My favourite Superman movie is “All-Star Superman”, an animated take on the Kryptonian hero from 2011 that portrays him in a way that other cinematic iterations don’t come close to. I do not think it was Director Sam Liu’s explicit intention to explore disability as a defining feature of the Man of Steel, but as luminous cracks literally sprout on the alien’s body in the third act of the movie, telltale signs of his overwhelming strength threatening to consume him, a nuanced perspective about Superman’s strength slowly gains intelligibility: Superman is crippled by the very quality that renders him impenetrably strong.
This soft theme of disability comes together in one of the final scenes: Lex Luthor, Superman’s archnemesis, has presently overpowered Superman – thanks to the super serum flowing in his veins, alchemized from Superman’s flesh. In a show of power, Luthor, walking on air, supreme and above everyone else, drags a bloodied Superman by his cape, dumps him before flashing cameras and anxious military tanks, and announces his impending takeover of American politics. His criminal niece, Nasthalthia Luthor, speaks to her hovering uncle about putting “these traitors to death.”
But Lex isn’t listening.
He is caught up in a molecular exploration of how the world is entangled. While army personnel, journalists, and members of the public watch him, awkwardly, Lex goes off on a tangent about the wonders of the electromagnetic spectrum, stretches out his hands to fondle atoms swirling in “little clouds of possibility”, and wonders what Einstein could have done if he had Superman’s ability to see the world as “fundamentally connected by consciousness.” He seems to have abandoned or forgotten the entire plot of his villainy. At this point, Lex Luthor is no longer floating in midair; he is walking like everyone else, waxing poetic about the intricate threads that weave everything together, singing paeans to the delicate details of a mycorrhizal universe where the inchoate sounds of final war ought to have been.
“This is how he sees things…all the time…every day,” Lex says about Superman, in one of the most spellbinding takes on villainous monologuing in comic book history. When I revisited that scene as the father of an autistic boy, it hit me differently because it now seemed to cast a young Clark Kent’s troubles in new light – how utterly frightening it must have been for him to hear voices from afar; how debilitating it was to see intricate patterns where others saw the familiar; to touch the threads that braid the cosmos in cornrows of possibility; to be able to feel what others couldn’t; to struggle to fit into a world of typicality; to have to wear a mask every day because the writhing, inconvenient, rhizomatic explosion behind his polite face would have been too much for the normative to accept. For the first time, I began to see Superman as a figure of the autistic – much like Hercules, in his awkward amalgamation of divinity and flesh, is often seen as a symbol of autism.
Luthor’s epiphany eloquently gestures toward Superman’s disability and reformulates the third act of a brilliant exploration of the Übermensch as a thesis on cripistemologies and crip-ontologies. Beyond the usual trope of "good trouncing evil in an all-out final battle at the summit of time," All-Star Superman explores what happens when the territories of our usual conflagrations and conflicts change, become altered, cracked open. It ends with Superman flying headlong into the sun, a beautiful death that transcends the usual victories purchased with well-placed punches and knockdowns. A message - perhaps the most seminal in the history of Superman's culture-traversing career - steals to the surface as the credits roll: 'enemies' are an ableist concept.