Thoughts on ‘Man of Steel’… Redemption for Kansas?
For weeks I had resigned to skipping over this Superman film… it’s a character I really do like and didn’t want to be disappointed like I was in 06 with the Brandon Routh incarnation. What I was worried about primarily, however, wasn’t just a bad script or stale acting, but a sinister dose of Christopher Nolan ideology like we got in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises, wherein the message was crudely that the people cannot be trusted with power should they wrest it from the hands of the powerful.
So many thoughtful posts have already been written on this film, and for good reason. To put my cards on the table here at the start, I loved the film. I thought it was conceptually rich, intelligent, and actually quite ambiguous. I especially appreciated the articulation of the “death of god” theme one could read in the film by Kester Brewin , and Joshua’s Ramey’s post on how to “read Krypton for capital,” wherein Ramey gives a reading revolving around the rejection of biopower and salvation via otherness.
In regard to my ideological concern pertaining to Nolan’s involvement, I expected that this might be yet another love letter to conservatives, this time not on the finance/political front but on the religious front (not that the two are separate). In was widely reported that Warner Bros. was aggressively marketing this new Superman film to Christian pastors, expecting them to preach sermons to their congregations around the obvious analogy between Superman and Christ. Suggested sermon notes include ““How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?” In itself this is an absurdly plain way in which corporations reach into churches to profit off of religious faith and interpellate the masses, but that’s another matter. Turning Kal-El into Jesus is problematic for anyone familiar with the character’s history, and now having seen the film, I don’t actually think that’s what they’ve done. If that is the analogy Christians want to make, I think this Superman might be a bit more subversive than anyone at FoxNews or Saddleback Church realizes (heck, Kal-El contains billions of potential lives in his cells and he won’t let them be born! That’s genocide in Texas!)
The moment I first got really excited in the film was when we see a flashback in which middle-school aged Clark stowed away in his dad’s pick up truck reading Plato’s Republic. I think this represents a critical juncture for Clark early on where he faces an inevitable choice that he finds elucidated for him in Plato. Will he be a fascist king, set to remake Earth more like Krypton, or does he see in Republic either a veiled warning against fascism in favor of something more like radical democracy or communism (as Alain Badiou argues), or at the very least is he repulsed by the kind of society in Socrates’ thought experiment? The funny thing is, before he learns anything about his past or Krypton, he knows something about it through his engagement with Plato. Krypton is in fact, more or less, the city Clark reads about as a young teenager. One stunningly open analogy is that Zod is a guardian. Zod declares once, if not twice, that he was bred to ensure the well being and survival of Krypton. Plato describes guardians as those who must employ techne to “construct” and acieve solutions of problems toward already structured sets of ends. This is precisely Zod. Krypton’s means are hardly anything but structured, its registry of future citizens is set for generations to come, and Zod is a kind of calculated pragmatist, he has found a suitable planet to terraform with his “world engine” and he has the skill and know how to use the tools and resources at his disposal to realize his “structured ends,” i.e. a repetition of Kryptonian society.
But this is where the juxtaposition of scenes in Man of Steel is key. Directly after the Plato flashback, we see Clark in a church speaking to a baffled priest, asking this religious leader for advice even though Clark has already thought that his very existence throws into serious question the existence of God at all. After Clark decides the priest has nothing to offer someone like him, the priest hits a buzzer beater of sorts by calling to Clark that what he must do is take a ‘leap of faith.’ Alright, so this sounds a bit trite, and there might be conservative overtones, we all know how these kinds of ‘leaps’ can be invoked to justify all sorts of horrible decisions. Nonetheless, in this context, the Kierkegaard reference comes directly after the deliberate invocation of Plato. Represented in Plato we have Krypton, and ordered, structured society of concrete ends. One might even speculate that Krypton is something like an “Accelerationist” society, expecially in regard to the removal of the contingency of human births, and we can surmise in other respects as well. As Joshua Ramey points out in his other post, contra accelerationism, invoking the work of Nagarestani:
Nagarestani…seems to realize that maturity and “Enlightenment” are not to be found in systems of total control and the sadistic- violent imposition of epistemic norms, upon fields of probability (i.e. “compression”). The future we want is not one of increasing control over chance, change, and contingency. What is needed, rather, is an entirely different relationship to contingency, and to chance, as such, one that is neither marked by fear and self-deception (neoliberalism) nor fascinated by dreams of total control, dominance, and escape from the peculiarities of flesh, blood, and earth (facile accelerationism)
It’s not perfect, but I read this ‘leap’ that the priest councils Clark to take has something to do with this, an embrace of contingency that Clark inherently (perhaps as Kryptonian) does not trust. Ramey concludes (and I realize the context of this might not be clear for those unfamiliar with accelerationism and the full text of Ramey’s post) that “The desire for total control is a desire for death.” Quite literally, Krypton, a society of biopower and control, willfully committed suicide… the council knew that mining their core would collapse the planet and somehow they did it anyway. This ‘leap’ that Clark ends up taking, if anything (and I think many reviewers misread this in asking why a stoic Clark even care about humanity) is an embrace of contingency, a choice on behalf of life against biopower, control, and death. This might not even be a particularly human choice, it may well be a decision against Krypton, which Clark sums up as “having had its chance.” When Zod appears, even though Clark has only just recently uncovered limited information about his past, he knows Zod. Zod is a guardian. Humanity may not be trustworthy, as Clark notes, but it has already shown him Zod. The temptation that Zod presents to Clark, a repopulated home world ruled the Kryptonian way is not a new thought for Clark, he has been contemplating this temptation since at least 6th grade, and this is why such a seemingly tantalizing proposition is never really an option for the mature Clark we see on Zod’s ship.
So there’s all that. Others have worried about the pseudo-patriotism or Americanism of the film… is there “truth, justice, and the American way” presented here? Here is where I also think the film is interesting. When a US general asks Clark for an assurance of his loyalty, i.e. why would the military take a ‘leap’ and trust Superman (not that it matters…), Clark has a great response: “General, I’m from Kansas. That’s as American as it gets.” In the classroom scene where Clark is struggling to control his powers as a young child, the lesson happens to be about the founding of Kansas as a territory. This, of course, is the same period as “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown, the great militant abolitionist. As Thomas Franke chronicles in his important book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Kansas is a very strange place. It began as the seat of political radicalism in the US, but now has become the land where Conservatives consistently vote against their own social and economic interests because certain issues such as abortion and gay marriage are considered more important than their education and economic well being, for example. I hardly think it’s a stretch to say that Clark actually does take being from Kansas quite seriously and proudly and is acutely aware of its political history. Because the only thing uniquely “Kansas” we are shown in the film is a lesson plan dealing with Kansas’ radical history, the invocation of his Kansasian roots may well be Clark’s subtle signal that while he is as “American as it gets” his idea of America is not quite what many might expect it to be. At the very least there is a very interesting ambiguity here that I hope is developed as the series develops. Kal-El was meant to be something for humanity to be inspired by, to achieve a greatness Krypton could not (also not in line with conservative Christ, who is a blood sacrifice who imparts righteousness to the believer justified by faith, not a moral influencer a la the liberal theological tradition). Based on the hint we’ve been provided and the actions Clark has taken so far, I hope that what we end up with isn’t another Dark Knight Rises scenario, but actually worth aspiring to… The film closes with Superman bringing down a lethal government drone and basically spiking it in the face of one of the generals (“That was a 12 million dollar piece of equipment!”). So far, Superman is relevant and is indeed a lead to follow. Superman isn’t about Superman, it’s about what Superman can inspire us to do on own own, and we see human agency portrayed very prominently in this film. It might be a bit cheesy (Superman always is) but we could use a superhero who swats murder robots from the sky and reads up on John Brown and Plato. It’s the principle of the thing.
Also, come on. Those action sequences were killer.