(Note: The first sentence of this article contains the only spoiler for
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice not already revealed by two solid years of marketing.)
“Remember this as long as you live: Whenever you meet up with anyone who is trying to cause trouble between people—anyone who tries to tell you that a man can’t be a good citizen because of his religious beliefs—you can be sure that the troublemaker is a rotten citizen himself and a rotten human being.” —Superman, in “The Hate Mongers Organization,” April 16, 1946.
Superman dies at the end of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the victim, perhaps, of a decade of jealousy toward Marvel’s unprecedented and invincible movie franchise success even as his own films have struggled. I don’t spoil things for people unless an unspoken statute of limitations has passed or the work in question has received abysmal reviews, and, well. While there are plenty of criticisms to level at Superman’s portrayal in the Snyder era, for me it boils down to something pretty simple—I’m kind of tired of seeing Superman taking lumps for all the wrong reasons.
I love Superman. I don’t collect the book or own any of the movies, but I don’t have to. I will readily agree with anyone who says he or she is a “bigger fan” of Superman than I am, because in my estimation, that’s a meaningless label in relation to the character. You can be a fan of Malcolm Reynolds or Jessica Jones, but one can no more be a fan of Superman than a fan of Hercules. No other comic book character lifts me up like the man from Metropolis.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice marks the third straight film in which Superman’s might doesn’t keep him from suffering on the proverbial cross for the sins of an increasingly ungrateful mankind. This approach is lazy, it is baffling, it is incorrect, and I am not paying money to see it again. Superman—who is invincible—cannot be a stand-in for bodily sacrifice and societal scorn.
Besides, he’s totally Moses.
Let’s compare origin stories:
· A helpless child from a doomed home
· is placed into a fragile receptacle
· and jettisoned off to a safer place
· where he discovers his true heritage,
· initially rejects his woeful destiny
· before shaking it off and grasping his wondrous powers,
· which he uses to lay epic grief upon the bullies who push around the weak,
· to whom he provides protection and moral leadership.
This is not in the least bit coincidental and no, I am not nearly the first to remark upon it—see Superman Is Jewish? by Harry Brod and Up, Up and Oy Vey! by Simcha Weinstein. But today, in the shadow of the critical train wreck of Superman’s latest film and on the 70th anniversary of the Superman radio episode quoted above—in which he uses his super powers to stop a Neo-Nazi plot—I think it’s worth looking at where this character comes from and appreciating how totally his current corporate wranglers misunderstand him.
“The most enduring American hero is an alien from outer space who, once he reached Earth, traded in his foreign-sounding name Kal-El for a singularly American handle: Superman,” writes Larry Tye in Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two nebbish-y Jewish kids from Cleveland, sold the character to Max Gaines in 1938 for $130—great money for 13 pages of work, but in hindsight one of the most colossal rip-offs in the history of art. Siegel wrote the character’s first story shortly after his father—a tailor and Lithuanian immigrant—died of a heart attack in his own store during a robbery. The physically slight, dorky Siegel and his severely myopic friend Schuster were regularly picked on. Decades later, Siegel would recall that: “At an early age, I got a taste of what it means to be victimized.”
It should be noted that even the hero’s secret identity has a touch of the Jewish-American experience in it. Max Gaines—also Jewish—certainly didn’t change his surname from “Ginsberg” because he wanted to secretly fight crime.
“Champion of the Oppressed,” was Superman’s original moniker. “The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!”
There was a lot of need back then. Siegel and Schuster grew up in the predation of the Great Depression, during an age when Fascism and militant bigotry were on the rise. Elsewhere in Ohio in 1923—when the boys were ten-years-old—more than 75,000 Ku Klux Klansmen gathered for a huge anti-Semitic rally. The character became popular on the eve of the Second World War. And lest you think this identification of him as a distinctly Old Testament-flavored hero is revisionist history, let me refer to Das Schwarze Korps, official magazine of the actual Nazi S.S., which ranted: ”Superman ist ein Jude!” in response to a 1940 story where the Big Blue Boy Scout smacks Hitler around and drags him before a world court to face summary justice.
As a follow-up to the anti-Nazi radio episode, Superman famously went after the KKK. If that quote up there sounds a bit preachy, audiences reportedly didn’t care: His adventures were met with record ratings, effusive critical praise, and my endorsement as one of a very short list of things I reach for whenever I need to remind myself why I’m still proud to be American.
There is constant back-and-forth in the fan community over whether Superman is a boring character because he is too powerful to hurt. This completely misses the point of the character, and is one of the reasons nobody really cares about Doomsday, why bringing Lex Luthor back and using an entire freaking continent of kryptonite in Superman Returns felt gimmicky, why Superman floating down to Earth in a crucifixion pose elicited an audible groan from me during Man of Steel. Superman’s physical strength is just a detail, and in overcoming it through contrivance, the last three movies have tried to crank the getting-hurt thing to eleven, pairing it with the equally obnoxious ingratitude of the ignorant populace in a perfect storm of does-not-compute.
The Superman of Jerry and Joe’s tenure wasn’t meant to be the star of a passion play, and he certainly wasn’t meant to sneer with anger at fellow heroes or glower at the imperiled humans he saves like he’d rather be doing literally anything else but flying around helping them. He’s not a sacrifice just because of the logical error that he can’t be hurt. He’s not a sacrifice because he’s a leader, a doer, a guy who lost his hereditary home but is going to dust himself off, work hard and adopt the very best and most aspirational aspects of his new one. He’s a hero for the kind of country that welcomes refugees with an explicit poem saying that it welcomes refugees, which is affixed to the base of a gigantic copper statue of the personification of freedom, gifted by arguably the only other country on the planet that romanticizes popular government more.
I’ll add my voice to the chorus of the oppressed, and beg the creative types to please, please, look out upon this world where the United States is receiving a tide of destitute refugee children, actual candidates for president are calling for selective policing of religious minorities and nihilistic maniacs are spilling blood all over the world on a daily basis.
Re-read that quote at the start of this article, and tell me, again—just who the fuck is Doomsday?
Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.