Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013) has a lot in common with Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005). Not only were they both written by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, and not only do they both tell the origin story of a superhero, culminating in a final scene in which all the hero is finally established in his iconic role, the two films also share important themes. Kal-El (Superman) and Bruce Wane (Batman) are both young men who must find a way to carry on their father’s legacy; they are both men who attempt to create a symbolic persona to inspire others with the hope that good can defeat evil; they are both superheroes whose power comes from an ambiguous source and must make a choice about what kind of hero they will be; and they both face enemies who want to destroy the world to make way for a new utopian civilization.
So both Man of Steel and Batman Begins are anti-utopian films about the hard work of bringing about justice in a broken world. “Justice” is one of the key terms in Batman Begins. The nature of justice is debated explicitly in that earlier film. But discussions of justice are conspicuous by their absence in Man of Steel. Isn’t the whole point of Superman supposed to be “truth, justice, and the American way”? Instead we get a discussion of “hope”.
And yet, justice turns out to be everywhere beneath the surface of Man of Steel, because the movie makes repeated reference to Plato’s Republic , the main theme of which is the nature of justice. The best overall discussion of the Platonic subtext of Man of Steel is here. Some of the most important Plato references are these:
- Clark Kent is shown reading Plato as a teenager.
- Just like Plato’s ideal republic, Krypton is divided into three classes: “worker, warrior, and leader”
- Just like Plato’s myth of “the Ring of Gyges” (also an inspiration for The Lord of the Rings), Superman is a man with power to do anything he wants and must decide whether he will act with justice or selfishness. More here.
- Superman is the man who returns to Plato’s Cave. Just as Plato predicted, such a person must re-learn how to see, and people revile him for being different. But, as Jor-El says, eventually “they will join you in the sun.” More here.
- In fact, Superman’s power comes from the sun, just as Plato used the sun as a symbol of the source of all goodness. More here.
So it is pretty clear that Man of Steel is about Plato, but it also seems clear that Man of Steel is rejects the utopian design of Plato’s Republic.
Zod charges the lawmakers of Krypton with “endless debates” that fail to solve the planet’s energy crisis. He argues that Krypton needs to dissolve its government and start anew with “pure bloodlines”. He is appealing to genetic control, complete with baby pods straight out of The Matrix. His friend’s son Kal-El is the “hope” for his people’s survival, because has been infused with the “The Codex” which has the genetic type for every child yet to be born. With it, each person can live again.
But, unlike Zod’s vision of a new people genetically determined to be perfect, Kal-El is the first natural birth, “free to forge his own destiny”, something Zod’s followers call “heresy”. Krypton is designed as a perfect society, but as in most utopias all the way back to Plato’s Republic, people have no choice “to aspire to something greater”.
As his adoptive father Jonathan Kent tells Kal-El, “you have to decide what kind of man you want to be.” This is true for anyone born free – but it is even more true of Kal-El. Kent continues, “Because who that man is – good character or bad – he’s going to change the world.”
Here we see the second philosophical theme of the movie – Nietzscheanism. When Jor-El says Kal-El “will be a god to” the people of Earth, this is not initially a religious statement. In context, his point is that they won’t be able to kill him. Kal-El will be what Nietzsche called an übermensch – literally, a super-man, someone who can surpass everyone that has come before and give humanity a new goal to strive for. This is exactly what Jor-El tells his son: “Give the people of earth an ideal to strive for.”
But whereas Nietzsche’s original concept is intentionally elitist, Kal-El is the egalitarian subversion of Nietsche’s anti-Christ übermensch. Superman may not be Christ – but he is the anti-anti-Christ. Kal-El’s superman is a symbol of the hope that the world can be better. Jor-El believes in “the potential for every person to be a force for good”, not just the aristocratically powerful. “In time they will join you in the sun,” he tells his son. “You will help them accomplish wonders.”
Now, while the übermensch idea isn’t really a religious concept, the film does play on the religious interpretation of a god-like only begotten son coming from another world to save his people. When Kal-El saves some children from a bus, one parent says “it was an act of God”. Jonathan Kent strikes a more nuanced note. He says, when people find out about Superman, it “will change everything. Our beliefs, our notions of what it means to be human. … You’re the answer to are we alone in the universe. … You were sent here for a reason.”
Like most of the other versions of the Superman story, Man of Steel inserts Christ-figure symbolism. (Here’s a classic discussion of the 1978 Superman movie.) In Man of Steel:
- We first see Kal-El as a fisherman (okay, Jesus was a carpenter, but his first disciples were fishermen) who sacrifices himself to save others; he lies apparently dead in a cruciform shape before coming back to life.
- Kal-El loves his enemies (saving the bully from the bus)
- He turns the other cheek (not fighting back in the bar, though he does smash the truck)
- He “surrenders to mankind” (just as Jesus willingly surrendered and went “as a lamb to the slaughter”)
- He’s 33 years old.
- He tells Lois “Thank you for believing in me.”
- He contains he people in his body through the Codex (just as Christians become united to the body of Christ in the Eucharist).
- He’s the bridge between two peoples, humans and kryptons (like bridge between God and man)
But, while Superman is a kind of Christ-figure, you could almost interpret the film as anti-Christian. At minimum it is safe to say that Man of Steel is anti-fundamentalist.
The villain character General Zod is portrayed as a fundamentalist. Zod is fanatical. He “has a duty” to Krypton and will not allow anything to stop him. (He’s also a utilitarian: “I exist only to protect Krypton. … Every action I take, no matter how violent or cruel is for the greater good of my people.” ) His elitism also smacks of social Darwinism, a view Zod’s follower Faora-Ul comes close to explicitly endorsing: “The fact that you posses a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage. – and evolution always wins.”
Like Plato (or any utopian) Zod wants to build heaven on earth. And he is willing to destroy earth to make heaven happen. Like End-Times Christians, he waits for the day when the old earth will be destroyed and then rebuilt as an eternal home for a minority of “chosen” people. (Christians aren’t likely to recognize themselves in Zod, but just stop and think about what it sounds like to say the world will be destroyed and only certain people – Christians – will be saved.)
Its no wonder Superman is concerned about earth. When he’s deciding whether to save humanity, he worries that “they can’t be trusted”. The priest responds, “Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith first – the trust part comes later.” In other words, if Superman can be the better person and treat us as trustworthy, then maybe we will be inspired to live up to his expectations.
This is Man of Steel’s vision of “truth, justice, and the American way”. This Superman represents a post 9/11 America – an America that must make up its mind what kind of nation it wants to be, because whoever it is will change the world. Man of Steel urges America to decide to be an inspiration of goodness for all nations and to resist the temptations of Christian fundamentalism, social Darwinism, and Nietzschean elitism in favor of a vision of hope (yes, there’s a anti-Tea Party, pro-Obama message there) – hope that every person has the potential to be a force for good if they are given the right role models to emulate.