I’ve never been a Superman fan. I should start with that.
But anything that Christopher Nolan has touched is something that I will gladly drop the ticket price for. Despite some concerns about Zach Snyder‘s record (the ‘America is the bestest thing in the world’ 300, the fanboy wankgasm of Sucker Punch), I expected that Nolan’s involvement would bring something interesting to the project—maybe something worth thinking about.
But. This film was a surprising mish-mash of religio-philosophical content that had little cohesion. What’s more, the picture that does emerge politically from this piece is something that I find deeply troubling.
So let’s unpack:
Remarkably obvious christological stuff is going on throughout—Pa Kent’s worry that Clark’s existence will be a game-changer for all human belief is only slightly upstaged by the framing of the alien Kansan against a stained-glass of Jesus in the church where, for some reason, Clark/Kal goes for advice when Zod/Satan asks for the sacrifice of one (super-)man to save the planet. I’m not even sure that this needs to be unpacked at all, as it seems to be more ‘let’s use the Passion narrative to structure another story’ than ‘let’s examine the religious content of this story’.
There’s a brief stab at a sort of Nietzschean bit when the Kryptonians on earth recognize the a-morality of power (though this is sort of ‘Nietzsche-as-if-read-by-Nazis’ than Nietzsche per se). I’m guessing that this may come up again in future offerings from the series.
But! As a Plato scholar, I was pretty happy when someone on my Facebook feed said ‘Republic in Man of Steel‘, so I was on the lookout for it. True enough, there it is in paperback form in young Clark’s hand when he resists retaliating against a group of bullies. (Just who assigned that at Smallville High is a question I’d like answered!) Far more important, though, is the clear contrast between the (corrupt, moribund, elitist) Kryptonian approach to breeding and the human approach: Superman is the first Kryptonian in forever to be ‘naturally’ conceived. His parents, apparently alone in the population of an entire planet, believe that ‘chance’ is the future for Kryptonians. Chance, of course, translates into ‘democratic’, ‘natural’…’American’?—Kal El/Clark Kent at one point asserts that being raised in Kansas means that he is as American as it gets.
It seems that, if I’m following the reasoning in the film, the writers are assuming that we should take Plato’s apparent utopia in the Republic as a political philosophy meant to work on the macro scale, and that such a central authoritarian structure is the antithesis of all that is right and good in the (free) world. Karl Popper’s interpretation of the Republic in The Open Society and Its Enemies takes a similar position—Plato’s utopia, realized as a macro-scale political philosophy, bears remarkable similarities to the totalitarian regimes of the modern world. While I don’t subscribe to Popper’s position, I can understand it, particularly in the wake of WW2.
In the film’s narrative, the eventual arrival of our Zod-led Kryptonians and their desire to Krypto-form Earth seems to be another Popper-esque Platonic state: central authoritarian rule of genetically su-pure-ior beings. Of course, to do so, they need the genetic database that Kal’s dad thoughtfully encoded into his cells to give birth to a new copy of Krypton, using the still-functional ‘genesis chamber’ from an old Kryptonian scout ship to populate the now-transformed planet. If this is the case, then it seems that the authors are happily following the macro-state interpretation of Plato’s Republic, with Zod as the not-so-philosophical king. Kal-El is then the (democratic) resistance to authoritarian rule, and we should heartily cheer the minority view of Jor-El as it comes to fruition in his son. Jor and Kal should put on late-eighteenth-century garb and shoulder muskets—they’re the father-son revolutionaries standing for (American) freedom against the crippling monarchic tyranny (of Europe).
But. There are numerous problems here. First, though this interpretation of Plato’s Republic has been popular and influential, it is hardly the best one. Plato was writing in a time when democracy was enjoying its first full-fledged experimental run in Athens. Positioning itself as the only viable alternative to tyranny and oligarchy (which is essentially a tyranny distributed to a handful of rulers), democracy presented itself as a fait accompli.
Plato’s position on democracy is incredibly antagonistic: from his perspective—or at least the position that his discussants espouse in the Republic—democracy is akin to a magic ring that lets you disappear whenever you want, which, the members of the dialogue agree, will not lead to ‘just’ behaviour. In fact, they all seem pretty convinced that there will be no way that, if democracy is a system that similarly allows people to hide real intentions behind the facade of party politics, it could lead to a system that would issue in anything more than a facade of justice.
They cast around for a while trying to figure out a way to discuss what it would be to be a just person before hitting on the solution of treating the individual as if his or her constituent parts were members of an entire city. The bulk of the dialogue is taken up with this little thought experiment—it’s there that we run into the notions that look a lot like eugenics, and the use of propaganda to back it up—but it is often missed that Plato is most certainly not talking about an actual city, and so this apparently abhorrent set of practises is actually just his way of espousing the same thing that, say, Sophocles did, in Oedipus Rex: control your passions by means of your reason, or you’re screwed. Whatever it takes to let reason be in control of you? DO IT!
In book 9, the dialogue partners call this ‘a city whose home is in words’, and make the explicit re-connection of this city-treatment with the individual. It boils down to the following argument: if we aren’t individually ruled by reason and wisdom, then there is no governmental system that will be anything but tyranny. Plato’s ‘philosopher king’ is internal to the individual.
This, Plato asserts, will be the only way that the inherently dishonest system of democracy (or the more nakedly brutal systems of oligarchy or tyranny) can be resisted. Although this leads to the problem of a now-self-controlled individual (more on this in later posts), it is the case that, whatever its eventual implications (especially via Stoicism, Rome and the Church), Plato’s attempt here is to provide a means of resistance by removing power from the body-politic and investing it in the individual body.
So. How exactly does The Man of Steel‘s politics stack up here? The mythic world of Superman is essentially one that speaks to the gloved power of the idea of American democracy as the leader of the ‘free world’ in a post-WW 2 sort of way. It is freedom, but with steel behind it. Superman allows humans freedom, and deigns to help when needed. He is beyond humanity, and protects humanity, but is not of humanity. This has the über-Stoic Gospel of John’s first chapter all over it: a saviour whose very existence will overturn expectations about reality, and about humanity’s place within it. But politically, it is pure metaphor for the idea of America on a world stage. It is a justification for the existence of an enlightened Guardian class, but without the element of resistance that Plato depended on.
In the final scenes of destruction throughout Metropolis, Kal and Zod fly over a building with the very noticeable sign: ‘Utopia Casino’. I can’t decide how to take this, but I’m guessing that this is meant to be either a juxtaposition of the two options that are apparently at war—designed utopia v. the random chances of democracy (and capitalistic free markets?)—or a suggestion that the only way to achieve the utopia (a ‘good place’) will be to roll the dice and see what happens. I’m guessing the latter, but I frankly don’t understand what in the hell that is supposed to mean.