It’s been a while since Americans have seen Superman on screen representing America. When Superman Returns came out in 2006, it eschewed the Man of Steel’s all-American background, instead choosing to cast him as an international good guy. The creators of the film even changed his iconic line, “Truth, justice, and the American way,” to the far more cynical line snorted by newsman Perry White: “Truth, justice, and all that stuff.” Superman went 1960s in his morality, fathering a child out of wedlock, then ditching the kid with mom Lois Lane.
Not this time.
Man of Steel is an all-American reboot, featuring a true philosophical understanding of what it means to be a patriot. Superman is, of course, an alien from another planet. But through his experiences on doomed Krypton and his upbringing in rural Kansas, he understands what it means to represent the flag.
The movie begins on Krypton, where a battle ensues as the planet dies. The people of Krypton, it turns out, began on another planet, and explored the universe. They settled on Krypton and lived there for tens of thousands of years. But then their exploratory energy failed. Fearful of overpopulating their planet, they instituted population control measures. That, in turn, necessitated the outright banning of natural birth – all children on Krypton were created in artificial settings, and genetically pre-programmed to occupy certain stations. Eventually, even these measures could not save the planet from exploitation, and the collapse of Krypton began.
Enter General Zod. Zod has all the right intentions – he wants to save his people. But the council, which has become tired and old, refuses to recognize the danger of the planetary collapse. So Zod launches a military coup, with the intent of laying his hands on a fossil – the codex — which somehow encodes the possible genetics of all possible living future people of Krypton. He will then flee the planet and set up shop elsewhere.
But, being a creature of the strictly-regimented, fascistic Krypton society, Zod wants to imitate their ways. He wants to preserve the population and control those who live and those who die. He wants to better the race. He is a sort of science fiction Hitler.
He is opposed in this quest by Jor-El. Jor-El was a onetime ally, a man who wanted to save the people of Krypton by convincing the council to flee the planet. But he broke with Zod over Zod’s insistence on the preservation of only the “pure” bloodlines. Instead, he stakes the future of the people of Krypton on his son – natural born, infused with free will, and handed the codex. His son, Kal-El, will create a new world – but he will do so by working with the people of Earth, who Jor-El later assures Kal-El, have the capacity for great good.
Jor-El is the real hero of Man of Steel. He believes in the people of Earth, not blindly, but realistically. He is not a fan of regimentation, but freedom. And he knows that energetic pursuit of exploration and constant self-betterment is the recipe for a successful individual, as well as a successful civilization.
That’s all before Kal-El heads to Earth. Once he gets there, he spends time acclimating to American values by growing up with Jonathan and Martha Kent. Jonathan wants to protect Clark (Kal-El) from the world, but explains to him that he has been put on Earth for a reason – to do good. And Martha has faith that Clark will find his way.
Eventually, Clark has to choose between his people – Zod, who reinvades Earth – and the Americanism of his father. He makes that choice unabashedly. Late in the film, he explains that he can’t get much more American – after all, he grew up in Kansas. And that’s right. He can’t. Despite his unique abilities, Superman is an all-American immigrant, prepared to strengthen himself and the world around him, fighting on behalf of freedom.
It is odd to say that America’s finest filmmaker spent much of his time growing up in Britain, but it’s the truth: Christopher Nolan, the story creator for Man of Steel, gets Americanism in his bones. That’s why he could make the ode to freedom that is The Dark Knight Rises. And it’s why he could create the narrative behind Man of Steel.
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