Spoilers for Man of Steel!
Man of Steel is certainly this year’s Prometheus. No other film this summer has been so hotly anticipated, and then just as hotly debated once it was released.
The new Man of Steel film goes out of its way to compare Superman to Jesus. (In case you missed the parallels, this article sums them up nicely.) I’ve already voiced my thoughts on the film itself on the blog and on the StoryMen podcast, so I wanted to take this space instead to make some observations on the reaction to the film itself, and on what it can tell us about the state of our souls (yes, really!).
Much has been made of Warner Brothers hiring a marketing firm to target pastors to aid in marketing Man of Steel. Tom Krattenmaker – possibly the world’s only non-Evangelical expert on Evangelicals – points out that this widespread adoption of Man of Steel by churches represents a significant shift in our attitude toward pop culture.
Let’s start by saying, Good for us! We’ve moved from wholesale critique and dismissal of pop culture to some kind of engagement. As expected, the engagement ranges from careful and thoughtful to blind consumption, but we ought to be glad that as a whole Evangelicalism has taken a much less hostile tone toward mainstream media.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer my own (hopefully) careful, thoughtful engagement on just how much we ought to buy into this portrayal of Superman.
First, there are a few good moments in the film. Jor-El, for instance, is a powerful father-figure who consistently reaffirms his love for his son and challenges him to choose the hard third way of peace-making, of bridge-building. Jor-El gives up his own life so that his son can live, and calls Kal-El to be hope for humanity.
Jor-El particularly shines when compared to Jonathan Kent. Unlike Jor-El, Jonathan is consumed by fear: he’s afraid of what will happen if the world discovers his son is different. While Jor-El believes the best in humanity, Jonathan believes the worst, to the extent that when Clark saves a school bus full of children, Jonathan muses he perhaps should’ve let them die.
It probably goes without saying that the Jonathan Kent of the comics would never have said something like that. Clark’s earthly father was his moral compass, his center, his reason for being good. Snyder claimed he wanted this film to show us where Superman got his strong moral compass (including “Do not kill”). In the comics, Superman learned his strong moral code from his father. In fact, in most origin stories, Jonathan and Martha help Clark conceive his dual identity, precisely so he can save people without being discovered.
It’s no wonder a child raised by Man of Steel’s Jonathan Kent would sink to killing Zod.
What does it say about us that we can’t conceive of strong father figures as a source of good morality anymore? Must all our fathers be either dead or weak?
The Superman of Man of Steel is raised in a world of fear and uncertainty. But rather than rising above it, rather than listening to the voice of his “heavenly father”, he listens to the voice of his weak, frightened earthly father, and the voice of his enemy, who vows that their conflict can only end in violent death.
Why do we look to this flawed, morally ambiguous Superman as a Christ-figure?
Some have (rightly) rejected this vision of Superman as any sort of Jesus parallel. But we should be fascinated and bothered that Snyder, Nolan and all those preachers thought the picture of Superman we see is good Jesus imagery. We ought to be deeply troubled that apparently the most compelling, relatable Jesus we can imagine is a flawed man who only gradually learns the power to save everyone.
Speaking of which, we should talk about the film’s atonement imagery, if only briefly. If the filmmarkers want Superman to act as a Christ-figure, we should ask, How does he save us?
Historic Christian theology understands how Jesus’ death and resurrection restore our relationship with God in one of three ways:
- Substitution This is entirely absent from Man of Steel (though it was the primary atonement model in Superman Returns). Here the hero dies in the place of everyone else. He suffers on behalf of those he’s trying to save. This is also the atonement model in The Dark Knight Rises. The closest Man of Steel comes is when he overcomes the World Engine and destroys it. But again, not really there.
- Moral Influence This is what most Superman stories use, and what Jor-El kept trying to get Kal to understand about himself. Here, the hero provides the quintessential example for everyone else to follow. So both Superman and Jesus show us the all humanity could be so we can see what we’re striving for. Though Jor-El said this a lot (A LOT), Kal never actually did it. We don’t have any explicit examples of characters in the film aspiring to more because of what Superman does.
- Christus Victor Man of Steel tries to do this and does it badly. Here the hero defeats the powers that threaten or enslave humanity. So on the Cross, Jesus defeats Satan and frees humanity. The parallel should be obvious: Zod seeks to enslave and destroy humanity and Superman defeats him. This is why the five humans left alive in Metropolis after their fight can crawl out of the ruin of the city and proclaim (somehow without a trace of irony), “He saved us!”
Christians should be careful because Man of Steel doesn’t subvert the warrior archetype like Jesus does on the Cross.
Jesus wins by losing. He defeats by dying. Jesus the divine warrior fights by giving up. This is the same Jesus who loves his enemies, who prays for those who persecutes him, who turns the other cheek and calls all who would follow him to do the same.
Superman, on the other hand, returns violence for violence. He wins by being the strongest, not by being weak. He wins by killing, not by dying. And whether he’ll learn from it or not, the sort of Jesus he’s intentionally portrayed as in this film isn’t one that looks anything like the Jesus of the Bible. (He actually looks a lot like Mark Driscoll’s Jesus, which ought to scare us all away from being associated with him).
All this should tell us a couple of things:
- We need to be more clear about who exactly Jesus is and what exactly he does and doesn’t do. I made it clear in my last post that as a comics fan I don’t love what Man of Steel did to Superman. As a Christian, I like even less how easily Man of Steel conflates their image of Superman with the image of Jesus we’ve portrayed.
- We need to be careful what picture of Jesus we’re portraying to the world. I don’t blame Warner Brothers for marketing the film to Christians. It’s a brilliant marketing move. I’m not mad that Christians are talking about this film (obviously, I love talking about the film). But our apparent inability to distinguish between the Jesus of the Scriptures and the Superman of Man of Steel troubles me deeply. Shame on us.