On the anniversary of any number of major world events of the last several
decades, the press has a tendency to ask ‘Where were you when’ that event transpired. ‘Where were you when Richard Nixon resigned’? ‘Where were you when Bobby Kennedy was killed’? ‘Where were you when Columbia shattered over Texas’?
One song, a piece about the September 11th attacks, asked ‘Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning’?
When Major Zod’s (Callum Blue) world stopped turning in “Persuasion”, a recent episode of the long-running ‘Superman-in-training’ television series Smallville, he was at the Metropolis equivalent of Ground Zero.
Does Superman dream of a darkness darker than black?
The solar-powered twin towers had been built to harness the energy of Earth’s yellow sun to provide Zod and his fellow Kandorian expatriates with all of Clark Kent’s (Tom Welling) abilities. Speaking to reporters and lying like only a military genius could, Zod described how the activation of the towers would help solve Earth’s energy crisis (even though viewers know, from a previous episode, that they really spelled doom for humanity). Then, out of nowhere, explosions, fire, destruction, and Zod’s dream fell down around him.
Of course, it was plain to Zod who did it, and plain to the audience. The (thankfully) empty buildings had been forced to collapse in what can only be television’s first case of controlled demolition supervised by an alien. Some distance away, Clark Kent stood perched atop a building, destroying Zod’s dream with a single glance.
And so Zod’s towers fell in a way that recalls one fall day over eight years ago when the world, indeed, stopped turning and instead became glued to newsfeeds and telephones. When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, when the passengers of Flight 93 took their fates into their own hands, well, it is no stretch to say that the world was changed.
Some will argue that the resulting ‘War on Terror’ was nothing but petty revenge against the man who ‘tried to kill’ the last President’s father. Others will argue that it was justified, that Saddam Hussein undeniably helped Osama bin Laden destroy American lives. Still more will claim that the War is nothing more than an extension of a centuries-long Holy War between Eastern Islam and Western Christianity, typified in earlier centuries by the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades.
All of these opinions have their own amount of validity and accuracy, none of which will be debated or brought to the forefront here. What will be examined here, then, are the consequences and symbolism of the recent actions of Clark Kent, the man who will one day be Superman.
The Superman franchise, and the DC Universe as a whole, has never shied away from commentary on the War on Terror, whether intentional or not. Previous entries in this series have covered DC’s attempts at comparing the Bush and Luthor presidencies, so there’s no need to rehash that aspect of it. What is fascinating about the early Bush-era DC Comics — something that is now, finally, being reflected on Smallville — is the visual iconography of those stories, not to mention certain word choices. An issue released September 12, 2001, just after the conclusion of the “Our Worlds At War” mega-event, showed the smoldering ruins of the once-proud LexCorp towers, and with a few alterations to the text, one would think the creators of that story had been psychic. Later, an issue of JLA entitled “American Nightmare” dealt with a simulated scenario in which President Luthor planned to fabricate the United States into an ‘intractable war’ with the nation Qurac, home of the terrorist Cheshire, former paramour of Roy Harper.
But how does this all relate to “Persuasion” and Smallville as a whole?
It’s not as simple as one might think: the destruction of Metropolis’ twin towers is explored in the following episode, “Conspiracy”, as the real-world economic recession is evoked when Zod mentions not just the opportunity he’s lost, but the money. Disturbingly, Clark Kent, the Man of Steel, Superman himself, has, through the act of sparing the human race from a future dominated by Zod and his army, caused untold damage to the American economy by destroying Zod’s experimental buildings. Furthermore, and perhaps more disturbing, is that Zod’s public face as a media-friendly entrepreneur allows him to strike out at those responsible to the cameras, and if that means debasing ‘The Blur’ (a pre-Superman alter ego of Clark Kent) on television and in print, then so be it.
But that’s not the end of it.
This is all made so much more uncomfortable when one considers what can only be described (and, no, the irony is not lost on me) as the shock and awe we all endured on that September day, watching those towers fall, killing all of those people. No matter who was responsible — be it Al-Qaeda, a coalition of fraternal secret societies, an American black ops squad — no matter who killed all of these people, those responsible were bad. Evil. Cowardly. Villainous. Wrong.
And we’re left with that thought as Clark watches the towers, which, in this story, are thankfully empty, fall. Superman, idol to millions the world over, the first superhero of his kind who has inspired every character from Namor, Batman and Wonder Woman to Captain America, Spider-Man, Invincible, Savior-28 and The Sentry, has been placed in the shoes of the villains of 9/11. Zod, the mad villain of Krypton who would surely give Pol Pot and Idi Amin a run for their money, has been placed in the position of Rudy Giuliani, the so-called ‘Mayor of America’, ready to stand atop the rubble and shout into a megaphone to the world and anyone who will listen that justice will be swift and terrible, like God’s sword as described in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
We realize all this and the credits roll.
And yet, the public at large will never know that with the destruction of these towers, with the blow the economy will suffer as a result of their destruction, that this seeming horrific act of terrorism, the world was saved by a man from another planet with only the interests of humankind in his heart and mind.
We are left uncomfortable, stunned and, once again, struggling with the ‘facts’ that have been unveiled since that day, and on top of it, we realize it’s done with respect and that it’s meant to have this affect on us.
So, hats off to Smallville, ladies and gentlemen. The show presents some of the most complicated iconography of the last decade. Because the world is complicated, and complexity is not a weakness. Geoff Johns and the writing team may not have made us believe a man can fly just yet, but now we do believe a hero can make, and allow, us to question our government.
As all true heroes should.
Next Week: Alternative spirituality as old religious wars continue to wage; how can Nate Gray, King Mob and Promethea help the real world in 2010? Find out next week in “Accidentally, Like a Martyr”.