Last week, Jim Lee, publisher of DC comics, announced that Superman’s motto would “evolve” from “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” to “Truth, Justice, and a Better Tomorrow.” The announcement followed Superman’s earlier renunciation of his American citizenship.
Some have welcomed these changes as “a pointed statement that the Man of Steel is a hero for everyone.” As Wired blogger Scott Thill put it: “The genius of Superman is that he belongs to everyone, for the dual purposes of peace and protection. He’s above ephemeral geopolitics and nationalist concerns, a universal agent unlike any other found in pop culture.”
But of course it’s possible to be “a hero for everyone,” while at the same time serving as a champion for the American Way. The Statue of Liberty – that “mighty woman” — is a heroine for everyone, lifting her lamp to welcome the huddled masses and wretched refuse from the world’s many teeming shores. But at the same time, she is quintessentially American – perhaps even more American than Superman. Certainly, she is more venerable.
The sad and uncomfortable truth is that removing “the American Way” from Superman’s slogan has nothing to do with extending his appeal beyond our shores to the world at large. That global appeal already exists and has for generations. “The American Way” has been deleted, not because the phrase was limiting Superman, but because it was embarrassing Superman’s owners.
They were not alone in their discomfit.
Shortly before Superman renounced his American citizenship, President Obama completed his “apology tour,” during which he addressed audiences in three continents apologizing for this nation’s “arrogance” and a multitude other sins. Shortly before Superman expunged protection of the American Way from his mission statement, President Biden’s UN Ambassador addressed the General Assembly and condemned her country for “the original sin of slavery” which, she claimed, “weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles.”
The same urge to disavow the American Way is manifest outside the government, in our culture.
In 2019, after Houston Rockets General Manager sent out a tweet expressing support for the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, the Chinese government-controlled press bitterly condemned it. The NBA’s reaction was very much in line with the DC Comics view of the American Way. Instead of standing up for the fundamental American values of democracy and free speech, it issued two official apologies, one in English and one in Mandarin. The latter was particularly abject, stating that the League was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment by the general manager of the Houston Rockets.”
As craven as it was, the NBA’s performance was a profile in courage compared to the groveling displayed by professional wrestler and movie star John Cena. After facing condemnation by the Chinese for referring to Taiwan as a “country,” Cena recorded a video apology in which he said (in Mandarin): “I must say right now, it’s very, very, very, very, very, very important …. I’m very, very sorry for my mistake.” This from a WWE superstar who defeats 400-pound behemoths.
There’s little wonder that Superman’s owners would want to distance their property from “the American Way” when so many in the American government and business community are unwilling to stand up for that Way.
Apologists for the change in Superman’s slogan point out, accurately, that “the American Way” was not always included in the Man of Steel’s credo. It first appeared in 1942, in the “Adventures of Superman” radio series during World War II. Toward the end of the war, with victory nearing, the phrase disappeared. In 1952, during the height of the Cold War, the phrase returned in the “Adventures of Superman” television series, starring George Reeves. The series ended in 1958, but it has been frequently rebroadcast in syndication. As a result, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” has been ingrained in the public consciousness for generations. Superman himself mentions it in the 1978 Christopher Reeve movie.
But regardless of when “the American Way” was incorporated into the Superman slogan, and regardless of when it disappeared and reappeared, Superman’s character has always been woven from the fabric of Americana. The Man of Steel embodies the classic American immigrant story. His creators, Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster, were sons of Jewish immigrants who fled anti-Semitism in Europe in search of a better life in America. Not surprisingly, the Nazis considered Superman Jewish, and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels ridiculed him and his “Israelite” creator Jerry Siegel.
Superman’s immigrant story was tailored to suit the superhero genre. Superman arrived in the United States, not on a transatlantic steamer from Europe, but in a space capsule from Krypton. He was raised, not in some coastal cosmopolitan environment, but in the geographic heart of America, the aptly named town of Smallville, Kansas. His adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, changed his foreign name (Kal-El) to Clark Kent and taught him to use his super powers to protect the weak, fight crime, and benefit humanity. His dual identity – the mild-mannered Clark Kent, on the one hand, and the Man of Steel, on the other – calls to mind the classic immigrant challenge to assimilate into American society while retaining links to another homeland.
It is impossible to imagine Superman as any nationality other than American, just as it is impossible to imagine James Bond as anything other than British, and it is impossible to imagine Hercules as anything other than Greek.
With or without the full slogan, Superman will remain American. But what does the removal of “the American Way” say about our culture?
It says that we are undergoing a period of serious self-doubt. And self-doubt, in a world of powerful rivals, carries dangers.
The same week that DC Comics announced the removal of “the American Way,” the Financial Times reported that China had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile last August. Some have compared the report to a new “Sputnik” moment, a chilling event that exposes a national vulnerability. No one seriously questions the technological and financial ability of the United States to counter this threat. But there may be reason to doubt the will to do so.
In 1940, the French Army sat in their supposedly impregnable Maginot Line fortifications. When a numerically smaller German Army attacked, the French cracked. Part of this was due to superior German strategy and tactics. But more was due to the spiritual weaknesses that undermined the French defenses before a shot was fired. As one source notes:
Many ordinary people were disgusted with the leaders of the Third Republic, who were widely seen as professional politicians who were both venal and corrupt. Furthermore, defeatism was rampant at the start of World War II. France had a low birth rate, and many were convinced that the country was degenerating, based on ideas current at the time. The cultural pessimism in France meant that many, in the political and military elite believed that France could not defeat Germany and that any efforts to resist the Germans were pointless. Many people believed that France was a nation in decline and that her greatest days had passed. This led to a spirit of defeatism in France in the Spring and Summer of 1940, that played an important role in the Fall of France. Despite the valiant efforts of many French men against the German invasion, the French government and military were ill-equipped both politically and militarily to meaningfully contest Germany.
Connecting the latest developments in the comic book universe to those in military rocketry may seem to be a stretch. But the removal of “the American Way” from Superman’s slogan has significance beyond comic books. It is a portent of a culture lacking in self-confidence. Such a culture may have all the material and technological resources necessary to survive. It may have those resources in abundance. But even with those resources, its defenses may be as fragile as the Maginot Line if their holders lack the self-confidence and pride to stand up for their Way.