The man of steel (2013), directed by Zack Snyder, resurrected the Superman movie franchise after the previous installment, Superman returns (2006), failed to generate the success the movie executives hoped it would. Like many franchises with multiple iterations of the cannon, The man of steel contained its own unique twists on the Superman story.
In this particular version of Superman, we begin on Superman’s home planet of Krypton, a world on the brink of destruction. We learned that traditionally, the Kryptonian people would send colonists to other planets to find sources of energy, but recently, they chose a new method: mining their own planet. The Kryptonians overmined their home planet and depleted its resources. This precipitated Krypton’s implosion, and therefore, the Kryptonian’s own demise.
The pretext to Krypton’s destruction was over-mining, but the subtext to the planet’s destruction is much deeper. The real reason Krypton came to an early expiry was because Krypton rotted from within.
The Kryptonian people were heavily invested in eugenics, the process of selectively breeding human beings in a similar manner to dog breeders breeding their animals to achieve desirable genetic outcomes. The key aspect of their eugenic process involved breeding children outside of the traditional method of gestacion. The children were bred and incubated underwater in a fictional apparatus called, “the Genesis Chamber.” When ready for birth, the children were harvested like produce by robots.
This unnatural process denied Kryptonian children the “bonding drug” a healthy baby receives when interacting with its’ mother and father. This “bonding drug,” Oxytocin, is responsible for, “fostering nurturing behaviors and reducing feelings of stress when mothers are in contact with their children” (Haidt, 2006, p. 120). Oxytocin is, “the glue that makes the two parts stick together” (Haidt, 2006, p. 120), the two parts being parents and infants.
When a child and mother are separated either early on or immediately after birth, the child does not receive sufficient levels of Oxytocin. Should this occur, the bonding involved in the normal and healthy attachment process never takes place (Haidt, 2006). Two examples of this phenomenon that occurred in real life: Harry Harlow’s monkeys at the University of Wisconsin, and Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.
In the 1950’s, scientist Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin conducted experiments with baby Rhesus monkeys. Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers after birth and kept them in cages with varying degrees of attachment (Lehrer, 2010). Some of the monkeys had absolutely nothing in their cages, some had terry-cloth blankets, and some had monkey-like wire figures in their cages with them (Lehrer, 2010). The empty cages had the lowest levels of attachment, while the cages with various items in them had greater levels of attachment. The greater the level of attachment the monkey had, the more fit they were for monkey-society; the less attachment, the more unfit they were for monkey-society. The unfit monkeys were violent, incredibly fearful and timid, or displayed other asocial behavior (Lehrer, 2010).
Under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist regime in Romania, he formally outlawed all forms of birth control (Lehrer, 2010). With no way to prevent pregnancy, women were forced to carry otherwise unwanted pregnancies to term. Parents then brought these unwanted babies to orphanages.
The Romanian orphanages were overrun with these unwanted babies, and the orphanages were incapable of providing the children with the love and care healthy babies necessitate (Lehrer, 2010, p. 192). The orphanage workers would pick the babies up, feed them, change them, put them down, and move on to the next baby, resembling an assembly line at a factory (Lehrer, 2010, p. 192). The lack of human interaction prevented these children from receiving the bonding drug, Oxytocin, and they grew up severely disturbed, corroborating earlier science on the subject. As Lehrer (2010) said, many of them were, “incapable of even the most basic social interactions. . . . Some children cried whenever they were touched. Others stared into space for hours and then suddenly flew into violent rages, attacking everything within reach” (p. 192). Just like the monkeys, these children were, “denied that influx of tender emotion that the brain is built to expect. . . . They were simply missing the patterns of brain activity that normally guide our moral decisions” (Lehrer, 2010, p. 194). Essentially, having never received sufficient amounts of Oxytocin, these children were incapable of empathy and the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong, good and evil (Lehrer, 2010).
The children and monkeys who grew up unloved and devoid of Oxytocin were incapable of forming the social bonds that hold people, and more importantly, families, together. As we are not a civilization of individuals, but a civilization of families (Nisbet, 1966), the bond of affection that ties parents to children and children to parents is paramount. A civilization with too many of these people who are incapable of empathy and bonding cannot stand for long before collapsing; it will rot from within (Zimmerman, 2008).
As Zimmerman (2008) said repeatedly in Family and Civilization, the Roman Empire fell because it rotted from within. The Roman Empire had too many atomized family units. Atomized family units are weak and decentralized family units with scattered individuals disconnected from other members of their families (Zimmerman, 2008). The atomistic family unit is, “essentially the one found in societies where law and custom bring the individual, as far as possible, out from. . . the family and make him the agent of the government” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 33). The role of child-rearing that has forever been traditionally delegated to our families is usurped by the government in civilizations with too many atomized family units (Nisbet, 1953). People raised in atomistic family units are people who are, “freed from the restraint of custom and religious ideas” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 33).
Frequently driving the breakdown of the family unit are the intellectual elites who, “no longer understands familism” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 188). When families are no longer seen as the central unit of life and the bedrock that holds civilization together, then, “consequently those societies in which familism has decayed are those that are themselves decaying- and very rapidly” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 198). The family is no longer there to provide individuals with, “guiding moral principles” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 245). Without proper moral guidance, it, “changes the meaning of freedom from opportunity to license. Having no internal or external guides to discipline him, he becomes a gambler with life” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 245). In the family unit, we learn all the values that make for responsible citizens, such as loyalty, duty, sacrifice, and piety. When we have weak family units, we are unlikely to learn these values elsewhere (Zimmerman, 2008). Essentially, we lose the source for, “The belief that human beings and human relations are sacred” (Zimmer, 2008, p. 256), which, “is the cornerstone upon which the total social structure is built” (Zimmer, 2008, p. 256).
Krypton, through their eugenic breeding system, raised the types of citizens found in the last days of Rome, the monkeys of Harry Harlow, and the children of Ceaușescu’s Romania. And just as Rome rotted from within due to weak families, so too did Krypton. The pretext was overmining the planet’s core, but the subtext was weak families causing civilizational decay.
Superman’s biological father, Jor-El, said the Kryptonians abandoned their old ways that sustained their people for thousands of years. Instead of looking to the stars for their sources of energy, they turned inward. They were, “freed from the restraint of custom and religious ideas” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 33). They had, “no internal or external guides to discipline” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 245) themselves, and they became “a gambler with life” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 245). They gambled with the lives of their fellow Kryptonians and lost.
The intellectual elites of Krypton used eugenics to dictate who and what Kryptonian children would become in life. The elites decided whether the children would become soldiers, farmers, politicians, or engineers. A child became, “the agent of the government” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 33). In this process, they destroyed the elements of familism, and Krypton began, “decaying- and very rapidly” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 198).
The Kryptonian idea of eugenics was neither new, nor original among intellectual elites. The intellectual elites of the real world have advocated for governmental child-rearing as well. As Clark Kent, Superman’s Earth alias, was bullied by local children in Smallville, Kansas, he dropped his school supplies. One of the items he dropped was a book called, “The Republic,” by Plato. Among the many things Plato discussed in his seminal work, one of the ideas he advocated for was the government taking children away from parents after their birth and raising them (Plato, 1943). This idea was put in motion, and was the direct cause of Krypton’s decay.
Superman’s parents intuitively sensed something was wrong with the Kryptonian idea of eugenics. Jor-El and his wife, Lara, understood that test-tube babies were unnatural. They said that there was, “something missing . . . the element of choice, chance.” The Kryptonians lacked that element of the human condition that makes us truly human. Superman’s parents did not identify the missing element by name, but they implicitly understood that an absence of human bonding created beings incapable of being truly human (or in this case, Kryptonian).
When rogue Kryptonians who managed to survive Krypton’s destruction traveled to Earth, they attempted to terraform the planet. Terraforming involved completely destroying the current surface and atmosphere of the planet by violently converting the Earth’s current environment to one that resembled Krypton’s. They had no qualms whatsoever with killing and destroying all forms of life that stood in their way. As one of these rogue Kryptonians said to Superman in the heat of battle, “The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us an evolutionary advantage.” They were incapable of seeing that, “human beings and human relations are sacred” (Zimmer, 2008, p. 256). Instead of these relationships being, “the cornerstone upon which the total social structure is built” (Zimmer, 2008, p. 256), they were the first items destroyed in the process of building their new Krypton here on Earth. Just like the monkeys and Romanian children, they had no moral compass capable of directing them away from evil, nor any true sense of right and wrong.
To conclude, as Russell Kirk (1981) offered
Fiction is truer than fact: I mean that in great fiction we obtain the distilled wisdom of men of genius, understandings of human nature which we could attain . . . unaided by books, only at the end of life, after numberless painful experiences. (p. 7)
Despite the fact that Krypton is a fictional civilization that existed in the deep recess of outer space, the Kryptonians speak to, “the greatness and limitations of human nature” (Kirk, 1986, p. 7). Through the fiction of Superman, we learn of the problems that have afflicted humanity for generations, and we learn what it means to be a human being. As T.S. Eliot penned
One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry, is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones. (1919, p. 42)
The man of steel does not express new ideas and emotions, but instead relates familiar and ordinary ones to us. At its core, Superman is not a tale of fantasy and superpowers, but of human nature. It may take place on distant worlds with beings who have powers far out of the reach of mere mortals, but at its most elemental level, Superman is deeply and profoundly humane. Superman speaks to us in a language all human beings can understand.
The Man of Steel is about family, power, and the limitations of human beings. It is not futuristic science-fiction, nor is it novel and new, but rather, it is ancient, perennial, and ultimately, it reflects the very essence of the human condition. Through The man of steel, we learn that no matter who we are, where we are, or even when we are, we are only as strong as our families. When we have weak families, we have a weak civilization. Even if we are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound, none of that will matter if our families are not important and strong enough to cultivate all the qualities that make Superman truly super.
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