Friday, July 12, 2013

Man of Steel and the Killing/Letting Die Distinction

      I have no idea where I found this, but
      thank you, whoever you are...
My favorite of
said chachkies
I am a huge Superman fan.  There are certainly bigger fans—I doubt I'd win a Supe off—but as a professor I have a duty to put a lot of chachkies on my desk, and almost all of mine are Superman-related.  This alone should justify, if not make necessary, this belated (and thus spoiler-heavy) review of Man of Steel (hereafter MoS).

Why Superman?  

Superman is the creation of Joe Siegel and Joel Shuster, two WWII refugees who turned their experiences of war and immigration into the creation known as Kal-El.  Spiderman might be a nerd-hero, Batman might be a neurosis-hero, but Superman is a Nietzsche-hero.

Though Superman is not in fact a direct descendent of Nietzsche's Übermensch, the two do share an existence that is epitomizes the transcendence of values (this will be more important when discussing a key scene in MoS shortly).  "Good" and "Evil"—creations of the human need to differentiate and denigrate—simply have no meaning for someone with the power to kill any enemy (this will also be important soon) or destroy the entire planet at any time.  To not only work at The Daily Planet, but to try to have an on-again/off-again relationship with Lois Lane, requires a constant awareness of one's powers, to constantly maintain oneself within self-imposed limits (self-imposed because of course there's no one else that could require he do otherwise).  Superman is thus the only superhero who exemplifies the Sartrean equation "freedom = responsibility."

Why not Man of Steel?

Even the poster hints at the
destruction of the legend...

I had high hopes for MoS.  Perhaps the height of these hopes was part of the problem, but I also had extremely high hopes for Superman Returns and I was actually one of the few people who was not disappointed by that version of Superman (the AVClub did a great job of reminding us of how good that movie actually was).  Now I should admit that I had had a bad day the day MoS was released, and so I also inflated my hopes by expecting it to turn my day around, but that's not all that unique either.

MoS started strong.  The key to any superhero movie, but a Superman movie first and foremost, is that it be awe-inspiring.  A comic book nerd watching a superhero movie should be like an art nerd watching Marina Abramovic stare at people.  Focusing on Krypton, having Russell Crowe do a Martin Brando impression, was a good way to start.  But when Crowe pulled an Avatar/Lord of the Rings and called for his trusty dinosaur companion to fly him to safety from Zod's minions, that was when I started to fear that Zack Snyder didn't think Superman was interesting enough to carry MoS.  This fear would not only be fully realized, but would be the ultimate undoing of MoS.

That all of the best Supe scenes were revealed in trailers and commercials (shirtless Supe on fire, Supe growing up in a Terrance Malick movie, Supe fist-flying) should have also been a sign that Henry Cavill was not the center of this movie, but Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner were.  Crowe turns Jor-El from super-scientist to bad-ass while Costner turns Jonathan Kent from dad-of-the-century to paranoiac-from-Hell.  It's one thing for Crowe vs. Zod to be made into an important plot point, and indeed their tete-a-tete is much more interesting than Superman vs. Zod (again, this shouldn't be the case in a Superman movie).  But Jonathan Kent should NOT, under any circumstances, tell his young son to watch him die in order to protect his secret.  Jonathan Kent is meant to be the voice of reason, the voice that, more than Jor-El, guides Clark Kent to become Superman, to become the superhero that all other superheroes look up to.  Jonathan Kent is NOT meant to scare Clark Kent so shitless that he flees his fate and passionlessly walks through scenes from Superman II (1980).  Moreover, the scene is idiotic.  Why would Clark agree to let his dad go back for the dog?  Why would Jonathan or Clark think that the people around them would ignore the tornado bearing down on them and focus on someone running—at a literally blinding speed—to save a dog?  This scene makes no sense other than to try to make Superman as dark as Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight.  Though of course, as I mentioned at the outset, Superman is always already dark.  He has to constantly, unendingly deal with his superpowers to prevent them from destroying the planet, something that he must also often experience as a temptation, a temptation that must drive him mad (as countless comics and cartoons have explored, but not yet 1 movie).  

This is what should have been explored in the all-unimportant scene of Clark Kent revealing himself to a priest in a church after Zod issues to Earth his alien-or-them ultimatum (on a positive note, the ultimatum scene was probably the best touch, as it reminded the viewer for the one and only time that the existence of an alien, let alone Superman, is important beyond the US).  For a priest to be told that aliens are among us, by that very alien, should be life-shattering, existentially-transformative news.  Instead this scene is pointlessly inserted solely to allow Snyder to smack the audience in the face with the Superman-as-Jesus allegory (by the way, did I mention that Superman was created by Jewish immigrants?) by framing Clark's head with Jesus's stained-glass window.  The priest should not have given Clark some throwaway, sort of meaningful priest-sounding line.  The priest should have been railing at the heavens, preparing for Armageddon, praying to Clark, anything that would have shown the stakes of what this scene SHOULD HAVE MEANT.  Nietzsche had more of an impact on religion than Superman walking into a church.  Ridiculous.

Killing vs. Letting Die

Last, but least, the ending.  Superman kills Zod.  The fight scenes leading up to it?  Superman and Zod just leveled Metropolis.  Thousands must have been killed by both of them.  Max Landis has already done a great job of going over the idea of what this should have meant to Superman, first and foremost that Superman should have killed Zod immediately rather than destroy the lives of so many to try to out-punch him.  I think Landis is onto something important about Superman's responsibility to kill, to sacrifice his values to save others.  I do not want to retread Landis's insights however, so instead I'll focus on something else that has been left out here.  For Superman to kill, and for this to be honored with nothing other than a scream, a sob, and then a drone joke, is despicable, and I don't mean just cinematically.  Superman's daily existence, as I've said now a couple of times, is premised on keeping himself in check, in not giving in to the ability to immediately end any fight with enemies by simply burning them alive.  To give in, to kill, should be what drives Superman to try to spin the Earth on its axis, to undo not only what he has done but time itself.

That none of this happened suggests that, contrary to biomedical ethics, we have reached a moment in history where killing and "letting die" are on equal footing.  Traditionally, letting die has been seen as ethically superior to killing on par with a lie of omission ("I was out") being seen as superior to a lie of commission ("I was saving orphans").  To try to show the irrationality of this position, James Rachels, in an essay entitled "Active and Passive Euthanasia", compared a vengeful heir-to-be letting a child heir found drowning in a bathroom tub die to this vengeful heir-to-be killing the child by drowning him.  The take away from this article is meant to be that it is not the method of death that should matter, but rather the intention that led to the death.

What I find more important to take away from this article however, and what connects it to MoS, is the idea that, as Rachels quotes from Dr. Anthony Shaw, it is harder on the medical staff to euthanize a child than it is on the parents of the euthanized child.  Relatedly, later in the article Rachels points out that whereas "letting die" is often presented in the news as an "angel of mercy" case, you don't hear about killing in the news outside of a murder case.  The killing/letting die distinction then is not about what is rational, but rather why we maintain an irrational distinction in the first place.  The answer is that this distinction is necessary to protect the identity of the doctor as a doctor and not as a murderer.  Dr. Kevorkian being known as "Dr. Death" is an ever-present reminder to doctors about what could happen if they are seen as killing a patient rather than letting a patient die, much as the My Lai massacre reminds soldiers about what could happen if they are seen as "baby killers" rather than veterans.

Superman has, in killing Zod, become a killer.  His identity has changed.  That Lois Lane knows what he did before he becomes Daily Planet-Clark Kent serves to instill in us the idea that Superman will now be forever known as a killer.  This is not troubling for Superman or for Lois Lane.  Killing is existential more than ethical, and yet MoS doesn't even give it the ethical weight it deserves (this lack is likewise found in the supposed discussions of killing found in "trolley car problems").  The answer that Clark Kent had not yet truly become Superman cannot serve as an answer to this problem, for in making Clark Kent a killer means that he will never truly become Superman.  Superman is the embodiment of the existential concern with the power to kill, Zack Snyder's "Superman" barely has the weight to be concerned with anything beyond franchise-building and marketing tie-ins (IHOP!).  If this is, as Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight aptly put it, the "hero we deserve," then we should all be very worried about what we do (and do not) embody as well.

Now go watch the real Superman...

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