Superman is one of the purest symbols of American culture. There’s no disputing it. There’s no other character who so perfectly and iconicly fits the hero archetype. And he’s a character who has echoed down throughout the entire last seventy years of pop culture. He’s every other hero who came after him. He’s every 80s action movie tough guy. He’s Luke Skywalker, he’s Indiana Jones, he’s Peter Parker, he’s Kevin Bacon. Debuting in Action Comics #1 in 1938, he was created at an interesting time in America’s history, just coming out of the great depression and now on the verge of a second World War. America was a country that needed something to hope for. And out of that need for hope was born the Superman. So yes, the S on his chest really is a symbol for hope, but maybe you try to be a little more subtle about it that that, Zac Snyder, you idiot. But I digress.
You see, I sort of have this theory that superheroes are the new gods. Just look at the Justice League; Supes is an obvious parallel for Jesus, and then the rest of the members all line up perfectly with the Greek Pantheon. Wonder Woman is Athena, Batman is Hades, Aquaman is Poseidon, Green Lantern is Apollo, Flash is Hermes, and Cyborg is Robocop. But aside from that I think they fill the same role in our society. I mean yeah, we obviously still have actual religion, but those have all pretty much become archaic bureaucracies over the last couple thousand years. Personally, growing up, I never had any religious presence in my life at all. My hippy stoner jazz musician father always instilled in me a jaded mistrust of any major organized religion, and my mother never had the heart to try to fight him on passing on any of her Christian beliefs. And I would hazard a guess I’m not the only person in my generation, or the several before it, who grew up with that rough perspective. But without religion, I think we still need something to fill that space. Something to hope for, something to ascend to; a set of morals and a good reason to follow them. Personally, I always filled that hole with comicbook characters.
Instead of the lesson being “follow these ten commandments or you’ll go to hell”, I learned to try to act selflessly because the one time Peter Parker chose the selfish path it came back to hurt the ones he loved. And in times of moral crisis I legitimately do try to ask myself “What would Spider-Man do?” And ok, I know what you’re thinking, that sounds stupid, and I’m probably the only one who does that, and shut up, nerd. But you know what, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that these characters who were created during World War II specifically for the purpose instilling hope in the American people have skyrocketed in popularity in the last fifteen years. The superhero boom kind of died out for a while after the war. America was celebrating in their glorious victory, having earned them control of the entire world, essentially. That’s what the next fifty year of pop culture were all about. Every movie and comicbook that you loved growing up, it was all born off this post-war high.
And then 9/11 happened. America was reminded that they weren’t untouchable. And suddenly movies changed. Everything became dark, and gritty, and serious. Suddenly you couldn’t just have a big tough guy run in and snap a bunch of Russian necks, now you had to deal with the consequences of that violence. Hell, even Superman himself has to be dark and brooding in this new millennium. Then on top of that you stack the collapse of the economy, the corruption on wall street, the rich poor divide, black people being beaten and killed by police, young people losing more and more faith in their government and their country day by day. And what suddenly became the most popular movies? Ones about superheroes. Because we’re at a time when we need to hope again, and these characters, our own pantheon of gods, will help us do so just like they did in WWII, and just like every other religion has done for every other society. Every culture since the beginning of time has had their own myths and legends, maybe the only difference is that we’re now evolved enough to recognize them as the fiction that they are and not take them so seriously. Maybe we don’t need to believe every word of an old story and fight to the death with those who don’t in order to still get something out of the story, to still be able to recognize the consequences and morals taught by it and instill them into your own life.
So wait, what’s my point? Superman is hope? And also Jesus? And comics are better than church? Well, yes, to all of those, but also other stuff. Let’s talk about Lex Luthor for a second. He’s the antithesis to Superman in every single way. A human being, one who clawed his way to the top through sheer cunning, instead of being gifted with amazing power. But really what Lex Luthor is above all else is someone who saw through the bullshit. Because you see, the truth is that Superman is fiction. This character, this hero archetype, this ideal that we had been instilling in the minds of our children since the 40s, it doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as heroes, and the only people who actually get ahead in life are the ones who are just smart enough and just willing enough to do what has to be done to bend the system and get to the top. And that’s what Luthor did. And the scary thing is, lots of real people did it too. While everyone was busy talking about how great America was, there were greedy, corrupt, power hungry people making backdoor deals and bribing their way to the top. And by the time everyone realized what had happened, that we weren’t being lead by the people who had earned it by being virtuous, but by the greedy who had figured out how to exploit the system, it was too late. That’s Lex Luthor. He’s a corrupt politician. He’s a sleazy wall street banker. He’s a fucking Martin Scorcese character, and he’s the kind of person who rules America in real life.
And then all of a sudden, this god descends from the heavens. Superman. Not only everything that Lex isn’t, but everything he believed never existed. This hero, this false symbol of hope that everyone had been chasing, is now real. One man who encapsulated every virtue, perfect in every way. And that’s why Luthor hates Superman, because his existence makes Luthor wrong. If Superman exists, than this American ideal isn’t bullshit. It means it is possibly to lead and do good for the world without dirtying one’s hands, without doing the things Luthor’s had to do to get to the top. Without Superman, Luthor is a clever guy who saw through bullshit. With Superman, he’s a greedy villain who’s comeuppance is coming. And that’s why it pisses me off when people say that Superman is lame, or that it’s impossible to make a good movie with him. And if you try to make a personal story about Clark Kent dealing with being an alien or whatever, that’s probably true. But what’s interesting is not how he reacts to being on Earth, it’s how Earth reacts to him. And nowhere is that point better illustrated that in his dichotomy with Luthor; it’s the pure ideal that America spent fifty years striving towards, coming face to face with the dark reality of what America actually had to become to be on top. And maybe in thousands of years, when aliens discover our ancient ruins, these two characters with be enough to tell everything they need to know about the rise, corruption and fall of America. Also, now that I’ve said it I really want to see Martin Scorcese direct an entire movie about Lex Luthor’s rise to power.