Superman is about to renounce his U.S. citizenship. The nerd press is reporting that in a story written by David Goyer in Action Comics #900, Superman becomes disgusted with the U.S. government, renounces his citizenship, and becomes a “citizen of the universe.” Awesome.
This isn’t the first time Supes has flirted with turning his back on America. In the (truly wretched) 2006 movie Superman Returns, audiences were told that the Man of Steel stands for “truth, justice, and all that stuff.” Last year, J. Michael Straczynski wrote an arc for the character where Superman walks across America on a listening tour to try to sort out just what his feelings were toward the country (and vice versa).
Besides, this “citizen of the universe” stuff probably isn’t permanent, because virtually nothing in comics is. (See the Bucky Clause of Hero Death.)
Even so, having Superman renounce America is—as a point of storytelling—about the dumbest thing DC Comics could do. (And that’s saying something—because DC has been trying to drive their franchises into the ground since Dan DiDio came onboard in 2002.)
Why is it stripping Superman of his American-hood so stupid? Because without it, he’s Doctor Manhattan.
From the dramatic perspective, Superman is a problematic character because he’s just too powerful. Faster than the Flash, stronger than Wonder Woman, able to fly, x-ray vision, the heat-beam eyes, super breath—not to mention total and complete invulnerability to everything. (Except the kryptonite, of course.) If you’re writing a Superman story, it’s virtually impossible to put him in any real jeopardy, to build any dramatic tension concerning his adventures.
There are only two ways to write dramatically satisfying Superman stories. The first is to put the people around him in peril. (Though you he can only save Jimmy and Lois so many times before tedium sets in.) The second is to explore Superman’s moral limits—and their consequences.
And in the end, the only truly interesting aspect of Superman’s character is his complete devotion to America. Because it’s this devotion—of which his citizenship is the anchor—that establishes all of his moral limits. Why does this demi-god not rule the earth according to his own will? The only satisfying answer is that he declines to do so because he believes in America and has chosen to be an American citizen first and a super man second.
All of the best Superman moments come when the tensions of this choice are explored. Like, for instance, in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, when Supes, acting on the orders of President Reagan, goes to Gotham City to arrest Batman. Or in Darwyn Cook’s New Frontier, when Superman is fighting in Vietnam as an agent of the U.S. government. He is partnered with Wonder Woman, who shares none of his fealty to America. At one point, Wonder Woman goes AWOL and when Superman finds her, she has taken control of a Vietcong prison camp and turned the female captives loose on their jailers. While Superman is startled by the carnage, Wonder Woman—who is, after all, a warrior princess—rejoices in it. As Superman wrestles with the moral contradictions, Wonder Woman says icily, “Go home, spaceman.” Heck, in Brad Meltzer’s fantastic Identity Crisis, Superman barely has ten lines of dialogue. But the story is shaped largely by the other heroes tip-toeing around Clark, because they know he wouldn’t tolerate their morally questionable actions.
All of these stories work because Superman believes in, and is part of, America. Once he’s a “citizen of the universe” what, exactly, will he believe in? Heck, what does “citizen of the Universe” even mean? Will Superman now adhere to the Tamaran code of honor? Will he follow the Atlantean system of monarchy? Does he believe in liberté, égalité, fraternité, or sharia? Does he believe in British interventionism or Swiss neutrality? You see where I’m going with this: If Superman doesn’t believe in America, then he doesn’t believe in anything.
And if an invulnerable demigod doesn’t believe in anything, then what he really believes in is himself—his own judgments, foibles, preferences, and partialities. At which point he is drained of every last bit of dramatic interest. He’s Doctor Manhattan and all he can do is exile himself to the moon and let the little people carry on with the hurly-burly of earth.
Like I said, there’s no reason to make too much of this. Captain America renounced his country once, too. And, like with Superman’s death, this will almost certainly be temporary. But for those of us who still hold some small lingering affection for DC Comics, it would be nice if they showed the teensiest bit of intelligence in the handling of their important properties.
Update: Alert reader G.C. emails,
Is Superman really an American citizen? I don't think he's ever actually released his birth certificate, and I don't know whether we should assume that the whole born-on-another-planet story is even true. But if it is, then he's not a natural-born American citizen. Was he ever naturalized? Has anyone seen the naturalization papers? What is he trying to hide? If I were Donald Trump I would be on the inside back page of The Weekly Standard saying that Superman can't renounce his citizenship if he never was a citizen to begin with and that he could put an end to the entire controversy just by producing the documents.