Fiction has always reflected culture. Our heroes were once purely ideals—the heroes of mythology, godlike, and often of divine ancestry, were impossibly larger-than-life, doing the kind of good that we mortals couldn’t. They were men like Hercules, Odysseus, and Achilles—idealized examples of what men dreamt of being, but could never realistically emulate. Over time, our heroes fell from heaven, becoming mortal, becoming psychologically complex, fearing, doubting, and yes—sometimes even failing. We idolized them in their success, and learned from their mistakes. Still, they represented ideals larger than themselves—characters like Superman brought hope while still being relatable and down-to-earth. But the hero of the recent few decades is a different creature altogether.
The antihero has arisen in contemporary American culture in the form of the Walter Whites and the Tony Sopranos of the fictional world. No longer figures to be looked up to, these fictional characters are often reprehensible, making choices that audiences look down on. The shift to a postmodern culture which is skeptical of established concepts like “goodness” and “truth” is acted out through these figures—figures that are often praised for being more realistic and representative than any that have come before. Indeed, characters who still display that solid, heroic, goodness are often branded as banal and unrealistic.
This shift is worthy of examination—there is more to it than a simple desire for realism in our fiction. This shift is a symptom of a larger cultural movement—a movement which extends into all parts of life, including politics. We must ask ourselves: what are the consequences of losing our heroes, of no longer having an established set of ideals? What does it say of us that American cultural icons of righteousness like Superman are ridiculed, while, in the real world, a very different sort of icon—Donald Trump—is rapidly ascending to power and fame? To answer this, we should examine both.
Few fictional characters hold the power that Superman does, in both a physical and cultural sense. He is a humble immigrant—a stranger from the heavens who fell not into grandeur, but into a cornfield in rural Kansas, and was raised by a pair of unassuming, humble parents in the heartland of America. The character of Superman was conceived in 1938 by two men from Cleveland—Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. It was a difficult time for America, with economic collapse threatening, unemployment rampant, the rise of the Mob looming, and World War II on the horizon. A sense of helplessness, particularly among men, prevailed. Americans, however, held to hope, and looked to a new symbol—the Man of Steel. Through him the average American no longer felt quite so helpless. They felt a kinship with this Superman; because of his humble, American roots, he was one of them, and he was for them. Superman’s cultural strength lies not in his identity as the alien and epitome of biological perfection, Kal-El, son of Krypton, but because, more than anything, he is Clark Kent, of Kansas—a gentle, kind, and humble man who gets excited about Christmas, cares for others, and no matter how much world-shattering power he might be gifted with, he uses it with a sense of restraint, empathy, and responsibility toward his fellow man.
J.P. Wiliams, of the Department of Speech Communication and Journalism at Wayne State University, writes that “Embedded within the content of television programs, films, comic books, and other forms of mass entertainment are assumptions regarding how members of a society should conduct their lives.” Superman, for much of the character’s life, preserved and represented the best of the American character in a time when society felt lost, and his ethical grounding was a lighthouse in a stormy sea for many readers. America, one of the most powerful nations in the world, had the responsibility to use that power well—to use it with the same continual responsibility and empathy that Superman used his.
But the Man of Steel fell from favor. The sales of his comics have plummeted over the past two decades, and the character, once idolized, now often elicits sniggers and scornful words, both in the fictional world he inhabits, and in the real world of readers. Superman is now often labeled as a part of a problematic narrative in fiction—characters that are claimed to represent a universal “best way to live.” These characters, and their respect for authority and their strong, unshakable moral compasses, are now regarded with suspicion, because culture has shifted its focus from the universal to the personal—it’s all about the Self.
Mirroring the culture that spawns it, fiction has shifted its focus to the antihero—heroes who often have more in common with classical villains, who do not look to authority for guidance, but only to themselves and their own varied personal codes. For instance, the darker character of Batman, whose comic book sales have skyrocketed throughout the past decade, even as Superman's declined, follows a code of ethics which does not require him to work within the law, and his stories depict a world in which authorities are often corrupt and not worth looking up to. So why the shift in sales between the two characters?