Superman as Jesus -- Christian imagery in Man of Steel
It is often said that superheroes are modern glosses on mythic heroes of antiquity. Batman. Spider-Man. Iron Man. They are but many different modern faces of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and the whole metamorphic Campbellian crew, and the stories of their Herculean labors contain truths about human nature, heroic character, and our innate want for freaky cosplay. Or maybe just catharsis for 9/11. Probably just that. Yes, “mythology” sounds pretentious, like the rationalization of those who need to justify spending so much time filling their imagination with weird tales of fabulous people wearing outrageous clothes while engaging in ridiculously violent or risky behavior. It’s a lot of weight to put upon the colorful shoulders of these pulp fiction icons.
But some characters carry the burden better than others. And one character in particular seems to demand it. He is the superhero who reigns Zeus-like above all others, and is more loaded than any other with mythic significance, to a degree as daunting as it is inspiring. For as the serial once said, Superman has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. His character – his moral code – is far beyond us, too. As film critic/blogger Devin Faraci Tweeted this past weekend: “Superman should be held to the highest standards. He doesn’t get to f— up on any scale. That’s why he’s Superman.” (To some, this sacred geek icon is not a text to be interpreted; he is a set of immutable values to be evangelized.) In an interview with ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan sketched the creative challenge of dramatizing St. Superman the Comic Book Divine. “He is the ultimate superhero,” says Nolan. “He has the most extraordinary powers. He has the most extraordinary ideals to live up to. He’s very God-like in a lot of ways and it’s been difficult to imagine that in a contemporary setting.”
Not that it stopped them from trying. Indeed, the new model Man of Steel has a strong passing resemblance to a certain Son of God/Son of Man described in The New Testament of The Bible. The Superman Gospel begins a long time ago and far away in the heavens with an exalted otherworldly Father figure, whose very special son is not only proof of his awesome life giving creative powers but satisfy this story’s condition of a miraculous birth, albeit ironically: Kal-El is the first naturally conceived child on Krypton in countless years. Jor-El also plays the role of Old Testament prophet, promising fire and brimstone to a sinfully proud culture if they don’t immediately change their ways. Having failed to save his world by convincing them to reform, Jor-El executes a more radical redemption scheme through his only begotten son: The father will figuratively and literally place creation on Kal-El’s shoulders by imprinting the genetic record of his people on Kal-El. Through The Son, Krypton will be born again.
From this point forward, Man of Steel mixes (to varying degrees of success) superhero origin story, gay ‘coming out’ drama, and religious conversion narrative. The alien messiah comes to Earth as a baby and is raised by humble rural folk who are grateful for the blessing of a child, but also a little confused and even frightened by the extraordinary significance of the strange little boy. What child is THIS? Indeed. Kal-El loses his heavenly name but not his supernatural power. But in contrast Christ (and previous Superman stories), Clark Kent’s God-like identity is smothered, not burnished, by the influence of his well-meaning parents. They don’t want him acting like a Superboy, and more, have huge reservations about him becoming a Superman. But Clark can’t help it; it’s his nature to play savior. A moment when hyper-protective Jonathan Kent argues the point with Clark evokes a moment from the life of Christ, when Jesus’ parents discover him missing, go searching for him, and find him teaching the elders at the temple with a wisdom beyond his years. When Joseph scolds his adopted son for his actions and causing them anxiety, Jesus barks back: “Knew you not that I must be about my father’s business?” Jesus puts his parents in their place. Clark isn’t so fortunate. He’ll spend the rest of his youth hiding his true self from the world.
The Bible doesn’t tell us much about how Jesus spent his twenties: The gospel narratives jump from late childhood to early thirties, when Christ receives the Holy Spirit, comes into the fullness of his power, and begins his public ministry. But we are told that Jesus continued to grow in favor in the eyes of his family and God. To a large degree, Man of Steel follows suit. After sketching Kal-El’s origins, the story leaps ahead to Clark Kent in his early thirties doing good deeds, but anonymously. Seminal moments from his Smallville days are presented as flashbacks. His twenties? Undocumented. When Lois Lane tries to get the scoop, The Daily Planet reporter only finds rumors and legends of a life lived off the grid, under the radar. But after an encounter with a veritable Holy Ghost – specifically, an aspect of Jor-El, presented as hologram – Clark becomes the Son of God/Son of Man that his father intended him to be. He accepts the suit the way Christ accepted the Spirit as electric Jor-El beams with sunshiney pride. This is my son, with whom I am well pleased. And with that, Kal-El explodes out of the closet and commences with being about the business of his father in heaven. (Because Jor-El is, like, dead. Technically.) The public ministry of Superman has begun…
And it starts with an act of sacrifice on behalf of a world that he’s been raised to believe will only fear, scorn and hate him. General Zod – the film’s force of antagonism — demands that Earth surrender the last son of Krypton incognito among them. Kal-El gives himself up, hoping that by doing so, he can save Earth. He is 33 years old – the same age that Christ willingly went to the cross for the sake of the sinful human creatures that feared, scorned and hated him. Later in the movie, Superman will assay the Christ-like movement of descending into hell and rising again by flying to the bottom of the planet to stop Zod’s “world machines” from remaking the globe and producing an extinction event for the human race. Superman is pummeled into the depths, then slowly ascends and obliterates the terraforming tech and then defeats Zod, the embodiment of death for all mankind, just as Christ’s resurrection was a victory over death and brought hope of new life and procured a boundless future for humanity.
But Man of Steel is not Chronicles of Narnia. It does not express a Christian worldview. Instead, the movie critiques aspects of Christianity and God in general. Most Superman stories actually do: This god-like superhero has always been made to behave in ways God does not — or rather, in ways that contemporary peoples wish God would. Superman always rushes to solve what theologians would call “the problem of evil” wherever evil might be, whether that evil takes the form of a bad guy doing bad things to good people or some “natural” catastrophe that is actually an “unnatural” consequence of The Fall, which left man with limited mastery over nature. Moreover, Superman does not subscribe to what theologians might call the policy of “divine hiddenness.” Most Superman stories that dote on his Smallville days give us Clark Kent that was raised to expose his godhood publicly, to be a literal light to the world: At age 18, the Kents – with not a little bit of worry – practically kick the kid out the door with a Ma-knitted superman suit. Go get a job, you good for something secular messiah! Superman usually serves the world with joy in his heart, as Christians are supposed to do (2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”), and with extraordinary internal discipline that allows him to execute his mission without being tempted to violate one of the great commandments binding Christians and superheroes – “Thou shalt not kill” – and even receive the persecution of his enemies by turning the other cheek. Blessed are the peacemakers. Especially when bullets can bounce off their chest.
But the new era Superman of Man of Steel is uniquely different than the surrogate deity of previous Superman stories. This Clark Kent was raised by parents of the post-modern age. They are decent people of uncertain beliefs. To them, the world is overwhelming and threatening (especially if you’re “different”), something to be endured, even avoided. Yes, the Kents tell Clark, you were probably sent here for a purpose. Don’t know what it is, exactly, and you should take your time to figure it out. But no pressure! Help people when you can, but be discrete, never be seen, and remember: You can’t save everyone, and sometimes, it’s okay to not save anyone, especially when it’s your life on the line; it’s not a sin to put self-preservation over public service. And don’t even think about using your powers to show up and vanquish those who bully you. Let your freak flag fly to one of them or just some, and they’ll all come after your Ubermenchy ass with pitchforks and torches. The result of this fear-based parenting is a Clark Kent who is conspicuously saddled with the limitations that the Gods of most religions have apparently decided to give themselves. Clark adheres to a frustrating policy of divine hiddenness. He does not tackle the problem of evil that way we would want him to. As we meet him in his early thirties, Clark is a Kung Fu-with-a-hint-of-Hulk wanderer who does good deeds here and there, anonymously and as invisibly as possible, trying reallyreallyreally hard from going ‘roid ragingly ballistic from an increasingly untenable identity crisis. He is a metaphor, then, for the God we have — or who doesn’t exist at all, for this “divine hiddenness” and “problem of evil” are two of the biggest reasons why atheists are atheists and agnostics are all shrugs. If God exists, why doesn’t He show himself and abide with us the way He did (allegedly) with people in the past? If God exists and good, why doesn’t He stop bad things from happening, especially to righteous people?
The Superman of Man of Steel is bothered by these questions, too. From an early age, The Man Who Fell From The Heaven struggles to square the Kents’ teaching with what feels natural to him, what strikes him as simple common sense. What do you mean I shouldn’t use my powers to save a school bus that falls into the drink? You’re seriously telling me that it’s okay to put this little light of mine under a bushel and not let it shine?! WWJD, Dad? WWJD?!?! Just when Clark gets old enough to grow a pair and tell his Dad to take a flying leap, Pa Kent does something that seems to seal the deal on stunting Clark’s development from man to Superman: He sacrifices his life so Clark doesn’t have to sacrifice his secret, to protect Clark’s freedom to be – or not to be – whatever kind of Superman he believes is proper. Some might think Jonathan did right by his boy, but I’m not so sure: The Wanderer that emerges from Smallville is a miserable, unfulfilled soul who still has no idea who he really is or what he’s meant to be — problems Jesus never had. He is a cheerless giver, and he seethes with passive-aggressive anger toward the bad guys that he’s been taught not to fight.* He could change course at any time. But he won’t let himself, because (and this is more my interpretation of the text than anything else) behaving otherwise would render his father’s heroic sacrifice for his sake meaningless. Guilt and shame – or the fearful avoidance of either — are the crappy glues that hold this flim-flam Man of Steel together. Some might say the same thing about some Christians.
*Critics and fanboy purists have blasted the wanton destruction of Man of Steel’s final hour for depicting the superhero as being oblivious to the collateral damage threatening the lives of thousands of people. Never once does the ultimate First Responder think of breaking from the battle to help imperiled bystanders. I don’t completely disagree with this complaint, although I do not share the “Superman should be perfect” frame that other critics have put on it. This is simply a mistake of storytelling or a problematic omission. By not having Superman deal with or even acknowledge the mounting human cost of his brawl with Zod, Man of Steel subverts its most provocative, emotional moment — Superman’s uncharacteristic decision to kill in order to save the day. He hates himself for doing it — he unleashes a yelp of grief — but the moment is more confusing than powerful: Where was that same anguish when he and Zod were trashing Metropolis and endangering if not killing scores of its citizens with their violence? There could have been a brief bit in which Superman barks at his military allies to evacuate Metropolis while he devotes himself exclusively to putting down Zod. Failing that, there needed to be a scene that showed us how Superman felt about the danger he was helping to produce, or (more provocatively) explained why he just didn’t give a shit. Which, given what we’ve been told about this new take on Clark, is entirely credible. Beyond the matter of Kal-El’s confused, Kent-futzed philosophy on heroism and altruism, Superman just doesn’t know how to fight, because he was raised to avoid conflict at all costs. Consequently, Superman scraps without discipline, wages war without strategy. He brawls panicked, like a rabid UFC contestant, trying to win the bout with wild swings and dirty tricks, chasing after a knockout blow that he can never land because his opponent is so formidable, and equally desperate (especially when Zod comes into his own powers in the middle of the final fight and goes mad). And let’s give this allegedly flawed Superman this one benefit of the doubt: He knows the stakes. If Zod doesn’t go down, Earth dies. Do we really expect Superman to make himself vulnerable to defeat by turning his back on Zod just to airlift a couple thousand people out of Metropolis to create a safer theater of war? If you live at Ground Zero, sure. Me in Los Angeles, sweating the prospect of what Zod will do next if he kills the only guy on Earth who can stop him? Nope.
What this emasculated, closeted Son of Krypton needs (besides karate lessons) is to wriggle free from the stifling false self of “Clark Kent” that feels so unnatural, so, yes, alien to him and connect with a more authentic, liberated identity. Clark finally gets the brass balls to break from his adopted Dad’s way of doing business when he connects with his biological father and his heritage. With a download of origin story, Jor-El almost completely reprograms Clark’s buggy godhood operating system to its original, intended, common sense settings. The Good Father reveals that Kal-El has never been wrong to feel as he does, that his impulse to respond directly to the problem of evil has always been correct, that divine hiddenness is a bizarre counter-intuitive policy for someone so innately good, who could possibly change the world for the better by simply by being known. The alien no longer alienated from himself, Superman is set free to be the superhero – and the foster God – he was meant to be.
The final snare is broken when subtext becomes text in the scene in which Kal-El returns to the small town that raised him/warped him and goes to church. It’s his (ironic) Garden of Gethsemane moment; The Man of Steel is steeling his soul in advance of going public and sacrificing himself to film’s ultimate incarnation of the problem of evil, Zod, who has threatened to destroy the Earth unless the world coughs up the Superman secretly living among them. The encounter with a minister roughly his own age is tense. (Is he the all-grown-up kid who bullied Clark as a boy, seen in the flashback that immediately preceded this scene?) Being in the presence of an almighty power that his religion can’t explain makes the man of cloth nervous. He literally, loudly gulps. Kal-El is anxious, as well: He is at the brink of a profound spiritual conversion. He’s about to renounce the upbringing that molded him and all of its strictures. No more hiddenness. No more hesitance and ambivalence in his response to evil. Is this the right thing to do? Kal-El and the minister arrive at logical resolution: If Superman takes a leap of faith — if he reveals himself and demonstrates his goodness — then the trust he wants from humanity might follow. Clark lives out the advice. And so Superman at last enters into his fullness of his metaphorical godhood.
The final book of The New Testament, The Apocalypse (or Revelation) according to John, tells of a last battle between Christ and Satan in which The Devil will be destroyed and afterward Jesus and his truest believers will live together forever in a new creation. Man of Steel turns this eschatology inside out to take perhaps its most veiled shot at Christianity and all religions that espouse a final judgment that divides humanity into sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, clean and unclean.
Zod wants Superman, dead or alive, because his generic material contains The Codex, which would allow Zod to repopulate a terraformed Earth purged of human beings with genetically engineered Kryptonians. But maybe not all Kryptonians: In the prologue, Zod expressed a desire to only see the “pure” bloodlines flourish. Zod’s the Sci-Fi Supremacist is as a metaphor for racist or discriminatory ideology. But his philosophy is also is a metaphor for any spiritual system that says Heaven is only for the truest, most faithful of believers. Superman utterly Zod’s final solution, and more, comes to a shocking conclusion about his otherworldly heritage: He doesn’t want it. Declaring Krypton a dead culture, Superman adamantly refuses to be the means to achieve Zod’s New Genesis – a dream, it should be noted, which was also shared his heavenly father, albeit sans genocide. The Armageddon of Metropolis is now seen a culture war writ Marvelously, pitting the avatar of inclusive secular humanism against the paragon of exclusionary fundamentalist religion. Man of Steel’s ironic Super-Jesus stands with the former and against the latter, and he takes The Adversary out once and for all with a much-talked-about act of violence that represents shocking violation of Superman’s storied turn-the-other-cheek, Thou Shalt Not Kill code of ethics.
But this is not your father’s Superman, or his metaphorical Jesus. Man of Steel is subversive mythology for atheists that exalts a Superman who behaves the way they think God should but doesn’t. He is also stands for a generation of emerging Christians who are more interested in social justice, redeeming the culture and tending to the here and now, and less interested in preaching turn-or-burn rhetoric, running away from the world, and punching the clock until they can kick the bucket and go to Krypton… errr, Heaven. Watching Kal-El draw upon the natural energy of the Earth to soar sonic-boom loud and streak colorfully proud through skies, watching him flex his extraordinary muscles in the film’s (admittedly excessive) fight scenes, played to these eyes as wanton celebrations of God-given identity, as if this new generation Man of Steel was expunging so much pent-up frustration from years of repression and proclaiming: I’m here. I’m queerly Christian. Get used to it — because I’m the one who’s going to save your damn planet.
Note: On June 18, this essay was updated by the author to clarify some ideas and insert additional content.