At his best, Superman is a shining example of generosity and fairness that everyone around him strives to emulate. At his worst, he falls prey to contemporary prejudices and becomes the exact opposite of everything he is supposed to stand for. This list highlights examples from both extremes, spanning the entirety of the Man of Steel’s almost 80 years as a hero. In that time, he has been confronted by and made his mark on almost every social justice issue in existence, for good or ill or sometimes even both — 80 years gives one plenty of time to reassess the facts and change one’s opinion, after all.
But as you read this list, especially the entries where the Last Son of Krypton seems to be putting in every effort to live up to the “Superman is a jerk” meme, it is important to remember: Superman is just as susceptible to human error as the rest of us. He can misjudge others and make poor decisions based on faulty reasoning. What makes him truly super is his ability to acknowledge his mistakes, learn from them, and keep moving closer to the ideal of unconditional love and acceptance that we all should aim for.
15. AGAINST: CULTURAL SENSITIVITY
In one infamous adventure, Lois Lane struggles to write a story about the lives of Metropolis’ black citizens because none of them will talk to her, probably because they’ve already pegged her as an idiot. Instead of giving the story to a black reporter or approaching it from a different angle or, you know, doing her job and finding someone willing to talk, Lois decides the best way to fix her problem is to become a black woman herself, with the help of a transformation machine in Superman’s possession.
Rather than pointing out that high-tech blackface is maybe not the best way to promote harmony between the races, Superman obligingly lets Lois use his machine. This being the ’70s, it’s the black people who end up learning a lesson — reverse racism is bad — because Lois and Clark definitely don’t need to learn anything about cultural appropriation…
14. FOR: IMMIGRANTS’ RIGHTS
Action Comics #987 features a virulently anti-immigrant bigot attempting to get revenge against the Latino workers who have “stolen” “his” job by shooting at them. Without hesitation, the Man of Tomorrow leaps between the terrorist and the workers, shielding the innocents with his own bulletproof body. He then confronts the shooter about his motivations. Superman is not impressed by the man’s whining about how immigrants ruin everything and tells him so.
This is only the most recent demonstration of Superman’s devotion to the ideal of justice for all, and it is an especially timely and necessary one. In an era when anti-immigrant propaganda has become normalized, it’s nice to be reminded that Superman has everyone’s back. Unless you’re a racist terrorist. Then you can expect an angry lecture and a reservation at the local jail.
13. AGAINST: RACIAL EQUALITY
Most superheroes who were around during World War II succumbed to the temptation to demonize the Japanese, and Superman was unfortunately no different. Being Superman, he even went above and beyond his fellow heroes and gave us one of the most notorious examples of racist war propaganda: the cover of Action Comics #58, which pictures DC’s greatest hero printing posters that encourage people to symbolically “slap a Jap” by buying war bonds.
Even the fact that this was made during wartime is no excuse. After all, comic books of the era feature plenty of anti-Nazi propaganda, but none forgot the distinction between the Nazis and the German people, who were generally portrayed as decent or misguided (and always white). But if comics of the ’40s are to be believed, good Japanese people are less common than, well, super-strong aliens who can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
12. FOR: RACIAL EQUALITY
Sometime after the Second World War, Superman reevaluated the wisdom of promoting violence against an entire race and decided that a more open-minded approach might work better. This stance is pushed into the spotlight when a costumed crazy man calling himself Bloodsport makes it his mission to shoot as many black people as he can.
Superman and his mullet chase after Bloodsport, and when they finally clash, he gives him a lecture about how Bloodsport is responsible for his own problems and that he should stop blaming anyone with a different skin color. He even condemns antisemitism and homophobia for good measure. Sadly, Bloodsport doesn’t exactly take Superman’s message to heart and fires two missiles into Metropolis, one aimed at Jimmy Olsen and the other at Ron Troupe, a black Daily Planet reporter. But don’t worry — they both make it out okay.
11. AGAINST: PREVENTING DRUG USE
During the “Superman: Grounded” storyline, Superman decides to walk his way across America for reasons that only make sense to Kryptonians (we assume). In Philadelphia, he encounters a group of drug dealers who have taken over a previously respectable neighborhood. The gutsiest (or stupidest) of the dealers gets right up in Superman’s face, taunting him because he knows he won’t kill them, not realizing that Supes is at that very moment using his heat vision to set all the drugs on fire.
Whether or not this succeeds in scaring the dealers away is left ambiguous, but as a nearby random child points out, even if the dealers do leave, they will only settle somewhere else. But Superman shows no interest in providing further assistance in this matter, declaring that the nebulously defined “over there” must fend for itself for equally nebulously defined reasons.
10. FOR; PREVENTING CHILD ABUSE
Captain Marvel may look like an adult, but at heart he is still Billy Batson, a young child who has been thrust into a very adult world of violence, danger and loss. When Marvel reveals his secret identity to the Man of Steel, Superman is visibly infuriated that anyone could inflict such a curse on someone who isn’t even old enough to shave.
Despite the fact that magic is one of Superman’s biggest weaknesses, he unflinchingly storms up to Shazam, one of the most powerful wizards in the world, and gives him what-for for putting a child in such a horrible position. Afterwards, Superman goes to the rundown apartment where Billy lives and reveals his secret identity, just so Billy will know he has a friend he can count on.
9. AGAINST: INDIGENOUS RIGHTS
Increasingly, people are realizing that America’s settlers were thieves and murderers who forced the native inhabitants from their lands in the name of “civilization.” Superman, however, would not only disagree, he would be one of the people who stole that land in the first place.
One fine day, a man named Henry Meecher learns that white men illegally bought the land Metropolis sits on. Meecher, as the last survivor of the tribe that once occupied that land, is declared the rightful owner of Metropolis and begins extorting her citizens. Instead of talking with the guy and seeing if they can reach an agreement, Superman goes back in time to make sure the natives are legally cheated out of their land. Granted, Meecher was a jerk about the whole thing, but considering how badly he and his ancestors were repeatedly screwed over, we kind of see where he’s coming from.
8. FOR: SAVING THE ENVIRONMENT
In a PSA, Superman watches as a young boy, Billy, throws a gum wrapper on the ground instead of going the extra two steps into the nearby community club to dispose of it in an actual garbage can. When Billy’s friend admonishes him, the boy dismissively says it’s “only a little piece of paper,” and Superman decides to teach the little slob a lesson. By the time Billy leaves the club, the front steps are buried in gum wrappers and bicycles (since Billy also carelessly left his own bike lying around where people could trip on it).
The moral of the story? You’re not the only person on planet Earth, so take a few seconds out of your day to make sure it stays nice for everyone. The only question remaining is where Superman got all those bikes from, and how upset their owners were when they found them missing.
7. AGAINST: WOMEN’S LIB
In one of the many imaginary stories to be found in Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, Superman marries Lois’ rival Lana Lang. He even whips up a very special wedding present for his beloved: a potion that will grant Lana all of his superpowers. What Superman doesn’t realize, however, is that the potion did not also transfer to Lana his vulnerability to Kryptonite, meaning Lana has become even more powerful than her husband.
This knowledge is more than Superman’s fragile masculinity can stand. He and Lana drift apart until, seeing no way to save their marriage, Lana packs up and leaves so that Superman won’t have to suffer the indignity of having a wife who is tougher than he is, which is obviously the worst thing that could ever happen to a man.
6. FOR: ENDING WORLD HUNGER
Not even Superman can solve all of the world’s problems by himself. This is the premise behind Superman: Peace on Earth, wherein the Man of Steel tries to end world hunger by personally delivering food to everyone who needs it. The plan seems to work at first, but solving such a widespread problem is not as easy as Superman’s optimism led him to expect. Between greedy despots and citizens fearful of his true intentions, Superman’s well-meant scheme quickly falls to ruin.
But Superman isn’t one to let failure stop him; he continues his quest on a smaller scale, teaching schoolkids in Smallville how to plant crops so that, when they grow up, they can help feed the world. Even though Superman fails in his self-imposed mission, the fact that he tried so hard and resolved to keep trying tells us just how much this issue means to him.
5. AGAINST: BODY POSITIVITY
No kind of trouble was too outrageous for Silver Age Lois Lane to get into, and in Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #5, she is hit with what can only be described as a “fat” ray. Lois, already horrified and depressed by the change, is further mortified when her car breaks down and she needs rescuing by Superman, who is less than gracious about the whole thing.
Supposedly, Superman doesn’t recognize Lois here, but it’s later revealed that he’s the one who arranged for her to get hit with the fat ray in the first place to render her unrecognizable to a murderer out for her blood. Putting aside the horrendous breach of trust involved in this plan, telling anyone that they’re “quite a load” is outrageously rude and is unworthy of a hero of Superman’s caliber.
4. FOR: PRISON REFORM
When he’s written well, Superman views every life as important and worth protecting, even the lives of criminals. As such, it makes sense that he would be a strong advocate for the humane treatment of prisoners. In Action Comics #10, Superman meets an escaped convict, Walter Crane, who tells him about the beatings, starvation and other tortures he and his fellow prisoners have suffered at the hands of the sadistic prison warden Wyman.
Both of Superman’s identities work to put a stop to the maltreatment: Clark Kent writes a scathing exposé on Wyman, while Superman takes pictures of a prisoner being abused and then subjects Wyman to the same treatment, locking him in a sweat box until he agrees to give the prisoners fairer treatment.
3. AGAINST ANIMAL RIGHTS
In Action Comics #68, Lois’ niece Susie gets in trouble for claiming to have caught a whale. To save the girl from being punished by an irritated Lois, Superman goes out, grabs some poor unsuspecting whale, and makes it look like Susie caught it. He even gets a nearby ship full of sailors in on the act, convincing them to corroborate the girl’s version of events. After all, what’s more important: saving the whales, or coming up with elaborate super-schemes to teach Lois not to be so harsh on a kid for having an overactive imagination?
The worst part is, the Superman Family seems to make a habit of killing marine life to make children happy. Supergirl would later pull this same stunt, helping an impoverished boy catch a whale to make him look good in front of a couple of rich bullies.
2. FOR: ENDING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Superman’s social justice tendencies started very early indeed. In his first appearance in Action Comics #1, one of several criminals he confronts is a man who beats his wife. In true Superman fashion, our hero storms the apartment and gives the abuser a taste of his own medicine, slamming him into the nearest wall. The guy then pulls out a knife, because apparently he’s as thick as he is abusive, but he faints from shock when the knife bends against Superman’s super-durable skin.
This turns out to be a lucky break for the wife-beater, as it prevents Superman from further throwing him around. Superman’s hatred for those who would abuse their spouses has endured over the years, to the point where it was the focus of a two-part story, “Crisis at Hand,” in the ’90s.
1. AGAINST: ANTI-COLONIALISM
Ever miss the good old days, when a white man could go marching into another country and take whatever he wanted without consequence? Superman sure did, and in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #42, he accompanies Jimmy to the Arabian Desert for a little old-fashioned tomb raiding. After uncovering a long-lost tomb filled with priceless artifacts, Superman unilaterally decides to take said artifacts to an unspecified museum (but we’re betting it’s in Metropolis as opposed to the objects’ country of origin).
Jimmy asks if Superman can take them to his apartment first so he can get some good pictures, and Superman happily makes himself an accessory to theft. One of the artifacts is Aladdin’s lamp, which Jimmy abuses for his own purposes and then, after supposedly learning his lesson, keeps in his room rather than turn it over to the proper authorities.
Which of these instances was the worst to you? Let us know in the comments!
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