America has a distinctly troubled relationship with smart people. There’s an undercurrent of distrust and, at times, downright disdain. Americans would trust a military veteran or a movie star as president more than a college professor. Americans believe Snooki deserves higher speaking fees than Toni Morrison. However, I think this bubbling resentment emerges most prominently in the comic book Superman, where each month, the strong handsome titular figure beats the shit out of the nerdy bald guy.
Let me foist some geek knowledge onto you for a moment: Lex Luthor is bald, ruthlessly intelligent, and, although he portrays himself as a champion of human progress, his primary motivation is accumulating more power for himself. Most people know him as Lex Luthor the Corrupt Businessman, a skinny version of Marvel’s Kingpin character. Above all, he’s a scientist – the sleaziest scientist who ever lived – and, in the DC universe, the smartest human being on the planet. He’s smarter than Batman, smarter than the Atom, and smarter than Mr. Terrific (how can a character so intelligent have such a stupid fucking name). Although he could use his unfathomable intellect to push humanity into a disease-free, peaceful, glorious utopia, he only desires power. He represents science as untrustworthy and dangerous.
Superman, meanwhile, is ultra masculine, as evidenced by his full head of hair, strong, and belief in relatively abstract concepts like Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Whatever Luthor builds, he destroys. Whatever Luthor wants, he opposes. Like a bully on the playground, Superman represents the idea of Might is Right, that strength is more important than intelligence, and so it’s no wonder really that he’s frequently hoisted as a symbol of America. It seems to me that the popularity of the conflict between these two characters comes from a cultural narrative that is told over and over.
Here in America, science can’t be trusted. We can see this in the controversy in the early 2000s over whether creationism/ intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution which culminated, thank God, in a 2005 court ruling banning the teaching of intelligent design in schools. We can see this again as Americans’ concern about global warming continues to drop thanks to less and less news coverage. In fact, nearly half (48%) of Americans don’t believe in global warming at all. This comes in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus that, yes, if we don’t stop flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, parts of the planet will become fucking uninhabitable in just a few decades. Even when the survival of our species is at stake, Americans choose to look, not to scientists, but to their most trusted experts to interpret such matters—talk show hosts. Perhaps it’s their meticulous grooming or their reinforcement of viewers’ preconceived notions about the world.
The controversy over stem cell research, genetically modified food, and alternative medicine tell the story over and over—the timeless American narrative of scientists saying one thing, and a huge portion of the public believing whatever stupid bullshit the TV tells them. I have literally heard members of my own family say things like, “Scientists are atheists. They can’t be trusted.”
Let me tell you who the real hero is: Lex Luthor. If Luthor plots to fill Metropolis with deadly nerve gas, if he unleashes a spiky alien beast onto the streets, if he travels back in time to try and murder baby Superman, it’s out of inarticulate rage at a world that refuses to place its trust not in science but in a buff moron who tosses people in jail without so much as reading them their Miranda rights.
In the film Superman Returns (terrible, but I liked Kevin Spacey), Lex Luthor says, “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind. No, I don’t want to be a god. I just want to bring fire to the people.” Superman has advanced alien technology, the accumulated scientific knowledge of a billion-year-old civilization, and his body holds the genetic secrets that could grant us all the power of flight. But he will not share any of it. Only he gets to be hero. And unlike Spider-Man, who invented his web shooters, or Batman, who spent a decade mastering martial arts techniques across the world, or even Superman’s closest analog, Captain America, who honed his skills fighting vampire Nazis and shit in WW2, Superman inherited all his powers from his parents. Lex Luthor, on the other hand, rose from a poor family in Smallville and built his company on a framework of scientific pioneering from the ground up. Who do you think is a better role model?
Maybe America needs a hero who doesn’t spend an hour every morning gelling his little curly-q. Maybe it needs a hero who doesn’t break things but builds them. A hero who doesn’t fight with his fists but with his imagination and ingenuity.