[Art Credit: Mike McCain (@MMcCain)]
“Why We Need Superman Now More Than Ever“
By Trey Jackson
Ten years ago, I experienced something I never thought possible and haven’t quite experienced since: I was as excited as one can possibly be for a movie, and the movie still managed to exceed my expectations. July of 2018 marks the ten-year anniversary of not just a great comic movie, or even just a great film, but a cultural moment. In the months leading up to The Dark Knight, I consumed every bit of information available, read every speculation, asked all the same questions as the rest of fandom. And then, when the movie released, something interesting happened. For a few weeks and even months, everyone seemed to be just as interested in Batman and his world as I was. I remember talking about the movie with people that I never thought were interested. I saw it discussed and praised in circles that never would have intersected with Batman before. It was a bit strange, but soon I and other Batman fans realized that this was bigger than us, bigger than our fandom, bigger than a movie. This was a story and characters that spoke to the world at a particular time in a particular way. The Dark Knight came to a world uncertain of itself, its convictions, and its future. It made us examine ourselves, each other, our ideas, and especially our fears. Batman confronted nihilism personified, and we were forced to ask ourselves if our convictions could withstand the danger of an uncertain world. We saw that, for Batman and the city he protected, the answer was yes. A comic book movie demanded examination of ourselves and our moral fortitude. It challenged us in ways that great art is supposed to do.
It’s time for Superman to do the same.
It’s time for Superman to make us confront ourselves and the world we’ve created.
Before anyone misinterprets this, willfully or otherwise, let me be clear: I am not advocating for any particular political position. In fact, what I’m hoping is that Superman can inspire us to rise above thinking in terms of “us vs. them” that political disagreement so often devolves into. Human beings, regardless of political persuasion, can always use a bit of epistemic humility. You, reader, don’t know everything. Neither do I. None of us do. But we share this life, and this world. We can respect each other, and we can humble ourselves. And we can give our best to everything we do, just like our favorite mild-mannered newspaper reporter. His story is one of inspiration, from escaping certain doom as a child to becoming the most powerful being in the world, he is always driven by his love for others. He has been a hero to many for several decades, and with good reason. And I believe he can inspire us, particularly now. There are three questions I hope the next depiction of Superman gets right, and explores in depth. These are the types of questions that The Dark Knight answered in mesmerizing fashion, and I believe the next Superman movie can do the same.
What does Superman represent?
Hope. Optimism. Determination. Moral conviction. Saving people’s lives, for no other reason than that life is inherently valuable. For Superman, a person is a being of infinite worth. Death is the true enemy. Life is always worth saving, people are always his priority. His greatest frustration is usually that he can’t save everyone, that he can’t do more to protect people. And consider his greatest enemy, Lex Luthor, as his antithesis: a man who achieved his position at the expense of anyone he believed to be in his way, one who has no qualms about using people for instrumental purposes in pursuit of his goals. This is in stark contrast to Superman: he believes people are the highest priority, while Lex believes people are only as good as how you can use them for your own ends, which he considers much more valuable. In an clever twist, Luthor embodies Nietzsche’s “superman” even more than Superman himself. More than solving problems, even more than righting wrongs, Superman is in the business of saving people. And crucially, he never considers this a burden. It is his duty, but one he embraces. We see this in almost all Superman adaptations. In Superman II, his concern for loss of human life governs how he battles Zod, Ursa, and Non, so much so that Zod uses his care for humanity against him. In the stellar animated series, the death of Dan Turpin is a gut-punch that sends him into a grief-stricken rage. And even in Man of Steel, after trying to navigate between his father’s counsel and his desire to save people, during a destructive battle that showcases his inexperience along with his commitment to protecting others, he kills Zod as a last resort and cries out in anguish at the realization of being the last living Kryptonian. The lives of others are very important to him.
Consider his situation: the most powerful being on the planet, who can do almost anything he wants with no risk of harm or negative consequence to himself. What would you do in that position? Specifically, those of you with moral and political opinions that you’re quick to share and defend: would you limit yourself to saving people? Or would you try to remake the world according to what you believe to be just? There’s certainly nothing wrong with having strong beliefs and convictions, and as long as we’re being respectful, there’s nothing wrong with sharing and defending them. In fact, if you really believe them, that’s precisely what you ought to do. But what if you had Superman’s power? What if you could, in the blink of an eye, affect millions of lives any way you choose, with no risk to yourself? Would you indulge yourself? Would you prioritize anything, or anyone? We sometimes take his heroism for granted, but it’s really amazing that given his power, Superman remains a purely benevolent hero. As a being capable of selfishness, he’s much more likely to be a tyrant, devoted only to what he thinks the world should be, or what he himself desires. But no, he doesn’t do that. I’d like to think he practices something I mentioned earlier, something I believe we sorely lack: epistemic humility. Yes, I’m aware of the tension in believing that we’re too absolutist in the certainty of our beliefs. But I’m not saying we can’t be right about our beliefs, I’m saying we’ve gotten bad at trying to be, particularly when trying involves treating a person who disagrees with you as someone of infinite worth, and holding yourself up to scrutiny. Superman is a person who knows the value of persons, and acts accordingly. He is all-powerful, but not omniscient. He does know that his actions have consequences for millions of people, even if not for him. His actions affect millions of infinitely valuable lives, so he acts with appropriate humility and respect. This is why he saves people but doesn’t choose to rule them. They are treasures, not objects, and nothing could be worth treating them as anything less.
What does that mean in our world right now?
Now more than ever before, I think people are realizing that they share communities with other people who have fundamentally incompatible conceptions of what constitutes the truly good life. Not just “good” as in pleasant, but “good” as in “morally praiseworthy.” That doesn’t mean that I think there are people walking around everywhere who believe that murdering innocents is a good thing. We can agree on common values while disagreeing about why they’re true. What it means is that, when you dig deep enough into someone’s real priorities and their conception of meaning in life, you’ll find that some people’s ideas cannot be reconciled with those of others. Plenty of people believe that the greatest good in life is the freedom to live and do whatever is most authentic to you as a person, as long as you’re not harming anyone. And still more believe that this freedom needs to be specifically cultivated in groups of people who have historically not enjoyed it, even if that cultivation detracts from others who have been previously unaffected.
This freedom is a kind of equality, the ultimate good in life, and moral and political values should be oriented around it. But this is irreconcilable with another conception of the good life, one that maintains that humans are teleological beings designed by evolution or a deity, who have a nature that cannot be ignored, one that makes us capable of great good but also great evil. Human nature manifests itself everywhere, from our grandest political constructions to our very biology. For those who hold this idea, freedom is not so metaphysical as to be the freedom to make yourself, your life, and the world into whatever you choose. Rather, freedom is liberty from arbitrary tyranny, where your devotion is only to yourself, your family, and your community. You are paradoxically bound by and free within a system of natural law, where you are subject to the ordered nature around and within you but free to reach its pinnacle as an authentic person, capable of reason and sound moral judgment. This conception of human virtue is the greatest good in life, and our moral duty is to actualize it in ourselves and others.
These are, in broad strokes, the two most common ideals that people hold in my experience talking and sharing with them, even if they’ve never really considered it philosophically. But there are multitudes of derivations within them, as well as countless others besides. And I think we’re collectively realizing that we don’t just disagree over details concerning ethics and moral obligation, we disagree over the core of our ideals. Genuine, metaphysical freedom as pure autonomy is incompatible with a teleological view of human nature. This is why our political and moral discourse is so turbulent. Our gradual realization that we are trying to share society with others who disagree with us on such bedrock ideas is one of the reasons for our current political climate.
We often presume bad faith for those who disagree with us, convinced that they hold their beliefs for some sinister reason that they won’t admit. When we engage with someone living their life within a completely different paradigm than our own, and then we realize that we judge each other’s world views to be morally inferior to our own, we’re quicker to dismiss or condemn than we are to try and understand. Have you ever had your whole opinion of a person change for the worse based on something you found out they believed? How hard was it to shake that negative impression? Did you even continue engaging with them?
This is quite common, especially in the age of social media. We associate a belief with a system of beliefs that is rooted in an idea that we either agree or disagree with. And this impression often hangs, positively or negatively, over our view of the person who holds that belief. Just look at Twitter replies, Facebook interactions, or (heaven forbid) comment sections (although this site and others like it have done a great job facilitating good communities) and you’ll see what I mean. Tribalism is not new, and it has been based on everything from geographic location to skin color. But now we’re seeing the effects of tribalism based on ideas, and we haven’t done a very good job of maintaining respect for each other.
How does Superman address what this world is facing?
If you’ve staying with me long enough on this philosophical detour, congrats, but you might be wondering what this has to do with Superman. Remember how he values human life above all else? How he orients his mission, his identity, and his very existence around saving people? He transcends moral disagreement not by taking a side and proving the other wrong, but by recognizing and emphasizing what all our moral theorizing must assume to be true: that human life is sacred, and worth protecting, no matter what. Whether you value freedom, virtue, faith, or happiness, you, me, and everyone else knows that human life is sacred. It just is. This is true no matter what you think is good in life. And you agree with it, whether you know it or not.
And this basic, fundamental truth is the core of Superman’s mission.
Even if we have significant disagreements over what to do with our lives, we all agree that they matter. We know it, and yet we need to be reminded of it. Can Superman do that? I think he can. Often we wonder what new movies will have to say to us, particularly in recent times when answering such questions is part of the marketing. “What sort of message will this movie send?” “Will it have an agenda of some kind?” “Will it take a particular stance on this hot-button issue?” These kinds of questions have always been part of watching movies, but their role seems to be growing. And they’re not misguided. Movies are communicative art, and an engaged viewer should wonder what art has to say. But what if Superman could help us remember something we are too quick to forget? That in the midst or all our sparing, our hate, our vitriol, we are beings of infinite worth, and we owe it to ourselves and each other to remember that? He doesn’t need to assume a political stance to be relevant. He is motivated by a more basic and much more important truth. His villains don’t have to represent “other people” whose beliefs we feel justified in opposing.
What makes Lex Luthor so evil is that people don’t really matter to him. And when we disagree, even fervently, do those we disagree with really matter to us? Who do we model ourselves after, even in our most difficult moments: the hero who holds human life sacred, or the villain who acts primarily for himself? Some might think that having Superman embody such a basic moral truth is a way of “playing it safe,” as though the creators would be afraid to have him embrace some bolder claim for fear of alienating a disagreeable portion of the audience. I wholeheartedly disagree. Superman doesn’t need to avoid political ideas for the sake of keeping peace. He is forcing us to confront a failure that all of us share: we don’t value human life as we ought to. We don’t see people as he sees them. We don’t care for strangers, let along those we disagree with, as much as we should, as much as he does. Reminding the audience of their failure to live up to a fundamental moral truth is anything but “safe.” But it’s good. We need to remember this. And he can confront and inspire us in his own heroic way.
I think it’s time for Superman to inspire us again. To remind us of each other’s humanity. To convict us of failing to value each other. To show us that we don’t need to agree, even on crucial questions, to make life work together. Superman represents a commitment to valuing that which is truly valuable, the lives we live. He lives to protect and defend them at all costs. My hope is that he will remind us of what matters, and show us how to look past our disagreements and come together in our commitment to valuing ourselves and each other. Let him be a hero.