They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be.  They only lack the light to show the way.  For this reason above all—their capacity for good—I have sent you to them…my only son.

Jor-El, Superman: The Movie

The Baby Boomer’s Mistake is Generation X’s Opportunity

It is easy to overlook just how groundbreaking 1978’s Superman was for the movie-going public. Though dated in the sight of our inured CGeyes, the picture was a phenomenon; doing for superhero movies what the contemporary film Star Wars did for the space opera: it served as a major-budget proof of concept. Arguments about cinema-as-art aside, any filmmaker who wishes to affect the culture in a meaningful way must finance actors, sets, props, film, screenwriters, production, and distribution. It’s that last step that’s crucial; digital techniques have made high-quality tools and resources accessible to any creative sort—see 2004’s Primer for an example of an outstanding film made on the cheap—but good luck getting your very personal exploration of the human psyche in front of actual viewers without convincing a deep-pocketed benefactor to pay for some trade ads, at least. Superman was a smash hit and made its producers, the Salkind family, a lot of money.  “Just look at Superman,” ended thousands of elevator pitches in the 80s, and so we got George Lucas Presents Howard the Duck and Dolph Lundgren IS The Punisher.[1]

Yet, Superman is not a perfect movie. At its heart, it’s a basic love story between Clark and Lois because nothing else would have worked narratively. Christopher Reeves’ Superman walks as a god among us, and just how is a screenwriter supposed to create drama from a conflict between a god and an oh-so-mortal Lex Luthor? Either Superman must be super-dumb,[2] or a human he directly cares about must be placed in peril. Gene Hackman overacted his way to a nuclear-powered earthquake, which mildly inconvenienced the blue boy scout and cost thousands of anonymous red shirts in Santa Monica their lives. But when the resultant mega-fault crushed Lois Lane in her OPEC embargo-era economobile? There’s your pathos! There’s your interesting conundrum: how will Superman react to the death of his True Love of Loves?[3] To the extent Superman keeps to the love story, it works.

The problem with Superman is its delusions of grandeur. In an attempt to inspire awe without doing the requisite groundwork, Superman uses its introductory scenes on Krypton and Smallville to recall stories of the Christ-child. Dialog like the quote reproduced at the beginning of this essay (spoken in faux British-accented English by none other than the Big[4] Marlon Brando himself!) are messianic like Margot Kidder is crazy, and trick the viewer’s subconscious into thinking this film is going to be Important. But, once Brando’s girthy visage ceases taking up two-thirds of our Panavision screens, it’s all relatively standard superhero stuff: Superman saves cute kid and blows out fire; Lois and Clark set hearts aflutter by flying through the air; Lex plots, fools Superman for a moment, but still ends up thrown into prison. Comic relief denouement; go home happy.

On the other hand, 2013’s Man of Steel covers the same introductory ground as Superman (though General Zod replaces Luthor as the Big Bad), but with the twist of exploring the idea that Kal-El might actually help humanity itself do good. Superman is a mere love story with comic book action; Man of Steel wrestles with the question of purpose: the why, not the what. It forces the viewer to consider his philosophy of life itself, specifically contrasting the I F***ing Love Science brand of materialist-humanism against middle-American understated common-sense.[5]

Krypton for Kryptonians

Consider Krypton: even the dullest movie patron cannot help but discern a connection to the Third Reich in this orderly, eugenic society.[6] To his credit, however, director Zack Snyder goes beyond this trusty chestnut to critique totalitarianism in general. One example is the disastrous exploitation of Krypton’s natural resources (because the Smartest People in the Room are convinced that tapping the planet’s core is a good idea), which brings to mind the environmental catastrophes of the old communist Soviet Union.[7] It is Kryptonian eugenics, however, that speak most strongly of the totalitarian world view. Their philosophy has gone beyond the Hitlerian wet dream of producing a master race; the Kryptonians pretty clearly consider themselves to already be that when we first meet them. Instead, their eugenic program—in one of the most vibrant displays of statist utilitarianism in cinema history—controls the very nature of who future Kryptonians will be by engineering their genetics, gestation, and delivery. The reader will recall that Man of Steel’s initial conflict is not between good and evil Kryptonians, not between pro- and anti-eugenic hordes, but is merely a power struggle over who gets to decide how Kryptonian genes are arranged.[8]

The most striking visual representation of Krypton’s totalitarianism is the Genesis Room, where Kryptonian embryos are grown and plucked like olives from a vine. This is an obvious reference to those first few chapters of Brave New World that we all read before getting bored with the book in high school and just reading the Cliff’s Notes.[9] In essence, Krypton is a Huxlian immanentized eschaton par excellence, and isn’t it interesting that this perfect society is falling apart?

In Krypton’s system, the only heresy is freedom, because if one guy has a kid with his wife via old fashioned intercourse we’d have to let everyone do it, and then look at all the useless mouths we’d have to feed! The philosophy of this system is expressed in Man of Steel by Faora, Zod’s lieutenant, as she taunts the poor naïf Clark Kent:

You are weak, Son of El, unsure of yourself. The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if history has proven anything…it is that evolution always wins!

which is about as succinct a summary of the antitheist worldview as I have ever heard.[10] The unspoken reality, however, is that Faora—and Krypton society—is engaged in a bit of wishful thinking. In this philosophy, one must eschew morality, not because it is weak, but because it is too strong. It causes people to hold abstract ideas, like the dignity of the individual, the freedom to choose one’s own path, and personal rights to property. Such ideas are extremely inconvenient and potentially disruptive to the man of totalitarian bent, who is convinced that things would work so much better and the trains would finally run on time if everyone would just DO AS I SAY.

The Übermensch Rejects Übermenschery

Superman in Man of Steel is the ultimate impediment to this totalitarian idea, because of the morality in his soul and the element of choice implicit with it. From Jor-El’s last words to Jonathan Kent’s wisdom, both of Clark’s fathers talk about choice: in essence, the idea of agency. Clark is aware of his power and the stakes resultantly implicit in his actions. Several times in the movie, he asks others to advise him on how to behave, but the point is continually returned back to him: Clark himself must figure out what it is to be Superman. Contrast this with the nearly-defeated Zod, who whines that Clark has taken his soul away by defeating the Kryptonian forces: since he was genetically-bred to protect Kryptonians, their destruction left him without purpose or hope. Zod’s genes define him, but Clark’s do not; Clark decides what kind of a man he will be by his actions.

He develops this ethic from both his adoptive and birth parents. Jor-El and Lara give up their lives so their son might live. Though Jonathan Kent cynically advises Clark that it might be better to let some people die than expose himself to the world, he shows what is truly important by sacrificially giving up his life to protect his son’s secret. Martha Kent’s house is destroyed by the Zod Squad, yet she is content to retrieve her photo album from the rubble and be with her son, since as long as you have your loved ones, you always can replace mere things. These stereotypical Judeo-Christian[11] values, so clichéd and trite to the self-important nabobs of the smart set, are the quiet mettle undergirding the American century and the rise of individual freedom.[12] Millions of unattractive, unimportant people order their lives around these ideas and are the better for it.

Clark’s love of traditional strength, self-control, service, and sacrifice inspires others, as his fathers’ sacrifices inspired him to become Superman. This elevates Man of Steel to levels Superman: The Movie could not reach, by demonstrating the effect Kal-El has, not just on the earth or on the lives of her inhabitants, but on their souls. Because of Superman’s lead, the humans of this movie accomplish acts of heroism they would not have otherwise been capable of. Most obviously, the military and Superman work together to stop the Big Machine at the end of the film (learning to cooperate out of mutual trust) but of special interest is Perry White behaving heroically to free a trapped writer. The importance of this latter example is obvious from the fact that there is no attempt to make the audience feel for this victim beyond the usual immediate emotions of sympathy. Man of Steel does not tell us much about her aspirations, hopes, and dreams. The point of her character is to allow Perry White a chance for simple heroism, inspired (it is implied) by Superman.

The Nazi-like eugenics of the Kryptonians are based upon the Übermensch concept of Freidrich Nietzsche, Mr. “God is dead” himself. Yet, the English word that comes from Übermensch is…Superman. There is a reason why this movie is not called Superman: Rebooted or The Amazing Superman or some such iteration. Zach Snyder is exploiting the paradox: here is a hero of freedom with a name derived from a deterministic philosophy. He inspires others to not just break free from the constraints of expectations, but rise above. Superman chooses what kind of man he wants to be, and rejects the self-important, dominating, totalitarian Übermensch. He chooses instead to be principled, kind, sacrificial, controlled, and unyieldingly moral. He chooses to be a Man of Steel.

Points that Don’t Fit Elsewhere
  • It’s a little hokey when the Superman Suit first shows up. I didn’t pick up on it being similar to Kryptonian fashion until Zod arrived and was wearing an emo version.
  • Good on Snyder for having Lois Lane figure out Clark’s identity right away. It never made any sense that the brilliant investigative reporter couldn’t tell that Superman was just her friend Clark Kent.
  • Why was Lois Lane on the bomber at the end of the movie? The Knowledge that Could Save Earth was just to put the Superman key in the pentagonal hole, right? Couldn’t she have simply told a trained military guy how to do it? She didn’t even figure out why the Phantom Bomb wasn’t working; that was Stock Science Guy.[13]
  • Kevin Costner giving up his life for his son made my eyes flat out water. Wonderful acting.
  • The tabloid reporter is named Woodburn; pretty obvious Woodward and Bernstein reference, right?

[1] Hooray?

[2] See the Superfriends TV cartoon for examples of this phenomenon.

[3] The answer, of course, was to turn back time by reversing the rotation of the earth, which gave new meaning to deus ex machina and struck a blow against physics in one fell swoop.

[4] Specifically, see 2:00 to 2:40 of this video from Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (, though watching the entire show is highly recommended.

[5] I must mention how nice it is to hear Superman rejoin, “I grew up in Kansas,” to Stock Military Guy’s query about his patriotism. After Perry White’s apologetically embarrassed intonation of “Truth…justice…all that stuff” in the dreadful Superman Returns, this indication that the American Way might actually be a positive force in the world is a slam dunk for the red, white, and blue.

[6] Just to be safe, General Zod’s demented physician-scientist speaks with an inexplicable German accent, and Zod as much as calls for a final solution to the humanity problem so pure Kryptonians can have living space. Not exactly subtle.

[7] Far worse than any on capitalism’s slate; see Sea, Ural and Accident, Chernobyl for more information.

[8] For more information about this issue, please review C. S. Lewis’ academic essay The Abolition of Man, as prescient a book as I’ve ever read. The same author’s That Hideous Strength is the same idea expanded into a fine novel.

[9] Those nerds who actually finished Brave New World can see Jor-El and Lara’s heretical secret copulation, conception, and delivery as a positive version of Linda’s romp on the reservation with the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning; and would also note that Kal-El is an amalgam of both John the savage, and Hemholtz Watson.

[10] Like the Dawkinsian screeds it is based in, Faora’s statement begs an enormous question: assuming a mere biological process could ever provide an answer to the universal concern, “What ought I do?” But you should read the first few chapters of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity for a more extensive dissection of this error.

[11] It’s not for nothing that Clark seeks guidance from a priest in this movie.

[12] Note that teenager Clark drops a book of Plato when he is being bullied and decides to react with self-control. Platonic thought helped form the philosophical foundation of western Christianity.

[13] Stock Science Guy uses his powers of science for good, like Clark. He is not defined by being sciency, but moral. The problem with the Kryptonians is not love of science but lack of morality.

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