Julian Assange and Man of Steel: Why the Hero We Need is More Important than the Hero We Deserve

Guest commentary post from Troy-Jeffrey Allen. You can listen his radio show at www.wearemoka.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter.

We_Steal_Secrets_-_The_Story_of_WikiLeaksIn the documentary We Steal Secrets, Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is depicted as an aging cyberpunk whose ego ultimately corrupted his ethics. Nothing hits that point home more than a clip of The Guardian’s Nick Davies. Davies gives a personal recounting of Assange placing his own hubris over national security, the life of his informant (Bradley Manning), and the young men and women on the ground defending the United States. It’s a questionable bit that pits one man’s word against another. However, the interview brings up an important point that — oddly enough — cuts to the heart of what is wrong with the recent Warner Brothers release, Man of Steel.

At this point, it’s no big **SPOILER** that in the film, Superman (played by Henry Cavill) snaps the neck of his adversary. For moviegoers, it has turned out to be a divisive moment in the film, made even more awkwardly complex moments later when Superman gives a lecture to military personnel about the collateral damage of drone strikes. The point is meant to re-establish order after the chaos of the aforementioned scene, but it’s a hollow point, largely because we don’t see the Man of Steel do anything to save the people of Metropolis until he’s done with his overly-intimate slugfest that seemingly wipes the fictional city off the face of the earth. It’s a bizarre (albeit, deliberate) gray-area, one that previous summer blockbusters such as Independence Day, Marvel’s the Avengers, and hell…Transformers: Dark of the Moon managed to avoid.

What is the difference between the violence in Man of Steel compared to those other blockbusters?

The answer is simple: It’s Superman.

The oldest and shiniest of superheroes is uncharacteristically playing judge, jury, and executioner.man.of.steel.poster

However, the answer also goes far beyond that. At the base of this is the fact that Man of Steel’s director, Zack Snyder, along with screenwriters David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, desperately try to subvert the genre of superhero films instead of letting the superhero genre subvert their own cynicism.

The idea that the filmmakers force Superman’s back against a wall of violence and then have him react lethally instead of saving the day brings up what Nick Davies was scratching at with Julian Assange: He who has the power makes the rules. Superman had the power to kill (and, according to the plot, cause Kryptonian genocide), so he did just that.

In Assange’s case, the ball was in his court to minimize the potential for collateral damage and he allegedly opted not to. Initially, he sought out to expose the government’s disregard for life. He then turned around and shrugged his shoulders when given the opportunity to show compassion for his fellow man.

Should Superman function in a similar way just because our world does?

I say no. If for no other reason than because he is a children’s hero who is carelessly being used here as a conduit for adult misanthropy – perspectives that the film’s running time seems ill-prepared to properly comment on. Not too shortly after Superman climatically snaps another man’s neck, the film ends.

Regardless of whether or not Man of Steel gets a sequel in order to elaborate, the movie has already lost the argument it was trying to make. In writing a finale in which Superman is given no choice but to kill his enemy, they are exclusively targeting world-weary adults instead of bending the ear of children to show them that in the face of adversity – as corny as it sounds – heroes will always find a compassionate option. Instead, Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer are just preaching to the choir, the working-class stiffs who already see the harshness of reality for what it is.

If we are to believe what Nick Davies says in We Steal Secrets, then Julian Assange was so swept up in “crushing bastards” that he didn’t truly consider the larger ramifications of his actions. He had the power, so he wielded it like a gun.

If we are to believe the filmmakers of Man of Steel, then Superman is the gun. And despite Pa Kent’s insistence that he shouldn’t let anything force his hand, he still isn’t idealistic enough to do so.

What is the lesson here? Why is it that misanthropic subtext is being thrust onto Superman? Why is it that we are inundated with questionable amounts of PG-13 violence that – in terms of hopelessness — mirrors images of that Apache helicopter assault or 9/11?

It would appear that Zack Snyder and company are too self-aware, to the point that their noble reflections on real life atrocities are as disconnected as the soldiers in those leaked airstrike videos.

Some may think that comparing the two films sounds preposterous. But if Man of Steel wishes to violate its already beleaguered viewers with harsh political subtext then maybe I’m just following through on its goal.

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One comment

  • In some profound way, those holding the reins of popular culture and public discourse have somehow lost touch with the reason our heroes were created in the first place and what has made them endure for so many decades, and your essay bridges the increasingly fuzzy (or even illusory) gulf between art and life (and death) incisively.

    Allow me to add another comparison:

    What Cavill’s Superman is to the older, shinier Superman portrayed by Christopher Reeve (or, better yet, George Reeves), Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden are to Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. Ellsberg, who until the rise of Wikileaks remained a minor figure of the Watergate era, has been cited as the hero who the latter-day leakers profess to emulate. But emulate him, they certainly have not.

    Ellsberg experienced actual combat as a Marine Corps officer, earnestly prosecuting a war he only later grew to detest, after he had performed his duties honorably. Assange‘s sources (yes, even Private Manning) spent their wars in air-conditioned offices sitting at computer terminals.

    Ellsberg leaked only finished intelligence in the form of a carefully researched and edited report being produced by the RAND Corporation at the behest of the US government, and even then, it was further edited down by reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post before its release to the public. Assange’s approach was more of the smash-and-grab variety of disclosure, spewing raw intelligence in the guise of citizen journalism.

    In Ellsberg’s day, heroes were heroes not only because of what they were capable of pulling off, but what they stood for. While I do not personally think Daniel Ellsberg was a hero, he and co-conspirator Anthony Russo unquestionably stood for something. They were men of principle. I cannot tell what principles pretentious preeners like Assange hold, if any.

    Perhaps today’s measure of heroism is indeed measured primarily in the sheer amount of destruction you can cause. Ellsberg can arguably claim credit for hastening the American disengagement from Vietnam, consequently ending the war. Assange claims credit for the Arab Spring, causing ever more violence and instability in that quarter of the world, even as American forces struggle to disengage from it.

    A term comes to mind from the last superhero movie I actually liked: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Ellsberg only had that single RAND report, and look what he did with it. Manning and Snowden were given exponentially more access, and power. And look what they did with it.