Superman has changed, and there’s no denying this. Although he wears the same iconic “S” on his chest, the Superman we see in the film Man of Steel embodies a very different psychological makeup than in past versions of this DC Comics hero. He questions whether humanity is worth saving. He is driven by emotions like anger and desperation. He seems reckless, destructive, and impulsively violent. This article, which includes some spoilers, examines why this new Superman represents a more psychologically realistic version of the iconic character, and asks us to question whether a more morally fallible Superman makes more sense in a post-9/11 society.
Without a doubt, Superman is one of the most recognizable fictional cultural icons in the world. Over the last 75 years, the physical and psychological elements that define Superman have remained relatively stable. Rightly so. In order to preserve a cultural icon, writers must ensure that certain traits—minimal properties, if you will—remain the same. What are the essentials of Superman? He comes from Krypton, he was raised by the Kents, he has superhuman abilities, Kryptonite weakens him, and he is guided by a strong moral compass. We can add: His superpower abilities include the ability to fly, x-ray vision, heat vision, super strength, super speed, and super breath. Interestingly, Superman did not always possess the majority of these powers. In fact, when the character was introduced to the world in the 1930s, Superman was given super strength, super speed, invulnerability and the ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Assuming, of course, those buildings were no taller than a 1/8 mile, since that was the extent of his leaping range. In Man of Steel, had Superman not flown, we may say, disappointedly, “that’s not like Superman.” After all, one of his most defining superhero features is his ability to soar through the skies. (The filmmakers were clever enough to build up to his flight via a series of longer and longer leaps).
It is another defining feature—Superman’s moral sense—that seems to have been bent in Man of Steel, making many comic book fans walk away from the film with the dissatisfied thought: “This is not Superman.” His values and beliefs seem far from the hero that believed in “truth, justice, and the American way.” Far from the hero that vowed to never end the lives of others because “nobody has the right to kill.” Yet, in Man of Steel, we watch Superman destroy property irresponsibly, leave buildings burning without looking back, and ultimately, kill General Zod with his own hands. He seems to be more involved with destruction than salvation. And while some viewers are fixated on what they’re considering drastic changes in his character, I’m more impressed with the idea of a Superman origin story that shows us the depths and darkness of moral development. Where did Superman gain his moral sense? What needed to happen for him to see the value in humanity? What grave mistakes did he have to make? Perhaps David Goyer and Zack Snyder intended to make a Superman movie about becoming a hero.
Where Do We Get Our Moral Sense?
“The human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations.” – Stephen Pinker, Experimental Psychologist
Our sense of morality is perhaps more complex than we realize. Not surprisingly, psychologists have a bewildering number of theories about the development of human morality, explaining that human prosocial behavior is guided by situational, cultural, social and developmental factors. Although he is not human, Superman shares our human psychology, in that, he experiences similar emotions, cognitions and also must develop his own set of moral values, beliefs, and attitudes.
Morality is not simply inherited and magically present at birth. Psychologists all agree that the conscious develops over time, in increments or stages. What makes Man of Steel realistic is Clark’s development of his sense of right and wrong, which is hugely determined by his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. Growing up, Clark is faced with scenarios that allow him to examine and build his moral compass. A strong facet of Clark’s conscious is the notion that the discovery of his powers could have dangerous implications. As his powers become stronger, Clark is cautioned by a father that believes that neither the world—nor Clark—is “ready.” This version of Pa Kent is morally realistic: There has never been a “Superman” before, and Pa Kent’s conclusion that Clark’s discovery could be perilous comes from his core beliefs that humanity is imperfect. When he is bullied by some school-aged peers, for instance, young Clark experiences the emotions of rage and revenge—we can see that he wants to fight back –but he chooses to refrain from engaging in physical fighting because he knows this would reveal his super powers. Clark’s sense of morality at this stage is his father. Pa Kent represents what psychologists call the Super-ego: Clark’s idealistic sense of right and wrong, the hardfast rules, the perfectionism, the prohibitive warnings. Do not act on emotional impulse. Do not strike others. Preserve your identity. Stay safe.
But is Jonathan’s philosophy simplistic and fallible? When a tornado hits the town of Smallville, Clark is faced with another tough decision: save his father’s life by using his superpowers to get him out of the tornado’s path, or allow his father to die in the storm in order to protect his own identity. Yes, we would all agree that Superman would have saved Pa Kent without second thought—but Clark isn’t Superman, yet. He’s still a teenager struggling with what it means to have superhuman powers, bullied for being different, and fearful of what the world will do if the true extent of his abilities are discovered. At that stage, his moral sense is in complete dissonance. Do as the Super-ego instructs, or follow your heart’s impulses? Clark falls back to his father’s moral code: Do as you’re father tells you, protect yourself and your mother, stay safe. Clark doesn’t let his father’s idealism die. The scene, as wrenching as it plays out, is important in the story: we’re seeing Clark’s moral sense develop and grow. We see him realize that every action comes with consequences. And that what’s right and wrong isn’t always so clear.
In Man of Steel, Superman’s principal nemesis, General Zod, is unquestionably stronger. Zod is a warrior of Krypton: He is a trained combatant and fighter who has the means to wipe out the all of Earth’s citizens. Superman, conversely, has never raised a hand to an enemy prior to his fellow Kryptonians’ arrival. In the pivotal final act of the film, Zod realizes he has the most powerful weapon against Superman—the lack of a moral compass where the killing of humans is involved. Zod is willing to murder humans in cold blood, and decides to test Superman by using heat vision to threaten a handful of innocent humans in a Metropolis metro station. Superman, managing to hold Zod’s head steady while the villain’s eyes emit rapid lasers in the direction of the humans, begs him to stop. Zod, however, only seems to widen his eyes, underscoring his threat and asserting his power, perhaps even reminding Superman that this family of humans represents millions of people that can ultimately be killed by his terroristic wrath. Superman makes a decision to kill Zod in a moment where he appears to be emotionally desperate and distraught.
With his hands holding Zod’s head, Superman accesses the Kryptonian version of our human darkness: a place that seems base, ignoble, gruesome, and irrationally violent. He snaps Zod’s neck, killing him instantly. The next moment is anything but alien: Superman slumps down to his knees, realizing the totality of his decision. He has ended life. He has made himself the last of his people. He has the hateful urges of a human and the Kryptonian powers to carry them out. He is truly alone.
Black-and-White Morality in a Post-9/11 Society
Does morality evolve over time? Evolutionary psychologists say that our social history is full of shifts in morality—certain behaviors that were previously socially acceptable are now considered morally repugnant (think: acceptance of slavery). Likewise, particular behaviors in our society have been “amoralized” in that they are no longer associated with whether a person is good or bad (think: divorce). It isn’t absurd to believe that Superman’s moral code might adapt to the historical and political atmosphere (read: Superman: Red Son).
Yes, “times change.” But some argue that Superman doesn’t kill, no matter what the historical or cultural context. Because murder is always wrong. But when are there exceptions to this rule? When does killing seem justified? I ask the hard hypothetical question: If Superman could have prevented 9/11 by putting those specific criminals to death earlier that morning, would he? It’s not the right thing to do, but would he do it to save the thousands of civilian lives lost that day, in addition to the over 6,500 U.S. military casualties that were a result of the last 10 years of war?
Some people think it’s categorically wrong to kill, even if it saves more lives. Even if it brings good results, the act is wrong. This way to look at morality is called categorical moral reasoning. These people locate morality in our own actions, not in the consequences. Superman does not kill. Period. But there is a different way of moral reasoning: For many of us, the “right thing to do” depends on the consequences that will result from the action. This is an example of consequentialist moral reasoning. Superman may kill only if it means saving more lives.
Psychologists and philosophers use the “Trolley problem” to help us further examine our moral code. Consider this scenario:
“ On your morning walk, you see a trolley car hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the controls. In the path of the trolley are five men working on the track, oblivious to the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five men. Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur. Is it permissible to throw the switch, killing one man to save five?”
Almost everyone who takes this test answers “yes.” Here is the second scenario:
“You are on a bridge overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway trolley bearing down on the five workers. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man standing next to you. Should you throw the man off the bridge?”
In this scene, almost everybody says, “no.” It seems to be universally acceptable to pull a switch, but immoral to heave a man off the tracks. Even though the outcome would be the same: saving lives. In fact, some studies have shown that only people with psychological deficits would actually push the man. For example, patients who have blunted emotions because of brain damage think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. It’s a simple math problem. Scientists have yet to clarify why these two scenarios with the same outcome create very different emotional reactions in us. For more on the trolley problem watch this lecture from Harvard or read Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times.
Related to this quandary is our reaction to Man of Steel’s ending and the death of Zod, which some are saying is unnecessarily violent and “unlike Superman.” Yet it is in Superman II that Superman’s first onscreen face-off with Zod ends in similar fashion. At the end of that film, Superman kills Zod—after relieving the villain of his super powers—by lifting him up by the belt and throwing him into a gaping ravine within the Fortress of Solitude. (Note: Lois Lane also ends the life of Ursa by punching her into the same ravine, hesitating only to quip wise beforehand.) But Zod’s death in Man of Steel is qualitatively different, according to some Superman fans. Not unlike the trolley problem, we’re somehow distinguishing between these two acts of murder, despite the fact that the end result is the same: Superman kills Zod. But just like “pulling a lever” is qualitatively different than “showing someone,” we view “tossing someone into a rift” as different than “breaking someone’s neck” despite the outcome being identical. Ah, the brain. So crafty.
Individual Shifts in Morality
It isn’t far-fetched to believe that Superman bends his beliefs due to his experiences—especially those defined as traumatic. Traumas are characterized as events that involve life-threatening dangers, like natural disasters, accidents, violence, combat, and sexual assaults.
It also involves compromising one’s beliefs. When soldiers return from combat, we know that their tours of duty encompass the taking of lives. The actions they took to protect themselves and their armed colleagues against the enemy are undoubtedly seen as heroic in our society. They made sacrifices and put themselves in danger so that others could be safe. Some soldiers, however, have very different individual responses to the environment of war. A veteran suffering from PTSD once told me he thought of taking his own life because “I took someone else’s life. This means I’m a bad person, and I can’t live with that anymore.” His violent actions, though justified in the context of battle, do not fit in the social atmosphere of his civilian life where killing is wrong. Here, we have a shifting sense of morality. In fact, psychiatrists who work with veterans are now defining something called moral injury, when a person experiences debilitating levels of guilt and shame that stem from “a betrayal of what’s right” in a high-stakes, dangerous, or life threatening situation. Maybe my patient killed someone or was ordered to kill. Maybe my patient could have stopped an atrocity but did not. His decision has a huge impact on the entirety of his sense of moral self—when a moral injury occurs, a person’s beliefs, ideals, and attitudes can shift.
I don’t work in a black and white world. I have to look in the eyes of a person who has killed another person during their tour and say to them, “you did the right thing. You did the best you could do in the situation YOU were in.” And I must believe this. Because I know we are complex enough to feel sorrowful, guilty, and morally right. This is what I mean by moral realism in Man of Steel. When we watch Superman kill Zod, we are unsettled, discomforted, provoked, and morally torn. I can imagine the Superman of the second movie, where he is living with his decision, knowing what it is like to kill, and being determined to rigidify that moral line so that he never has to do something reprehensible again. He has achieved a deeply personal and emotional knowledge about himself, and can never unknow it. From this deep intrapersonal knowledge, he would want to be a better citizen and hero. That is the Superman I want to see in the next chapter.
“It’s not Superman the tongue-in-cheek cartoon character we’re connecting with; we’re connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand difficulty and to turn your back on it.”
- Christopher Reeve
If Superman is to teach us something about ourselves, it’s that being virtuous and honorable is not easy. And he teaches us that today’s world asks all of us, all human beings, to face difficult decisions about sacrifice, justice, and suffering. Other movies about Superman ask whether the world needs Superman. Man of Steel asks whether Superman needs us. And, after experiencing what we do—the loss, the grief, the impact of our own evil–Superman answers with a resounding “yes.”