“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards.” – Jor-El, Man of Steel
My motive for watching superhero films isn’t to be entertained. It’s to further my work with modern myths and archetypes. Certainly, when a movie is good, it helps my work in many regards, but so long as it isn’t just outright bad, I can always find something of value to take away from it. And while, for me personally, Man of Steel wasn’t quite the soaring masterpiece I had hoped for, it was good enough that I was able to separate the wheat from the chaff, to hold on to the moments of poignancy, inspiration and insight while overlooking the rest.
These are some of the little jewels that I found and offer to you. All of them, when combined, support my belief that being a true man or woman of steel has little to do with physical or political might and everything to do with mental, emotional and spiritual strength, and that this strength, moreover, isn’t about aggression, ruthlessness or machismo but the transformation of our weakness and vulnerability into virtue.
(NB: SPOILERS AHEAD. Also, the first two points are ones that I’ve already talked about in other posts and won’t discuss again here, only summarize and link to them.)
1. Your Pain is Your Strength
That which makes you hurt is that which empowers you. Pain is power. Tap into it, transmute it, use it. Kal-el does. (Read previous post)
2. The Importance of Mentors
The Mentor archetype is essential to the Hero’s Journey. In Man of Steel, Kal-El’s mentors are Jonathan Kent and the hologram of his father, Jor-El. Good mentors make the difference between heroes and villains. Find a mentor. Learn. Then go be a mentor to someone else (Read previous post)
3. Sensitivity & the Power of Selective Focus
In an early scene in Man of Steel, a young Clark Kent becomes overwhelmed by all the physical stimuli his hyper-sensitive senses are registering.
“The world is too big, mom,” he complains.
“So make it smaller,” Mrs. Kent says.
What sounds like a ridiculous bit of dialogue at first actually points to an important kernel of wisdom. We live in an age and world in which, more than ever, there is more stimuli and sensory information than we could ever possibly take in. Some of us become desensitized or numb to it but some of us, the more sensitive ones, never really do. Clark’s hypersensitivity contains a beautiful symbolism that has nothing to do with literal superpowers.
First, his hypersensitivity suggests that despite his tremendous physical power, Clark is very vulnerable at the emotional and sensory level. It’s only in learning to control and live with this that he truly becomes Superman (i.e. the best he can be). This applies to all of us. Everything that “happens” to us is just sensory stimuli if you think about it and break it down. It’s in learning to process and metabolize this stimuli effectively that we become strong and resilient.
Second, the key to controlling our overstimulated and frazzled senses and maintaining equanimity is concentration. While battling Kal-El, Zod’s protective helmet comes loose and he stumbles to the ground, suddenly overwhelmed by all the stimuli. He becomes handicapped by his own senses.
Meanwhile, Kal, who has the same supersensitive nerves, stands calmly before the debilitated Zod and says, “My parents taught me to focus on only what I needed to.”
In a way too complex to fully explain or go into great detail in this single post, what happens to Zod in this scene happens to all of us. In a way, it happens everyday. We short circuit our nerves with never-ending stimuli through all of the sense gates. We give our attention to every little random thought that flitters through our heads.
At this very moment, there are easily at least a dozen things I’m tempted to feel bad about or worry about. There are also a dozen other things my brains suggests that I do instead of writing (check e-mail, go on Facebook, etc.). By choosing to focus entirely on this essay, so much that even my sense of self seems to dissolve, I am not only writing a better piece than I would were I distracted, but I also save myself a lot of misery by taking in one thing at a time and not overwhelming myself by thinking of everything at once.
Concentration and selective focus. It is one of the most important factors not only in being more efficient and effective in whatever you do but also in maintaining emotional equanimity in an often overwhelming world.
4. Superman’s Free Will vs. Zod’s Predetermined Path
The Kryptonians in the film were portrayed as having their entire lives genetically determined before birth. As of yet, the genetic engineering of humans is not standard practice in real-life, but there are two ways in which it can serve as another useful symbol.
(a) When you deny your own deepest yearnings just to tread a safer or more socially acceptable path, or one that your family or friends desire for you, then, in a figurative sense, it can almost be as if your life had been genetically predetermined. Not listening to the murmur of your heart is a kind of choice (sometimes it might even be the right choice) but it is often a passive, unconscious choice made out of fear rather than an active, conscious choice made in spite of fear.
Kal-El, despite his powers, also feels fear as a young man, fear of not ever finding out who he truly is and his purpose for living and of not ever living up to his potential. But instead of settling into a path chosen for him, he chooses to wander, to see the world and the people in it, to find his own way. And his geographical wanderings are but a reflection and symbol of his inner wandering. Indeed, the Wanderer archetype in mythology and archetypal psychology has informed much of the intellectual, scientific, artistic and spiritual explorations of the greatest minds in history.
Granted, Kal is blessed with parents who give him the space and freedom to wander, but this is a choice we can all periodically make if we are committed to deal with the challenges and consequences that come with it. If we summon the courage and give ourselves permission to wander, not aimlessly but with purpose, we may find that the results are more than well worth the challenges, and that we learn exponentially more about ourselves, as does Kal-El during his wanderings.
(b) Clinging too tightly to certain social roles and identities can become a kind of prison. General Zod spends the early part of the film banished to a cosmic prison in space but this prison only reflects the even deeper imprisonment that is his very life. Genetically engineered and bred to be a warrior and protector of his race, at all costs, he does not know how to even begin thinking outside of that role and identity. He is intelligent, clearly cares about his people and as a military strategist is capable of weighing the consequences of decisions. But he does not have the wisdom to ever think outside the boundaries of the identity he clings to and therefore anything not directly relevant to that identity becomes unimportant and worthy of annihilation (i.e. humans). Zod’s genetically engineered existence is an analogy for a fixed, congealed personal identity.
A similar Zod-like dynamic, though not as dramatic perhaps, occurs when we cling too tightly to our familiar, comfortable and socially-constructed identities. Have the courage to periodically let go of your habitual sense of who you are or think you should be. It can be disconcerting but you might reach new breakthroughs or insights about yourself and your life. And at certain critical points in your life it can be liberating to let go of or reject a certain kind of outdated self-identity.
5. Empathy Will Save Us
Lawrence of Arabia, Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, and now Man of Steel. What these films share in common is the classic Stranger in a Strange Land motif of an outsider who lives among a group of people, adapts to their ways and eventually comes to empathize with them so deeply that he turns his back on his own origins to protect the interests of the adopted group.
It goes even further back to ancient myth. Superman has always been the most Christ-like of superheroes in his idealism, in the way that his father sends him from another world and the way he grows up in humble surroundings – even in his Hebrew-sounding name, Kal-El. Let’s look, then, at the Bible. God himself needed to come down and be among humans before he came to empathize with them in a way that he did not before. In the Old Testament, the Abrahamic God is a wrathful god, using fear and intimidation to rule. In the New Testament, he becomes an all-loving, all-compassionate God and the key, the bridge, is, of course, Jesus, the man-god who is sent to Earth and grows up and lives as a human experiencing all the same torments that humans go through. And he comes to understand them and love them and die for them. And since, paradoxically, he is God, God is thereby transformed.
It’s not just an effective storytelling formula. It underscores the importance of empathy in the human journey for empathy is the difference between a Kal-El and a General Zod, between a Jesus who dies for us and a vengeful God who punishes us. But empathy doesn’t just happen magically by itself.
Man of Steel and the other aforementioned stories show us that the key to developing empathy is to simply be with people or a certain, specific group of people (applicable to non-humans as well). Spend time with them, observe them, but not just in some clinical, anthropological way. Learn their ways, get into their heads. See life from their perspective. It isn’t easy. In fact, it’s excruciatingly hard. We’re too used to being stuck in our own heads.
Why, then, make the effort? In the case of Kal-El and the heroes from those other films, understanding their environment and the people in it was necessary for their adaptation and personal survival and hence that was their compelling reason. So what’s our compelling reason? At this point I would say it’s the very survival of our entire race because, at the rate we’re going, if we continue with our divisive, territorial and tribal ways, we will eventually be going the way of Krypton.
Superman could have allowed the destruction of Earth to bring back Krypton. The reason he didn’t was empathy.
Empathy will save us. It will save all of us.
6. Humanity’s Chance is Now
At a critical moment when Zod beseeches Kal to stop putting humans above his own people, Kal responds, “Krypton had its chance!” And it is true. One of the reasons Kal chooses Earth over Krypton is that the latter had its chance and blew it.
Earlier in the film, Kal confides to a priest that he has his doubts about humans (as he should). Yet he takes the leap of faith and saves us. Do we really deserve to be saved? We are the only ones who can answer this question and moreover we are the only ones who can do the saving, not Superman, not Jesus (both of whom merely represent our own ideals and potentials).
Tying It Together
Now, let’s summarize and connect the dots.
- Our pain and suffering is what often leads us to lash out at the world. We must learn to transmute the lead into gold.
- To do this, it helps immeasurably to have a life mentor. If you don’t have one, go out and find one (Wander). I did. And he changed my life to the point where I now believe I can also change others’ lives.
- The world will never stop assaulting you with things and events (5-sensory stimuli) that causes suffering in some way or other. One of the secrets to overcoming this by cultivating concentration and focusing on something that matters to you and the things that are directly relevant to that. Ignore the rest. With practice, this becomes a psychic shield that blocks out the little monsters that relentlessly claw at your psyche.
- Refuse to be just another “genetically engineered” human by questioning the predictable paths that the world tries to steer you onto and listening to the whispers of your heart. Question and deconstruct even your own socially constructed identity which may feel safe but essentially predetermines your choices and paths. At times, adopt the Wanderer archetype and wander (i.e. explore, experiment, see what else is out there).
- The more you Wander the more you will come to dwell among different peoples and the more you will come to develop empathy not just for your own clan, tribe or social group but for all of humanity – indeed, for all life. And you will come to cherish it and want to protect it.
- Allegorical tales of apocalypse are warnings and reminders to us, for we so easily slip into forgetfulness and conformity. The destruction of Krypton. The Flood in the Book of Genesis. Not a single one of us has not felt discouraged, even despondent, about humanity from time to time. Cultivation of the first 5 points above can help us transcend our misanthropy and take a leap of faith on behalf of humanity even when it seems that humanity does not deserve it.
Kal-El grew up being tormented and ostracized by the world for being different. If anyone was entitled to turn his back on it, it was him. Yet he takes the leap of faith.
Mythology, old and new, celebrates the heroes who, without the luxury of certainty, have taken the leap of faith on our behalf.
Jesus believed in us. Superman believes in us.
And I believe in both of them. Therefore, I also believe in us.
I believe that it is not in the absence of flaws and weaknesses, but in the very acceptance and transmutation of these flaws and weaknesses, that you and I can be – that we will be – Men and Women of Steel.