In Man of Steel, Zack Snyder imagines Krypton as a realization of the kind of society that Plato describes in The Republic. Ruled by a council of elders, the people of Krypton are divided into discrete classes according to their function (i.e., soldier, scientist, etc.); reproduction is regulated by the government of Krypton; and people are genetically designed to “naturally” fit a particular role in society. Like Plato’s ideal state, the civilization of Krypton is ordered, stratified, and totalitarian: there seems to be no area of life where the purview of the State does not reach.

The conflict between Superman’s father, Jor-El, and General Zod ultimately comes down to a dispute about how to best order a society. Jor-El hopes for a society in which the individual is free to pursue his or her interests and calling (“What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended?  What if a child aspired to something greater?”), a society in which individuals determine their own destinies.

Zod, on the other hand, wants to rebuild Krypton—a better Krypton, free of the “degenerate bloodlines” that led it to destruction, but no less stratified, ordered, and totalitarian.

Just in case anyone misses the fact that Krypton so closely resembles Plato’s perfect society, Snyder drops a hint for us in the scene at the Kent farm where some bullies try to get Clark to fight them. When the group shows up, Clark is sitting alone and reading—you guessed it—Plato’s Republic.

But there is another way in which The Republic can help us make sense of Man of Steel (and even of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) that might not be as obvious. In Book II, Plato says that a truly just man is bound to be misunderstood and finally killed in this world: he “will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified” (in some translations, the word is “impaled”).

This, it seems to me, has been the major theme of Man of Steel and BvS: how the world would really treat a Superman—not just because of his power or his origin, but because of his goodness. As Clark tells Lois Lane, “My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me out of fear. . . I let my father die because I trusted him. Because he was convinced that I had to wait. That the world was not ready. What do you think?” And as Perry White says, “Can you imagine how people on this planet would react if they knew there was someone like this out there?” Well, Plato answered that question for us 2,400 years ago.

There are lots of people out there who have provided reasoned critiques of Snyder’s vision for Superman and the DC Universe. Plenty of people have understandably complained that the Superman we meet in Man of Steel and BvS is missing something essential: his optimism. But as I have argued before, these critiques miss the point. It isn’t really Superman who’s different; it’s the world. For all its faults (and there are many), Plato’s Republic gets at least one thing right: this world has little use for a good man like Kal-El of Krypton.

I have only anecdotal evidence to back this up, but I believe that Plato’s theory has proven true of Superman not only in the universe of Zack Snyder’s movies, but also in real-world fan reaction to Superman. Browse internet discussions of Man of Steel and BvS, and you’ll run into a lot of hatred not just for the films, but for the character of Superman himself. For example, I once heard him characterized as an “over-powered space Jesus” by a fan who professed to prefer Batman because he’s “flawed.” This guy’s attitude seems to typify what a lot of people think about Superman. He’s too good.

Whatever the reason, we can’t seem to tolerate too much goodness in our fictional characters. (And if our current socio-political environment is any indication, we can’t tolerate too much goodness in real life, either.)

Advertisements