Shaw And Superman
Almost obscured by Man of Steel's very long, loud, and explody slugfest is a dialogue with a play more than a century old. That play, George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, is a verbose, mostly action-free romantic comedy with an examination of Nietzsche's ideas about the Ubermensche and the future evolution of mankind at its centre. Through the mouthpiece of the play's hotheaded hero, and a long dialogue between Don Juan and the Devil, Shaw argued that Supermen, with their superior intellects and ability to circumvent ordinary moral codes, could either become tyrants and dominate the mass of ordinary people, or do their best to elevate everyone. And the best way of elevating the entire human race was to use the same kind of selective breeding used to improve plants and animals. To that end, the institution of marriage should be abolished, so that men and women would be free to choose their ideal mate (oh, and property should be abolished too). The only true race of Supermen would be born from a collective utopia.
In Man of Steel's long prologue, we're shown that the inhabitants of Superman's home planet, Krypton, use cloning and selective breeding to maintain the purity of their race rather than improve it; towards the end of the film, Superman's nemesis, General Zod, forcefully declares that he was specifically bred to defend the ideal of Krypton, and will do anything in his power towards that end. Superman, however, is the first natural birth in millennia, the product of his parents' belief that chance and Shaw's version of free love may cure their society's static decadence.
According to his natural father, Superman's unique birthright may allow him to become a bridge between Kryptonians and humans, and produce something greater than either of them could produce by themselves. And although he's hobbled by his foster-father's warning to hide his unique powers, Superman wanders America, trying his best to do good - shown in flashbacks, these episodes, and those from Superman's childhood as he grows into his powers and absorbs human values, are the best part of the film. Clever, complex, and with some fine imagery, and a nice montage that shows Lois Lane doggedly uncovering the truth. Zod, on the other hand, claims to be above petty human morality; he's willing to commit genocide and found a new version of Krypton on a planet-wide pile of skulls. He's an unfettered exemplar of the popular conception of the Nietzschean Superman, ruthlessly pursuing ideals of racial purity and Lebensraum.
And this is where the film devolves into a grim and joyless empty spectacle; where Superman departs from Shaw's ideal. After the arrival of Zod and his crew, Superman must prove to the US military that he isn't just another enemy alien, and is soon embedded in the military-industrial complex. Zod should be pitiable - he can't help doing what he does because he was born that way - but instead his pulp villainy is cartoonishly one-dimensional, and his apocalyptic threat is an excuse to stage all-out warfare in Superman's home town of Smallville, and in Metropolis. At the end, Superman cops out and commits murder, and may also have committed genocide too. Just as it became necessary to destroy the town to save it, it becomes necessary for Superman to break his moral code to achieve a neat, uplifting ending for the film, and (having swept the mother of all 9/11s under the rug) a shameless reversion to the Golden Age romance.