With the recent news that director Zack Snyder was actively working on a script adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the idea that Zack Snyder follows Rand’s philosphy of Objectivism emerged. Immediately, the influence of Objectivism can be seen in many of his films. But what dawned on me personally was how elements of this philosophy interact with Superman, the subject of Snyder’s current film franchise; more accurately, how Superman is the opposite of an Objectivist character.
To get an idea of how at odds Superman is with Objectivism, one must first define Objectivism itself. And personally, I think the best way to understand someone’s belief system is to let them define their beliefs themselves, so I will be comparing Superman to the tennets of Objectivism as they are defined at AynRand.org. In short, Objectivism claims a foundation based on four major points of doctrine: Reality, Reason, Self-Interest, and Capitalism. And when you break it down, none of these are particularly Superman-esque.
Objectivism “begins by embracing the basic fact that existence exists”. Fair enough, I’m pretty sure it does. This path of logic further states that facts cannot be ignored or muted, that we cannot wish something other than reality into existence, that there is no alternative or competitor to reality, and that to truly embrace existence one must reject notions of the supernatural, including God.
Which is why a Methodist farmboy who can do the impossible is so outside the basic ideas of Objectivism. Superman is a creation based around doing what cannot be done, based on a man who has the ability to do the impossible. Granted, there is an in-universe realism based explanation for how he does these things, but Superman’s abilities go beyond mere science fiction. Superman frequently operates on fairy tale logic, running into situations where he cannot realistically save the day for everyone, yet through perseverance and optimism he finds a way, against all logic, to accomplish everything. For example, in an issue where he has been erased from existence, only to be wished back to life by children.
Zack Snyder has defended the mass destruction of Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel by advocating the need for consequences in superhero movies, but he has chosen perhaps the worst superhero to try and illustrate this with. Realistically, yes, a superhero defending the world from an alien doomsday machine in the middle of a crowded city will result in catastrophic amounts of death and destruction. Realistically, if a villain forces a man to make the impossible choice, to kill the villain or let the villain kill innocent civilians, then those terms as dictated must be followed. But realistically, Superman shouldn’t come back from death; or be able to carry a substance that nothing can contain or hold except the Monitors who exist above reality; or be able to inspire to heroic action the denizens of Limbo, the place where nothing can ever happen. Superman has done all of these things, because he sees impossibilities as challenges, and as a character, his main appeal is that he is not beholden to the rules we associate with reality. Superman is wish fulfillment incarnate.
Once you have embraced reality, Ojectivism argues you then must guide your life through reason and logical thinking. Now, nothing is wrong with logical thinking, and I am in no way going to argue that Superman as a person refuses to think logically. But Rand’s idea of reason is to “reject emotions, faith or any form of authoritarianism as guides in life” and, well, Superman doesn’t.
I referred to Superman earlier as Methodist, and that’s maybe a little up for debate. Different writers have had different opinions on Superman’s religious beliefs, but they boil down to one of two options; either he adheres to his adoptive parents’ Methodist Christian religion or else he worships the sun god Rao of Krypton. Being from another world is a fairly good reason to not believe the localized religion of a foreign planet, and if anything proves a god doesn’t exist it would be the destruction of the entire species and planet that worshipped it. Yet here is Superman, consistently claiming belief in one of these two options.
And emotions? Superman is heavily motivated by emotions and feeling, which is part of what differentiates him from the analytical Batman. While there is a strong argument that emotions and logical thinking are inextricable on a biological level, Superman’s emotional decision making is more than just a response to emotional stimuli that teaches him successful methods vs unsuccessful ones. Superman will hesitate in a fight because of an emotional aversion to violence; Superman will remain hopeful for the worst kind of person’s redemption because of an emotional need to be optimistic. Superman places a high value on emotions, feelings, and dreams. In his words:
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Perhaps this is the most famous of the tenets of Objectivism, the idea that ‘self interest is the highest form of morality’. As explained by AynRand.org, “Why does man need morality? The typical answer is that we must learn to deny our own interests and happiness in order to serve God or other people — and morality will teach us to do this. Rand’s answer is radically different. The purpose of morality, she argues, is to teach us what is in our self-interest, what produces happiness.”
All of this is the perfect opposite of Superman, who spends his time doing good deeds while on his way to performing greater deeds, and choosing the not particularly glamorous life of a reporter all so he can be perfectly positioned to do the best and most needed deeds as often and quickly as possible. Now, one might argue that he is seeking his own happiness, if altruism is what makes him happy, unless the person arguing is Ayn Rand, who says in the essay “Man’s Rights”, found in The Virtue of Selfishness: “Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism and with individual rights. One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal.”
Morally speaking, one cannot sacrifice their own happiness in the name of helping others, says Ayn Rand. She decries the efforts of societies that would provide for those in need at the expense of those who have, and her fiction is littered with individuals who are exceptional, only to have their exception exploited for the gain of society as opposed to the gain of the individual. This is wrong, she would argue, much like the Pa Kent of Snyder’s Man of Steel would suggest that young Clark keep his powers secret as opposed to using them to save a bus full of drowning children or save Pa Kent himself from a tornado, the second of which happens in the movie. This is quite unlike the philosophy of the Superman of the comics, which is itself quite simple, and very, very altruistic.
Objectivism believes that Capitalism, and specifically laissez-faire capitalism, is the only truly moral form of government. “Economically, this means not today’s mixture of freedom and government controls but ‘a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.’”
Now, individual rights and freedoms, particularly in regards to economic decisions and business ventures, is a strongly American ideal, and as a champion of “the American Way”, Superman is also prominantly for these rights and freedoms. But what Superman is consistently not for is unregulated business practices, particularly when those business practices cause harm to others. Case in point, uh, the very first Superman story ever told, the two part storyline evidenced in Action Comics #1 and 2. In the story, Superman finds himself fighting against a war from every angle. He fights to protect individual soldiers, he fights to stop war crimes as they are happening, he actually ends the war personally by kidnapping the opposing generals and telling them to duke it out themselves, at which point they realize they have no quarrel with each other and cease the fighting. And threaded through all of this, Superman takes it upon himself to teach a lesson to an American munitions manufacturer supplying both sides, profiteering from a war that he helped instigate in the first place. While it’s true the man was engaged in criminal enterprises as well as legitimate business ones, Superman doesn’t just put a stop to his illegal activities:
Superman runs the man through the ringer until he agrees to stop manufacturing weapons period. When business, even legal business, comes into conflict with the benefit of society, Superman clearly demonstrates which side he’s on.
And that’s not an isolated incedent. Superman has spent a vast amount of time over his history fighting against corrupt businessmen, from the first enemy he targets in Grant Morrison’s New 52 Actions Comics, to the 1985 redesign of his number one nemesis in John Byrne’s Man of Steel. And that leads me to an even bigger revelation about Superman and his mythology and its connection to Objectivism.
The Randian Hero
The Randian hero, like The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark or Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt, are representations of Ayn Rand’s ideal man. These figures are the archetypal creative individualist; they are exceptional people who reject the idea of owing society anything, they are intelligent and logical, they are self made entrepreneurs who frequently find themselves at odds with people who wield power they never earned. And as much as Superman himself actively rejects these ideals, there is still a Randian Hero in the Superman mythology: Lex Luthor.
Lex Luthor who so cannot fathom Superman’s altruism or humility that he is blinded to the revelation that Superman is Clark Kent.
Lex Luthor who hates his enemy for the astounding power that Lex feels Superman never earned.
Who is John Galt? He’s not the noble, red caped Kryptonian come to save our world with his exceptionalism; he’s the angry, jealous billionaire who wants to kill the Superman.