Superman’s mantra goes, “Truth, justice, and …” what?
The phrase that fills this blank used to be universally agreed upon. It was, after all, introduced in the classic Superman radio serial only two years after the character’s 1938 debut. The 1940s mantra certainly fit its time: With America in the thick of World War II and the ideals of liberty and democracy under threat on nearly every continent, it was only natural that the United States’ greatest hero would stand for some of the country’s core values:
Truth, justice, and the American way.
The American way, while closely associated with the Man of Steel for most of his publication history, fell in and out of use for much of the 20th century. It was dropped from the radio serial in 1944 when the Allied victory in World War II seemed likely, and it would not return to mainstream use until the Cold War. Since then, this version of the mantra has become effectively synonymous with the character, appearing across comic books and media adaptations featuring Superman.
The phrase has not had an entirely smooth history, however. At various times throughout Superman’s history, DC Comics has seen fit to acknowledge, if not totally resolve, the controversy that such an overtly patriotic statement might breed amongst the publisher’s audience. For instance, DC defended the motto in the 2001 fan-favorite Action Comics issue “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” where Superman actively seeks to prove to his enemies that those ideals are still relevant in the modern world. DC skirted the issue in Superman Returns, a 2006 feature film, which brushed the mantra off as “Truth, justice, all that stuff.”
But as of 2021, the “American way” part of Superman’s slogan has been completely dropped in favor of a new saying: “Truth, justice, and a better tomorrow.”
The change coincided with the new narrative development in Superman comic books that Jon Kent, Superman’s son, was bisexual and entering a gay relationship in an issue announced the same week as the new slogan.
A year and a half later, the twofold development of the removal of America from Superman’s mantra and the introduction of his son’s sexual orientation still divides the superhero’s wide audience. This year, the new heads of DC Studios, James Gunn and Peter Safran, boldly announced a new slate of upcoming films and shows that will (supposedly) constitute a full reboot of all DC media adaptations. The first movie on the slate is entitled Superman: Legacy, and, unlike the writers of Superman Returns, Gunn and Safran did not dodge the “American way” issue one bit.
The press release for the upcoming Superman film stated, “Superman: Legacy tells the story of Superman’s journey to reconcile his Kryptonian heritage with his human upbringing as Clark Kent of Smallville, Kansas. He is the embodiment of truth, justice and the American way.”
This return to the original slogan sparked heated discourse amongst fans.
Not all reactions to the news were negative, however. “Hollywood is slowly realizing how off-putting woke theatrics can be, and the Biden economy is making studios pinch pennies in every possible way,” said conservative film critic and podcaster Christian Toto. “The message is finally hitting Hollywood. Stop dividing us and take a knee in the culture wars.”
In spite of this controversy, Superman: Legacy and the “American way” motto are set to enter production in Feb. 2024 and release in 2025, with a first draft of the script having already been filed by the time of the ongoing WGA writers’ strike.
Meanwhile, the debate as to the slogan that best represents Superman rages on. It’s clear that American political conflicts pervade not only the real world of culture and government but also the pages of our favorite stories. As a microcosm for the broader cultural divide in America, the stakes are high for determining the true meaning of the world’s most famous fictional hero and the nature of the ideals he stands for. With Superman’s very character on trial, the patriotic virtues of 1938 under intense criticism across the public sphere, and the fervor with which both sides clamor for their preferred motto, the question is more pressing now than ever:
Whatever happened to the American way?
Image credit: Twitter