The Essence of a Superhero, and the Genuine Thing: “The American Way”

The American Way


Superman is known for fighting “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.”  The phrase does not seem to originate from the pages of Siegel and Shuster.  Brian Cronin writes: when the “never-ending battle for…” phrase originally appeared, it was in the popular Adventures of Superman radio series that ran from 1940-1951.  But the phrase is relatively “ancient” and by now well-attested.  More importantly, it seems to give expression to Superman’s morality.

The phrase may seem too earnest for a nation whose citizens have endured a glut of half-supported wars and political scandals.  In the 70’s, Captain America exchanged the stars-and-stripes for a dark costume and assumed the alias, Nomad.  In 2006’s Superman Returns, Perry White did not complete the phrase but said, “truth, justice, all that stuff.”  The theme of that film was succinctly expressed in the title to Lois Lane’s major piece, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”

“The American way” is pertinent, though, not only for making a nice turn of phrase, but also for signifying an element of morality that superheroes do not share with all other heroes.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Here, in The Declaration of Independence, is the morality of a people for whom principles take priority over regional boundaries.

The distinction of America is not the land or what naturally grows here.  A similar people could live perhaps anywhere in the world.  Commitment to principles distinguishes Americans.  Our culture may seem “abstract,” then, but it has its own definitive reality.  A superhero’s commitment is as principled.

A superhero may be more advantageously positioned for spectacular feats by his or her superhuman power, if he or she has one.  Not all do.  But a superhero makes his or her commitment as one who is equal to the innocents that he or she saves or the criminals that he or she brings to justice.

The heroes of myth by no means suppose other human beings equal to themselves.  They make boasts about their lineage and are endowed with superhuman abilities by their divine ancestors.  Hercules is the son of Zeus.  Achilles is the son of the nymph, Thetis.  Aeneas is the son of Aphrodite.  Cuchulainn is the son of the god, Lug.  Heroes such as these seem to be inspired most of all by what lies behind, namely, the divine blood that flows through their veins.  Whatever motivates them personally seems to occupy a secondary position.

The equality of persons takes form in the capacity to do morally good and wicked deeds.  This equality is a dignity unaffected by inequality in economic class, political office, quality of education, natural intelligence, strength, wealth, any human power, or some superhuman one.  A human being can be just as virtuous or vicious as a superpowered being.  Their deeds differ on a scale quite other than morality.

A person casually acquainted with superhero tales, or even intimately acquainted, might suppose that superheroes similarly stand above the rest of the earth’s population: generally as persons with superhuman powers, often as vigilantes who assert private morality outside the law, sometimes as agents of political oppression, sometimes as political oppressors themselves, and occasionally as beings of a higher order.

I presume that readers are familiar with superheroes’ superpowers.  I will not comment on them here except to propose that they do not occupy the primary position in the motivation of a superhero.  Apart from their distinctive commitment, superheroes may act as perhaps any hero acts.  But a superhero is essentially inspired by the good that lies ahead, and that motivates him or her to make the identifying commitment to heroism.


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