Man of Tomorrow

Superman didn’t abandon “the American way.” We did.

Superman is still the same Man of Tomorrow. It’s “the American way” that’s changed.

DC Comics

At one point, “truth and justice” was enough.

Prior to the United States’ involvement in World War II, the Superman serial cartoons by Fleischer Studios introduced its title character, the DC Comics superhero, “in a never-ending battle for truth and justice.” The narrator, Jackson Beck, simply ended it there. At the time, it was enough.

It was only later when the U.S. was in the thick of WWII that “the American way” was added to drum up morale through the equally popular The Adventures of Superman radio show. Superman’s motto became: “Truth, justice, and the American way.” (The same show eventually had Superman beat up the Ku Klux Klan over a 16-part episode. The American way, indeed.)

In the years that followed, the live-action TV series with George Reeves and the hit 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve kept “the American way” as a nod to Americans’ newfound anxieties toward communism in the mid-20th century. Cheesy as it was, “the American way” stuck around as part of Superman’s whole ethos — until now.

At DC FanDome in 2021, DC publisher Jim Lee announced the Man of Steel has a new motto: “Truth, justice, and a better tomorrow.”

“Superman never is relevant nor can be.”

While there have been other versions, ranging from the apathetic “Truth, justice, all that stuff” in the 2006 film Superman Returns to March this year with “Truth, tolerance, and justice,” DC Comics at large has settled on a new, official creed.

It’s a good change. Beyond its broad, non-specificity that doesn’t tout antiquated American exceptionalism when Americans ourselves are disillusioned with our place on the world stage, the new phrase is actually more true to Superman himself. Though Kal-El/Clark Kent is an alien immigrant who calls Kansas home, his role as Superman has never been to protect America exclusively. From the comic book page to the big screen, Superman has never shown himself to favor only those within America’s borders.

He’s a hero to the world, and his new motto reflects that in earnest.

The Superman TV series starring George Reeves helped cement “Truth, justice, and the American way” as Superman’s ethos at the dawn of communism paranoia.Hulton Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Just as Superman’s motto has changed over the years, so too has Superman — and his comic book writers — questioned what it means. For decades, the mission statement functioned as an unofficial Rorschach test for anyone on writing duty: “What is the American way?”

Definitions vary. Frank Miller’s 1986 epic The Dark Knight Returns is best remembered for reinventing Batman, but it also pitted Batman in a bloody brawl against Superman. While Miller’s partisan politics are unclear at best, it is noteworthy that Miller portrays Superman as a compromised figure who reluctantly fights on behalf of a sickly President Regan who dresses up a fascist government with pageantry. “You want a medal, son?” an anemic Regan offers Superman (who, to his credit, refuses). To Miller, the man who once stood for truth, justice, and the American way can now stand for anything.

On the other side of the coin, writers and artists like Mark Waid, Alex Ross, Jeph Loeb, and Grant Morrison have grasped a more optimistic understanding of “the American way,” in their own terms. In confronting a new generation of superheroes, Superman struggles in Kingdom Come to face a world that so desperately wants to pass him by. Two years later, Loeb’s Superman For All Seasons rooted Superman back into the visual styles of the early 20th century America he was born, with a timeless story about growing up and fitting in.

Cover of Action Comics #775, containing the story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”DC Comics

But few writers have taken on “the American way” more directly than Joe Kelly. In 2001, months before 9/11, Kelly recemented Superman’s ethos in the 775th issue of Action Comics in a story titled, “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”

In what marks the first appearance of a violent vigilante group known as The Elite — led by the enigmatic Manchester Black — Superman is forced to reconsider how his mighty code may hinder the usefulness of his mighty powers. The Elite are willing to go to lengths Superman never dares to: kill bad guys. At the dawn of the 21st century, Superman is confronted with the possibility he is too old-fashioned for an uncertain future. “Years of ‘Truth, justice, and the American military-commercial-right-wing way,’” Black taunts him, “and in the end, you’re a spastic twitching to death for my amusement.”

“Truth, justice, and the American military-commercial-right-wing way.”

Superman is not down for long. The story ends with Superman and his principles triumphant. After successfully neutralizing Manchester Black’s powers — through a painless lobotomy using X-ray vision — Superman stands tall over Manchester Black. When Black accuses Superman of “living in a bloody dream world,” Superman says that’s just fine:

“Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear... until my dream of a world where dignity, honor, and justice becomes the reality we all share — I’ll never stop fighting.”

Note that Superman doesn’t dream of an America but a world to fight for.

Truth, justice, and what else?

Tyler Hoechlin, in the CW series Superman & Lois. If you’re not watching Superman & Lois, by the way, you should be.The CW

There has never been a good time for Superman.

Superman was outdated in 1938 when America was in the throes of the Great Depression and a new war loomed large. Superman was outdated in the ‘70s when his movie arrived in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. He was outdated in the ‘80s, the ‘90s, and throughout the War on Terror. He is outdated now, when the “American way” stands for income inequality, for-profit prisons, the politicization of medical science, the militarization of police against Black and brown communities, and entertaining false conspiracy theories as “balanced views.”

Changing Superman’s motto from “the American way” to “a better tomorrow” isn’t a case of chasing relevancy, because Superman never is relevant nor can be. It isn’t a case of political correctness either — Superman doesn’t say the right things, he does the right things. “A better tomorrow” isn’t only a hopeful ideal to strive for but a sad admittance of truth. Today sucks. We can only hope tomorrow is better. And that is enough.

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