands, and reveling (maybe too much) in the ability to set right the wrongs of the world. Either way, it would be a heavy experience. Sure, flying would be cool. But the rest would get intense, real fast. Superman facing all of this is a story rich with moral, political, and theological implications and consequences. It’s a story that could teach and challenge in a unique way. And it’s a story only the character of Superman could fully explore. So DC, if you’re listening (and I’m sure everyone at DC reads my heavily Marvel and IDW-oriented blog), maybe you should write this story. And, for the rest of us (myself most of all), maybe we need to get a little more involved in the world around us. Tragedy is occurring every day and we don’t have Superman coming to save us. But, if we’re willing to let love and compassion lead us with more regularity, maybe we can don our own super suits and start to save each other a little more often.