Monday, January 19, 2009

Who needs Superman?

Bill Willingham's remarks at Big Hollywood stirred up quite a bit of controversy over the content of superhero comics and their political leanings. While I don't think this was Willingham's intent, a few commentators interpreted his statements as an accusation that liberalism had tainted superheroes by embracing a philosophy of moral ambiguity. To put it another way, conservatism embodies the true values of superheroes, particularly moral clarity and patriotism.

Steven Grant offered an interesting rebuttal, pointing out that traditional takes on superheroes, such as the much-maligned Superman Returns, have generally failed commercially since at least the 1970s. Grant further argued that conservatives from Reagan onward wanted heroes who were willing to do terrible things in the name of their country. In other words, altruistic, goodie-two-shoes like Superman were out, Oliver North was in.

This leads me to wonder, who is the target audience for Superman these day? Liberals? In general, liberals like stories that embrace moral complexity, where there are no absolute good guys or bad guys. Superman is simply not designed for these types of stories, which is no doubt why the character often feels hopelessly anachronistic in the modern, darker DCU. Yet conservatives don't seem terribly interested in reading his books or watching his movies either. I suspect the reason for this has much to do with what Grant was discussing, namely that conservatives view Superman, with his no-killing policy and naked altruism, as hopelessly naive. What conservatives want is a hero who possesses moral clarity and patriotism, and who is willing to do whatever it takes to defend his country. In other words, they want a consequentialist hero, for whom the ends justify the means.

And such a hero already exists. Jack Bauer from the TV series "24" is the epitome of the conservative action hero. He is a patriot, having served his country for the past 6 seasons of the show. He also has a firm and unwavering sense of good and evil. During the current season's opener, Bauer fought an African warlord and saved the lives of a dozen young boys. And Bauer is willing to do whatever it takes to get the bad guys. He's killed, he's tortured suspects, and he's repeatedly broken countless laws in the name of defending his country. These qualities have made Bauer something of a cultural icon of the post 9/11 era, and his popularity apparently reaches up to the Supreme Court (Justice Scalia is a fan).

To put it simply, conservatives don't need Superman. Neither do liberals. He's the hero of a bygone age, whose values no longer resonate with modern readers (or at least readers over the age of 10). At least he's still got nostalgia working for him, but how long will that last?

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