Superman is actually a conservative hero when you look closely, just take a moment and look at the role he plays in the world, and I don’t mean he is standing up for the American way and all that, or even that he’s upholding the political right or anything. Simply that he’s maintaining the status quo. Our acceptance of him as the greatest superhero is what tells us a lot about ourselves, about our society.
To start things off, let’s look at Superman in a typical situation. Lex Luthor devises some evil plan to rule the world. Superman must stop him. But what is interesting is not what he does to stop Luthor but what Superman doesn’t do in the down time. With all that power, Superman could do a lot of things to make the world a better place. He could feed the hungry, get rid of the world’s weapons of mass destruction, even solve wars before they start, to name a few. Super speed and super strength could do a lot of good. But he doesn’t, aside from side stories, his main mode of operation is stopping bad things from happening and not starting anything good. I know Superman may save an occasional kitten stuck in a tree but typical stories have him passively stopping a villain, not actively changing the world for the better. His character maintains the status quo.
Superman out of Character
Admittedly in Superman’s earliest stories he does try to change the world for the better. Some of his earliest stories have him shutting down slumlords by clearing out dangerous tenements, going about fighting corruption and the like. A sorta hero for the poor. And even in the more recent film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, he declares he is “ridding the world of nuclear weapons” as he effortlessly scoops up a bunch of nukes and chucks them into the sun. Easily solving the one of the greatest dangers of the Cold War while not even breaking a sweat. But these instances are not Superman at his best, his most popular. Fans and the general public rejected The Quest for Peace, considering it one of the worst superhero films of all time. And scenes like these are painfully hard to swallow because it is so much out of character for him. It comes across as meddling perhaps. You could say that Kal-El has some non-interference pact with his dad or something but every time he takes down a villain he violates it.
As for Superman’s earlier attempts in the comic books of making the world a better place, this is dropped for more entertaining things. Fans are not as interested in a “Superman hero of the downtrodden.” He has evolved in modern times. Instead, Superman is at his best when he is sitting around waiting for villains to come up with a plan. Superman doesn’t try to change the world for the better. His job is to stop villains like Lex Luthor, to keep things the way they are, to maintain the status quo.
Although Superman is the greatest superhero of all time, many other heroes maintain the status quo. Heroes like Batman with his great wealth could spend all of that money spent on gadgets and instead sponsor a police force or something along those lines. Even Batman can’t be everywhere at once but the police could. Although Peter Parker is a broke college student he doesn’t try to improve the world either, he prevents evil from taking place, from changing the status quo. I know Spidey is just an underdog hero and does whatever he can but he still sits around waiting for villains to come up with plans, never going on the offensive. All fictional heroes are this way. Its a challenge to provide any character who tries to improve the world instead of just stopping the evil plans of villains. It’s human nature to look at heroism this way, heroes keep things the way they are. As it has been said before; a hero is defined by the villain, without the villain, he has no purpose.
Even real life examples of great people fall into this way of thinking. Of either being a Superman or a Lex Luthor. Great leaders like Martin Luther King and Gandhi were feared for the change they would bring but later being accepted. Society at large rejected their ideals ignoring the morality of it. They had to overcome alot of opposition to convince people. In retrospect, and with hindsight, these kind of leaders are celebrated, streets and holidays are named after them, but they are held up as heroes because we live in the world in which they envisioned and it’s easy to forget the opposition that they faced. In the time that they lived they were feared and hated for upsetting the status quo, often beaten down and arrested for doing what was right. Both Gandhi and King were assassinated after all, society at large took awhile to accept them as a Superman but they did eventually. People today often overlook just how unpopular they were, instead of realizing that they were considered to be Lex Luthors when they started their work of changing the world for the better. A lot of idealist with truly wonderful ideas fail to realize that they may become the next Luthors in the eyes of society simple because they sought to change the status quo. Morality depends on perspective.
A desire to change the world only ever lies with the villains, the counterpoint of the heroes. These are typically characters that are the mad scientist types. Although they’re evil and self-serving they do try to change the world. These Lex Luthor types are often intelligent visionary people much like real life social activists and scientists and this is where it gets interesting.
I remember reading Carl Sagan lamenting why scientist in fiction were always portrayed as evil. In his book, Demon Haunted World, Sagan wonders why so many great ideas never come to fruition and scientist are characterized so badly; why there are so few positive scientists in fiction and why are they always portrayed as the “mad scientist” archetype, types like Luthor. Sagan goes on to wonder why scientist have such a hard time convincing people, despite compelling arguments and logical evidence. In many ways scientist are like civil rights activists, they often advocate for a better future. Scientist sometimes just need the benefit of hindsight to prove it to the world. The easy answer to Sagan’s question is that humanity is not logical but there is something more to it.
It’s about what humanity views as the the hero and the villain. The hero is one who maintains the status quo and the villain is one who disrupts this. The civil rights activist, the mad scientist, the ones who scheme and plot must be out for their own self-interest, at least according to some. These are the ones who are the Lex Luthors. Scientist just like civil rights activists, with their new radical ideas, are the Lex luthors, the villains.
Carl Sagan along with being a thinker and philosopher was primarily an astronomer. One of his greatest contributions to his field was the explanation of why Venus was so hot. It is far hotter than Mercury despite being further away from the sun. Simply put this was because of greenhouse gasses, like carbon dioxide, locking in heat like a blanket. And these were the same gases being put into the atmosphere here on Earth. Venus gives us hints about Earth’s possible future, strong logical evidence for climate change. This alarmed Sagan and other visionary people. People who wanted to change the status quo. To make the world a better place.
Despite compelling logical evidence of the greenhouse effect many people rejected it. Scientists like Sagan were, and still are vilified, for standing up for the obvious. They became the Lex Luthors. Conservative pundits who sought only to maintain the status quo are seen as the heroes, the Supermen, fighting hard to keep things the way they are. But it wasn’t done on purpose, its human nature.
As humans we have an innate view of heroes and villains. We lionize and vilify not based on morality but instead of how open we are to change. Superman is just the greatest embodiment of this ideal, just an example. A product of what we want, shaped by our desires for the ever welcoming feel of the norm. The conservative Superman. The liberal counterpoint being Lex Luthor, trying to change the status quo. I’m not saying we should reject this Superman ideal but instead be conscious of our biases, our tendency to keep things the way they are, to maintain the status quo, and vilify those who try to change it. We should always strive to see past our nature, to be better than that and use reasonable thinking, and keep an open mind. Avoid the knee jerk innate humane reaction to reject what is different, what is new. To try to be tolerant, why not try having a liberal hero, a liberal Superman. Or at the very least stop vilifying people who seek change, stop making them into Lex Luthor because they’re not.