Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialog about religion in this column. The column below may have spoilers, so be warned!
Welcome back to Comics Are My Religion! I have been on a bit of hiatus for a few months due to a tremendous amount of work I have been doing. Strange for a pastor who only works one day a week, right? I did not expect to write this column, but when I recently went to see Warner Brothers’ new Zack Snyder/Christopher Nolan Man of Steel, I knew I had to comment.
I do not recall a superhero movie being quite as divisive as this one. It’s pretty universal that folks are loving the latest superhero movies like The Avengers or Nolan’s Dark Knight films. Other films, like Ghost Rider, Green Lantern, and Jonah Hex have been universally panned. However, Man of Steel has firmly divided both the comics community and the action film community. There are numerous articles on why this movie is great or why it sucks, and go into all the reasons why. For my purposes here, I’m going to focus on one aspect of the film.
Let me be clear: while I love and respect the idea of Superman, I am not what one would call a huge fan of the character. I love the symbol that Superman embodies. To me, more than any other character, Superman symbolizes the entirety of heroes, goodness, justice, and all of the elements that make comic books, television, and movies worth watching. So to tackle Superman in a film is nearly impossible. I went into this movie not watching the trailers (except one of the first teasers), and tried to view it without any concept of what has come before. I don’t particularly think that any of the previous incarnations have nailed the ideal of what Superman can be. I was hoping that with Christopher Nolan’s role in producing that this would be a stripped-down, core-element type of representation, much like he did with Batman.
Instead, I walked away with a very muddled definition of who Superman is and who he is supposed to be in the 21st Century.
Superman, in my opinion, is most clearly realized in his Messiah-like traits. Many have agreed that Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, both Jewish, created Superman with the Messiah archetype in mind. Granted, Christians have thus overlaid their theology that Superman was meant to be Jesus, however, this is a poor interpretation. Superman is primarily a Jewish concept and should remain as such. To tie Superman to represent Jesus of Nazareth, while they may have similarities, is not analogous. Instead, one must realize that both Superman and Jesus play out a Jewish Messianic archetype, rather than Superman playing out a Jesus archetype.
So by himself, Superman is messianic in nature. There needs not be any Jesus-references in any portrayal of the character. Superman is the metaphor, and to convolute that metaphor by overtly tying him to Jesus is a disservice to both.
Yet this movie seems to be making a clear (and clunky) statement that Superman is Jesus. Perhaps the most overt scene is when Clark Kent goes to a church and speaks to a priest about his choice to give himself over to the government so they can give him over to Zod. The scene shows a close up of Henry Cavill as Clark Kent, with a stained glass image of Jesus (the classic portrayal of him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane) directly over his shoulder. Another moment is when Superman rips apart the Kryptonian space craft and falls back to Earth. Someone says, “He has saved us,” and as he falls, he is in cruciform pose. I remember something similar in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Heavy-handed is putting this nicely.
You would think, as a priest, I would enjoy Superman being used to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet I think the filmmakers make this so dumbed-down for all audiences that it’s insulting to both Christians, Jews, and people of no faith. Superman can stand on his own. There’s no need for overstating the metaphor.
He and Zod fight all over Metropolis, with buildings falling every time a punch is thrown. In a post-9/11 society, we now know what damage is inflicted by a building falling. To have 20 or 30 fall in one movie, caused by a Christ-figure who can’t just fly his enemy into space, just doesn’t make sense and was frankly offensive. Interviews with Zack Snyder have stated that this is to set up the next movie, but I believe movies should stand on their own with no promise of follow-up. There should have been a scene where Clark mourns the loss of life as a result of his fight. Instead, we get a cutesy scene of him getting a job at the Daily Planet.
Finally, and perhaps the most controversial bit of the film, is that Superman kills Zod. This choice undercut every other heavy-handed Messiah message Snyder and Nolan were trying to make. Some will argue that Superman has killed in the comics. I’m not saying that Superman can’t kill, but the way the filmmakers built him to be a Savior, then reneged, sullied the experience. In Man of Steel, Superman ends up not being a Messiah-figure at all, but just another action hero.
So this movie didn’t nail it. That’s OK. There will be other portrayals which will also have their problems. For now, I’ll say to the filmmakers that they should stick to action and let go of the religious allusions. Religious metaphors need not be so overt, nor refuted in the same film.