What Superman and Mitt Romney have in common

We asked WaPo reporter Joel Achenbach to write us a week in review with his reflections about the past seven days in the world — and Washington. He agreed. This is that piece.

Superman’s back. “Man of Steel” just hit the theaters, reminding me again that I was always into Marvel -- and viewed DC Comics askance. The rift between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that drove Kirby to DC disturbed me almost as much as the Beatles breaking up.


Superman might get  tortured, but he isn't "tortured."   (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Clay Enos)

As everyone knows, DC’s superheroes in the 1960s were bland do-gooders,  while Marvel’s superheroes were tortured, flawed, tragedy-prone and sometimes downright sulky. As a humble boy who was well aware of my shortcomings and who grew up on a dirt road in the Deep South backwater known as Hogtown, I knew that, were I to develop superpowers, including Hulk-like strength, the ability to fly (or employ some kind of Silver Surfer-ish, ultra-cool transportation mechanism), and grew my hair long like Thor, I’d be a Marvel rather than a DC superhero.

Superman in particular did nothing for me, precisely for the reasons elucidated by Lev Grossman in the latest issue of Time magazine: “We like our heroes cool and complicated, and Superman isn’t. He’s not funny and jaded and cynical like Iron Man, or brooding and tortured like Batman…Superman is like the star student who ruins the curve for everyone else.” (Can’t find a link online, but if you come to my house I’ll give you a copy of the printed magazine.) (Editor's note: Joel is bad at the Internet. Here's Lev Grossman's piece.)

This is why Mitt Romney lost. The culture changed. Romney was a DC kind of presidential candidate. He looked too perfect, seemed too square, didn’t have the common touch. Okay, so technically he looks like Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, but that makes my point, too: Dr. Richards was always bland by Marvel standards. The United States has steadily become, over time, more diverse, more tolerant, less beholden to and trusting of authority, and just in general more of a Marvel culture than a DC culture (as Grossman notes).

There’s something else that has changed, and I think I can somehow use my now-too-late-to-turn-back superhero theme to make the point:  Our problems are different now. They’re the kinds of problems that even a superhero would struggle to solve.

Like: What would Superman do about Syria?

The Obama administration has announced that there’s solid evidence the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against the opposition, and that’s a game-changer. So we’re going to start sending weapons to the rebels. Reading the story in The Washington Post today, you can see how delicate this is: Even as we want Assad out, we continue to recognize his government, and we claim we want a politically negotiated settlement to the civil war. This is a conflict that presents few easy options for the United States, since there are enormous potential downsides to almost any course of action, including sitting on our hands.

If we sent in Superman, what would we tell him to do?

For that matter, what would Superman say about the NSA collecting all that data about who we talk to, and when, and how often?  I doubt Superman would be among those who view Edward Snowden as a hero, but I also don’t think Superman would beat him up. Superman doesn’t do asymmetrical combat.

What would he do about climate change? Could he fly around the Earth so fast that he makes us go back in time to the good old days of pre-400ppm CO2? (Does Superman exhale carbon dioxide when he breathes? I am fuzzy on his metabolism, respiration, etc. Does he ever breathe hard?)

I guess he could put out those Colorado wildfires with his breath.

One of the other trends we’re seeing is the feminization (is that the word I want?) of America. Female students already outnumber male students in colleges. Hillary Clinton says women are the world’s great untapped resource. She’s very plausibly the next POTUS.  Reading my colleague Philip Rucker’s dispatch from the Clinton Global Initiative, where Hillary Clinton gave her first major speech since leaving Foggy Bottom, I’m struck that she said nothing remotely controversial.

As noted in the famed Achenblog just a couple of days ago, Hillary Clinton does indeed seem to be running for president. I doubt she’s made a final decision. She may not fully know what she wants to do. Perhaps the only entity that knows her intentions is Google, and maybe the NSA.

This is the scary thing about the server farms that monitor us moment by moment: They know things about us that even we don’t know. They know what I’m about to have for lunch even though I haven’t decided. The data says I’m going to have a salad at Whole Foods. I say my lunch remains a murky matter. I say anything can happen. I’m unpredictable! I’m a wild man, trust me. But am leaning toward the salad. Perhaps this is an example of the illusion of free will. We’re all prisoners of our own patterns, as described in algorithms beyond our ken. If I end up having a salad at Whole Foods, it may actually creep me out.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Aaron Blake | June 14, 2013