In a genre of uncertainties, third act twists, and a penchant for unsettling our expectations, the one inviolable rule of comic books is: Superman cannot be defeated. The son of Krypton, and self-designated defender of Earth (or, more narrowly, the American way), is indestructible. This poses an uncomfortable problem for Superman writers.
“How do I maintain tension, draw the reader in, and keep a sense of urgency in the storyline when Superman always wins?”
Superman – perhaps more so than any other character – suffered grossly from an inflation of powers, rising rapidly from being “more powerful than a locomotive” to being, essentially, a living god. And as Superman’s powers grew, so did the threats he confronted. He has gone from foiling bank robberies, to fighting the Second World War, to regularly confronting – and defeating – world-ending crises. There is simply no parallel, no conceivable equal, and no direct challenge to Superman.
How fitting, then, that this living embodiment of “truth, justice, and the American Way” mirrors the trajectory of American power. As Superman grew in stature and strength in the post-War period, so did America. American hard power grew from fielding the largest and most capable military in the world after World War II shattered every possible rival, and kept expanding from there, never quite realizing an upper limit. Nuclear weapons – and the ability to destroy more worlds than we have – were soon added to the arsenal.
In terms of rivals, there were distant seconds but no real peers, no equal threats.
True, for much of the post-War period, America feared the Soviet Union but, as contemporary investigations reveal, these fears were inflated and propagated for political and economic ends.
For the vast majority of the Cold War, it was difficult to justify the excess of American hard power. It took amazing contortions of facts and deliberate misinterpretations of reality to portray a worthy American foe, to generate that missile gap, to imagine the Red invasion. Just like Superman, America had no possible threats, just minor inconveniences.
It took a while – too long for his more serious fans – for Superman to be realistically challenged by something he couldn’t outpunch. These still weren’t dangers to Superman’s strength – which would have been inconceivable – but, rather, tested Superman’s beliefs and ideals. Superman’s greatest moments of weakness don’t come from anything as banal as a random supervillain but rather those moments that question Superman and force him to reflect upon his adherence to his ideals and his place in the world. These are Superman’s existential challenges; they don’t test his abilities but rather his ability to comprehend and understand them.
In much the same way, American power has never been seriously challenged, and won’t be for at least the next half century by any potential rival. And though the problems of international adversaries remain, America – like Superman – has had to evolve from simply just employing one’s fists. Up to the Age of Vietnam, America could reliably drop fiery death from the sky in an attempt to “solve” its problems. Now, not so much.
America’s problems are now very much in the realm of the ‘hearts and minds’. America could – if crazed enough – still rain nuclear fire from the sky to extinguish any foe but these aren’t the challenges that rock America anymore. Instead, the most poignant questions that test American will, fortitude, and ideals – and not American might – are those that revolve around what America stands for.
American muscle alone can still cut the Gordian Knot but it can’t unravel it. When asked “what does America stand – and fight – for?," amid the images of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and My Lai, the American answer can’t be a straightforward: justice, dignity, and freedom. These episodes are self-inflicted attacks on what America is but are also reminders that there are challenges – to the American ideals and way of life – that require a different approach. Should America be defined by its fear and the fear it inflicts on others, or are there higher ideals and the pursuit of a better tomorrow that guides, nurtures, and leads American power?
America’s challenge – like Superman’s – isn’t about when or how to use its considerable power. It isn’t even really about power at all but rather what that power stands for. American power isn’t much at all without an American Way to direct it.
Photo Credit: Ben Northern