“Where is the lightning to lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness with which you should be cleansed? Behold, I show you the Superman. He is this lightning; he is this madness.” Nietzsche
I never liked Superman when I was growing up. Maybe it was the costume. Men in tights. Or the do-gooder attitude, Truth, Justice and the American Way. Or maybe it was the fact that there was nothing, when it boiled down, that could defeat Superman, the kryptonite Achilles ’ heel a ruse, really, a plot device to keep unsophisticated audiences enthralled. He was too much. Invincible. Too far removed from humanity to be of interest to a boy who would rather be playing outside.
It would take the madness of the modern world, the adult world, to move me to appreciate the Man of Steel.
I joined the United States Army Reserve when I was seventeen, between my junior and senior years in high school. They called it Split Option: Basic Training followed by one more year in public education and then back to the military for Advanced Individual Training (AIT). Because I was technically a minor, my mother had to sign a parental release form, and, with just a bit of nudging, I convinced her to do just that. I had a hankering to get the hell out of Casper, Wyoming, and the military seemed like a good deal. They paid a salary, issued uniforms, guaranteed food and shelter, and covered traveling expenses. What could go wrong?
I shipped out in June.
Before arriving at Fort Knox, Kentucky, humidity had been the heaviness in the air before a summer storm, and ethnicity meant the smattering of Mexicans that lived in north Casper. My hometown was dry as baked sand by July, and, like Superman’s Smallville, the demographics might have earned it the moniker Whiteville. Fort Knox proved to be an entirely new world where sweat was a constant and skin color a collage. The angst festering like an infected psychic wound back home scarred over. In the course of the next eight weeks, I would become a die-hard defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
In the film Man of Steel (2013), writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan drop Truth, Justice and the American Way from Superman’s list of things to upkeep. Instead, they focus on Clark Kent’s alienation, his inability to fit in with the kids at school, and the revelation from his adoptive father that he is, in fact, an alien. Jonathan Kent insists that Clark keep his powers secret because humanity is not ready to accept such a gift. The conviction runs deep. Mr. Kent goes so far as to allow himself to be devoured by a marauding Kansas tornado rather than permit Clark to publically display his superpowers to save him. To honor his father, then, Clark Kent watches him die. Quite the burden, Clark’s secret. A heavy weight to bear just because humankind is not ready for that which is greater to arrive.
Clark continues to guard the secret after Mr. Kent’s death. To do so, he must keep on the move, flitting from job to job while searching, seemingly in vain, for clues to his origins. Urban legends spring up in his wake: the man who held aloft the burning offshore oil rig as the Coast Guard helicopter and its cargo of rescued oilfield workers escaped to safety; the truck driver who insulted the mild-mannered tavern worker and then found his rig impaled by telephone poles; and, further back, the boy who singlehandedly lifted the school bus from the bottom of the river, saving the children on board from watery annihilation.
Through the unfolding of events the audience senses a brooding intensity in the character who is not yet called Superman, a palpable sense of alienation and stifled choler. His young life is a dissonance of sorrow: jeers from peers, the bully on the bus who would later manage the IHOP because young Clark saved him from drowning, the high school thug who shoved him into a fence to taunt him, the truck driver who poured a glass of beer over his head. Clark chokes down his rage, though it is righteous. Resentment ferments and it is Clark who covertly impales the truck driver’s rig with telephone poles outside the tavern, quietly crushes a metal fence post in his grip as school bullies deride him. His is a life of repressed emotion: anger, loneliness, heartache.
Yet he continues to help humans in need. Why?
We lived in open barracks for the eight weeks of Basic Training. Old School. Two floors of two man bunks lined up razor straight the length of the rectangular buildings painted white, the beds separated by portable lockers. Most of the barracks are gone now, demolished. A few remain standing for urban warfare exercises. I trained with the Air Calvary and sported a golden patch resembling an inverted triangle with rounded corners on the shoulder of my uniform: a horse head silhouette in the upper right, a diagonal black stripe underneath it. We were issued pickle suits (BDU’s were being phased in) and black combat boots. The younger recruits, the teenagers, myself included, were segregated from the remainder of B Platoon and bunked on the ground floor of a separate barracks. The upper floor was occupied by teens from Platoon C.
We awoke in the dark and scrambled to get squared away and lined-up in formation in the cool outdoors. Physical Training (PT) to welcome the rising sun. I remember the chant, “P.T. Feels good. Good for me. Good for you.” The days were divided between classroom and field work. We fired weapons: M-16s, Claymore mines, hand grenades, M-60 machine guns, Light Anti-Tank Weapons (LAW). We marched, practiced drill, kept cadence. The Kentucky sun beat down. It was not uncommon for recruits to pass out from standing too rigid in formation. A Navajo troop from Platoon C collapsed onto the green grass and twitched hurdy-gurdy, his eyes locked on a puff of cumulus floating above. Misery, Agony, and Heartbreak Hills took their toll, even on the Drill Instructor (DI), who huffed and puffed alongside the troops, “This hill kickin’ your ass maggot? It’s kickin’ mine.”
Ferguson, a black recruit from Alabama, eighteen years old with a baby and young wife back home, helped me understand the intricacies of the M-16. I didn’t get it at first, failed to take the rifle apart and put it back together in the allotted time. Ferguson, patient as a priest in a prison, guided me through the process with a thick and slow Alabama accent, once and again, until it clicked in my heat-sodden mind. I helped him memorize rules and regulations so he might pass written and verbal exams. We were friends, battle buddies, teaming up when we were able, sitting next to one another in class. We braved the gas chamber together, mucous and tears gushing from our faces, then chuckled about the ordeal twenty minutes down the trail.
We weren’t all friends. Hardin, a tall west Texas boy with blue eyes and a swagger, bunked on the second floor of our barracks. The drinking fountain on the upper floor, so claimed Hardin, had so little pressure that it was like sucking water from the bottom of a glass of melting ice with a plastic straw. Hardin claimed he was kin to the notorious murderer John Wesley Hardin who once shot a man dead for snoring too loud, and the claim, in his mind, gave him permission to drink from our fountain whenever he pleased. It also exempted him from wiping the basin clean when he finished. Our DI, a green-eyed man with a hooked nose, had an obsession about drinking fountains. He demanded them to be spotless at all times. Maybe it was because he slept in the main barracks and wanted us to be damn sure he was keeping an eye on us all. Whatever the case, he inspected our water fountain at random. If he found the metal basin blemished our entire floor had to stop what we were doing and give him twenty pushups. We suffered many a pushup on Hardin’s account. Our collective anger stewed.
It came to a head on a Sunday afternoon. We were enjoying some personal time, lazing around in the heat, writing letters or polishing brass or buffing leather boots. Big black flies buzzed laboriously through the thick air. I played chess with Gallucci, a skinny kid from Cleveland with thick, black-framed eyeglasses. Luís Cantú, born and raised in Queens, watched on. In strolled Hardin like he was doing us a favor. He sauntered to the drinking fountain and leaned down and started sucking water like a thirsty hog. Luís Cantú had confronted Hardin before about polluting our fountain, so had Gallucci and most of the other recruits on the first floor. Words did not deter him. I stood from the cool floor on which I was sitting, closed the distance, and, as Hardin turned to make an exit, clocked him with a straight right. He stood half a head taller than me. Blood trickled from his nose.
“No more,” I said.
Hardin left the building. He did not drink from our fountain again.
In a powerful performance by Antje Traue, General Zods’ right hand woman pauses in the midst of beating the tar out of Superman, to proselytize: You have a sense of morality and we do not. And that gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if there's one thing that history teaches us, it's that evolution always wins. (FAORA-UL)
The proclamation sounds sufficiently menacing to shore up Faora-Ul’s bid for Ice Queen of the year. But she is wrong. General Zod and crew are ultra-moral in that they will do whatever is necessary to restore the people of Krypton to their once and future glory. Krypton, for them, is the highest good. They are nationalists par excellence, would-be right wing juggernauts that will claim Earth for their own. Fascists pure. And why not? Superior to humans in two key aspects—physicality and technology—the survivors of Krypton appear to be more evolved than humans. They are a fictional example of a Hitleresque misreading of Nietzsche’s Superman: “Mankind is something to be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”
GENERAL ZOD (answering the disembodied philosopher’s question): Killed him.
Overcoming by extermination. A final solution. Zod will use the bones of humanity as a foundation from which to build a new world. Madness? This is New Krypton! And, like King Leonidas in another Zack Snyder film, 300, General Zod will sacrifice anything, even his life, to protect his people. And, like the Persian invader Xerxes, Zod sees himself as a god when compared to the lowly humans. By the end of the film, however, with finality, Zod will discover that even gods can die. The irony will be lost on him because, well, he’s dead.
But what about Superman? Does the despair that comes with ending any possibility of a New Krypton bring with it a taste of his own mortality? Does he have an epiphany that gods, by definition, cannot die, that he is as mortal as the humans he has saved? Judging from his bellowing sorrow, Superman has plainly experienced a life-altering psychological event.
The attrition rate at Basic Training was significant: a recruit nicknamed Chunk slipped into the CO’s office one fine evening, borrowed a uniform and paraded into the Officer’s Club masquerading as a Captain. Our CO, out for a Kentucky bourbon after a long, hot day of herding recruits, recognized the interloper. We never saw Chunk again. Rumors of Leavenworth. Another recruit, heartsick so far from his lover back home on the paradisiacal seashores of California, confessed to a fellow recruit that he wasn’t sure what he would do the next time we went to live fire M-16s at the range. We’d been warned about this type of behavior in one of our early classes and, following protocol, someone reported the loose cannon and he was removed from the field. A ghost. Fort Knox was full of them.
One sunny Sunday Luís Cantú accused Gallucci of stealing a stash of polished brass belt buckles which, in a pinch, Cantú would sell (at a tidy profit) to troops who weren’t up to par for an impending inspection. Gallucci balked. I defended him. We were a band of brothers for Chrissake, why would we steal from one another? Besides, Gallucci was weak. He had to report to remedial PT in the evenings and couldn’t very well defend himself. He needed my help and the incident with Hardin had given me a taste for blood.
“He wouldn’t steal from you,” I said.
“We got no trouble between us, you and me,” responded Luís Cantú.
I glanced over my shoulder at Gallucci. He stood against his locker shivering like a wet kitten. I said, “He wouldn’t steal from us.”
“I aim to look in that locker.”
I widened my stance.
By this time a good-sized group of recruits had gathered round to watch the drama unfold. Instead of blood, however, they sought justice.
“Come on, Gist,” someone called out. “Get out of the way.”
“Yeah,” agreed another. “If he’s innocent, he ain’t got nothin’ to hide.”
It was Ferguson who convinced me. He stepped through the crowd and put a hand on my shoulder. “He’s gotta clear his name, ya see? People’ll always be wonderin’ otherwise.”
Gallucci had no choice. He opened the locker. Luís Cantú recovered his stash of brass belt buckles.
Betrayed. The platoon. The uniform. I marched to the DI and ratted Gallucci out though he begged me not to. He lacked the discipline, the morality, to be included in our ranks. He was too weak. Three days later he was gone. Another ghost of Fort Knox.
Why did Superman side with humans over his own people? Instructed by his adoptive father to keep his superiority secret, Clark Kent’s physical gifts, it would seem, in Freudian fashion, morphed into a source of psychological guilt, something to be hidden, a shame. Why did Jonathan Kent insist that Clark maintain his workaday appearance rather than embrace his true identity? What might have happened to the young superhero if word would have gotten out too soon? Would the Military-Industrial Complex have scrambled to capture the outlander, to study him, poke and prod, imprison in order to co-opt his powers? Would they have attempted to keep him a secret for themselves, play down the initial sightings as tall tales, comic book fantasies, delusions? The answers were not worth the risk, at least not to a man who loved his alien boy.
It must have occurred to young Clark, however, that his superiority trumped his father’s concerns. Why didn’t he command the humans to do his bidding? They had no green kryptonite, nothing with which to stop him. He was invincible. Why not rule the world? Did he not know how? Did he not know what his bidding was? No. The filmmakers are clear on this point: it was out of love for his human parents, out of respect for his earthling father. His reaction was Nietzschean (surely Goyer and Nolan were familiar with the Übermensch as they penned the script), “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.” Is it not crazy for a Superman to be bullied by raggedy boys, to willingly suffer alienation from the world when one might dominate it? Or did he, spurred by familial love, because there was nothing else to be done, no place to turn, invent a morality which only a Superman might endure?
Before turning himself over to the authorities, Clark Kent visits a priest and expresses doubts germinated from the heat of bearing too many secrets for too long. He cannot trust Zod, of that much he is sure, but, from thirty-three years on Earth, he is fairly certain he can’t trust humans either. The priest tells him to take a “leap of faith,” and might have brought it home with, “a leap of faith into the absurd,” thus giving Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard his due. Superman, unlike Zod, embraces the madness that a trust in humanity involves; he is the madness which will cleanse the Earth of the people of Krypton (is it not insanity to commit genocide on one’s own people?).
NIETZSCHE (reciting what he is writing): Man is a rope, tied between beast and Superman—a rope over an abyss.
For Zod, the abyss is the oblivion of extinction. Whereas Superman’s biological father counsels his son, Kal-El, that in helping the humans to cross over, to evolve:
JOR-EL: You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But, in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.
They will stumble and fall, but Superman will be there to catch them, to lift them up.
Either Zod or Kal-El, two aliens from a planet far, far away, holds the fate of humanity in his hands; the humans do not control their destiny. It is possible that Jonathan Kent intuited as much and, in an effort to stall the inevitable, insisted that young Clark keep his powers secret. In order to allow Superman the opportunity to understand and empathize with the people he is destined to shepherd, Jonathan Kent sought to spare his son from the fear-induced wrath of a people unwilling to recognize their own inferiority.
Jor-El understood. Early in the film, he mitigates his wife’s anxiety that her son might be killed by the humans:
JOR-EL: How? He'll be a god to them.
A benevolent god, to be sure, a god that will allow, unlike Krypton where the newborn’s station in life was predetermined, the visage of free-will:
JOR-EL: What if child dreams of becoming something other than what society intended? What if a child aspires to something greater?
What if the child yearns to be a god?
A hubris that Kal-El, weeping over the corpse of Zod, who was the second to the last of his kind, overcomes. At this point Superman knows he is no god. He is something else: he is Last of the Supermen.
Our platoon won the drill award and showed off in front of the brass and civilians on graduation day. We were sharp and proud, those of us that made it through, our dress uniforms crisp, shoes and brass polished glass bright under the blue Kentucky sky. We flipped our rifles here and there, spun them like propellers before our chests, and cracked their butts on the parade ground in a singular collective movement. Civilians—mothers and fathers brimming with pride, wives holding babies in their arms—cheered. The officers saluted as we stood at attention before them. As graduates from Basic Training, we were soldiers. We were prepared to sacrifice our lives for something greater than ourselves: Truth, Justice and the American Way. We felt like superheroes.
Zod was a Superman. The writers of Man of Steel, taking their prepackaged antagonist for granted, failed to realize the villain’s full potential. His portrayal is the loose thread that threatens to unravel the script. General Zod’s decision to exterminate the humans so he can rebuild Krypton on top of their skeletal remains is anything but convincing. He doesn’t want to take the time to acclimate to Earth and coexist with humans? (Though he is able to control his heightened senses in a matter of days.) Has the craving for revenge completely consumed any semblance of reason? If so, why isn’t he a babbling idiot? It is never explained why Zod loathes humans to the extent that he wants them extinct. One is left to assume that he suffers from an acute superiority complex and fails to realize that it is better to rule than sit in front of a mirror and admire oneself. Wouldn’t a true villain crave slaves?
The best villains evoke some sympathy from the audience. In the beginning of Man of Steel, Zod, as Krypton deteriorates, is a man who is trying to do right by his people, even if the attempt is grossly misguided. His government has failed to act, ignored the scientific warnings of Jor-El, and, in doing so, all but doomed an entire people. Zod’s rage is righteous.
That same anger could have been projected onto the humans who are in the process of destroying their native planet. War, greed, pollution and the depletion of natural resources run rampant on Earth. Zod might have seen the writing on the wall and, like the God of the Old Testament, his wrath would spare no human: he would kill them all in a twisted act of revenge for that which transpired on his beloved Krypton. Madness? One man’s insanity is another’s justice. In this scenario Zod’s recklessness would have at least had a psychological basis, and there is always some reason in madness.
KAL-EL (pausing to rest between rounds): Why do you refuse to give them a chance? It’s not too late for them to learn. Why murder them?
GENERAL ZOD (vision blurred by sensory overload): For the sins of their fathers. And for the sins to come. Don’t you see, Kal-El? They are poisoning themselves, killing their planet, just as we did. They crave death. It is in their DNA. I will give it to them.
KAL-EL: Madness! (Hand-to-hand combat continues for the next five minutes of the film.)
Kal-El’s love of his alien parents—a Christ-like love of the strong for the weak, love unbound—juxtaposed to Zod’s Old Testament wrath: the makings of a classic. Man as a rope over an abyss of his own making, the destruction of Earth by his own hands, a tightrope over which the Superman must cross to save him from himself. This, in turn, might cause bitterness in pockets of the human population.
CITIZEN #1: Who needs Superman?
CITIZEN #2: We were free without him.
CITIZEN #3: Now we are slaves.
Revolution brew. A built-in Jeffersonian sequel.
The Air Traffic Controllers went on strike the summer I graduated from Basic Training. I rode a Greyhound from Kentucky to Wyoming. I don’t remember how long it took. I sat with another soldier, and we played cards and talked about nothing to pass the time. We were decked out in dress uniform, flaunting our freshly won identity. Green fields and rolling hills blurred by the window, nature’s banner silently unfurling. The bus stopped in Chicago. The terminal was big, noisy, filled with people. I stood with my friend looking at my ticket to find out where I needed to go to board the next bus. A thin man appeared before me, his hair long and wavy, a silver cap on a front tooth. He reeked of cologne. He was wiry. A twitch.
THIN MAN: Give me dollars.
I shook my head.
THIN MAN: Give me.
I looked into his watery eyes, slightly Asian, the pupils dilated.
And then he had a knife, fixed blade, four inches of stainless steel.
My brother-in-arms, fresh out of combat training, disappeared into the crowd, presumably to find a cop.
THIN MAN: Give or I cut ya.
I sunk into a fighting stance.
Queue Slow motion.
The crowd parted and an enormous ALBINO MAN, at least six foot five, his head bald, muscles bulging at his neck, the right side of his face covered by a massive, shining keloid scar, entered the scene.
ALBINO MAN (speaking slowly, as if pronouncing words comes at a price): Leave him be.
His clothes were dirty and worn. I remember the holes in the knees of his faded blue jeans and dingy white t-shirt, a worn red bandana tied around a thick wrist.
ALBINO MAN: You mess with a man in uniform and you’ll answer to me. Cuzza him you walk free. Understand? You better understand what I mean.
His eyes were pale as his skin, the irises hinting at blue.
Resume normal speed.
The knife disappeared and the villain blended into the crowd. Vanished.
Before I could thank him, my liberator was gone.
The crowd mulled.
I’m thanking him now, the albino stranger. It’s long overdue. I’d love to pen a screenplay, a superhero script, dedicated to him. For he was a hero. More than most of us. All too often we sell his kind short because we fear them and would never dare to intervene ourselves; they make us look bad and so we label them as freaks too far removed from the mainstream to maintain our interest. In sweeping them to the periphery—these rarities who aim for a morality that is forever just out of reach, something they glimpsed as children and which they continue to cling in spite of it all: the lies and cruelty and duplicity and fear—we reveal ourselves as human, all-too-human, the burden we have been doing our best to keep secret all along.
Who among us strives for an ideal beyond their limited reality? Is Truth, Justice, and the American Way a meaningless phrase from a bygone era, an empty slogan delivered by callous politicians and conniving generals to brainwash the herd into blindly obeying? Is it all postmodern smoke and mirrors, the old relativity game that leads necessarily to nihilism, for where all is relative meaning cannot exist? Or is it simple naiveté? I have no doubt the albino man, the freak, would have pulverized the would-be thief if he had not obeyed the command. He was that lightning.
Superman committed genocide on his own people in order to save creatures inferior to himself. How can he bear it?
How can those who he saved?
They are not two, not now, and so, together, they must carry the load.
LOIS LANE enters the building and walks to KAL-EL. KAL-EL kneels before her, ZOD’s corpse next to him on the floor, and presses his face into her womb. He weeps. She cradles his skull in her palms.
About the author:
John M. Gist's creative nonfiction and short stories have or will soon appear in publications such as the Dr. T.J Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, EDGE, Gravel, Pithead Chapel, Spilt Infinitive, Prick of the Spindle, The Fiddleback, Dark Matter, Left Curve, New Mexico Magazine and others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has three published novels and is co-author of the philosophical work Angst and Evolution: The Struggle for Human Potential. With an M.F.A from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he teaches creative writing at sunny Western New Mexico University.