In a fairly straightforward sense, ‘Man of Steel’ is a cinematic depiction and defense of popular American liberalism’s best wishes for itself. Toward the end of the film, the victorious Superman tells the archetypal U.S. general, “I’m about as American as it gets. I’m here to help.” Before this we find out that Superman – or really Hopeman – was given a natural birth of undetermined freedom, was raised with identity issues and self-doubt, took 33 years to adapt to the conditions of earth, and has a record of self-endangering – at least self-exposing – acts of empathetic human-saving.
By contrast, the villains from Krypton are embodiments of the intolerance and brutality of the master race from elsewhere hell-bent on saving itself by absorbing and sucking the life out of earth and Superman himself. In the opening legend, we’re told that Krypton’s ancestors “reshaped the environment,” “artificially controlled the population,” “lost resources,” and engineered “every child for predetermined roles.” The bad guys have no time for “debate,” for “co-existence,” for “sharing” – they are bio-technological fundamentalists, galactic genocidists.
Superman is the opposite. In a surprising turn of villain-vs-hero dialogue, the film seems to take a rip at evolution, having the nemesis say, “The fact that you [Superman] possess a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage. If history has proven anything, it’s that evolution always wins.” Superman is the man with a sense of morality, the man who will choose and not be determined – the free man, un-engineered, open to his destiny. Of course, part of the irony is that we never see this ‘moral man’ really question what is right or wrong or how he could tell the difference in the midst of crisis. Given the prospect of resurrecting his own people by assimilating earth, he simply replies, “Krypton had its chance” – a reply that we the viewers like, of course, because we are humans and not Kryptonians. Too bad for them (?).
And so the ‘Man of Steel’ is the essential liberal but with no radical doubts or real debate. Yes, we see him get called “dumb ass” and “freak,” and he’s perpetually warmed and worried about fitting in. But he never seems to seriously question whether he’s doing the right thing. He just knows, just does – and looks good. In the single quasi-religious scene in the film, the collared priest says to Superman, “What does your gut tell you?” and then challenges him to take a “leap of faith,” after which Superman “surrenders to humanity.” In the end, ‘Man of Steel’ never gets into any substantial questions about the nature of good and evil, or the challenges of ambiguity and tragic choices like Nolan’s recent Batman trilogy did.
To be sure, there’s a cascade of impressive special effects to wow and woo the audience into spectating and cheering for the good guys (i.e., Americans) and their savior – endless gun shooting and rocket launching despite their total uselessness against the alien enemy. But the film comes off as superficial like much American popular self-idealism does to various parts of the world – full of force for abstractions like “equality,” “altruism,” and even “human rights,” but seemingly unable (or unwilling or uninterested) to defend why these “values” aren’t just another imposition rather than “obvious,” assumable, (and tipped in our favor through our preferred definitions).
In the end, interestingly – disturbingly? – we leave the theater without a second thought for Krypton and its people, having seen our undentable ideal fly around and save New York-cum-world.