Imagine that you’re a neurosurgeon. You knew that this is what you wanted to do with your life since you were 14 years old.
You’ve undergone more than eight years of intensive medical training and residency and have developed some very rare skills — you can cut into a person’s skull and conduct extremely precise and complex surgery on the brain, using the latest imaging and surgical tools, saving a few dozen lives a year.
You love what you do — you love conducting surgeries, publishing research articles, and helping your patients.
Now imagine that one day you wake up and have superhuman strength. Also, you can fly. How would this impact your life? How would it impact what you are able to do in the operating room?
It would have virtually no impact. Since you love being a neurosurgeon, you would continue to be a neurosurgeon. And super strength or flying ability won’t help you at all in the operating room.
In Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) is sent to Earth as an infant. His parents send him so that he can escape the death of his home planet, Krypton. For some reason, this civilization that has traversed space for centuries can only launch one baby into space — the rest of the population is mysteriously unable to get off the planet.
What’s more interesting is why he was sent to earth. His father (Russell Crowe) declares, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards ... In time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” This premise is consistent with past Superman films — the people of Earth need to be saved or transformed.
Assuming we actually needed to be saved, the above mission sounds like that of a great thinker, perhaps a philosopher, scientist, or Steve Jobs. Superman is none of those things – he’s strong, and he can fly. How would a strong flying man give us an ideal to strive towards? What does Superman do that we should or could emulate?
Well, Superman is essentially a cop and fireman. He confronts bad guys and overpowers them, or rescues people from drowning. In the film, he gets in a lot of knock-down, drag-out slugfests with General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his crew — Kryptonian criminals who escaped their sentence and arrive on Earth when Superman is a young man.
It bears repeating that Superman is a cop. And a good Samaritan. That’s all he is. He is not a better person than your average good cop or rescue worker. He doesn’t embody any sort of moral ideal that many millions of humans don’t already embody. You very likely know several people who are at least as noble as Superman, perhaps even yourself.
On further consideration, Superman is less of a hero than your average cop or fireman. Superman is generally invulnerable. He can’t get hurt. He can’t die. He takes no risks when he saves people. Even when facing his own kind — like Zod — he is much less vulnerable than a cop responding to a shooting.
So Superman is a really strong guy who flies around saving people from fires, drowning, and traffic accidents with no risk of harm to himself. An ideal to strive towards? In the NFL, coaches have a term for players who are pretty average, just serviceable enough to plug into a game when a starter gets injured: JAG. Just A Guy. Morally and philosophically, Superman is just a guy.
And he’s a very destructive guy. In at least one scene, he wantonly destroys people’s property when he clearly doesn’t need to. He’s wrapped up with Zod outside of Smallville, with wide-open fields all around — so he chooses to specifically fly Zod through Smallville, destroying several buildings. It’s as though he has no intuitive understanding that a person’s car or house or business is very important to that person’s life and goals, and that destroying those things severely harms their owners.
In one scene, Superman’s wanton destruction almost certainly kills innocent people — assuming that buildings generally have people in them. Granted, these scenes are probably thoughtless artifacts of special-effects-driven moviemaking, but we probably shouldn’t become desensitized to scenes where our heroes must certainly be killing innocent people (e.g. see The Hulk).
Superman’s morality is simple-minded altruism — go fly around and find people who are in trouble and use super-strength to save them. As such, it’s a very reactive, second-handed morality. Superman doesn’t create anything. He doesn’t introduce new ideas or inventions that will change the world. He just reacts, on a merely physical level, to happenstance. He’s earth’s Whac-A-Mole.
What do we need him for? If we thought deeply about the vexing problems facing the world, and we converged on possible solutions, would we conclude: “You know, we could really fix this mess if we just had one super strong dude who could fly. In a cape.”?
This point exposes the pointlessness of action heroes. Muscles don’t change the world. The earth is not suffering from the lack of a Supercop. To change the world, Superman would need Super Brains — which would make his physical strength superfluous.
Ideas change the world. If you had a son, would you want him to be super strong or super smart? Would you want him to be a flying Band-Aid, constantly at the mercy of random events and tragedies, or would you want him to have a life of his own?
To be fair, my critique shouldn’t single out Man of Steel — it’s no worse than the rest of the Superman franchise. Kevin Costner does a fine job of playing Superman’s earth-father, a tender man who embodies what small-town Americans like me mean when we say someone is “good people.”
I can’t fault Henry Cavill’s performance. I mean, he was given the job of playing a flying hunk — what do you want from the man? Superman has never been a complex character. Cavill’s acting ability will be tested in other future roles.
Michael Shannon adeptly portrays the evil archvillain, but his motives are strange — slaughter all of us and give birth to a new Krypton. You would think he would pay attention to the exoplanet research — the sky of is full of stars with potentially habitable planets.
And the fact that Kryponians are evidently homo sapiens is one of those 1930s comic cobwebs, but it’s hard to buy into a universe where Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin don’t exist, and first contact with alien life seems to have the same news impact as a terrorist bombing.
Ultimately, Superman is pointless because we don’t need to be saved by action heroes. We are surrounded by real heroes — entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, cops, your neighbors, your kids. And we can already fly — look up.