“I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way,” Superman says in Richard Donner’s blockbuster 1978 release, Superman: The Movie. In the same interview with Lois Lane, he also mentions, “I never lie.”
If I’m honest with myself, the Superman mythos, the creed, the story of being simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary spoke to me deeply, both as a budding US citizen and Black boy living in America. I was born and raised in America’s Blackest city (Detroit), a Midwesterner whose family roots are southern (Mississippi) but whose very core exudes a love of cities, sprawl, and buzzworthy innovation, punctuated by post-industrial dreams. My formation was complicated: I was brought up in Detroit but walk the streets of Metropolis and Gotham City; the real, melding with the imaginary.
Today, as a Black man living in America, one who has worked for the Black press and is currently a PhD candidate (ABD, all but dissertation) in American Culture Studies, I know that the American exceptionalism taken up as a mantle by Kal-El (Superman’s birth name) is never to be spoken. It’s outdated. Anti-woke. Anti-progress. Too conservative. Too liberal (for some). Pick a side, and there you will uncover a Superman for all seasons. Superman embodies the rural and the urban fused into a rather perfect union, from his Smallville, Kansas, origins to the bustling city of Metropolis.
As Daniel Peretti writes in Superman in Myth and Folklore (2017),
The character means something specific to the larger culture, and that meaning has caused people to internalize him and use hum as part of their everyday expressions—in other words, Superman’s transition from popular culture to folklore signals his importance to American culture in general.
And I might argue, it signals his importance to the Black experience. At least to those of us who have been touched by the character—the idea of Superman—in some meaningful way, whether through the many screen incarnations, media adaptations, or in his purest, undistilled form—the DC comic books.
Each iteration, from the campy-but-earnest TV series Superboy (1988–1992) to the Rockwellian visuals of Smallville (2001–2017), the duality of the Earthbound alien endowed with flight, shaped my worldview—for better or worse, starting with Donner’s Superman. By the time Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) hit theaters, “the son” was already the father of a Black daughter born at the end of Barack Obama’s first term. Everyone was seemingly drunk on the post elixir—post-racial relations, post-America.
Like those who seek an America which only existed in the “American mind,” I’m looking back at a Superman who only really existed in the antiseptic corridors of my own theater of the impressionable neurons. This, to sum it all up, is what I want to write about: the circuitous and cyclical experience of Superman in conversation with (and against) the Black American experience.
This column is an exploration of all things Superman, examined through a scholarly, personal, and media/cultural studies lens. It is, at its core, a deeply personal rumination on the last son of Krypton and how I wrestle with the character today. As a child, the Superman mythos powered my worldview and ideology in ways I could never fully understand. Specifically, the messianic inquiry, “What would Superman do?” was never very far from my mind.
“A character who fights for the American way would seem to be self-evidently ideological,” writes Ian Gordon in his introduction to Superman: The Persistence of an American Icon. “As a concept,” he writes
the American way had been very loosely and widely defined before World War II. But during the war, it was codified somewhat around the notion of civility and consensus. This civility was based on the promise of an abundance of goods and services for all, and within that promise lay a space to struggle for the extension of civility to all.
In our current climate, where a multiverse of realities compete for the headlines of today, or your social media feed, where echo chambers, silos, and feelings (lived experience) reign supreme, how do we, as a nation, interrogate from a purely epistemological standpoint, “Truth”? Or “Justice”? Or “The American Way”? Where has our civility gone? And is it reasonable to ask if Superman can provide a cultural middle ground to explore American issues, urban issues, and cultural dichotomies?
There are plenty of wonderfully erudite Superman scholars out there doing amazing work that I will explore and engage with, but mainly, these columns will skirt the scholarly text with an autoethnographic approach, and occasionally, an entertainment journalist’s eye for fandom, trends, topics, and the medium of comic books, as well as multimedia.
We’re still awaiting the next installment of this grand experiment, while America sits (or stands) at a crossroads, gathering dust. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) has a Pulitzer prize-winning column by Lois Lane entitled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” as its jumping off point. Regardless of the critical or artistic merits of Singer’s film (I would argue Brandon Routh’s portrayal was worthy of the praise it received), the statement is, perhaps, an apt one to consider. Superman, at his very core, despite all his amazing abilities, is, thanks to his adoptive parents, the Kents, a salt-of-the-earth character, a veritable “boy scout” with Midwestern values. A person, if you will, with character.
Today, Superman’s character (in the larger sense of the word) is due for another cultural makeover. Does this mean a culturally diverse Man of Steel—a Black Superman? Casting against “color type” is all the rage in contemporary Hollywood. Call it “woke,” representation, or whatever we might agree to disagree about on any given day in America. The words we use in 2023 are sure to shift over time, as the linguist John McWhorter always reminds us. We’re living in a world where living history confronts us at lightning speed.
Yes, there is, in fact, a Black Superman. He originally appeared in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis #7 back in 2009. His name is Calvin Ellis, “the Superman of Earth-23,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) and J. J. Abrams (Star Trek) found inspiration in this source material for their as-yet untitled Superman feature film. Details are kept close, but it would be a surprise if the Black Superman of the DC multiverse doesn’t show up. Superman must reflect the times. One wonders if such a character—the Black superhero through the silver screen of cinematic history—as outlined by Tia C. M. Tyree and Liezille J. Jacobs in their article, “Can You Save Me?: Black Male Superheroes in Hollywood Film,” would follow the established template. Namely, as a Black superhero wanting “to change the world, starting in their communities” because change starts at the grassroots, often in communities of color.
I invite you to come along with me for these installments, as we wrestle with symbols, iconography, and an ever evolving American culture. My current research revolves around the “rise and fall and rise again” narratives surrounding Detroit and the Black migratory bodies flowing into the North during the twilight of the Great Migration. Superman, as a character, like the city of Detroit, has had many ups and downs, turnarounds and turnabouts across various media. From a Black Pete Ross to Superman battling the KKK and walking the streets of the Motor City, I hope you’ll trust your humble host as we reconsider the Man of Steel and what it means to be a “still American.” In an America that seems to be locked in stasis, ready for the next wardrobe change from the comfort of a defunct phone booth with rusted wires, including a bottomless reservoir of nostalgia for another time and place of your choosing, I ask, “Why does America—indeed, the world—need Superman?”
Let’s find out together.