Monday, June 17, 2013

The Politics of Krypton

[Spoilers ahead]

The new "Man of Steel" is largely faithful to earlier depictions of the Superman story (at least on film and television -- I am admittedly not well versed on the comic books), but it does make a few interesting departures. One of those is that we get a rather lengthy early segment set on Krypton shortly before its destruction. What it shows is a technologically advanced but violent world with a sclerotic political system that is unwilling or unable to accommodate peaceful and necessary change.

I found this depiction somewhat jarring. Earlier views of Krypton (from 1978's "Superman" and from the 1950s television series) left an impression of an advanced, peaceful society ruled by sages. The 1978 film showed General Zod, who had attempted a coup (off screen), as an outcast, and he was punished for his crimes by banishment (rather than by the death penalty, which did not exist on Krypton), after being judged guilty by unanimous vote. Apart from the lack of public defenders at Zod's trial, this earlier Krypton seemed to be a decent society that was tragically blind to its own impending demise. Its destruction was a loss to the galaxy.

The Krypton of "Man of Steel," by contrast, was a pretty nasty place. It is ruled by some kind of council of (extreme) elders who do not seem particularly open to alternative political views. Jor-El, whose previous entreaties to not over-mine the planet went unheeded, is now telling them that the planet is dying and urging them to give him control of the planet's breeding program to allow their species to live on another planet. They resist him, resulting in Jor-El breaking the law and trying to save the species on his own by saving his son. Zod, the only other person who seems to agree with Jor-El's pessimistic vision, also has been rejected by the council; his response is to organize a violent coup, killing some of them and imprisoning the rest. The coup is eventually thwarted, but the planet explodes anyway.

This is a rather pathetic outcome. A more flexible government might have listened to its top scientist and its top military leader rather than ignore them and force them into desperate actions. Some more creativity on the part of Zod and Jor-El might have allowed them to form a coalition and take over the government peacefully, but only if there were elections, and we see no evidence that Krypton is democratic. (Really, this is a world where the government is in charge of all breeding but somehow hereditary house names still matter. Weird.)

Now, granted, we're not catching Krypton at its best. A civilization that lasts 100,000 years surely has something to recommend it. But it's hard to mourn the planet's loss, and Zod's efforts to revive it are only portrayed in a very negative light. Kal-El clearly has some quality genes in him, but the new movie gives the impression that his adopted Kansas environment was far better for his development, both in terms of physicality and character, than his birthplace was.


  1. I think that the set up allowed (however intentionally) for quite an interesting anti-Social-Darwinism argument throughout: from the initial stages in Krypton(where there is a sense that their assumption of scientific advance and superiority has caused them to make some dodgy moral choices on eugenics(albeit rejected by Russell Crowe representing the heroically ethical scientist)to the noisy bit near the end (where one Kryponite tells our Man of Steel that Kryptonites are superior because they have evolved to have no moral quandaries about other races/ species).

  2. I haven't seen the movie but I know that fiction writers are taught that there must always be conflict in order to hold the reader's/viewer's attention. Thus fiction is packed full of conflict and it is often contrived--conflict for the sake of conflict. I suspect they decided to ditch the peaceful Krypton for one with conflict in order to keep people's attention, or at least to sell the script to the producers.

    People in the news media also realize that conflict is critical to drawing readers/views in and keeping their attention. Thus our view of our the political world is similarly packed with conflict. Who would want to read about Congress or anything else in government when all is peaceful? And why would anyone vote?

  3. Well, sure, a film needs conflict, but that doesn't mean a fist fight in every scene, which is pretty much the way this one went. I mean, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Superman story knows that Krypton is going to blow up. Isn't that enough conflict for an opening scene?

  4. Another odd thing about Krypton was its tiny center of cultural gravity. I mean, a planetary civilization, 100 millennia old, with basically one country, six political leaders, and one general? And on the intellectual side, approximately one scientist? That smacks of not wanting to bother with building a proper world.

    Also, the lead scientist of the ancient civilization commuted by pterodactyl.

    Finally, on the sorta-serious political thought side, any ideas as to whether super-long-running civilizations would really tend toward world government?

  5. Movies capture the zeitgeist. The zeitgeist reflected both in Star Wars I (where a dictatorship is established by the Senate because a contentious Senate can't respond in a timely manner to a crisis because its procedures tie it in knots, a la Weimar Germany), and this round of Superman (where deafness to a crisis arises from a too firmly entrenched political ruling class).

    In both cases, failing to respond to what is objectively a crisis requiring state action has every bit as much potential to lead to the regime's downfall as unfettered power not subject to political checks and balances. This has currency for modern Americans because divided control and partisan gridlock have been dominant in U.S. national politics for most of the lives of young movie viewers.

    The Superman movie is a somewhat more modern version of this trope also reflecting the inability of our own global leaders to respond to man made environmental challenges identified by scientists with the vigor that a true crisis demands until it is too late - a familiar theme in modern politics not only with global warming, but with failure to take precautions to prevent massive oil spills, fracking, and events like the Fukishima reactor crisis. One could even look at what risk analysts point out as widely underfunded efforts to identify and have a means to destroy species destroying meteors and comets on collision courses with Earth that have transformed life as we know it on Earth multiple times in geological history.

    You see some of the same tensions with the opposite result in the recent Star Trek movie, with a powerful Star Fleet admiral convinced that war with the Klingons should be forced before they wipe out the Federation in a perceived crisis outflanked by powerful underlings who want to play by the rules and discount the perceived crisis.

    1. Though it's true that Man of Steel forebodes mankind of making the mistake of ignoring impending self-inflicted natural disaster, the question must be asked, how did Krypton get to that state? That question was answered in the movie by Jor El: artificial population control.

      The interesting thing is that the primitive cause of Krypton's downward spiral to destruction was the abridgment of free will. Genetic engineering, predetermined economic stations for every citizen, etc, removed from it's citizens the possibility of dynamic, cooperative, spontaneous, and highly motivated initiative to solve problems. The loss of freedom was what ultimately killed Krypton.

      What we might learn from this is that mankind has a duty to learn from its mistakes and heed warnings of global trouble (environmental, population, agricultural, industrial, etc), however, the cure is not coercion, but liberty. Law and order is extremely important and redress of social error is necessary, but so is the freedom to choose.

  6. More . . .

    I tend to think that political scientists underestimate the importance of crisis management, avoidance of deadlock, and clarity of succession in constitutional design relative to reflecting public opinion. For example, from a practical perspective, one of the huge benefits of federalism, independent agency structures within the federal government (especially the postal system), and subsidiarity within state governments (passing power to independent local governments, agencies and university systems), is the fact that it prevents a budget deadlock in one political institution or labor strike against one government employer from paralyzing all aspects of government everywhere. A federal government shutdown doesn't close state and local courts, water and sewer services, local road repairs, public schools, the vast majority of colleges and universities, police enforcement, fire protection, or the like. A strike or government shutdown due to political gridlock in Ohio doesn't affect Kansas. A budget stalemate in Congress may still allow the postal service to continue to operate and a postal service strike won't necessarily paralyze the EPA. Also, since almost all government institutions that aren't Congress and the President and federal judiciary are less prone to gridlock, the collective United States government at all levels is less prone to gridlock than the core federal government.

    On the other hand, perhaps one reason we tolerate delayed votes on Presidential nominations and games of chicken between houses over budgets and the like is that we don't absolutely need all of the federal government to function every single day - notably new constitutions of more unitary states like Afghanistan were drafted to require timely votes on executive branch nominations and to allow Presidential budgets to be rejected only when the legislature has proposed a balanced budget alternative.

    The solution may be a product of political culture as much as political institutions. After 9-11 or Pearl Harbor, Presidents were able to quickly rally near consensus political support in Congress. Maybe we need to develop cultural cues that allow similarly rallies of near consensus support around some new kind of crisis.