Nov 15 2012 11:00am

Superman vs. the Myth of Aristocracy

Superman vs. the myth of aristocracy

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A child is born under the threat of immediate death. Desperate to save the boy’s life, his parents place him in a basket and abandon him to the wilderness. A kind family takes the baby in and raises him as their own. But as the boy grows up he realizes he is different from his family, his friends, from everyone he knows, and upon becoming a man, he learns the truth of his heritage.

Now, at this point of the story, whether you’re talking about King Arthur, or Moses, or Oedipus, or Tarzan, our hero leaves his adopted family to take his rightful place among his birth people. But we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman. And Superman stays on Earth.

What’s great about Superman, what makes him a modern hero, a populist hero, and an American hero, is that Superman upends the myth of aristocracy.

To begin, the myth of aristocracy is that moral quality exists in the blood and therefore some people are just born better than others. Thus, if the father is a good person then the son will be good too. I think we can all look at examples, from history and from our own lives, of that just not being true. Of bad children born to great parents, or of great people coming from the worst parents. And yet the myth continues to be present in all genre fiction, especially fantasy. So what makes the story of the boy who fell to Earth special it that it goes completely against that toxic myth.

Superman VS. the Myth of AristocracyIf Superman were to follow the myth, he would rejoin his “morally superior” birth people, or bring the morality of Krypton to Earth. But instead Superman identifies with the people who raised him and chooses to use his powers to help humans. Following the teaching of his morally upstanding foster parents Jon and Martha, and inspired by the bravery of his rival and best friend Lois Lane, Superman chooses to be a reporter. He chooses to be a nice guy with a regular day job and a boss and co-workers. It’s a job that allows him to tell the stories of the people around him, elevate them, and maybe help them. And that’s what he does most of the time.

In its own way, being Superman, being a superhero, is a remarkably restrained use of Clark’s powers. He does the jobs only someone with inhuman strength, unbreakable endurance, and unimaginable speed can do. But he doesn’t break the laws of man, he doesn’t depose rulers he disagrees with, and he does not impose his morality on others. He works with the established powers and if he’s not the best person for a job he backs off. He lives as a human being helping his fellow humans as much as possible.

Ruling by right of birth and might is clearly anathema to Superman, most clearly seen in the villains Superman fights. Lex Luthor is a brilliant, powerful CEO and at one point President of the United States. Zod is a general with an army of ultrapowerful aliens. Brainiac is a supreme intelligence with aspirations of universal control. Mr. Mxyzptlk uses humans as puppets. Darkseid is a god. Superman’s best villains are figures of authority, those who seek to dominate the lives of people they consider inferiors, and Superman is at his best fighting for individuality and respect for all people.

Furthermore, Superman can never rejoin the morally superior Kryptonians, because Kryptonians aren’t morally superior. His birth parents, Jor-El and Lara, may have been good scientists, but by and large Kryptonians are the assholes of space. Even under the best of circumstances, Krypton was ruled by arrogant morons who couldn’t see their planet was crumbling around them, despite their top scientist yelling in their ears.

Superman VS. the Myth of AristocracyAnd every time a new Kryptonian arrives on Earth preaching the superiority of Krypton, giving Superman the chance to return to his otherwise lost world, they turn out to be really, really terrible people, such as General Zod and the Phantom Zone criminals, the Eradicator, the Superman: the Animated Series version of Brainiac, or the recent invasion of the Kandorians. The exception to this rule is Kara Zor-El, Supergirl, who is good because she follows Clark’s lead and sides with Earth.

Superman rejects the idea that DNA is destiny, and instead chooses exactly who he will be. When he’s offered a choice between living as a Kryptonian or living as a human, Superman chooses Earth, every time, and embraces his life as Clark Kent.

But among superheroes, Superman is the exception here, not the rule. By nature, a superhero is someone whose unique abilities place them apart and above, sometimes literally above, most of society. That these unique beings then go on to be vigilantes, placing their own personal definition of justice above those of the police and democratically elected government, is elitist, aristocratic, and borderline fascist.

It’s directly the opposite origin of Aquaman, for example, who was also abandoned as a baby and raised by a kindly human lighthouse keeper. But when young Arthur Curry discovered he was really the heir to the throne of an undersea kingdom, he rejected the surface world and turned his loyalties whole-heartedly to Atlantis. (Ironically, to truly become King Arthur Under the Sea, Aquaman had to reject his human name of “Arthur”). In contrast, Superman would never give up the Earth to return to Krypton.

I talked about this earlier with regards to Batman. Bruce Wayne is definitely the prodigal prince, returning to retake his father’s kingdom. Batman believes it is his right and his duty to conquer Gotham for its own good. The only thing that stops Batman from taking over the world is the limits of what one human can do. Superman has no real limits, and tellingly chooses not to take over the world.

Thus, by action and by example, Superman embodies a populist ideal, that it doesn’t matter who one’s parents are, no one can impose their will on the world. And it doesn’t matter how powerful one is, it matters how one chooses to use that power. Superman is great because he believes that everyone is worthy of respect, and everyone is worthy of aid. Everyone has some power to help change the world, and everyone is in this together.

Superman VS. the Myth of Aristocracy


Superman shows we are not slaves to our genetics, that DNA is not destiny, and that all people are capable of greatness. Superman is not a king in disguise. Superman is an immigrant, a survivor, and a democratic, progressive hero. Superman is an American who believes everyone should be given a fair chance.

Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at

1. Herb02
Ummm, Superman rejecting the plain living of his raising to become a roving superhero definitely doesn't undercut the "aristocratic myth" (to the extent such a thing exists).
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Nice post. I usually think of Superman as the ultimate aristocrat, but you make good points.
This made me wince in commiseration with Krypton scientists:
Even under the best of circumstances, Krypton was ruled by arrogant morons who couldn’t see their planet was crumbling around them, despite their top scientist yelling in their ears.
Yeah, that would never happen anywhere other than Krypton. ;-(
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
Superman is a guy who was raised by Depression Era famers-- even if the time line doesn't work any more, it is still True in a mythic sense-- to fight against a Recession Era Corporate Hatchet Man-- even if that Lex is a reinvention of the original mad scientist, it is, again, True.

Superman is the idea that you could be born with all the power & wisdom to be a God King par excellence, a benign dictator...& that the ethical thing to to would be NOT to do that. Superman is the best.
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
2. stevenhalter

I've always thought Superman should really be a massive advocate for the environment, but I think that environmental politics have been polarized by business forces in the world so that it would fall into the "right/left" binary that comics (rightly) tend to shy away from. Still, I sort of want Superman to be like "oh, I heard there were people denying climate change, & I'd like to show them a Kryptonian Holocron about that..."
6. thehost55
I'd like to point out that Moses, mentioned in the opening paragraph, was raised by aristocracy but chose to side with the slaves. He is not a good example to use right there.
7. wizard clip
Some really, good, interesting points about the Man of Steel, Steven, but if you really think the only thing that stops Batman from taking over the world is the limited scope of his power, boy, you really don't know Batman.
Paul Howard
8. DrakBibliophile
Mordicai, why stop with Superman being an "advocate for the environment"?

Why not have he destroy anybody the environmentialists dislike?

Let's go further, let him use his powers to destroy the "evil right-wingers" and the "evil business men".

Sorry Mordicai, but Superman rejects the idea that he should force his views onto others.
Emmet O'Brien
9. EmmetAOBrien
But he doesn’t break the laws of man, he doesn’t depose rulers he disagrees with, and he does not impose his morality on others.

Except in the numerous stories exploring what happens if he does exactly that; before it goes weird at the end, Red Son does that very well indeed.
Emmet O'Brien
10. EmmetAOBrien
DrakBibliophile@8: Sorry Mordicai, but Superman rejects the idea that he should force his views onto others.

He certainly forces his views on a whole pile of people who disagree with him when those disagreements take the form of crime or supervillainy. Gandhi he generally isn't.
Mordicai Knode
11. mordicai
8. DrakBibliophile

Oh man, I don't want to make this into a political thing, but that is exactly the sort of irrational polarization I'm talking about. I don't know how you jumped from "Superman, advocate" to "Superman, destroyer." I see that sort of backwards logic used not infrequently in political debates, & it really has no business here. It isn't rhetorically consistant or tonally friendly; just a gross distortion of what I said...underlining the core premise of my argument, which is that people have a lot of illogical "feelings" based on politics when it comes to the topic of the environment.

(Though I will point out that Superman consistantly uses his powers to defeat an evil business man.)
12. Jake Shore
This demonstrates why Superman is a uniquely American hero. He's an immigrant who personifies the idea that America is about new beginnings and new opportunities. A place where you're not defined by your past.
Steven Padnick
13. padnick
@thehost55, Sure, Pharaoh is the ruler and the Jews are the slaves, but the Egyptians are also gentiles while the children of Israel are God's Chosen People, who Moses re-joins and then kicks Pharaoh's ass. Again, the point is that Moses's true heritage is his special biological one, even though he was unware of it until he became a man.
Mordicai Knode
14. mordicai
12. Jake Shore

Yes; it is commonplace to discuss Superman as a Jewish hero, but I think it is much broader in that sense-- it is an Immigrant Story. & more than that, it is an American Story, that covers the spread from rural to urban. Also, outer space.
William Carter
16. wcarter
Let's not forget Superman stories are as much about the people around him reacting to Superman as they are about the man of steel himself.
Lex is fueled by jealousy, Lois curiosity/love, Jimm Olsen is a fanboy, Perry White wants to sell papers--admirable goal that--and everyone else just wants to catch of glimps of a man who can fly like a bird a plane abirdplane.

As for what Superman stands for or fights against, that changes as the political and economic state of country does.
17. James Davis Nicoll
This demonstrates why Superman is a uniquely American hero. He's an immigrant who personifies the idea that America is about new beginnings and new opportunities. A place where you're not defined by your past.

I would like to be the first to congratulate the US on having a foreign-born fraction of the population about half that of Canada's and only slightly below the average for OECD nations!

I do have to say that during the recent US Presidential election I did notice a lot of people who were quite keen on singling out immigrants as menacing figures of menacing menace, which kind of undermines the not defined by the past angle.

The original version of Superman had Kal El's rocket landing in Kansas in, um, 1910ish? So the US immigration laws back then were a lot more relaxed than they would become in less than a generation anmd I don't know what his legal status would have been. These days, the Kryptonian landed here during the Reagan administration and I am pretty sure slamming into the US in an unregistered rocket was not one of the allowed ways people could legally move to the US. Not only is Kal El an immigrant who made good, he's an illegal immigrant who made good.

(Or if they are still using the birthing chamber angle, he's a terrorist anchor baby who made good. I am open to suggestion here)

Before Crisis, Superman remembered a lot of his Kryptonian heritage but that got dropped when he was Byrned. Interestingly (at least to me) the Martian Manhunter then picked up many aspects of pre-Crisis Superman, becoming a respected elder figure in the US superhero community, an immigrant who was quite fond of his new homeland without losing his ties to his old homeland. Like most people, I imagine J'onn 'Jonzz honed his grasp of American vernacular in the same ESL class as Leo Rosten's Hyman Kaplan.
Alan Brown
18. AlanBrown
Even though Clark Kent is an immigrant and Steve Rogers is not, Superman has cosmic level powers while Captain America is barely super-human in his abilities, the two have a lot in common in the way they approach their gifts. They both fall into the "might should serve right" camp, to use terminology I first encountered in T.H. White's The Once and Future King. Both were kind of geeky outsiders in their youth. And both are dedicated to service, and love of their country.
Some folks find them corny, but I like characters that strive to live to a high moral standard.
19. obriennyc
The real moral of the Superman myth is that Krypton, for all its advanced technology and futuristic, evolved society, was destroyed because it refused to develop a manned space program.
Athena Andreadis
22. AthenaAndreadis
Are you serious? Superman is a classic "reluctant Messiah", superior heredity and noblesse oblige included. And of course he chooses Earth. In Krypton he would be nothing special -- on Earth he is essentially a slumming prince in incognito (without renouncing the advantages).
23. Hedgehog Dan
Agree with this article.
No wonder, why Lex Luthor is the archvillain of Superman. Superman has godlike abilities, but he tries to fit into human society. Lex Luthor is a man, who fancies himself as a god, or at least, a person who is way above humanity.
Superman does not bother him, because he has superpowers, and therefore physically is better than him - Superman bothers him, because he has the humility to use these powers for the good of others, constantly reminding Lex, why he is the lesser one.
Binyamin Weinreich
24. Imitorar
All well and good, as long as you ignore the first 45 years of Superman's history.

Because the argument that Superman would never give up Earth for Krypton? For the Man Who Has Everything says "not so simple".

The idea that Superman wasn't acting out Kryptonian moral standards? Just read any Superman story ever published between 1958 and 1971. He lived completely as a Kryptonian, and seemed to respect their culture more than America's, although he paid lip service (I realize that's now how the stories are meant to be read, but it's not hard to read them that way).

The moral implications of Superman weren't really developed until the '70s. He had something of a political agende in the late '30s/early'40s, but rapidly became a pulpy sci-fi adventurer, which stayed through the '50s, at which point he became whatever he was under Weisinger (I really don't know how to describe it).

The Superman you're talking about is the post-Crisis Superman, of Byrne and Wolfman and Jurgens and Ordway, of Kelly and Casey and Loeb. But he's not the Superman of Binder and Siegel and Weisinger, or of Schwartz and Maggin and Bates. And their Superman is just as valid a take on the character (and arguably more culturally influential, given the difference in sales).

I mean, this is a very good reading of the post-Crisis Superman, and one could argue that this is the strongest construction that can be built from the raw materials provided by the comics' long and winding history. But it's not the reading of Superman.

You can never really talk about what Superman "is" as a matter of essence. Only what he has been as a matter of cultural construction and what you want him to be as a matter of personal preference.
25. James Davis Nicoll
The moral implications of Superman weren't really developed until the '70s.

When did DC run the story in which Superman is convinced helping people with their political problems is actually hurting them? Early 1970s, wasn't it? He decides it is OK for him to help with natural disasters but stuff like contending against a bloated plutocrat can be left to the oppressed people in question.

I guess that avoided the whole "why, if Superman was willing to overthrow Hitler and Stalin way back when, is he not intervening in Watergate?" question.

Hilariously, the unsubtle hints that Superman's actions are counter-productive came from the Oans, who are the source of about 99.9999999%* of the bad things in the DCU thanks to their penchant for extremely bad decisions (like creating power-mad androids, handing a magic ring to a guy named Sinestro or so annoying all of the women in their society that the women leave en masse).
Alan Brown
26. AlanBrown
All the 'retconning' that has occurred in the past few decades makes it a bit difficult to pin down a character's personality and motivations, not to mention making it difficult to remember what of their past adventures did or didn't get erased during the last series reboot.
Binyamin Weinreich
27. Imitorar
@25. James Davis Nicoll

Yeah, Must There Be a Superman? was published in 1971. And to be fair to the Guardians, this was before the Crisis and Geoff Johns got to them. They still commanded a position of moral authority in 1971. Now I'm just wondering why the Green Lantern Corps didn't revolt against them sooner.
28. andagain
To begin, the myth of aristocracy is that moral quality exists in the blood and therefore some people are just born better than others.
By your own later arguments the only good Kryptonians are Superman, his parents, and his cousin. None of his relatives are depicted as being bad people. These people share similar genetics, but very different upbringings.They literally were not brought up on the same planet! DNA certainly told in their case.

If you want a character who defies "the myth of aristocracy" you want someone like Judge Dredd who has sometimes shown more moral behaviour than his own clones.
29. franksands
As commented here, I think that Superman is much more an ideal and a symbol for the "land of oportunity" that the USA was sold as than a full fleshed out character.
My problem with Superman is that he's become too powerful to have any real conflict in his stories. Any problem he has he just throws into the sun ( as penny arcade told us). Interestingly enough, the greatest Superman stories do not actually feature him, as Supreme and Irredeemable.
I have always enjoyed more Batman or Spiderman stories, since they have much more limitations and are more easy to identify with them.
30. Barry Morris
To me, the most remarkable, heroic and least recognized thing about Superman is his remarkable respect for restraint. Almost every waking moment of his existence is spent restring himself. When he shakes a hand of hugs, and especially when he fights, he has to figure out the most physically nuanced response to getting the job done. Compared to his capabilities he s by far the least assertive super hero. I had a big problem with The scene at the end of Superman II, when they pandered to the audience with the bully retribution that Superman would NEVER condone much less practice. For all of his power, he is most admirable (and least aristocratic) for what his self control.
31. TimothyF
Whoever wrote this really doesn't know their King Arthur stories. Arthur's dad is a rapist, and Arthur is a rape baby (presuming you agree that using magic to trick a woman into having sex by pretending to be her husband is rape). They don't abandon him in the wilderness: they give him to his mentor who hides him with a trusted family of retainers. Then Arthur grows up and when he hears the son he concieved with his sister will grow up to kill him, he has all of the babies the right age rounded up and put on a leaky ship, which is left to sink.

Arthur is not morally superior due to being of royal blood: that's the tragedy of him. He could be superior: he's given every chance to be the greatest king ever. He throws those chances away over and over.

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