Superman as Randian hero?

There’s a bit of irony in how much attention Clark Kent’s resignation from the Daily Planet is getting from the media. The reason he gives up his reporter’s job is that he “believes that news should be about — I don’t know, news?

Still, Glen Weldon’s NPR article on this comic-book issue takes an interesting approach:

But I dunno. Something about that quote — the way it posits a Man of Steel seething with resentment over the fact that his specialness is going unrecognized, unrewarded — introduces discordant and distinctly un-Super notes of Millennial entitlement and, weirdly, Ayn Rand.

And that would represent a fundamental mis-read of the character. The fact that Superman puts the needs of others over those of himself is coded into the character’s DNA. It’s not a thing he does, it is who he is. It’s all he is.

My evaluation is different from Weldon’s, but he’s right that Kent’s resigning because he values his integrity and the kind of work a reporter should be doing is reminiscent of Rand’s heroes, at least in passing. (But then Clark thinks, “I hate myself for doing this,” which none of Rand’s heroes would ever think.) The writer in Atlas Shrugged who quit because she “believes that when one deals with words, one deals with the mind” is especially close to what Clark is saying.

Weldon’s association of Rand’s ideas with “entitlement” and a seething desire for recognition is bizarre. Is he right, though, in saying that Superman’s defining characteristic is putting others’ needs over his own? I haven’t read any recent Superman comics, so I can’t comment on the current version of the character. I did read them regularly in the late fifties and most of the sixties, and that certainly wasn’t the impression he gave then.

The Superman I remember had a passion for justice and a love for the way he could use his powers to defend it. He had a private life which he protected diligently. There’s more than one direction in which writers can take a superhero; the job isn’t altruistic by nature. A superhero may hold that his powers represent an obligation to give up personal concerns and serve those weaker than himself, or may be a neurotic who finds great power more of a burden than a value, but it’s just as possible to portray him as someone whose powers serve his passion for what’s right, who fights because he can make the world a little more like the one he wants to live in.

If I had a superpower, what would I do with it? I don’t think I’d make a good crimefighter by temperament, and I wouldn’t become one just out of an obligation to use my power for the good of humanity. What I’d want would be to use it in the pursuit of knowledge. Just about any superpower I can think of — strength, flying, speed, harnessing energy, x-ray vision — would be useful in some kind of research. Certainly mankind would benefit from that too, but I’d do something like that because it would be what I wanted most.

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