Washington Post writer: Mitt Romney lost because he's Superman; modern voters prefer Batman

Published: Tuesday, June 18 2013 3:25 p.m. MDT

In this June 8, 2012, photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney smiles has he talks with his staff while riding on his bus after a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

The world has changed since 1938 when Superman made his first comic book appearance, and that changing culture can perhaps help explain why Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach argued Friday.

Superman has long been a challenge for fans and artists alike, a 2004 Time Magazine article suggested, with Jim Lee, who took over the art on Superman at the time, citing believability as the character's biggest challenge.

"Batman is a more modern-era type character," Lee said. "He's fueled by vengeance; he's the boogeyman. Superman is the altruistic alien hero that protects us all. It's difficult to make that believable in this day and age."

"This is a guy who's from outer space — he was born on the planet Krypton, let's not forget — but he's also from another time. He debuted in the 1930s, when Americans liked their heroes like they liked their steaks: tough, thick and all-American. Nowadays we prefer our heroes dark and flawed and tragic. Look at the Punisher (wife and kids dead), or Hellboy (born a demon), or Spider-Man (secretly a nerd). Look at Batman: his parents were killed in front of him, and he dresses like a Cure fan," Lev Grossman wrote for Time. "Now look at the big blue Boy Scout, with his cleft chin and his spit curl. He's just not cool."

"As someone who loved the dark side for a long time, I had little or no interest in Superman for years," writer Chuck Austen said in the same article. "He was perfect — his powers left him with no vulnerability."

This change in the culture — a preference for flawed superheroes and the inability to connect with a seemingly alien person from another time — are to blame for Romney's election loss, Achenbach suggested. The culture changed.

"Romney was a DC kind of presidential candidate," he wrote. "He looked too perfect, seemed too square, didn’t have the common touch. OK, so technically he looks like Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, but that makes my point, too: Dr. Richards was always bland by Marvel standards. The United States has steadily become, over time, more diverse, more tolerant, less beholden to and trusting of authority, and just in general more of a Marvel culture than a DC culture."

"Romney is too distinguished by his success, by his good looks, his clean living and picture-perfect family to be the vehicle through which a mass of today's Americans express themselves in politics," Michael Brendan Doughherty wrote at Business Insider in January 2012. "We can forgive riches (George W. Bush), or a little vice (Clinton), or a good family life (Obama), so long as there is a little tinge of the frathouse or at least a cigarette habit to offset it. In a society that assumes equality — that we're all basically the same — Mitt Romney just stands a little too tall and straight . . . It would be better for him if he was cheating on his taxes a little."

Comparisons between Superman and Mitt Romney were prevalent during the 2012 election, with the MittFitts website producing at least one "Mitt of Steel" cartoon where bullets labeled with words and phrases like "non Christian," "elitist" and "insincere" bounced off the candidate.

A 2011 cover caricature from The Week Magazine showed Romney looming large in front of fellow Republican candidates, holding his button-up shirt open to reveal the Superman logo. "Waiting for Superman: Do Republicans have a candidate who can beat Obama?" the article asked.

Romney-Superman also showed up on cheezburger.com with a "Superman Totally Looks Like Mitt Romney" comparison.

Portrayals of Romney as Superman in both good and bad lights existed during his first run for president in 2008 and reemerged with his second run in 2012.

In a 2008 New Republic post, Christopher Orr compared Superman and Romney using a scene from Quentin Tarantino's film "Kill Bill 2." In the post, Orr wrote that "in the way Superman plays Kent — weak, self-doubting, cowardly — we see his critique of the human race."

Orr continued: "It occurred to me that the same is true of Romney's desperate, if never terribly persuasive, impersonation of a conservative Republican. That persona — angry, simple-minded, xenophobic, jingoistic — is exactly what Romney (who is himself cultured, content and cosmopolitan) imagines the average GOP voter to be."

In 2012, arguing against this "wildly unfair" and outdated comic-book-focused critique of Romney, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute cited an everything.com post critiquing Tarantino's analysis.

"For Clark Kent, Superman is the mask. Superman is the costume he puts on when he has to go out and save the world. The default identity, when his mighty array of powers isn’t needed, is newspaper journalist Clark Kent. Even in costume, when he relaxes his Clark Kent personality comes out," the blog post said. "For Batman, on the other hand, Bruce Wayne is the mask. His default state is Batman, prowling the streets of Gotham City by night on a never-ending mission to avenge the death of his parents and keep the streets safe for ordinary, law-abiding citizens. Bruce Wayne is the face he puts on during those unpleasant occasions when he has to interact with the mundane world, play-acting as a wealthy socialite, millionaire playboy and business tycoon. But that’s not him; he’s a lonely, brooding, unhappy man still mourning the deaths of his parents, beating up super-criminals as a kind of self-punishment and therapy."

If Romney was Superman during the campaign, his wife Ann and oldest son Tagg — who argued that voters weren't getting to see the real Mitt Romney and pushed for a "Let Mitt be Mitt" approach — might've fallen in Pethokoukis's camp, urging Clark Kent to go out stumping instead.

"It is so funny to me that that is the perception (that Mitt is stiff) out there. Because he is funny, he is engaging, he is witty,” Ann said during a 2012 radio interview. “He is always playing jokes. When I met him as a teenager, he was the life of the party. And yet, he is also a very serious person and an accomplished person. And I think a lot of times, people see him in the debate setting. That’s why I like to get out there, and get people to see the other side of Mitt, and know us in a different reflection when you see the family and how funny he is with the boys and with the grandkids, and you know, just what a super guy he is."

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