Superman was always my favorite superhero, so of course I could not pass up seeing the latest theatrical adaptation on the big screen. The whole cinematic experience remains one of my favorite pastimes for many reasons, not least of which is the music. A film score can make or break a movie (just try watching Star Wars without the trumpeted anthems of John Williams and you’ll see just how important the music can be) and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed by Zimmer’s work on this one. Zack Snyder also makes visually stunning movies, and Man of Steel is no exception. On top of all that, this movie was produced by Christopher Nolan, who makes fantastic movies (almost) every time.
Having said that, this movie was a bit thematically schizophrenic (and yes, I know I mean MPD but that’s less recognizable). At times it almost felt like it had been written by a committee. It’s as if they were developing one theme beautifully, only to have some guy from the other side of the room shout out “Hey! Be sure to throw something about this in there! And while you’re at it, make it a recurring theme!” I suppose it was all in the interest of providing something for everyone, but it made for a handful of oddly incongruous lines and disjointed detours which to my mind didn’t help the movie at all. Aside from a couple of fight scenes that could have been trimmed by several minutes, that lack of thematic focus is my main complaint about this film.
At the heart of the movie, there was an inspiring ideal spoken by Jor-El which demystified the apparent “S” on Superman’s chest. “It stands for hope,” his father told him, “the potential for every person to be a force for good.” As a humanist, I can identify with that ideal, and Jor-El sent his son to Earth to encourage the realization of that same potential. Even though his human surrogate father accurately predicted the fear and hostility which the world would show towards Kal-El, in time they learned that they could trust him and cooperate with him to save and protect their common world. It started with a bully whose life he saved as a young boy, but later even the U.S. military followed the same pattern. As one commanding officer declared after first trying to oppose him, “This man is not our enemy.” Whenever creatures of habit are confronted with someone who confounds their understanding of the world, they do initially respond with fear and hatred. But as one who often feels at odds with his own cultural setting, I too hold onto a hope that one day I (along with those like me) will not be seen as an enemy, but as a valuable asset in the quest for forward human progress. To my mind, this hopefulness concerning the potential for human goodness and cooperation lay at the heart of the film, and it would have suited just fine by itself.
But then alongside this theme there was a glaringly obvious and rather forced attempt at pandering to religious viewers. I might have overlooked that if I hadn’t already seen the deliberate marketing to churches done by Warner Brothers and the marketing firm they hired, which specializes in marketing movies to Christians. They even went to the trouble of enlisting a theologian beforehand to write sample sermons from the movie and including them on a website for easy access by preachers. Usually this kind of marketing is done for explicitly Christian movies like Fireproof or The Blind Side, but this is the first time I can recall this kind of direction for a summer blockbuster. They even went so far as to pose Kal-El in front of an image of Jesus in Gethsemane at a key moment of decision, and later strike a cross-like pose right after his father tells him, “You can save them all.” But these facile Easter eggs weren’t the main reason for my complaint. Parallels between Superman and Jesus are natural and well-known (more on that in a minute). What bothered me most was the nonsensical pitting of morality against evolution.
There were two “bad guys” in this film, General Zod and his cohort, Faora-Ul, and each of them at one point or another chided our hero for caring for people. In the middle of a fight scene in an IHOP, Faora bellows: “The fact that you possess a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if history teaches anything, it is that evolution always wins.” Wait…what? Since when did morality and evolution contradict one another? In whose mind is this the case? Isn’t our sense of morality a product of the very same forces of evolution to which this character refers? I had come to expect something more than this kind of shallow philosophical misfire from the people who brought us The Dark Knight. This strange interaction raises suspicion in me that once again they are pandering by using a negative buzzword for the religious (ooooh, she said evolution!) to evoke the stereotypes necessary to appeal to that target audience. But this is neither logically consistent nor is it necessary in order to find parallels between Jesus and Superman. Relax, guys, the parallels are already there.
Comic book superheroes, mythologies, and religions often echo each other, and for good reason: They are all blatantly stealing from one another in a continuous loop. Anyone who studies classical mythology knows this. In fact, one could argue that all creative genius is simply a matter of stealing from one mythology or another in order to rework it for one’s own purposes. I would venture that almost every inventive story you’ve read was written by someone who was inspired by dozens of previously written stories, whether the writer openly acknowledges those influences or not. But this shouldn’t disappoint us too much; it’s just the way art and literature work. I think that we are all creatively brilliant in our sleep if nowhere else, and those whom we label “geniuses” are simply able to access that brilliance during their waking hours. It’s as if the barrier between conscious thought and unconscious dreaming is thinner, more permeable for them. But even then, the works of art which they create are cobbled together out of images and symbols and narratives which they’ve absorbed and internalized from exposure to the great works of all those civilizations which have preceded them. We are all thieves, every one of us. And as the old saying goes, “Good writers borrow, but great writers steal.”
If we all have the potential for highly creative invention, and if we do it effortlessly in our dreams every single night, then collectively speaking we regular folks should be able to weave together some real masterpieces. We all build our stories out of the stuff of our common dreams and shared stories. That’s how mythology happens in the first place, and it’s how religions form. It’s also how comic book heroes are developed, most of which borrow heavily from the mythologies which came before them. Superman is an excellent example. The original creators of the Superman story borrowed heavily from biblical personas and other mythologies. They named Hercules and Samson as inspirations, but as children of Jewish immigrants, the inspiration of the story of Moses is impossible to ignore: A young boy is sent away in a basket and then discovered and raised by parents not his own. One day he demonstrates a special calling and powers beyond anyone’s imagination in order to save his people from evil.
Like Superman, the story of Jesus was similarly patterned after the story of Moses. Note the infanticide which follows the birth of each, and the surrogate parents who raise each until they reach full maturity. The theological parallels which the early Christians worked out following Jesus’s ministry and death ingeniously wrapped themselves around not only the story of Moses but also around the entire story of the people of Israel from the Hebrew scriptures. I was taught from my youngest days to believe that the earlier stories were somehow preternaturally written in anticipation of the later ones, as if by some magic the latter inspired the former. As a student and a professor of literature, C.S. Lewis struggled with the same conundrum and learned a similar resolution for the obvious parallels between Christian stories and the much earlier pagan ones:
[God] sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.
But this turns everything up on its own head, doesn’t it? Why not simply acknowledge that the later stories were patterned after the earlier ones, drawing inspiration from them? Isn’t that how most great stories really develop? They cannot acknowledge this because then the spell would be broken and the apparent magic of it would vanish. If the later stories were woven around and made up of the earlier ones, then this would lessen the sense of supernatural guidance and we might no longer look with wonder at the intricately interlocking symbolism of old and new stories found in places like the Bible or even at the local cineplex. Folks would much rather marvel at the obvious parallels between Kal-El’s story and Jesus’s, praising the appropriate deity for the clever way in which he slipped these sneaky allusions to his own mythology right into a summer blockbuster.
Don’t be so easily impressed. We are all story thieves, every one of us, and somewhere along the way, every great story was inspired by a previous story (or perhaps many!) and so on as far back as human memory can go. Kal-El wasn’t the first to steal his story from an earlier literary figure, nor was Jesus, nor were the ones before him. That’s just the way great storytelling goes.
Too bad they had to go and overdo all of it on this one. It had fantastic potential. But sometimes less is more, and like too many others this movie dumbed itself down and made some things overly explicit when they would have been just as powerful if they had remained subtle. Evidently some folks thought their audience needed more help figuring things out, and on top of that they couldn’t figure out who their audience was in the first place. Like I said, it’s too bad. It could have been a great movie. At least I liked the music :-)