Man of Steel: Morality Gone Wrong

If you haven’t seen Man of Steel yet, and you don’t want certain things about the film to be revealed to you, you should walk away now. In other words: Spoiler Alert.

There’s a lot to be said about Man of Steel, whether we’re judging Snyder’s directorial imprint on the iconic superhero or Henry Cavill’s (nearly perfect) attempt to portray Superman himself. The actors are all exceptional, with no exceptions. I’d be hard pressed to rain on their parade.

But this isn’t a review, so I won’t explain how neat the special effects were, or how gritty the punches felt, or what I thought about the use of flashbacks to tell a large piece of the story. Instead, there’s one bit of the film that drives me nuts: when Clark Kent’s father dies.

Kevin Costner does an excellent job playing Clark’s dad, Jonathan Kent. There’s weight to every line he gives us: this is a man who has clearly thought long and hard about the realities of raising a boy who would one day be Superman. While his lines make this incredibly obvious (“You’re going to change the world, son, for good or for evil,” paraphrased), it is more subtle than that: we see the trappings of a man who has thought so long about this that he can’t see new thoughts. He doesn’t leave room for his son to argue because Clark is still the young boy, even as he grows older.

Here’s the moment of frustration, the moment of alleged morality: Jonathan allows himself to be killed in order to prevent Clark from revealing his true power. This line of thinking (namely: preventing the world from knowing about this boy with superhuman strength and senses was more important than saving lives) is introduced earlier in the film. When Clark is still a kid, his school bus drives off a bridge, into the river below. In order to save the lives of the children on the bus, Clark gets out and pushes the bus to the shore. A few of the kids see him do this, and their parents confront the Kents.

When Jonathan goes out to talk with him, he explains that they have already talked about this; it is vital that the world not yet know about Clark’s powers. But Clark is having nothing to do with this, and makes the most obvious and powerful counterargument: “What was I supposed to do, let them all die?”

For some reason, Clark’s dad says “Maybe.”

He goes on to explain that the world isn’t ready for him, that many more lives could be lost if the government found out about him, and other similar arguments. This is where Jonathan’s moral views have failed him. He has spent so much of his life considering the consequences of this child’s identity that he no longer sees the immediate good. He was able to seriously consider sacrificing the lives of a dozen children in order to protect the identity of his own. It doesn’t help that the reason for protecting the identity of Clark is based on speculation and potential danger, not confirmed danger. If you’ve reached the point where you’re willing to let a dozen kids die for a perceived possible threat, your moral compass needs a new magnet.

Jonathan’s views end up leading to his own death. During a tornado, he rushes out to save a dog, risking his own life. When he gets stuck in a car, and eventually steps out, he makes eye contact with his son, Clark. With a slight shake of his head, Jonathan tells Clark to stay put. It would have been trivial for Clark to save Jonathan, but the risk involved–that is, the risk of allowing some relatively small number of people see him perform the task–was apparently too great. No, Clark couldn’t be allowed to save a life, just yet.

Throughout the film, many characters consider the weight of revealing to the world the story of Superman. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) makes the same comment to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), when she comes to him about the story. Even if the story were completely true, he remarks, imagine what the world would do, how the world would react. There’s some validity here, even in the confines of the world we’re witnessing: when Superman is revealed, he spends some time as a target of the military. Even once he proves himself, the government is actively trying to learn more about him, when he’s asked them to simply trust him. It seems that everyone agrees that public knowledge regarding Superman’s abilities is dangerous. Lois Lane goes so far as to say she wouldn’t turn Superman in, even as Zod threatens to destroy the world.

One thing I hope we can all agree on: lives are valuable. I really hope I wouldn’t be the sort of person who would sacrifice a life in order to avoid a difficult situation.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Stephen Hale

    This is why pre-emptive war is immoral.

    This is also why attacking Iraq was immoral.

    Just got real…

  • jamesfarnold


    Maybe I’m dense, but I’m not immediately seeing the connection between Pa Kent’s views and pre-emptive war. Is it the “prevention in the face of uncertainty” line of reasoning?

  • Stephen Hale

    Yep, that’s what I meant. :-)

  • jamesfarnold

    Got it.

    Out of curiosity–and this goes beyond the scope of the film and article, but I think is still tangentially related–what would you say in the face of certainty? Is it possible for pre-emptive war to be morally acceptable? I don’t have a position on the question yet (though I have some leanings), but I am curious what you would say.

  • Stephen Hale

    Pre-emptive war happens before certainty occurs. That’s why it’s illegal.

    There are a multiplicity of examples in history of armies piling up at borders, backing down at the last moment because of diplomatic action.

    Pre-emptive war happens before certainty occurs.

  • Stephen Hale

    (At least, that’s what I would say! I re-read this and noticed how excessively assertive it seemed. I remember too strongly how we did that a few years ago and the sort of douchebaggery it led to. I’d at least like to tone my comments down a hair to strong opinions, instead of assertive facts!)

  • jamesfarnold

    No worries, Stephen. I understood it as a strong opinion.

    If pre-emptive war only happens after certainty, is it ever actually pre-emptive? In other words, is there even a definition of ‘pre-emptive’ that could include the term “certainty”? I’m wondering if even that set-up would be incompatible.

    Perhaps certainty makes war not pre-emptive.

  • Stephen Hale

    Pre-emptive war doesn’t happen after certainty: that’s the definition of pre-emptive war. It happens before you’re attacked, and you’re never certain you’ll be attacked before you’re actually attacked.

    That’s why it’s important to remember that often in history, wars are stopped at their brink. Armies have gathered, and at the last moment, cooler heads prevail and tragedy is stopped.

    Seems this way to me, at least. I have a hard time accepting that one is certain enough to justify a war before they’re attacked (with possible exceptions for states as small as Israel or a few other states who might literally be fighting for their existence. This, of course, is a situation the 4th largest country on the planet does not face).

  • jamesfarnold

    Those are good thoughts. I’ve spent very little time working out theories of war (to my detriment!), so I was sort of brain-storming on the fly. I’ll have to give this more thought before I have anything productive to say.

    Thanks for the insight, though. Lots to consider.

  • Tom Brightside

    What a conversation!!