Superman: Not Just a Man, but a Just Man
Note: This article contains references to events in the movie Man of Steel that could be construed as spoilers.
It is no state secret at this point that Warner Brothers rather cannily marketed Man of Steel to Christians, playing on the obvious and intentional parallels between Superman and Jesus the incarnate Son of God. Our own Derek Rishmawy has done solid work in untangling these parallels and parsing out the values and pratfalls of viewing Superman Christologically. But there is another compelling philosophical strand that Christians might note in Man of Steel: As brought to life by director Zack Snyder and writers Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, the movie interacts heavily with the philosophy of Plato, especially as articulated in his classic work The Republic.
The Republic is arguably Plato’s most famous and influential dialogue, a discussion about the nature of justice and its concrete depiction in an ideal society. If it seems far-fetched to contend that seemingly populist fare like Man of Steel would enter into the domain of classical Greek philosophy, consider that Nolan and Goyer were also responsible for the recent Batman trilogy, which deliberately raised philosophical issues of its own. And, indeed, in one scene of Man of Steel, a teenage Clark Kent can even be seen reading from Plato — clear evidence that Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer are inviting viewers to interpret Man of Steel in Platonic terms.
Initially, however, the movie might seem like a repudiation of Platonic philosophy. Its early scenes present the planet Krypton as a society clearly modeled on The Republic‘s principles. Each individual performs a specific function that they were genetically programmed for. This mirrors Plato’s assertion that in the ideal polis, each person should have a specific role that he or she develops or hones as thoroughly as possible. The republic’s protection is left in the hands of Auxiliaries and Guardians: the former (e.g., military, police) are charged with the republic’s physical protection while the latter form an elite group of philosopher-rulers responsible for governance. Man of Steel’s vision of Krypton displays just such a division of leadership, and we learn that this system has allowed the world to flourish and expand for centuries.
Yet when the movie begins, all is not well in the Kryptonian republic. There is conflict between the Auxiliaries and the Guardians, prompting military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) to lead his forces in a revolt against the Guardian class, whom he considers weak and decadent. Meanwhile, Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) have rebelled against their world’s genetically engineered social stratification by giving birth to a son biologically. This son, Kal-El, will grow up to be Superman (Henry Cavill), and the film emphasizes his freedom to chart his own destiny, as opposed to a prearranged role in society. Of course, once he gets to earth, young Kal-El’s abilities will make him the ultimate polymath, for whom Platonic specialization is utterly irrelevant.
It is arguably Zod who represents the most substantial rebuttal to Plato’s Republic; his character is a nightmare vision of the polis’ governing structure gone haywire. As a member of the Kryptonian military, Zod is tasked with protecting and preserving his homeworld and his people, as any Platonic Auxiliary would be expected to do. The movie hammers home again and again that Zod feels he has no purpose apart from his people’s preservation. It is precisely this specialization that animates his monomaniacal quest to do anything — kill the council, betray Jor-El, destroy Earth — in order to see his people survive. In his final battle, when his mission has been thwarted, Zod excoriates Superman for making his life meaningless: he has nothing left to guard.
Despite these obvious contradictions to Plato’s political philosophy, however, Man of Steel is not entirely critical of The Republic. In certain ways, Superman’s character forms an embodiment of its principles. For in The Republic, before Socrates and his interlocutors even begin discussing the ideal society, they start with more foundational questions: What is justice, and why should anyone choose justice over injustice? The discussion leads one dialogue partner, Glaucon, to give his renowned “Ring of Gyges” example: suppose a man could become invisible, i.e. could do whatever he chose without fear of external consequence. What would motivate such a person to act justly? In presenting his hypothetical “just man,” Glaucon insists:
We must, indeed, not allow him to seem good, for if he does he will have all the rewards and honours paid to the man who has a reputation for justice, and we shall not be able to tell whether his motive is love of justice or love of the rewards and honours. No, we must strip him of everything except his justice, and our picture of him must be drawn in a way diametrically opposite to that of the unjust man. Our just man must have the worst of reputations for wrongdoing even though he has done no wrong, so that we can test his justice and see if it weakens in the face of unpopularity and all that goes with it… (Translated by Desmond Lee).
Snyder’s Superman in Man of Steel is Plato’s just man. On the one hand, he has all the power of Gyges, the ability in the human realm to do whatever he chooses without consequences. In other words, only his own character can prevent him from acting unjustly. And for much of the movie, he is regarded by virtually everyone with suspicion rather than adulation. His youthful acts of heroism make him appear a freak rather than a protector. In the scene where he is shown reading Plato, he is tormented by bullies but refuses to retaliate, even though his strength is sufficient to decimate them. The culmination of this dishonor comes when General Zod arrives at Earth and demands an audience with Superman. At this point, Superman voluntarily turns himself in, allowing himself to be taken away in handcuffs by the American military. He chooses the just course of action despite skepticism from humanity and disgust from Kryptonians, and even though he retains the power to refuse.
All told, then, Man of Steel would appear to reject Plato’s overarching picture of the ideal society by depicting it as the dying civilization of Krypton, while at the same time affirming Plato’s vision of what justice looks like when manifested on the individual level. Thus, whether or not Christians feel comfortable thinking of Superman as a Christ-figure, we can at least be safe in understanding him as an idealized portrayal of the just man. In that way, perhaps, we can consider him an ideal to strive for without some of the baggage of identifying him too closely with our eternal Savior.
Awesome reading of this text, Geoffrey! Thanks for doing this–now, I don’t have to!
I am a Platonist philosopher and I have read a few of these Supermen articles in the religious press and this is the best so far – thanks! Geoffrey Reiter, one of the things Plato says is that there will never be peace and happiness on planet earth until the wise rule. The story of Gyges is interesting because he tried to bring that about by sleeping with the Queen rather than going to the King to lecture. Imagine the King vs Queen as Guardians vs Auxilaries or Unicorn vs Lion or Philosophy vs Religion. The guru must appeal to the King directly as Confucius did, he must not go to the Auxilaries – Priests who specialise in preservation of the values system rather than examination of the nature of being, and forment popular revolution. So the Gynes story is about minding your own business, about a wise man lecturing the elite Socrates style not giving Sermons on the Mount Jesus style. Think about the stories in the Old Testament about the abuse of Kingly Power that rampages like a lion yearning apart the world killing men. Anyhow Geoffrey, you seem to me like a very smart guy who is doing a great job, I wished I lived in Florida so I could share a coffe with you and talk about that book.
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