The Platonic Superman

Or, Man of Steel: Man of Gold

Even though the Snyder/Nolan Superman film has been out now for a bit, let me begin by saying:


I was finally able to see the blockbuster with my buddy-friend-guy, Christopher. The movie was more enjoyable than I thought it would be based on what critics had said.

And for me, it was not the action, the reinvention of the backstory, or looking for DC easter eggs that made it intriguing. I am not really all that big a fan of lots of action. It is in the action that most folks get lost and then stay focused outward not gaining any traction on how the mythic narrative might awaken possibilities in their own being.

And as a long time fan of Smallville–watched nearly every episode over its ten years–I did not find that much was added to their rethinking of the Jor-El/Kal-El vs. Zod backstory nor of the John Kent/Clark relationship.

Finally, going on about the DC universe and how this might finally tie in to a Justice League film is interesting to me only when I am bored with nothing else catching my attention.

No, what got me involved in the movie was how quickly the influence of Plato on the story became apparent. Now those who know me well know that I am always finding ways to tie Plato into things. I’ve done a Platonic reading of Aranovsky’s PI and Lang’s Metropolis, and Lucas’ Star Wars.

So for all of you going, Ugh, Keith’s at again… sorry, but this is what I do.

Henry Cavill as Kal-El / Clark Kent in Man of Steel (June 2013)

I have been beaten to the punch by Peter Lawler at Big Think. And I am sure that a lot more of my good brothers and sister of the Ether have seen this connection to Plato as well.

But I will probably get a tad more obsessive about it over time. I really want to use this as an excuse not only to explore Plato but to explore how hero myths in popular culture offer an opportunity to learn how to train the mind and the soul.

I want to see the movie a couple of more times actually to really refine my insights. So, this is just painting it broad to get going. As the spirit keeps moving me over the next few days or weeks, I will refine.

  1. The story of Krypton’s destruction is a purposeful retelling of the Atlantis myth that Plato originated in Crito and Timaeus.
  2. Krypton has a eugenics program that is patterned after Republic but–thanks to technoscience–even more rigorous as they just engineer each person to fit a certain role–bureaucrat, scientist, warrior, etc.
  3. The Gold/Silver/Bronze myth is referenced by having Jor-El wear armor that is gold trimmed (denoting him a kind of philosopher king) while Zod’s is silver trimmed (denoting him an auxiliary/warrior).
  4. One gets the impression that the ruling council is supposed to be the wisest, but if they have indeed been genetically grown to occupy such a position, they do not meet the criteria of asketic training called for in Plato’s vision.
  5. Jor-El and Lara-El’s sending Clark away parallels two things in Republic: children should not be raised by their parents. This is to allow no favorites to be played. But also it is a version of sending the person outside in the Allegory of the Cave.
  6. The role the Sun plays is always important in any Superman film. In this version, Cavill often is seen turning to or even reaching his hand out into the sunlight. This reminds us of the Simile of the Sun–that the Good is like the Sun which is the provider of life and the way we can see anything that we see.
  7. Which brings us to the place that vision and the other senses play in the film. All of Kal-El/Clark’s senses are extremely heightened. Only by his parents teaching him moderation is he able to get control over how his senses are overwhelming him. In Republic, we learn that the only Idea/Form that can be experienced is that of Beauty. This is because the senses lead us to the beautiful.

These are only a rough few that I saw–besides the overt reference when Clark is being bullied as an adolescent while he actually is reading a copy of Plato’s dialogs.

I want to round this out by mentioning the most ironic issue: everyone knows that in some ways Superman’s existence as a fictional character owes big props to Friedrich Nietzsche: Superman → Ubermensch.

Of course, what we see in this adaptation turns away from authentic Nietzsche, toward  the popular interpretation: survival of the fittest, the overcoming of weakness, letting go of morality, the death of God, etc etc.

Zod here is the Fascist Nietzsche. Now a good many of my friends who are better at Nietzsche could probably use such a film to demonstrate how NOT to interpret the author of Beyond Good and Evil.

Possbily, Man of Steel is the post-modern opportunity where a rapprochement between Plato and Nietzsche might happen.

Okay… more later.  I welcome comments and responses.


  1. Like this… It’s making me spin off into philosophical musings about Batman and the Incredible Hulk as well… Pinball!

  2. One of the things I particularly liked about this film is that this is a Superman my son can really relate to. He is a philosophy/history/science geek and he has never been really big on the idea of superheros. Having never been interested in reading anything related to Superman, just because of who he thought the the character was, I hoped that I could change his mind by taking him to see this and boy did it! I can’t wait to see how they continue his story.

    1. Excelsior! Really glad to hear this. The story is a welcome opportunity to get people to think about virtue ethics. Yes there was a lot of big action, but for me this was symbolic of the struggles that occur everyday in our own minds. Clark/Kal-El becomes a cipher for the Wanderer on his Journey to self-mastery. And only with this virtuous, disciplined approach can he find his place in the world, a place from whence he can lovingly struggle against those who are immoderate or violent. So while there is a lot of big action, it is in proportion not only to his physical prowess but his spiritual capability.

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