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?
Because the virtuous make us angry. They show us our failings. Antiheroes make us feel better about ourselves, enabling us to celebrate our failings rather than having to deal with them. It’s why we’re drawn to them. Having someone to look up to is difficult, and puts pressure on us to improve—too much pressure for a culture that agonizes over what terms like “improvement,” “goodness,” and “truth” really even mean anymore. A good life is, culturally, no longer about being better, but more about feeling better, and about personal satisfaction—a huge philosophical difference. And this change is what has set the stage for the astonishing political rise of Donald Trump, as he fills the vacuum that the old guard of morally grounded cultural icons have left empty.
Trump is a powerful man. His empire spans across the globe, and he has been named by Forbes as one of the wealthiest people in the world. Now he aspires to be more that—he reaches for the American presidency—and it is, indeed, within his reach—and seeks to become the symbol of a nation. Because that’s what a president is—a symbol, every bit as potent an icon as anything in fiction could be. The billionaire once, in fact, in an interview, labeled himself a “Superman president,” someone far above the norm and beyond the ability of the average man. For Trump, the existing American leadership is “incompetent,” and lacks his energy and deal-making savvy, lacks his power and control. In short, he sees himself as something of a superhuman. In reality, though, trump is the perfect anti-Superman, and the opposite of his ideals. Where Superman’s identity lies in Clark Kent, humble Kansas native, Donald Trump’s true identity is bound up in his excesses and power. He revels in it. And he is entirely self-focused. Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner, calls Trump “remarkably narcissistic.” Like the culture which now lifts him up, he is turned inward, and spins on an ever-shifting, baseless moral foundation.
Trump embodies the antihero, the figure that bends to no authority, because the authority is no longer worthy. And that is precisely why he is so intensely beloved by a large portion of Americans—by that portion which is dissatisfied with existing authority. But, as many already feel, something isn’t right. Trump taps into a deep well of national anger, anger fueled by confusion and feelings of helplessness—sound familiar? Except, unlike Clark Kent, Donald Trump fuels that anger, participating in it, mirroring it, rather than providing an example for all to look up to and strive to become. He doesn’t work with others, he works on others—Trump often lacks self control, and masquerades this issue as honesty. They are not the same thing. He makes us feel comfortable, because, suddenly, it’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be insulting, and to shout, and to be self-obsessed. Everyone else is just wrong, and the way we win doesn’t matter as much as the wining, itself. Trump makes it morally easy for us.
And we don’t need easy right now.
Writer Jeoff Johns expresses this idea well, saying, “I don’t think a cynical take on superheroes is the truthful one." Indeed, our superheroes are meant to be ideals—people to look up to. To fall is natural, and what is natural should be in our stories and in our culture, but to ingrain such cynicism into everything—that’s not truth. To pretend that there is no moral high ground, that the world is an inherently evil place, and that good is entirely what you make it is an error—even those who cling to such beliefs often long for a stable set of truths. It is human nature.
Despite his continuing presence in media, Superman may be well and truly culturally dead. But we still have the lessons he taught us. It can be hoped that one day, Donald Trump will realize that justice truly doesn’t have to come from the darkness, that he doesn’t have to insult or belittle, or wage war, or discriminate to be a great leader, that he doesn’t have to tap into anger and rebellion—because he doesn’t. He can be better than that. Like our culture, he doesn’t have to give into his narcissistic motivations, or the desire to win at any cost, or to dominate. He can use his power for good, and be the example that America both scorns and unconsciously yearns for. He can fill the void left by that humble man from Kansas.
Although if history has taught us anything, it’s that Superman has a way of coming back when he’s most needed.