Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Man of Steel: Heroic Individualism (Spoilers)


I thoroughly enjoyed the new Superman film. It’s exciting, thrilling, beautiful, funny, and even at times sweet. The special effects were amazing. The fight scenes were out of this world.

The way they told the story was clever and creative. The Superman origin story is well-known and familiar. This film doesn’t deviate from the story we all know: Superman is sent from Krypton by his scientist parents to save him from the imploding planet. But the details and the how are told in a way to make it refreshing rather than a rehashing. Krypton itself is a fascinating and intriguing world. The hints, bits, and pieces provided about its history, culture, and people help provide greater context to the plot. (Caveat: for fans of the graphic novels, these may not be new at all, but I have not followed the graphic novels so it was all new to me.)

This is more than just another superhero story: the good guy fights the bad guys. What this movie does is show us why these are the good guys and bad guys: each side is motivated and guided by contrasting moral principles.

General Zod is not some psychotic maniac whose motivates are beyond comprehension nor is he just a megalomaniac setting out to rule the world (followed by evil laugh). He is driven by (what he sees as) the greater good of Krypton and its race of people. He is doing what he is doing as a way to preserve his race. Individuals are mere means to ends to the greater good of Krypton. There is little to suggest this is mere cynical cover for just wanting to rule. He is dedicated to the truth and importance of what he is doing. He is a committed collectivist.

This is in stark contrast with Jor-El. He and Lara conceived Superman (Kal-El) and sent him to Earth. Superman is sent to earth to save him and by extension continue Krypton, but it also so that Kal-El can choose his own path in life. Every aspect of life is controlled on Krypton. Reminiscent of Brave New World, each person is artificially conceived and genetically modified to be ideal for a specific role and station in life. There is no individual choice or self-direction. Jor-El and Lara see this as part of the demise of Krypton and seek a new way for their child. Superman is naturally conceived and birthed so that he may choose the man he will become and not have it decided for him.

The adult Superman we see is similarly guided by individualism. At the end of the movie, he tells the US general that he (Superman) is here to help when needed, but it will be on his own terms. He will not be dictated to and will not (indeed, cannot) be controlled by others.

Lois Lane is also, fittingly, her own individual. She is strong-willed, courageous, and ambitious. When her editor tells her to drop the story of an alien amongst us, she continues to investigate. When he refuses to run her story, she finds a way to get it out into the public anyway. When faced with danger, she responds bravely and competently. No damsel in distress is she.

What makes this movie so great is not just the exciting action or amazing special effects; it is the clear theme of individualism versus collectivism. The message is clear: the root of greatness and civilization is the free individual and each individual ought to be free to direct his or her life in peaceful ways.

A few random thoughts:
  • I liked that there wasn’t a Lex Luther character to complicate the plot, but that there was LexCorp stuff in the background. I am sure we will meet Lex in the sequel.
  • The “liquid steel” computer displays on Krypton were very cool. They also allude to the idea of Superman being the Man of Steel.
  • The fight scenes were a bit overdone. Lots of flying threw buildings that were probably unnecessary. Still, they were visually stimulating and provide that comic-book feel.
  • There is a brief scene were a young Clark Kent is reading Plato’s Republic. Yay Philosophy! (though Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics would have been a better choice.)
  • I liked the use of flashback to tell the story of Clark. This way the backstory gets told, but isn’t rushed through so we can get to the current action.
  • One of the things I disliked about the 2006 movie was the Christ imagery they used to depict Superman. The new movie does not engage in this except in one instance where Superman is briefly in a cross stance. No offense to Christians, but Superman is not a Christ figure. He might be a god-like figure here to help save us from evil, but he is not here to be sacrificed and die for our sins (the latter I take to being essential to being a Christ figure). Also, Superman was created by two Jewish guys. If anything, Superman is more of a Golem figure than a Christ figure. (A golem was a mystical Jewish super-strong creature created to defend the Jewish community from attack and injustice.)
Update 6/20: I forgot to mention this additional thought about the movie.
  • The 2006 movie shied away from the American connection to Superman with its infamous: "Truth, Justice, and all that" line. The new movie is not jingoistic, but it doesn't disconnect Superman from his American ideals. This Superman is proud of being an American: he tells the general, who's concerned that Superman would act against America, that "I'm from Kansas. It's about as American as it gets." Superman creators Schuster and Siegel created Superman as an American icon, as a hero to represent the ideals of "truth, justice, and the American way". They were children of Jewish immigrants assimilating and celebrating the principles of America: individual freedom and liberty, fighting tyranny, and a commitment to justice. The new movie stays true to Superman's roots by celebrating Superman's American-ness rather than, out of some PC concern or, worse, a rejection of these ideals, hiding this.