See our similar article on the philosophy of The Dark Knight Rises, here.
Man of Steel is coming out to DVD today, and while we (the Conservative New Ager and The Snark Who Hunts Back) have talked about this before, a movie this philosophically powerful needs to be discussed again. But in addition to the deep philosophical material that needs to be dealt with this film has many an ignorant critic (you don’t like a movie, you don’t like a movie…but we have heard nothing so intelligent as ‘I just didn’t like it’…no, we get little more than fanboy bitching and complaints that the movie was too deep). So let’s look at the movie one more time (though I seriously doubt it will be the last time).
The American sentiment of Liberty
“I grew up in Kansas, General. I’m about as American as it gets.”
There isn’t much that’s more American than the ideal of Freedom.
The idea that we are free to make our own decisions, live our own lives, and make our own mistakes without some monolithic control structure giving us our instructions for the “greater good” of society.
That ideal is one of the main cornerstones of the plot of Man of Steel.
Why was Superman sent to Earth in the first place?
I mean, we all know the classic story. Krypton was about to explode, last of his race, blah blah blah.
In Man of Steel there is a new twist added into the story.
“This is a genesis chamber. All Kryptonians were conceived in chambers such as this. Every child was designed to perform a predetermined role in our society as a worker, a warrior, a leader, and so on. Your mother and I believed Krypton lost something precious: the element of choice, of chance. What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater? You were the embodiment of that belief, Kal. Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries. That’s why we risked so much to save you. ”
Jor-El wanted his son to survive, but he also wanted Kal-El to have something he would have lacked on Krypton.
Luckily the ship landed in the heartland of the U.S.A. and not China or Soviet Russia…or worse, San Francisco.
This topic is something that is frequently misunderstood by both Zod and his followers. When it came to Zod, it is apparent that he and his followers believed that genetic and social stagnation was evolutionarily superior which is a clear misunderstanding of freedom and evolution.
Look at the examples of stagnant and tyrannical governments that were provided a couple of paragraphs ago. China, Soviet Russia, and how about we add North Korea as well. Social stagnation, and even evolutionary stagnation in China, put all of these on the path to ruin.
Evolution is freedom, so there was one time in the movie where Zod’s side was right. Evolution did win in the form of naturally born Clark, but they were wrong to assume that morality was a weakness. Freedom is not divorced from morality in a successful civilization. Neither can actual Evolution (as opposed to the eugenics proposed by Zod, which was not natural in any way) be divorced from the concepts of morality.
Jor-El: And if your forces prevail? You’ll be the leader of nothing!
General Zod: Then join me. Help me save our race. We’ll start anew. We’ll sever the degenerative bloodlines that led us to this state.
Jor-El: And who will decide which bloodlines survive, Zod? You?
General Zod: Don’t do this, El. The last thing I want is for us to be enemies.
Krypton died because they were stagnant. They lost the sense of freedom that led them to explore the universe and they grew so afraid of change that the idea of a natural birth was seen as “heresy” to Zod. Change and freedom also means that you will encounter risk, but in the end their reluctance to change their way of life and allow for chance and freedom in their populace was what destroyed their whole planet.
“No human thing is of serious importance.”—Plato, The Republic, Book X
And why was Krypton stagnant? Because Krypton followed the corrupt ideas of Plato’s Republic. And before anyone claims that I’m just reading too much into this keep in mind that in the middle of the movie, in the scene where young Clark is bullied, he is reading a copy of Plato’s Republic. Krypton was a perfect representation of The Republic and Snyder and Nolan wanted to hammer this point home so hard they made it impossible to claim otherwise by showing Clark reading this very book. So for those of you who have never read the Republic (or it’s just been a few too many years since that intro to philosophy course), what is Plato’s Republic and why is it so terrible?
The Republic is often viewed as Plato’s most important work. And it certainly is very important to understanding how philosophy, art, justice, the individual, to many of the core concepts of all philosophy. But just because it is one of the most important works in philosophy doesn’t mean that it’s correct. While Plato has many good points and conclusions that should be used, the Republic he envisions is an evil that should always be fought against. In the Republic all people are bred into one of three castes. Workers. Warriors. Philosophers-Kings. (Which we see on Krypton in the form of Scientists, Soldiers and Leaders.) The reason for this is Plato correctly saw that some people are not fit for some jobs. I may enjoy being a teacher and get a lot out it, but another may find it hell on Earth. You may enjoy public relations but it may it drudgery to others. But while in reality these differences are a mixture of aptitude and choice, Plato (and Krypton) believes that only aptitude should matter…and going a step further that you should be bred from birth to have the aptitudes that society needs from you. The individual and the soul are of no serious importance to societies like this. And this is confirmed not only repeatedly in The Republic but by Zod’s own words in Man of Steel, “I exist only to protect Krypton. That is the sole purpose for which I was born.” In The Republic and Krypton you exist only to perform the function you were born to perform. No choice. No liberty. Only the good of the state. India’s ancient castes system may have been based on a corruption of an idea in the Bhagavad Gita that originally encouraged free will but accepting that some people are not ready for some ideas or duties by choice and aptitude…but Plato starts his ideal government with no such idea—from the first your life is determined by your birth (the Genesis chambers on Krypton). And as you are born to only fulfill a function there is no place for a family, only for training from birth. Breeding and raising of children is held in common—no marriages, no families, no bonds beyond the bond to the state that raised you (you know kind of like a society that regards the natural birth of Kal-El as an “abomination,” as Zod put it). And the problem of a society like this is the very stagnation and decay that we see in the first few moments Man of Steel. Plato’s Republic was designed to create what in Plato’s vision was a perfect life and sustain that…of course there was no growth, no innovation, only stability…not even happiness of its citizens was regarded, only a warped vision of justice, order and harmony. But it is not the harmony of a great symphony, but rather the perfect tuned harmony of a single chord, played without end or variation. If you can think of a better image of Hell please tell me (fitting how the Republic as shown on Krypton ends in fires reminiscent of most visions of Hell). The “order” of The Republic we now realize would lead only to stagnation and decay because it was completely at odds with the soul which requires constant growth and improvement—just like Krypton. Without growth, without striving for the best within us, with the liberty to strive for those things, think as you choose, we are as good as dead and condemn our society to death. And this is because be it Plato’s Republic, the world of Anthem or Brave New World, Soviet Russia, or Krypton this kind of controlled society does not lead to harmony or order, but only a population that is nothing but slaves to the state.
Luckily, Man of Steel is under none of the delusions that Plato was under while he wrote The Republic. They show that whenever you breed a warrior class with all the power of the military, no matter how much Plato thought they would always bow to the power of the philosopher-kings, the lust for power will always take over and they will attempt to take power. This movie sees that anytime you attempt to control populations you begin to determine that some people, some professions, some ideas are more important than others and that this always degenerates into eugenics and the willingness for genocide, as seen through Zod’s willingness to cut out bloodlines of Krypton he saw as inferior or just wipe out the human race due to his belief that they were below him. Unlike Plato it shows that no civilization can be isolationist as a city-state unto itself (or even a planet unto itself in Krypton’s case), societies require growth and innovation, and merely attempting to preserve the status quo and stagnation will always lead to decay and destruction. And we see that the only way to break out of this horrible cycle is for a “a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended.”
Also if you still have any doubts I would take a look at Zod. In all traditional stories of Superman and Zod, the symbols both both their families, emblazoned on their chests, looked like their names. An S on Superman and a Z on Zod. However this movie changes the symbol on Zod’s chest. Nolan and Snyder specifically changed the Zod’s symbol to the point where it doesn’t look anything like a Z. In fact it looks like a sickle. You know, as in the sickle and hammer, the symbol of a Plato like utopia where everyone tries to have common ownership and common control, but in reality turned out to be something as decayed and genocidal as Zod’s Krypton.
But if this film sets the groundwork of the upcoming D.C. movies (which rumors suggest there will be quite the extended universe—eat your heart out Marvel) but especially the Superman films we have been promised. My hope is that whereas Nolan crafted a perfect philosophical arc with the Dark Knight, he will do so again with Superman. And that while the first film did show the beginning of the ideals of liberty and freedom in Jor-El’s hope for his son they were not delved into on as much a degree as the flaws of tyranny and Plato. Now since the Plato played such a deep role in this movie, and since Nolan loves to work on deeply rooted symbolism, I suspect we will see at least two more philosophers serve as the basis for upcoming films. If I had to take a guess I would believe we will see the perverse theories of Nietzsche’s ubermensch (from which we derive the word Superman) ripped apart as we see two larger than life figures (with the addition of Batman) in the next film rise above any base view of the individual. And I sincerely hope that in the final film of the promise trilogy (rumored to be a Justice League movie) we will see the pinnacle of philosophy dealt with through references to Aristotle that are as subtle as the reference to Plato was in this film. And we are further convinced of this, as we have mentioned in a previous blog, the writing of the film seems to be heavily influenced by the essay Superheroes and Philosophy entitled “The Real Truth About Superman and the Rest of Us, Too.”by Superman writer Mark Waid which ties the story of Superman to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs…which the lowest levels would be hurt by the tyranny of Platonism, the middle levels hurt by the rank egotism of Nietzsche, and the highest level only reachable through the virtue ethics of Aristotelianism. Overall this promises to be one of the deepest and most fulfilling movies series of all time.
Make a better world than ours, Kal.–Lara Lor-Van
Father Leone: Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.
Neither of us are Biblical scholars, but we pride ourselves in our ability to see religious symbolism much better than the average movie viewer, especially given how little of the book that the average person is familiar with and that includes the religious.
After seeing Man of Steel several times, there were more than a few references to the story of Christ embedded in the writing.
We’ve all seen writing where that sort of symbolism was allowed to get heavy handed and annoying, but in Man of Steel it was subtle and it fit the story very well.
There are numerous Biblical references in this movie. The most obvious of which is Jor El sending his only son to Earth, of course his original purpose was not to save mankind, but he does end up uttering the lines “you can save all of them” to Clark, about halfway through the film. Also as Justin Craig at Fox News pointed out, Kal El had rather a “miraculous” birth himself, being as he was the first “natural birth” on Krypton in centuries.
Two of the next ones come as a pair if you really want to understand them. When Superman “surrenders” to mankind he references his age of 33 years (Scientist: “You might be carrying some alien pathogen.” Superman:” I’ve been living here for 33 years, I haven’t infected anyone yet.”) which was the number of years that Jesus was supposed to have lived. During that time on Earth, Clark traveled extensively and performed several “miracles” (or “acts of God” as one character calls them). He saves a bus load of school kids when he’s around 12 or 13 years old (I’m approximating, as the movie never states an age), saves men working on an oil rig that is about to explode, and saves Lois Lane’s life, among other things.
Then at the end of that he decides to “surrender” to mankind in order to save them from General Zod.
The only thing missing is that he didn’t have his 12 best friends travelling around with him on his world tour.
Clark’s age when he saved the school bus is approximately 12 or 13. We’re basing this on the age of the actors and the dialogue in the scene, but also based on the Biblical symbolism we see throughout the film. It’s at 12 that Jesus finds himself in the temple, talking to priests about his “father” and it is after this “miracle” that Jonathan Kent decides to reveal Clark’s own origins.
One of the final symbolic moments is that prior to Clark’s surrender to Zod he visits a church to speak to a priest about his doubts. Behind him is a stained glass window depicting what seems to be Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, praying to his father about his own doubts. The priest tells Clark, who has doubts as to whether the people of Earth can be trusted anymore than Zod can, that “sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first, trust comes later” which helps Clark make his decision to work with mankind, rather than hiding from Zod.
This particular scene is interesting for the fact that, unlike other heavy handed iterations of the “this movie is a Biblical allegory” trope, this scene puts Clark firmly in the role of “savior” without putting him directly in the role of Christ. Clark is an all-American, farm raised, Christian boy who turns to the church and the guidance of a priest when he is questioning his faith and so the story manages to hold onto the allegorical underpinnings of the story without turning Superman into a placeholder for Christ. Christ managed to retain his importance as a savior as well. Whether that was the intention of the writer and the director will likely remain a mystery, but that’s what we are here for…to speculate.
Thankfully that’s about where the symbolism ends. They did not pull a “he’s in a coma for 3 days and then he wakes up!” moment, a la Superman Returns…which was painful to watch, but the symbolism they do use of Superman being a guiding force for good and a person who, ultimately, is trying to inspire good in people who “stumble and fall” in following him, was the right kind of religious symbolism.
As far as the science vs. religion dynamic that some reviewers saw in the film, it is unfortunate that some reviewers seemed to believe that morality and religion are tied to dogmatic following of tradition. Which made some of the reviews seem to almost side with Zod and his dogmatic need to carry out his one sole purpose in life, even at the expense of billions of lives, and that Clark turning away from this was some sort of anti-religious message. Which seems to us to be a view that shows that some people do not understand morality.
After all, the Bible says “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Nowhere does it say “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man sacrifices billions to create his own world order where only those he deems to be pure will be allowed to exist.”
Though something shockingly similar might be found in Mein Kampf.
“There is only one way this ends, Kal, either you die or I do.”–Zod
Okay let’s deal with the consistent arguments against the film The first two I hear most often are ‘it’s too slow’ and ‘the battle was too much.’ Yes parts were slow. Now, go back, what original story movie isn’t a little slow at times. None. When you’re setting up a whole world it takes time. At least here we started out with Jor-El action hero and then go through Clark’s early life with as few scenes as possible (meanwhile idiotic fanboys were complaining that we didn’t see enough of Lana or him going quickly through college…you know what we watched that crap for 10 years on the horribly whinny show Smallville, no need to even bring that up. Ever.). As opposed to the battle being too over the top…it’s a conflict of super-powered beings. Go back and look say Superman II…if it isn’t over the top it looks campy and silly. Unless you have long lasting major conflict that leaves carnage in its wake it looks silly and like everyone is pulling their punches. And I think everyone seems to forget where this series is implicitly going…we started out with the major force up front, the next few films with Luthor (and I pray Darkseid) will be more battle of wits and less massive destruction.
Next of course comes the death toll and how it’s just horrible Superman let so many people die. This requires a truly bizarre understanding of ethics to make this claim. First off this comes from the fact this is because everyone is comparing this to The Avengers, and as much I enjoyed The Avengers, let’s be honest the Chitari were terrible fighters—all they seemed to do was shoot at the facades of buildings. That’s it. Whoop de doo. Not all that impressive. Zod however actually seemed serious about world domination in a way Loki really wasn’t. (Also if you really look at it, it appears that Zod’s attack on New York Metropolis goes on during a weekend so the business section of the city isn’t as packed as you would think…not to mention this is almost a full day after an alien has threatened the entire word, as we all saw in Independence Day, the first thing that would happen is the cities would empty…there were not as many people dying as you think, but a lot of structural damage).
‘hey we just killed thousands of aliens, let’s not have any feelings about that and hey let’s not worry about Coulson’s corpse either, let’s go have shwarma…of course Tony’s killed a lot of people (including a father figure) and never seems that broken up about it—at least Superman has the humanity to break down and scream in agony when forced to kill someone.