Last week I finally caught up with the “Man of Steel,” the latest representation of Superman.
My son and I found this film, directed by Zack Snyder, to be an entertaining way to waste our time.
The movie, with strong acting performances throughout, opened on Father’s Day and celebrates a comic book hero created 80 years ago by two young Jews, Jerry Siegel, an American, and Joe Shuster, a Canadian.
In 1933, the fateful year in which Hitler came to power, Siegel and Shuster’s superhero is said to have been modelled on the biblical figure of Samson.
After the last, rather unsuccessful film version, Warner Brothers Pictures offers a new lease on life to a prototypical hero in the Western World. If the film’s opening attendance indicates its success, Superman has indeed caught the imagination of contemporaries, likely a mixture of nostalgic boomers and a younger generation.
I will not give away too much of the film in saying that the origins of Superman have become key to his mission on Earth and are developed in greater detail than ever before. These foundations also help in understanding better the subsequent cosmic struggle over Earth’s fate with a vengeful General Zod (Michael Shannon).
Superman and Christ
What struck me in the buzz about the movie was the explicit marketing with which Warner Brothers targeted ministers and religious audiences in selling the story and its hero as relevant for modern faith.
A dedicated website seeks to stimulate discussion and to probe suggested analogies between Superman and the saviour. Here ministers and interested parents can find resources for discussion, from a Father’s Day conversation guide to sermon notes by Craig Detweiler, a communications professor at Pepperdine University, as well as a teaching guide for Sunday school, all supplemented with relevant trailers and clips from the movie.
In the resource guides to the film, analogies between the Superman myth and the Good News story of the New Testament, as well as their suggested contemporary relevance, emphasize relationships that exist between sons and parents, natural and adoptive; the growth of a mission and vocation in these heroes; and qualities of the two exemplars that can be emulated in one’s own character formation.
“You’re not just anyone,” Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner, says to his adopted son. “One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.”
Thus the Father’s Day conversation template between dads and their children on the resource website explores the nature of love, from examples of love in the movie to challenges in one’s own life when trying to love those who are difficult to love. Discussion of “superhero powers” raises a question: “How can we be everyday heroes for those we love?”
Hero vs. Saviour
These movie-makers are not blind to the differences between Superman and Christ. “Where Man of Steel begins,” the conversation guide for Father’s Day states on the Ministry Resource site, “the New Testament presses deeper still. A hero who came to save humanity is also one who was there during its creation. He’s more than just a champion against evil, he’s a powerful example of what is good.”
Although sacrifice is a key theme in Detweiler’s film notes for ministers, it is here that the analogy becomes quite problematic.
The superhuman powers of the Man of Steel pre-program him for eventual victory, aided even in the unearthly fight by his Kryptonite father (Russell Crowe) as a helpful hologram. He neither dies the shameful death of a criminal nor does he experience the abject loneliness of the man of Calvary, who utters the far from steely words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Only in this paradox of weakness and death does Christ experience his ultimate victory through the resurrection.
Despite the difficult childhood of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), human evil remains largely directed against the boy’s outsider status. The evil that Superman wrestles with comes from outside and results in a superhuman contest of two people from another planet. It is not — in the language of the Apostle Paul — the profound universal struggle between sarx (flesh) and pneuma (spirit), which he and fellow Christians have experienced in the very core of their being. In that conflict, only a truly human saviour could, ultimately, conquer.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.