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An Ideal to Strive Towards: Political Philosophy in Man of Steel


(Spoilers follow.)

Let’s get this out of the way first.

Krypton was doomed because its people undertook artificial birth control. The oral arguments on the RH Law take place next month. Don’t doom our planet. Junk the RH Law.

This is not as a swipe against the anti-RH lobby. If some pro-RH satirist wrote something along those lines, I’d be just as upset. Rather, I write this as a lamentation on how things can be robbed of all their beauty when they’re politicized.

Take the Women in Refrigerators campaign for example. Its concern, that the death of a woman is too often used as plot devices to motivate men in comics, is a legitimate one. However, I’m also bitter that this campaign has tarnished the origin of Kyle Rayner, my favorite Green Lantern, who unlike his three predecessors knew fear when the ring found him but was given a chance to overcome it.
It’s with nothing but love that I call political science the “art of darkness,” but that doesn’t make it any less true. I, like philosophers from Weber to Augustine before me, believe that the means of politics is violence, making it fundamentally evil. Thus, to offer a political analysis of anything is to ferret out its inherent evil, no matter how well hidden it is.

And yet, Superman, who (to paraphrase Alan Moore) comes from the sky and does only good, challenges even that belief.
The portrayal of government in Man of Steel contrast sharply with the same in Iron Man 3, but as this statement already contains more self-marketing than I’m comfortable with, I’ll illustrate with another example.

In Superman: Secret Identity, Clark Kent lives in our world where Superman only exists in comics and is constantly bullied because of his name until one day, he wakes up with Superman’s powers. There is no Zod or Lex Luthor in this story, but it didn’t want for a villain as Superman had to constantly contend with the government’s attempts to learn more about him, which ranged from setting up artificial calamities to inhumane experimentation on innocent citizens. Though the conflict came to a peaceful resolution, even Superman’s “government handler,” admits on the experiments, “If I’d been there… I can’t say it’d have been any different. But I like to think I’d have tried.”

Contrast this with one of the film’s more striking scenes (albeit more emotionally subdued compared to those with Jor-El and Jonathan Kent) where a group of soldiers is told that Superman is not an enemy after he fights off two of Zod’s disciples while defending the soldiers trying to kill all three of them. From there, Superman and the government actually work together to fend off Zod’s final assault, which is refreshing compared to the relatively ineffectual roles played by state forces in other superhero films. As Jor-El put it, Superman would “help them accomplish wonders.”

The Superman-is-Jesus motif was one of the few things carried over from Superman Returns (Superman is sent down to Earth by his father to be an example for us and begins his ministry at thirty-three years of age. He even has a long conversation with a priest in the film.), making a comparison to His story appropriate as well. Unlike Jesus, Superman was welcomed by the world with relatively open arms, which I like to think of as our way of saying that when He comes back, things won’t be as bad.

Man of Steel, like most of the best Superman stories in the comics, also goes out of its way to show that Superman is an inhumanly good-natured person, from the grown Kal-El’s first scene saving people from a burning oil rig to the flashback of a young Clark Kent saving a bus full of students from drowning, which included a reimagined Pete Ross as a childhood bully-turned-friend. This becomes a touching source of conflict between Clark and his human father who, out of fear of his son being ostracized before he could fulfill his destiny, replies “maybe” when Clark asks whether he should’ve let the children die. The contrast between Clark’s simple morality and his father’s position that some evil must be allowed for the greater good reflects both the sheer impossibility of Superman’s pure goodness and man’s aspiration for such good despite.

The film does not sacrifice political realism either: the government still decides to turn Superman over to Zod at first, to which Superman patiently replies, “do what you have to,” while in the end, he is still annoyed by the government’s failed attempts at keeping tabs on him.

And most powerfully, in what is the most controversial scene in the film, Superman kills Zod to keep him from murdering innocents and shows less remorse than I would have liked after a hug from Lois. Though killings in what is hopefully becoming Chris Nolan’s DC Universe seem to be less of a big deal (Batman killed Ra’s al Ghul and Two-Face and didn’t protest when Catwoman killed Bane), the very deliberate way Superman killed Zod adds a new layer to the fundamental question that has driven the Superman mythos for seventy-five years: Can pure good exist in society, or is the politics that holds it together fundamentally violent and evil?

I don’t know. Stop asking me these questions and enjoy the damn movie.

About the author

Francis Joseph Dee is an aspiring political scientist and proud geek currently seeking the Anti-Life Equation.