Reality warrants the Ideal—from blight, an imagined blossom. The best possible version of what is becomes what could be, and that version, no matter how unreal, can be inspiring. Or am I getting this reversed, and the Ideal is what terrible Truth flowers up from, there to remind us of what we can’t achieve, a bad joke, a delusion, a farce? I have to confess something. I’m a cynic. And as a cynic, I like dark naturalism and Madame Bovary and stories that end with ineluctable doom and gloom and the deadly drop of snow onto life-guarding fire. My dad used to parry the “You’re a cynic” accusation by saying “No, I’m a realist,” and it’s true that cynics are usually those who love to remind themselves (and everyone else) of reality. All those sad ending stories work as wake up calls from the sweet dreams that can float us, sometimes, off a cliff—“No, you’re wrong. No one can fly.” However, I don’t know anyone, even among cynics, who doesn’t find him/herself sometimes enjoying some of those dreams, no matter how idealistic/implausible. And lately I’ve been wondering if we aren’t running out of them.
I just saw Zach Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” the so-called post-9/11 interpretation of the superhero kids love to dress up as for Halloween. If you’ve seen it, you’re probably anticipating what I’m going to address. First I’ll confess one more thing, this one more disparaging than the last. Despite my fiancée’s attempts at dissuasion, I’m a 24 year old who still loves Superman. The blood of the character is this interesting proposal: the Ideal must live with Reality, cope with it, understand it, and save it if he can. The Ideal is not only physically ideal, he is, most importantly, ethically ideal. Superman is this so far as it makes him somewhat relatable to readers. Sure, he has his slipups. He fumbles. But at the core of his ethos is the notion of ultimate example: the answer to “What would a person with unalloyed morals do with absolute power?” It’s Plato’s Ring of Gyges myth but with an enticing ring-wearer. Traditionally, Superman is this impossible but admirable role model for kids and adults alike. Zach Snyder’s Superman, however, isn’t afraid to join the rest of us, and in one of the final scenes of “Man of Steel” he violently breaks the bad guy’s neck.
In this act, the writer wants us to believe that our hero has no choice. The villain, Zod, is attempting to turn his heat ray vision toward a group of innocent bystanders, and if he kills them, Superman will undoubtedly blame himself (whether or not he would be morally to blame represents an interesting supererogation debate in ethics, but I won’t get into that, nor will I here rue the inconsistency of Superman being able to break Zod’s neck while being unable to keep his head turned away from said endangered family). So Superman does what most people would do. He kills the bastard; he then dutifully cries out, mourning his fallen nemesis and knowing that his hand, though forced, was a bad one. Don’t get me wrong, I do consider the character capable of killing someone. He wouldn’t do it unless it was the worst case scenario, but it’s possible. However, it’s unfortunate that this worst case scenario happened during his first real outing. I don’t think it’s accidental though. By putting our hero in this situation we’ve removed some plume from his cape. But we’ve also made him more realistic, more relatable. The Ideal is no longer that. Grounded (and notably easier to write than the previous highfalutin version), this Superman’s more a tactical force in a human war against danger than a standard for humanity itself. He is, in fact, a weapon of war. Snyder’s film makes this very clear by making him work in tandem with the military throughout the major action of the movie. In fact, one of the major components of this plot is the troops’ warming up to Supes (at the end of which courting, one of the female lieutenants observes “He’s kind of hot”). A military force against outside invaders, the character becomes what we would dread if we were on the opposing end—i.e., the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. We’re less watching him soar than sitting in the cockpit with him—the fantasy altered from believing a man can fly to believing that victory over the enemy can be achieved, i.e., by any means necessary.
Next Week’s Review by Paul: “Nancy Hale, Unsung Master
of Short Fiction”