I didn’t really care for the latest cinematic iteration of the Superman myth. Like way too many movies today, it was made for the generation that came of age with video games and MTV and their constant, irritatingly frenetic action. When the CGI whiz-bang stuff kicks in, I just check out, and “Man of Steel” is about three-quarters whiz-bang.
However, there is a theme in this film that is worthy of some reflection, namely the tension between individual autonomy and a state-controlled society. “Man of Steel” commences with a lengthy segment dealing with the closing days of the planet Krypton. We learn that a fiercely totalitarian regime, led by a General Zod, is seeking the arrest of a scientist called Jor-El. It becomes clear that Jor-El has attempted to undermine the regime’s policy of strictly controlling the genetics of Kryptonite newborns. Very much in the manner of Plato’s Republic, Kryptonite children are rigidly pre-programmed to be a member of one of three social groups. Jor-El and his wife have conceived a child in the traditional manner and are seeking to send their son, born in freedom, away from their dying planet. I won’t bore you with many more plot details, but suffice it to say that the child (the future Superman) does indeed get away to planet Earth and that General Zod manages to survive the destruction of his world. The movie then unfolds as the story of a great battle between the representative of freedom and the avatar of genetic manipulation and political tyranny.
Lest you think that the link to Plato is a bit forced, the director at one point shows the teenaged Superman reading The Republic. In his classic The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper, a survivor of Nazi tyranny, presented Plato’s Republic as the forerunner of all totalitarianisms that have sprung up in the West. Very often, Popper saw, these tyrannies begin with the best of intentions. Good-hearted leaders believe that they have hit upon some form of life that will benefit the greatest number and thus they endeavor to implement their vision through binding legal prescription. Plato himself thought that the guardians of his ideal republic should have all property—including wives and children—in common and hence called for a strictly enforced communism among social elites. Further, he felt that the soldiers who protect his perfect city should have their emotions trained in a very precise manner and therefore decreed that tight censorship should obtain in regard to their reading and entertainment. On Popper’s interpretation, post-revolutionary French society, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the Iran of the Ayatollahs would be imitations of the Platonic original: idealistic visions which quickly devolved into totalitarian oppression.
In answer to these totalizing systems, Popper proposed the open society, which is to say, a political arrangement that places stress on the prerogatives and freedom of the individual. Thomas Jefferson’s insistence that government exists primarily for the purpose of guaranteeing the liberty of individuals to determine their own destinies, to seek happiness as they see fit, is deeply congruent with Popper’s ideal. Much of the political history of the past three hundred years might be characterized as a battle between these two visions, these contrasting ideologies. At its limit, the Platonic system results in the apotheosizing of the state and/or the divinization of the ruler. And this is why General Zod (so close to “God”) is aptly named. At its limit, the open society conduces toward the apotheosizing of the individual will, so that personal freedom becomes absolute. Many times before, I have pilloried the U.S. Supreme Court statement in the matter of Casey v. Planned Parenthood, whereby individual freedom is entitled to define even the meaning of the universe! If Plato is the philosopher who best articulates the nature of the totalitarian society, Friedrich Nietzsche is the philosopher who best expresses the limit case of the apotheosized ego. Beyond good and evil, he said, lies the will of the Ubermensch, literally the superman. We might read the battle between General Zod and Superman, therefore, as a symbol of the struggle between two falsely deified realities, the nation-state and the ego.
Happily, there is a state of affairs that lies beyond this clash. Biblical religion is eminently clear that there is one God and that any attempt to deify the state, the king, or the self-asserting ego results in spiritual calamity. If you’re curious about particular references, I might urge you to read the account of the fall in Genesis chapter three, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter eleven, Samuel’s critique of kingship in first Samuel chapter eight, and the story of David and Bathsheba in second Samuel chapter eleven. The Bible recommends neither the heteronomy of the oppressive state nor the autonomy of the individual will, but rather, if I can borrow a term from Paul Tillich, “theonomy,” which means allowing God to become the inner law of one’s life. Both the state and the will are under God’s judgment and hence neither General Zod nor Superman is the answer.
I’m sure, gentle reader, that you will forgive my revealing the none-too-surprising ending to “Man of Steel”: Superman’s victory over the wicked general. In a Biblical telling of the story, the hero of individualism, having conquered General Zod, would kneel to God.
Rev. Robert Barron
Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the documentary series, "Catholicism," airing on PBS stations, CatholicTV and EWTN. The documentary has been awarded an esteemed Christopher for excellence. Learn more about the series at www.WordonFire.org