Spoilers galore ahead
I can understand some of the complaints against Zack Snyder’s Superman movie. It does feel like some things are too clipped and not developed enough. We’re moved from scene to scene at a frenetic pace. There certainly could be more scenes that let the actors do their job (which they are pretty awesome at). And a lot happens in the action sequences that’s confusing and disorienting. One needs a lot of focus to keep track of everything.
Be that as it may, this is a well-written movie with some powerful, convincing performances. And the portrait it develops of Superman is just amazing. If anything, this movie is underrated: I think a lot of the complaints about it are pretty juvenile.
Superman is the product of a debate occurring on Krypton. Krypton is a huge, technologically advanced empire with colonies and outposts on a number of other planets. Kryptonian society is highly regimented, dependent on a “Codex” that assigns each and every citizen their place. Of course, Krypton is not just exhausting its resources and limiting its nearly immortal population. It is causing massive damage to the planet itself and will implode. When the planet Krypton goes, the entire empire crumbles: the outposts and colonies have no clue how to survive.
Two people see the decay of Krypton: Jor-El, Krypton’s lead scientist, and General Zod, Krypton’s lead warrior. Jor-El sees that Kryptonians have exhausted the planet and that it is too late for the entire race. He understands the limits of strict hierarchy. Natural births do not occur on Krypton; only Jor-El and his wife will attempt such a thing. Future Kryptonians are dictated by the Codex. Krypton is a society that can duplicate its success over and over on other planets, assuming they have resources.
General Zod sees that strength and does not want to let it go, not under any circumstance. He stages a coup against the Council ruling Krypton a few weeks before the planet implodes. He kills Jor-El, but Jor-El has stolen the Codex and sent it away with Kal-El to Earth. Jor-El wants Kal-El to be able to make a choice, not simply serve society for the sake of utility. Jor-El, like Jonathan Kent, understands that this is no insult to anyone else. That the things we know are in a way subservient to the things we believe, and this is freedom for all.
This is a tricky set of propositions, I know, and the film moves by fast. Freedom versus utility does not seem an obvious choice for discussing a central theme, nor knowledge or belief. It is difficult to see the defining threads of any given theme, really, save one: Kal-El choosing to be human. It is not an easy choice for him. We first see him in a classroom as an ADD student, struggling with all the excess information his super-senses give him. His mother has to coax him out of a janitor’s closet he locks himself in by getting him to focus on one thing, in order to get him to concentrate his power. It is not hard to see how Superman’s Boy Scout ethos is a necessity, why he is hesitant at key moments, why he is a journeyman and an outcast with aggression issues.
To not have an identity is a logical choice and temptation, one that Jonathan Kent and Jor-El give unwitting support to. Both the elder Kent and Jor-El know that the powers of a super man are too much for any given world unless the right moment arrives. Kent knows this and can explain it to Clark after watching a woman turn nearly hysterical with both hope and fear after Clark saves a busload of kids from drowning. He knows the most important thing is for Clark to have a choice, to discover his true purpose for himself. To expose Clark is to give him no chance at having a choice. Thus, Kent’s boy is put under some strict rules about what he can and cannot do; the movie is utterly convincing when a father dies rather than let his son see others save him. Jor-El lives in a society of supermen that can only preserve itself ironically; everything is prideful boasting or the pride that comes from pretended or forced humility.
All these considerations, put another way: usually, we talk about forming an identity with regard to other, known identities. We pick people to emulate and work from there. That conventionality hides something far more radical about each of us being one intelligence among many. The very concept of an identity to someone forming one can be alien; it is easy for those of us who have one to forget exactly what it is we have. This is something that we usually cover up in our own minds. We have humanity as a reference point.
Clark Kent doesn’t have humanity as a reference point. Jor-El understands the strength of this in his own way. The problem with Zod is that everything is Krypton to him. His identity is immediately useful and it is absolutely the case his single-minded vengeful idiocy would have recreated Krypton and saved the race. Zod’s rage makes a lot of sense even if he comes off as a cartoon at times. He’s a man who’s lost his homeworld but whose sole purpose in life was to fight for it anyway. He really cannot understand what Jor-El and Jonathan Kent are up to. Nor can the military or officials or most of our world, who are more than willing to let Lois Lane get taken by the aliens even though the only thing they said they wanted was Kal-El. The concept of the alien throws everything to pieces: we can forget who we are and what we stand for. Zod understands this much, as broadcasting “You Are Not Alone” to us is an all-too-effective weapon.
Superman is an outcast and a loner because he has a choice, a real choice. The trick to having a real choice is having a say in the conditions that frame it. This is why sacrifice, why knowledge, why belief: these are not solely components of an aristocratic/timocratic ethic, but something essential to all who claim to be free. Zod does not understand this, but Superman’s alien and human parents do. Sacrifice, knowledge and belief do not require building anything or making anything lasting. Again, Zod is a stronger villain than he appears at times. Recreating Krypton is creating an incredible empire that provides goods for many, if not all who are worthy. Earth doesn’t seem to be doing much except indulging in the same excess and decay Krypton did, with less to show.
The ideal of Superman of which Jor-El speaks is to make the right choice at the right time, to stand for something but not be told what to do. Hiding his power results in an untrained fighter who does not know his own strengths. His lack of focus makes him hesitant and unable to act swiftly enough to save everyone or combat with restraint. He has anger issues and the Boy Scout ethos is so, so necessary. Without it, he can easily be a deranged loner. But in truth, he is the Codex, the wisdom of Krypton preserved. Krypton failed to preserve itself because it lacked the courage to face up to difficult choices. But Jor-El put Krypton in Clark Kent’s very DNA to give the whole society no less than a second chance, if Clark Kent decides the time is right. He sent Kal-El to Earth, where numerous other people consistently do the same thing Jor-El did. Whether we’re talking about Jonathan Kent in a tornado, Lois Lane willingly getting on board a spaceship, Coast Guard rescuers landing on top of a burning oil rig, an Air Force colonel and a scientist on a suicide mission, a newspaper editor trying to free one of his employees while a city crumbles – you get the idea. The real beauty of Superman is how what is most alien is something within.