The man of steel, the one who routinely saved the planet from the ravages of evil invaders, is dead. Superman is gone. Future generations will grow up not knowing “It’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . it’s Superman!” Last November, Superman was killed by Doomsday, a villainous escapee from a cosmic insane asylum.
Superman was born in 1938. He was raised in an era when it seemed that supermen were needed to defeat Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. He penetrated the Iron Curtain with his heroic defense of the American way against Soviet despotism. With the exception of his vulnerability to kryptonite, Superman was invulnerable to physical assault. That is what made him so appealing in the past and so unappealing today.
Superman died, not because, as the New York Times alleges, Hollywood created a lumbering and exhausted facsimile; he died because the country doesn’t admire superheroes. After years in which heroes have been derided and mocked, when physical strength has been subordinated to sensitivity”the highest virtue in the new age”it is understandable that superman must go. His assets were inconsistent with an era of moral ambiguity and androgynous sexual leanings.
Clark Kent used his perch on the top floor of the Daily Planet to survey the scene in Metropolis. He responded to any crime by changing into his Superman cape and flying off to rescue someone in distress. But the Daily News , often associated with the Planet , is in financial trouble from which it may not recover; Superman himself would not recognize the chaos in New York at the moment; and relative innocents like Lois Lane and Clark Kent couldn’t survive in this urban quagmire.
Telephone booths don’t exist for Clark Kent’s wardrobe change. The skies over most urban centers are filled with aircraft circling to land; Superman would be a hazard to air traffic. Clark’s interest in Lois Lane would most likely be interpreted as sexual harassment. Superman didn’t suffer from angst ; he went about his business of rounding up the bad guys without any concession to the Miranda decision.
Superman as hero doesn’t fit with the antiheroes of this age. Now we seek figures who are tortured by psychological ambivalence. We expect failure and occasional apostasy; people of deep conviction, unwavering in their belief and successful to boot, are virtually unrecognizable in the present cultural environment.
Superman has gone the way of many other comic strip characters of his generation. Joe Palooka has been interred along with Captain Marvel. Yet Superman was different: he was more bold than the others; he found legislative gridlock and bureaucratic police activity a source of derision; he made decisions on the spot.
Superman was also unusual in that he defied gravity. When he was first created there wasn’t much commercial air traffic. Now everyone flies, rockets have taken men to the moon, and jets can be installed in one’s boots so that one can take off by oneself. Technology has caught up with Superman. He could stop a bullet in flight; he could fly faster than a jet airplane and he could penetrate steel with infra-red rays from his eyes. Such feats of daring-do for youngsters brought up on the magic of television, however, are not particularly awe-inspiring. In his middle years, Superman was made bland by the very rush of modernity.
There are rumors that Superman will be resurrected. But I’m not convinced that will happen. In any case it seems unlikely that such an event would engender much interest. Superman is after all an anachronism, a model of a bygone era when virtue mattered, when morality wasn’t relative, when the distinction between good and evil didn’t require an arcane hour-long lecture. After all, Clark Kent was a simple man with a basic middle-American sense of justice. In his Kent persona Superman could be confused with Tom Sawyer, a kind of American Adam.
There will of course be new comic book heroes, but they are likely to resemble their television counterparts”technical wizards and moral dwarfs. Superman was indeed a figure towering above the others, a hero to emulate. Like the heroes of yesteryear he is gone, and with his interment go popular heroism and sacrifice for the public good. Superman will be missed, but the virtue he embodied will be missed even more.
Herbert London is John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University and a former New York gubernatorial candidate.