Up Up and a Way Back?

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

For longer than we would care to remember, Democrats have been casting about for a savior. The search has taken us from fiery, anti-war Senators to C.I.A. leak investigations and beyond. But with the arrival of summer blockbusters just one more reminder that November's elections are right around the corner, it's high time we realize that the hero we're looking for isn't a Byrd or a Plame: it's Superman.

This week, the Man of Steel returns to the silver screen in a film titled - you guessed it - Superman Returns. The sure fire blockbuster's plot revolves around the character's return to Earth after a prolonged hiatus. But all indications are that he will return quite a bit more "angsty" and filled with doubt than long-time fans may remember.

It's hard to blame him. After all, the fact that Lois Lane has married and moved on is the least of his worries. In a world that has grown far more complex since his departure, Superman must somehow reclaim a place of preeminence against a lurking backdrop of ethical ambiguity and mounting cynicism. Subtract the cape and tights, insert some ponderous discussion of polling, and you couldn't blame confused viewers for thinking they'd tuned into the latest diagnosis of the Democratic Party's ills on C-Span.

If sixty-eight years of history are any indication, it's probably safe to say that Superman will eventually overcome all odds to triumph. But as Democrats hope for similar vindication after a long six years in the wilderness, we'd be wise to look back a bit further for a little super-inspiration.

It's humbling, I know. That the party of Roosevelt should turn to a man who wears his underwear on the outside. But imagine how FDR felt when, six years into his presidency, Americans awoke to a caped sensation, who quickly leapt and bounded his way to super-stardom.

The Man of Steel's early resonance transcended the visceral appeal of his just-in-the-nick rescues and oddly impenetrable disguise (let's all be thankful Clark Kent never discovered contact lenses). When all is said and done - and somehow, after numerous incarnations in movies and television, Superman still hasn't reached that point - the hero owes his popularity to something far more powerful than flight or X-Ray vision.

Action Comics #1
, featuring the Man of Steel, debuted one sunny June day in 1938, with the scars of the Great Depression still fresh in its readers' minds. In a short span of years, industrialization, urbanization, massive unemployment, successive waves of immigration on an unprecedented scale and the grim specter of conflict overseas had upended Americans' ways of life. Despite President Roosevelt's promise of a "New Deal," citizens had every reason to question whether it was time to fold.

Superman was different. A corruption-busting, orphanage building, down-trodden defending throwback to the absolute essence of progressive idealism, the Man of Steel celebrated all that could be right with America. He was, after all, uniquely American: the ultimate immigrant - and product of the collaboration of two children of immigrants - who arrived in this country as a helpless infant only to take up the never-ending battle for "Truth and Justice" (the "American Way" didn't enter the mix until the 1950s - a none-too-subtle swipe at the kryptonite-proof Soviets). Better yet, he did it while anchored to the guise of an everyman, whose glasses and day job couldn't conceal his capacity to shape a better world.

2006 is a long way from 1938. But this generation's struggles with globalization, ex-urbanization, declining incomes, new surges in immigration and the sobering challenges posed by a new breed of foreign aggressor hearken back to the daunting obstacles of that pivotal time.

Yet, where Superman once dared to bound, Democrats seem all-too content to plod. Where he affirmed an intrepidly optimistic vision of vital civic life, we rush to detract and demonize (although, in fairness, the resemblance between Lex Luthor and Vice-President Dick Cheney is uncanny). Where the so-called "Man of Tomorrow" was, by his very nature, progressive, soaring across pages with eyes firmly fixed on a better future, we seem content to dwell in the bittersweet solace of might-have-beens.

In the truest comic book tradition, all is not lost. As millions of movie-goers are sure to discover this week, Superman always saves the day. With voters rapidly tiring of the fierce political currents of anger and fear, Democrats can certainly do the same. But to do so they need to remember the optimistic, brave face they showed when - instead of asking "What's the Matter with Kansas?" - they emulated the characteristics of the immigrant raised on that tiny farm outside of Smallville.