Superman and Moral Pedagogy
  • Friday, November 1, 2013

Review by Benjamin M. Guyer

Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel was the runaway hit of the summer. Rumored to have made $600 million from tie-ins before it was even released, Man of Steel has since grossed more than $650 million at the box office. Happily, the film’s plot is woven with more than just action, and it is held together by more than just special effects. Several of its narrative threads invite further consideration, making Man of Steel an excellent set piece for discussions in church, in youth groups, and between parents and children.

In many ways, the film follows the traditional Superman mythology. The baby Kal-El is sent to Earth by his parents, Jor-El and Lara, in order to survive the destruction of Krypton, their doomed home world. Once on Earth, Kal-El is found and raised as Clark Kent by his two adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha. Throughout his youth, however, Clark Kent is isolated; bullied in school, his developing powers leave him with little sense of belonging. Only with the discovery of an immense spacecraft does he learn who he is and where he is from. It is precisely here that the story becomes far more than just another summer comic-book adaptation.

Through the twin themes of environmental stewardship and human reproduction, Man of Steel raises substantive questions concerning how humanity approaches nature — and thus, how humanity approaches itself. Krypton is shown as technologically advanced but environmentally destructive. Natural resources are carelessly depleted, above all through harvesting the core of the planet (for energy, presumably).

In Man of Steel, however, the problem of environmental depredation is actually rooted in a seemingly unrelated topic: artificial population control. On Krypton, every artificial birth existed for a calculated reason, and every citizen was designed to fulfill a particular role. Jor-El and Lara chose to reject this way of life by having a child naturally — which, by this time, had become a crime in Kryptonian society.

What happens when we strip reproduction of its majesty and mystery? When we see reproduction as a merely biological event, do we begin to treat it as a process that can be easily mechanized and thus mastered? Man of Steel highlights a perverse irony. The transcendent element of reproduction — for example, free will, or the moral value of the soul — is precisely what keeps reproduction rooted in nature and thus natural. The moment we lose this, reproduction becomes something that can be monitored by machines, with neither human care nor concern. Through artificial reproduction, the core of Kryptonian civilization became like the core of the planet, collapsing in on itself until civilization becomes barbaric.

Man of Steel is a great film. It creatively reimagines various elements of the Superman legacy while also presenting a story that engages the human experience. Clark Kent is an isolated outsider, and Snyder uses this to hold up a mirror to select facets of our culture, questioning us in the process. There is plenty of action and a plethora of special effects, but beneath its surface are themes that proactive pastors and parents can use for thought-provoking and even inspiring ends.

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul encouraged his readers to meditate upon whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (4:8). The heroic is among these.

Benjamin M. Guyer is a doctoral student in British history at the University of Kansas. He is editor most recently of Pro Communione: Theological Essays on the Anglican Covenant (Pickwick, 2012).

Superman and Pedagogy


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