Posted on January 15, 2014 at 5:43 PM
I finally rented “Man of Steel,” the most recent Superman movie. While academics too easily dress up our pop culture tastes as being culturally important, I try to keep an eye on Superman because I believe that the Superman legend is important in U.S. history. After all, he was our national hero coming out of WWII, literally the answer to the racially pure, Nazi “ubermensch.” As such, he seemed consciously meant to represent our highest ideals and has been instructive as a reflection of our self-understanding as a people.
As a counterweight to the Nazi ideal, Superman had to be an immigrant. He came to earth from another planet to fight for truth, justice, and the American Way. Man of Steel is extremely timely in that it takes up the meaning of this immigrant aspect of Superman. This movie’s attempt to add to the Superman canon considers his identity as an immigrant by seeking to establish him as eminently loyal to his new planet and nation. Superman is similar to Dreamers who naturally love the land that nurtured them and which they call home and who also seek a connection with their heritage and to understand their origins. Moreover, Man of Steel is partly about trying to unite those two narratives in order to make sense of his occasional sense of not fitting in and not being accepted. And, in this movie, Superman’s birth parents’ reject their homeland partly based on Krypton’s embrace of eugenics. Reminiscent of Plato’s Republic and Huxley’s Brave New World, Krypton apparently embraced the creation of persons genetically engineered to be fit for their position in the social order. Kal El (Superman’s birth name) is apparently the first baby in some time not born through these pre-programming techniques. As such, he comes to symbolize hope.
The broad-brush bioethics behind Man of Steel seem to go something like this. Strongly controlling genetic inheritances and characteristics does not allow for the unexpected, chance, or serendipity which is apparently seen necessary to counterbalance the short-sightedness and narrowness that would inevitably guide any eugenic pre-programming. What intelligent beings tend to value and encode is too narrow a spectrum of what makes human beings valuable and would constrain their own effort and self-discovery. Nature and creation apparently can do better on their own. (The short-sightedness of technological control is also reflected in the destruction of Krypton which seems to blow up due to fracking.) Included in this narrowness emanating from technological control is that Kryptonians are sometimes pre-programmed to serve only others with similar genetic inheritances. General Zod, Superman’s nemesis from Krypton, says that he is at an advantage as he is not constrained by morality. He is programmed only to serve the interests of his people. Superman embodies a universal morality and thereby automatically cares equally for the people of earth. It is this moral quality that makes him able to be a successful immigrant and new neighbor.
Man of Steel leaves the immigrant issue pretty much where we are today in the United States. It is because we see each other as essentially the same beyond seemingly significant differences that we welcome the newcomer. And, allegiance to our nation is partly born of pride that the country is built upon the recognition of the dignity of all beyond differences. Insofar as American exceptionalism is ever about a turning inward to see ourselves as somehow better than others, it is a contradiction in terms.
So, Man of Steel generally seems to embrace values consonant with those of the Superman legend and which remain timely for us in our current situation. But the execution of the movie has little to recommend it as a movie. Everything gets lost in 2+ hours of computer generated imagery that is used for fight scenes more apropos of the Transformer movies. These sequences go on and on for no discernible reason. Watching this movie is fairly painful despite a great cast and could have been helped a great deal simply by an editor. So, despite some bioethics worthy of Superman, this one probably won’t bear watching in the future by others interested in the Superman legend.