There are as many reasons to attack Superman as there are random slivers of kryptonite inexplicably peppering our fair planet. There's that name, for one. Translated into modern vernacular, the world's most famous superhero is, quite simply, Sweetbro. Or possibly Epicdude. There's the fact that he's simply the best by way of brute force, the ace-slamming Pete Sampras of the metahuman world. And there's the tediously convenient manner with which his powers are dialed up or down by various writers, with smug demonstrations of his blinding speed or spooky quantum vision or archvillain-like army of robots. Also, the less said about the Clark Kent "disguise," the better.
So it's a little surprising that when Esquire's Stephen Marche decided to heap scorn on the big blue schoolboy, in a piece cleverly titled "Why Superman Sucks," he opted for ... fascism?
His morality is as inhuman as he is: He saves cats out of trees, he never kills criminals, he informs citizens of the appropriate safety precautions, he warns women against smoking. The only villains who are any contest are ones who are similarly alien. Otherwise, he'd just walk over them. And even if he loses, he just turns back time.
So let's just call Superman what he is: a fascist. He's a fascist who fights for the good guys, but a fascist nonetheless.
Here's where, you're thinking, Marche is going to trot out Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, still one of the starkest, and most controversial interpretations of Superman, as a hapless Ronald Reagan crony, a super-partisan projecting American power against the dreaded Soviets.
But that would require a working knowledge of Superman. Marche, after all, references the Kryptonian's much-maligned (and rightfully so) time-travel stunt, a Hollywood artifact too stupid even for cape comic writing. Marche's experience with the character he's calling a Nazi is based on, who knows, vague recollections of a movie or something he might have seen?
The author continues:
In 1938, only a few months after the release of issue number one of Superman, a professor named Halford Luccock bemoaned the advent of "disguised fascism" inThe New York Times: "When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled 'made in Germany'; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course 'Americanism.'"
Superman is the extreme example of Americanism. He literally fights for "truth and justice and the American way," the definitions of which he himself gets to determine and enforce.
After screaming fascist in a crowded theater, Marche then goes through contortions to reconcile Superman's potential for scarily unilateral pro-America actions with the fact that Superman sucks because he's boring. He's a neutered fascist, in other words, but what he represents, what he could do, if only we weren't so tediously good-natured, damns the character all the same (along with his creators, of course).
The degree to which Stephen Marche is wrong is staggering. There are decades of comics disproving his casual, lesser bombs, like that Superman stories are boring, because they require kryptonite to establish tension. But Marche's central attack is proof that friends, and editors, shouldn't let non-nerds write vitriolic takedowns of nerd culture. It's not simply that the author (who is often very good at weaving disparate cultural threads into cogent essays) isn't one of us. It's that he's intent on trolling without putting in even the slightest effort. He could have essentially agreed with Miller's meta-criticism of Superman, or referenced Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan, a gift-wrapped vision of just such an omnipotent, state-sanctioned god. Instead, he talks about "truth, justice and the American way," as though that's still Superman's tagline, or has been for decades.
Make no mistake, Superman sucks, in a great many ways. But he's also great, as a quasi-villain in The Dark Knight Returns, as an alt-history Soviet patriot in Red Son, or just about any time he appears in DC's animated series and features. The modern, most common iteration of Superman is as a kind of all-powerful brawler, the guy who gets his face kicked in while Batman actually resolves the situation, or as someone whose unshakeable moral code is compelling, because he could so easily resort to the kind of rule-by-violence that fascist regimes so dearly love.
Marche is simply out of his depth. What makes Superman great isn't that he's a closet fascist. It's that, despite the carnage constantly ringing in his ears, and all the bloody wars he stays out of, and the lives of remorseless murderers he spares, by some miracle, he isn't.