Zack Snyder’s take on Superman’s double parentage – the dead biological parents from the destroyed Krypton, and his adoptive parents in Kansas – presents an opportunity for thinking through a point made by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This oddly damaged iteration of the Superman character keeps his good works a secret because of his adoptive father Jonathan Kent’s conviction that humanity will despise him should his powers be known. Kent’s strange nihilistic relationship to his adoptive son’s powers is introduced when the teenage Clark saves a busload of schoolchildren, and Kent ponders whether it might have been better to let them die. The extent of what Kent is willing to sacrifice to secrecy comes to a head in his magnificently ludicrous dying scene. Walking into the path of a tornado to save the family dog, Kent looks back severely at the young Clark, as if warning him against using his powers to intervene. With some small changes, the scene might have been the pivotal moment in the education of the hero: a show of ordinary courage and self-sacrifice which instils the same in him. Instead, Kent’s dying gesture is to passive-aggressively oblige his adopted son to let him die. The contrast of this pseudo-sacrifice is with that of the film’s other father, Jor El, killed jettisoning the baby Superman safely from the doomed Krypton. Whereas Kent was desperate to keep Clark away from heroism, Jor El actively participates in his adventures, returning as a sort of hologram with far better ideas for defeating Superman’s enemies than anybody else.
This strange survival of this other father is where Lacan comes in. Discussing the dictum associated with Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, ‘God is dead,’ Lacan corrects the popular misapprehension that this is a statement of atheistic hedonism meaning ‘everything is permitted.’ Rather, the absence of the father/God only results in his becoming more unquestionable. This is why, Lacan says, ‘the true formula of atheism is not God is dead,’ but rather ‘God is unconscious.’ Unencumbered with physical form, the father/God starts to exert his authority even more freely behind the scenes. This is why the motif of the two fathers is so necessary to patriarchal culture. There must be the imperfect slob of a father barely disguising his castrated inadequacy to take the function of the father supposed to die, so allowing this transcendent signifier of authority – what Lacan calls ‘the Name-of-the-Father’ – to live on. In Shakespeare, this is why Old Hamlet is able to go from being a possibly cuckolded old bore, preoccupied enough with past glories to return as a ghost in his armour from thirty years ago and spending every afternoon asleep in the garden, to the terrifying traumatic figure of absolute authority he represents to Hamlet after his death. While Dan Hassler-Forest’s book, Capitalist Superheroes (2011), has pointed out how frequently superheroes are allowed to rise in the wake of a parental calamity, Man of Steel represents a special development in insisting on this specifically Lacanian demarcation. For all his adoptive son’s trading on the supposed moral soundness of his Kansas upbringing, the Kansas father is no role model or authority figure at all. But this inadequacy is entirely necessary if the Name-of-the-Father in the form of the swashbuckling, free-floating Jor El is to emerge.
But the emergence of the Name-of-the-Father in the absence of the real one in Man of Steel does not stop with Jor El. Krypton’s other survivor, General Zod, also imagines himself as a kind of father, projecting to recreate Krypton and its inhabitants anew on Earth. And even Superman, implanted with the genetic code of all of Krypton’s dead inhabitants, is himself a version of the very father function he is ostensibly struggling to escape. In this way the best Shakespearean analogy for Man of Steel is not Hamlet, but As You Like It, a play about dead fathers which begins by seeing them everywhere. As the rebellious orphaned son Orlando complains to his old servant Adam about the unwarranted paternal authority his older brother is exerting over him, he claims that ‘the spirit of my father, which I think is within me, begins to mutiny against this servitude.’ Very far from meaning that ‘everything is permitted,’ the death of the father gives him an unconscious monopoly over the son’s oppression by his brother, his confidante in that oppression (old Adam – the original Biblical father), and the means of supposedly rebelling against it in the form of the father’s mutinying ‘spirit.’ As in Man of Steel, the dead father gets everywhere. In this respect the criticism of Snyder’s film that complains about its heavy-handed Christian imagery has got it all wrong. For Lacan, Man of Steel would be a film utterly compliant with this ‘true formula of atheism.’