Warning: This post contains “spoilers.”
Everyone loves a good hero. Strong, selfless, brave—stories of heroism stoke our collective fantasies of overcoming impossible odds, of virtue being rewarded with love and respect (it’s never just “its own reward”). Heroes forego the complexities of moral decision-making by insisting on binary paths of good and evil, and then following the good path unerringly. We love heroes because they are manifestations of our ideal selves; they are who we could be… if all the nastiness of human nature didn’t keep getting in the way.
At first glance, Zack Snyder’s just-released Man of Steel—a mishmash of allegory, science fiction, and people being punched through walls—ascribes to this viewpoint. We are told incessantly throughout the film that Superman represents “the best of us.” This is not a new stance on Superman, perhaps the most iconic (fictional) American hero. He is handsome, practically invincible, and always fights for good and justice. He is also the ultimate free agent—as an alien from Krypton, Superman (a.k.a. Kal-El) is not human and is thus not bound by human social structures. His goodness despite this freedom is what makes Superman such an admired talisman of heroism, but also a potential source of cultural anxiety. It is following this vein that, in its best brief moments, Man of Steel presents us with a fascinating and perhaps uniquely American dilemma: We are more ambivalent about heroes than we like to admit.
In an early scene on Krypton, as Kal-El is being prepped to travel to Earth before Krypton is destroyed, his parents debate whether he will be loved or feared on his new homeworld. Why might we fear him? Because he has the power to destroy us, if he so chooses. The film makes a major emphasis of choice—unlike other Kryptonians who are bred into a caste system, Kal-El is a rare natural birth, free to be who he wants to be. Sitting in the audience, we embrace this notion—we were raised with the American mythology that people can always reach out and shape their destinies. But at the same time, gnawing in the back of our minds, we know this is not so. Superman cannot choose to be who he wants to be. He must be unambiguously good, incapable of morally gray action, for otherwise he is not a hero but an unpredictable, indestructible, and therefore terrifying force. This creates a paradox. If one as powerful as Superman is truly free, we will reject him. But if acceptance demands he always act “heroically,” then he is not truly free. Free will and heroism are in fact conflicting values.
This is most poignantly manifested in a scene where a young Kal-El (now called Clark Kent) allows his adoptive father to die because saving him would reveal his astounding abilities. Jonathan Kent, played with a welcome genuineness by Kevin Kostner, wordlessly signals Clark to hold back, as Jonathan believes that the world is not ready to accept Clark as a superhero. Here, refreshingly, the film offers an emotionally complex situation. Was it not selfish, nay unheroic, for Clark to abstain from saving somebody, his father no less? Does this mean that along with X-Ray vision, bullet-proof skin, and flight, Superman has the power to choose who he helps? How human is a superhuman allowed to be? (Unfortunately, Man of Steel does not stay with these questions for long before resuming its passable if overlong blockbuster trajectory.)
In past films and comics, Superman’s great conflict has often been his desire to fit in with humankind despite being alien, wanting to be like us despite embodying the best of us. Man of Steel trades this struggle for another: To be the best of us, he must yield to us.