Is Superman a Democrat? Is Batman a Republican? And more to the point, what’s up with spandex-clad superheroes dabbling in real-life politics?
The short answer is it’s nothing new. Ever since Superman and his keister-kicking ilk hit newsstands in the late ‘30s and ‘40s, comic book plotlines have reflected the wars and political struggles going on in the real world.
Take, for instance, the cover of the first issue of Captain America from 1941, which featured everyone’s favorite Spandex-clad patriot punching Hitler in the face—certainly a political statement at a time when a well-organized portion of the country did not want the U.S. to enter World War II.
Since then, superheroes have brushed shoulders with world leaders, politicians and U.S. presidents dozens of times—with predictably mixed results.
In Action Comics #309 in 1963, John F. Kennedy helped protect Clark Kent’s secret identity (“If I can’t trust the president of the United States, who can I trust?” Superman cooed), and in The Amazing Spider-Man #583 in 2009, Obama fist-bumped Spidey at the inauguration on Capitol Hill.
Things were slightly less flattering for U.S. presidents in the ‘70s, at the height of both the Watergate scandal and disillusionment about the Vietnam War. In Captain America #180 in 1974, the Cap discovered that then-president Richard Nixon (or, rather, his thinly-veiled doppelganger) was the leader of the evil Secret Empire. Disgusted, our hero renounced his U.S. citizenship, renamed himself “Nomad,” chucked his red, white and blue spandex and went rogue. (Four issues later, in April 1975, the Cap returned, having reached an epiphany that he could support American values without blindly supporting the government.)
Flash forward 35 years and not a whole lot has changed. In Action Comics #900, published this past April, Superman also renounced his U.S. citizenship after being scolded by the president’s national security advisor for supporting the peaceful protesters in Tehran, contrary to U.S. policy. Our Man In Red Undies scoffed at the rebuke: “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy,” he said, and then proceeded to go on a political diatribe about the world being “too small” and “too connected” to be constrained by ideas of nationalism. Then, shocking Superman fans everywhere, the Man of Steel uttered the un-utterable: “Truth, justice and the American way is not enough anymore,” he said. Gasp!
While Superman’s spurning of his famous catchphrase sent some fans into an indignant rage, his political transformation has actually been a long time coming. In the first Superman flick back in 1978, Clark Kent told Lois Lane that he was fighting for “the American way,” and Lois laughed in his face—a clear nod to audiences who were less than thrilled with the direction America was taking at the time. In the 2006 movie Superman Returns, the movie’s screenwriters wrote the phrase “American way” out altogether, arguing that it “means something different than it did 50 years ago,” according to an interview with Comic Book Resources. In the movie, Perry White, the editor of The Daily Planet, asks Superman if he still believes in, you know, “truth, justice—and all that stuff.”
Captain America has been getting into muddy political waters lately, too. Just last year, in Captain America #602, the Cap and his co-hero, Falcon, stumbled onto a small-government, anti-tax rally, where someone was holding a placard that read, “Tea Bag the Libs Before They Tea Bag YOU!”
Falcon, who’s black, described the scene as “a bunch of angry white folks.” Shortly after publication, Michael Johns, a board member at the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition demanded an apology from Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada for besmirching the Tea Party’s image. Quesada apologized publically saying, as he has many times before, that Marvel does not make intentional political statements.
While real-life politics are mirrored in comic book plots, comics should be “no one’s soap box,” Quesada said later in an interview with comics writer Kiel Phegley. “Yes, we have characters that have certain attributes built into them, like political beliefs and religious affiliations, but we try to handle those as carefully as possible, and when we present one side of a coin, I encourage my editors and creators to fairly show the other side.”
Perhaps DC, then, which created the ever-elusive Batman, has hit the nail on the head. The question of Batman’s political loyalties remain, for some reason, one of the most hotly contested subjects among politico-comic geeks online. Some claim that Bruce Wayne, a billionaire vigilante, is clearly a libertarian, while others, citing the Dark Knight’s fierce opposition to both guns and the death penalty, say he’s surely a Dem—an argument that still others say was refuted in 2008, when Republican senator John McCain said Batman was his favorite.
A few years ago, Christopher Nolan, who directed the most recent Batman movies, almost put the debate to rest. Batman, Nolan said, was modeled on Theodore Roosevelt, a turn of the century Republican, whose famous quote, Speak softly and carry a big, uh, Kevlar bat suit, certainly applies.