Calling Superman A ‘Social Justice Warrior’ Misses The Point Of Superman

On Wednesday, we singled out Action Comics #987 as the best comic book of the week, because it dealt with some real questions about superheroes while staying true to the roots of Superman’s character. In the issue, a shadowy villain named Mr. Oz sets off a string of catastrophes across the globe showing off the worst of humanity: Animal poaching, terrorism, environmental collapse, and more.

One of those catastrophes is the unfortunately common image of a man, his hate and rage is boiling over thanks to Mr. Oz’s influence, attempting to murder a group of people, including women and children. Superman steps in to intervene because, well, he’s Superman. As he crushes the gun, he tells the man to his face he’s a monster. That the man is wearing an American flag bandana, and the people he’s attempting to shoot are what he believes to be undocumented immigrants, is beside the point, as far as Superman’s concerned. Superman stops murders, after all. Here are the pages in question:

But unfortunately, some people have missed the point, willfully or otherwise. Fox News opinion columnist Todd Starnes complains that Superman saves his contempt for the attempted mass murderer, not the Spanish-speaking people behind him:

Instead of rounding up the illegals and flying them back to where they came from, the Man of Steel snatches the white guy and with a menacing look snarls, “The only person responsible for the blackness smothering your soul — is you.”

Breitbart took it further, wailing that Superman was “no longer American.” But all of this is fairly bizarre, not to mention clearly second-hand: Both Starnes and Breitbart refer to The Hollywood Reporter‘s discussion of the comic, using the same panels from Twitter, not the comic itself. If they had, they might have noticed Superman deferred the legal aspect of the situation to the police, and flew off to fight, among other things, an arsonist attempting to burn down the homes of the rich while ranting about the one percent.

This is, in many ways, a classic example of the work of Dan Jurgens, a long-time Superman writer. Jurgens’ ongoing theme is sorting the immediate, moral response, which Superman is quite good at, from the more complicated long-term reality. For example, in the early ’90s Jurgens cowrote an arc with Louise Simonson where Superman attempts to stop the domestic violence happening next door from his apartment, only to discover that the only person who can end domestic violence for good is the survivor. She has to find the strength to report her husband and get help. Superman can only save us in the short term, Jurgens likes to point out. In the long term, we have to save ourselves.

That’s really the theme of the issue so many are complaining about. As Superman darts from event to event, sometimes just a hair too late to prevent tragedy, we see the absolute contempt Mr. Oz views humanity with. To Oz, we kill our own for stupid reasons, ruin our planet with our greed and contempt, and, in fact, in the final few pages, we learn that Mr. Oz thinks we don’t deserve Superman swooping in and giving us another chance. To Mr. Oz, all Superman does is keep the already teetering scales balanced, just barely. Humanity is about to fall, in Mr. Oz’s view, and Superman should let us.

He won’t, of course. We love to say 2017 is the worst, but there’s no end to horrible news in any year. Superman is, for many people, a symbol of hope. Superman acts the way we like to believe we would if we had his powers, that we’d stop injustice, protect the powerless, and stand for fairness. Superman, at root, is humanity as it yearns to be.

Really, in the end, there’s no better person to respond to this than Jurgens himself, which he did with a single tweet.