Superman and the Military Are Best Frenemies
Kal-El’s relationship with the armed forces is … complicated
In 2013’s blockbuster Man of Steel, Superman proudly fights alongside the U.S. Army and Air Force against the marauding forces of General Zod. But Superman has not always been so cozy with the military. The Last Son of Krypton started out demolishing slums in the name of social justice, avoided the draft in World War II due to his poor vision, spent Easter Sunday with orphans in the jungles of Vietnam and, a few years ago, even renounced his U.S. citizenship. So why the big reversal? It might have something to do with the potentially millions of dollars the National Guard poured into Warner Brothers’ pockets. Man of Steel’s paying sponsors, the Guard among them, together ponied up $160 million for brand placements — quite possibly the most ever for a film.
Not only does the National Guard’s sponsorship stink of propaganda — it flies in the face of 70 years of character development.
Superman shows an arms dealer the error of his way. DC Comics art
Superman on the fringes
Kal-El began his career on Earth as a radical reformer. He fought for social change — and he wasn’t afraid to face down the military to serve what he felt was a greater good.
In Action Comics #1, after a brief origin story and clash with a corrupt mayor, Clark Kent’s boss sends him to the South American country San Monte to cover an ongoing war. That’s right, Kent’s first news job is as … a war reporter.
Supes takes a detour to Washington first, where he roughs up a lobbyist trying to convince a senator to drag America into a war in Europe. Superman threatens the lobbyist, who quickly gives up his boss — a munitions magnate named Emil Norvell. The manufacturer wants as much war as possible. It’s good for business.
Superman then forces Norvell to travel to San Morte and enlist in its army. Supes even joins himself to keep an eye on the war profiteer. On the front lines, Norvell personally experiences the horrors of wars. He promises he’ll never again manufacture weapons.
The bullets taken out of the gun, so to speak, Superman ends the war by kidnapping the rival armies’ commanders and forcing them to talk. When the two men realize they can’t remember why the war started, they shake hands and swear to end the conflict.
Again, this is the first Superman story. It played out over the first two issues of Action Comics and set the tone of the book as socialist, anti-war and isolationist.
His first meeting with the American military comes in the 1939, in the pages of Action Comics #8. The story, “Superman in the Slums,” depicts the Man of Steel leveling a slum in order to force the government to rebuild affordable housing. The National Guard tries to stop him, and after deflecting their bullets and bombs, he flees the scene. The slums are rubble now, but emergency services respond and affordable apartment projects are erected.
The battle in the wreckage set the tone for most of the rest of Superman’s career. The relationship between the Kryptonian and the U.S. armed forces will be tense. Superman will often help, but on his own terms.
Superman sits out the war
In 1940, more than a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Look magazine asked the question, “How Would Superman End the War?”
A two-page spread depicted Superman flying to Europe and Russia, pulling Hitler and Stalin from their hidey-holes and depositing them before the League of Nations. This little story, appearing outside of Kal-El’s normal home in Action Comics, was the most direct role Superman played during World War II.
Behind covers depicting Superman walking arm-in-arm with soldiers were escapist stories of the Man of Steel fighting witch-doctors, aliens and Lex Luthor. While Captain America and other Marvel Comics heroes tore across the front lines, Superman stayed at home, reporting on the situation and giving comfort to servicemen and children by providing them with fantastical stories unconnected to the main war effort.
Mostly unconnected, that is. When Maj. Gen. Walter Weaver of Army Air Corps Training Command heard his technicians grumbling that they’d rather be in combat than serving as mechanics, he turned to DC Comics for help.
“I Sustain the Wings,” printed in Superman #25, sees Clark entering Air Corps training at Yale University in order to disprove allegations that the program is soft. If it’s good enough for Superman, Hell, it’s good enough for the rank and file.
To be fair, it’s not exactly Clark Kent’s fault he can’t make it to the front in World War II. Like all good patriots, he attempts to enlist, but accidentally activates his X-ray vision during an eye exam, reads the wrong chart and gets a 4-F classification, making him ineligible for military service.
Superman in ‘Nam
After World War II, Superman became a super citizen. The ‘30s reformer who attacked corrupt politicians and lobbyists transformed into the model citizen of Eisenhower’s America. Kal-El knew well enough to stay out of the messy Korea conflict, but he couldn’t avoid war forever.
In a story in Superman #216 set during the Vietnam War and entitled “The Soldier of Steel” — incidentally, that’s also the name of the National Guard’s Superman-backed recruitment drive — the Daily Planet is flooded with letters from soldiers begging for Superman to intervene. The letters move Clark and his love interest Lois Lane to enlist as medic and nurse, respectively.
Clark finds himself in the jungles of Vietnam, rescuing soldiers and even saving an orphanage. The villain of the story is Dr. Han, a sinister figure who has transformed the son of an American general into the twisted monster King Cong. Unable to remember his former life, Cong attacks his platoon-mates.
Superman subdues Cong long enough for Dr. Han’s chemicals to wear off. King Cong, remembering his father and fellow soldiers, storms out of the jungle, firing on the enemy as he goes. The comic closes with Superman helping the orphans he rescued put on an Easter show.
The two faces of Cold War Superman
During the long, postwar conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, the last son of Krypton took two very different courses of action.
1986’s The Dark Knight Returns did much to revitalize Batman’s career, but depicted Superman in an unfavorable light. In Frank Miller’s acclaimed story, Clark Kent is known to the world over as Superman and has become U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s personal enforcer.
Miller’s Superman is the military incarnate, directly attacking the Soviets and even intercepting nuclear missiles aimed at the United States, like a living version of Reagan’s Star Wars missile shield.
But movie audiences were seeing a different Superman. In the 1978 film Superman, Christopher Reeves stands proud in ridiculous pajamas and assures cynical Lois Lane that he represents “truth, justice and the American way.”
Soldiers are comic relief in Richard Donner’s film. Troops are so enraptured by a pretty girl that they let a nuclear weapon slip from their custody.
The fourth Reeves film, 1987’s Quest for Peace, is even more anti-military. The movie opens with a derelict satellite crashing into a Russian space station — and Superman rescuing a Kosmonaut flung from the station by the impact.
Superman addresses the United Nations, declaring that he’ll end the threat of nuclear war. He makes good on this promise, plucking nuclear missiles from the skies above America and Russia and hurling them into the sun.
Action Comics published its 900th issue in 2011. In the story “The Incident,” written by Batman v Superman screenwriter David Goyer, Superman flies to Azadi Square in Tehran to join the mass of protesters.
For 24 hours a super-powered alien from Kansas stands between the citizens and the army. As he flies away, he witnesses a scene reminiscent of Marc Riboud’s famous photograph of a Vietnam War protester giving a flower to an armed soldier.
Upon landing back in the States, Superman speaks with the president’s national security adviser. “I intend to speak before the United Nations tomorrow and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. citizenship,” Superman says. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy. The world’s too small. Too connected.”
Two years later, DC Comics rebooted its universe. Action Comics, in uninterrupted publication since 1938, had its counter reset to zero. Its new version of Superman is, once again, at odds with the Pentagon. The opening story arc returns Superman to his roots as a crusader for social justice. He leaps about the city of Metropolis, rooting out corruption while pursued by the military.
Kal-El gets captured at the end of the first issue and spends much of the second being tortured. “Torturing a man on U.S. soil, or anywhere else, is unacceptable!” one soldier says upon discovering the scene. To which Lex Luthor replies, “Those laws apply to human beings, surely.”
Later in the issue, Lois confronts her father, General Lane, about Kal-El’s detention. “He’s a good person,” she says. “Who doesn’t officially exist,” is her father’s reply.
In the end, Kal-El escapes, and proves his value to the military by helping fend off an invasion from a bigger and nastier threat than himself. Superman doesn’t bear a grudge against the military for its actions. As always, Clark turns the other cheek.
Towards the end of Man of Steel, Clark downs a Predator drone that’s been following him and trying to find where he “hangs his cape,” according to the U.S. officer assigned to oversee Superman. The alien and the officer exchange terse words and agree they’re just going to have to trust each other. Superman explains that he’s willing to help America, but it’s going to be on his terms.
The conversation represents belated, half-hearted effort on the part of the filmmakers to reconcile the classic non-aligned Superman with the more pro-military version depicted in Man of Steel — the one that earned Warner Brothers presumably million of dollars in National Guard sponsorship.
Superman is an important part of American mythology because he represents absolute power that does not corrupt absolutely. Except maybe in this case.
This is an updated version of a story we originally published in 2013.