Man of Steel has several great action sequences and a cast of very talented actors. So it can be entertaining. But there’s always been something “off” for me in its overall portrayal of Superman. And I’m not talking about Superman killing Zod. There’s precedent for that in the comics, after all (Superman Vol 2 #22, 1988). It was more about how Superman was a bit more aloof and disconnected to the world around him. He’s an alien, sure. But the comics have portrayed him as the ideal immigrant. Someone who was raised in America and takes pride in supporting its values and showing compassion. This all started to make sense when I learned the other day that director Zack Snyder is a firm believer in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. A quote from Snyder: “I have been working on The Fountainhead. I’ve always felt like The Fountainhead was such a thesis on the creative process and what it is to create something.” Objectivism is defined by its supporters as “rational self-interest” but which seems to be code for “selfishness.”
A hero is an individual who puts themself at risk to help others. And initially, Clark Kent does show some of that in Man of Steel. I would credit that to the overall story structure needs of establishing a hero and writer David Goyer probably invented the scene where Clark saves a bunch of men on a doomed oil rig. But shortly, Clark deals with a jerk in a small town and destroys his truck. That’s… not very heroic. Superman is already putting his own desires ahead of others.
The big turn that changes what we know about Superman from comics is definitely when his adoptive father, Pa Kent, advises him that maybe he should have let a school bus full of children drown rather than risk exposing his abilities to a world that could shun him for it. What?! That is very different from any previous example of how Clark’s parents raised him. In the trailer for the sequel, Batman v Superman, his mother advises him that he doesn’t owe anyone anything so he doesn’t HAVE to be Superman. And that always stood out as a bizarre choice. But when you know about Snyder’s love for Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” it starts making more sense. Snyder has inserted his own philosophy into the Superman mythos.
In “The Fountainhead” Howard Roarke is the protagonist and the hero but he’s also a massive douche. When people don’t agree with his vision, he brands them as assholes. He literally blows up a building that isn’t built to his specifications. He rapes a woman who then marries him. He’s kicked out of school and fired from his job because of his beliefs. Because he’s a jerk! He’s put on trial but is ultimately acquitted when he delivers a long, long speech about how important the ego is and doing things the way you want them done. It’s honestly pretty crazy. Humanity would never have made it this far if we were selfish and didn’t help one another. Superman, and most other superheroes, are defined by the fact that they have extraordinary abilities and this obligates them to have more responsibility. That doesn’t happen in Man of Steel.
It begins with the (overlong) prologue where Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El, has disobeyed Kryptonian law and given natural birth instead of their society’s established birth matrix program. It’s a bit of a strawman argument but it literally has Jor-El going to war with his society over his ways. Normally, Jor-El is portrayed as a scientist desperately appealing to Krypton that their planet is in danger. But here, the most important thing he’s doing is giving birth HIS way and also some sci-fi gobbledygook about keeping Kryptonian DNA in a McGuffin-esque device.
In fact, Superman’s primary interest in Man of Steel is to stop Zod and his fellow Kryptonians not because of the threat to humanity necessarily but because their plan would destroy his home. It’s very much about Superman protecting his own interests. I’m not saying all of this is spelled out as such in the movie but it’s very hard to see the movie as not being loaded with Objectivist thought since this Superman is a lot less selfless than in the comics and previous movies and TV and radio. The fact is, Superman devastates Metropolis battling the Kryptonians. While almost every superhero movie gives us a moment to cheer when the hero makes themselves vulnerable by saving innocents, we really don’t get to witness Superman doing that in Man of Steel. It can be argued that Superman is new to this and inexperienced but the scale of the devastation is huge. Superman isn’t considering the people in the skyscrapers during his fight. He’s focused on stopping Zod’s plan and that’s about it.
It was such a devastating scene the filmmakers almost had no choice but to use it as the springboard for the sequel that arrives this weekend, Batman v Superman. We can see from the trailers that it begins with Bruce Wayne (Batman) witnessing these events from the ground level. And while in the comics Batman and Superman are usually best friends, in the Snyder movies how could it go any other way than to have them oppose one another? Superman is acting like the perfect Objectivist. He’s selfish. And someone with the power of a god that shows very little interest in helping others is a scary prospect.