"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."
The new Superman rocks. Let's just get that out of the way. Critics have had mixed opinions, but the word-of-mouth has been excellent. I've read a number of reviews featuring the foundational stories that gave birth to Superman (Moses and Gilgamesh), the increasingly overt Christian themes, and the hidden atheist message embedded in it. Since religion is already being dissected so vigorously, I will focus on another aspect of the film. In a world struggling to understand how to live well, Zach Snyder offers a story in which the importance of establishing a healthy ethical base takes center stage. Two key scenes set the stage.
Scene 1: After Clark saves the children in a school bus from drowning, his father gently chides him for taking the risk of being discovered. Clark rightly asks, "What was I supposed to do - let them drown?" Jonathan replies, "Maybe." His reason is the the world is not ready to handle someone like Clark, a seeming god among men. So until the world (and Clark, and perhaps most importantly Jonathan) is ready, Clark should hide his power and allow some tragedies in which he could intervene to play out. It's for the greater good.
Scene 2: Zod explains to Superman that the Kryptonian's evolutionary advantage has put them on a road to survival paved with the bodies of those who are not as fit. It's just the way it is. Zod was born to be a soldier, to fight for race and defend his people, and all that matters is that the Kryptonian race survive and flourish. Terraforming the earth and killing everyone? It's for the greater good.
If you are like me, you found the first scene to be poignant and the second repulsive. I suspect that's what Snyder wants you to feel. Zod is obviously a villain ("Boo, genocide!") but Jonathan is humble and nice ("Yay, loving parental concern!"). However, as the film unfolded, this consequentialist approach to life clearly revealed a potentially fatal flaw.
Both Jonathan and Zod wanted to let the ends justify the means. Zod is a monster who is willing to kill all the inhabitants on a planet just so his race can use their property; Jonathan is a loving father who is willing to sacrifice a school bus full of young children so his son won't be inconvenienced (read that last sentence again). Making an omelette sure is tough.*
Jonathan's tasked with teaching an invincible alien how to navigate life. Overall he handles this well, but Clark is obviously bothered by his dad's reluctance to let him protect those around him who are in danger. When he is bullied, his dad coaches him not to respond. Perhaps that was not the best approach either. Self-control is a vital skill, but so is learning how to appropriately confront evil. Clark is smart enough to realize what another arachnid superhero also knows: when you have power, you have to use it responsibly. In order to do that, you have to a) use it and b) use it responsibly.
This is the first version of Superman I've read or seen where Jonathan comes across as a deeply flawed hero - a man who loves his son so much he is willing to sacrifice not just himself but others rather than let Clark do what he was born to do. It's admirable that he cares for Clark so much; it's unfortunate that he forgot an entire world needed Superman. Clark ought to have been about his Kryptonian father's business, but his earthly father had trouble seeing beyond the safety of the farm.
If we are to live well, we must have more than dedication to a particular end goal. We must also be sure that causes we are willing to fight and die for truly deserve our allegiance. The most sincere people in the world can give everything and do anything for the sake of a cause the believe in - but they could be wrong about both their goal and the manner in which they seek to achieve it.
Superman's famous symbol is Krypton's symbol for hope. Perhaps hope is what we feel when principled dedication is intertwined with truth, personal virtue and moral duty. Only then does true heroism lift us toward the sun.
* Some reviewers have argued that the final fight scene shows a Superman who apparently takes no thought for the general population as he fights Zod throughout a city, toppling skyscrapers and causing general mass destruction. I don't agree. Zod forced his hand; what was Superman to do? Fly off into the country and wait for Zod to stop pillaging the planet? ("Hey! Come over here where we can fight! I mean it!") It wasn't going to happen. There is a difference between the ends justifying the means vs. necessitating the means.