A Man of Steel Conversation

One of my favorite pop culture scholars, Tony Mills, wanted to weigh on in the new Superman movie, Man of Steel. I wanted to vent about it too and thought it would be fitting for another Pop Theology conversation. Feel free to weigh in with your own reactions.

Tony: Ryan and I each had some thoughts on the ethical and religious issues with Man of Steel. We begin, perhaps most fittingly, with the proverbial elephant in the room, but there is much more to be said than that.

Ryan: So much has been made, in religion and pop culture circles, about the Jesus- and Christ-likeness of Superman in the wake of this latest film in the franchise. There are a couple of scenes that beat us over the head with the comparison, most notably Clark consulting a priest and being framed by a stained-glass Jesus in the background. The substitutionary atonement theory is clearly at work here. For those who don’t know, this is a perspective within the Christian doctrine of salvation that understands Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to God, or substitution, on our behalf to appease the God’s anger at sinful humanity. It is highly popular within Evangelical Christian circles and is exemplified in Man of Steel: either Superman or the rest of the world must die.

Tony: I definitely agree that the attempts to show the parallels between Jesus and Superman are heavy-handed. In the comics and in the earlier Christopher Reeve films, the similarities felt more natural. Bryan Singer does the same thing in Superman Returns, but that film is so self-conscious that the comparisons feels natural there as well. We know that we are watching a Superman film, and we know that Superman is the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, as it were. In Man of Steel, however, the parallels seem to be very unnatural, rather forced and therefore trite. The scene in the church is the major example. I actually found this scene confusing because it didn’t appear to fit in. The priest is shot in such a way that he gives the impression of familiarity. Are we supposed to know this man? What they could have done to make this more natural is to have the priest be someone who used to pick on Clark, which at the very beginning I thought they were doing because the church scene comes closely after the scene where young Clark is about to be beat up by jocks. They did this with the young man, Pete Ross, that Clark saves from the river, who turns out to be kind to Clark later in life. This would have made more sense, showing that Clark’s goodness and kindness encourages others to be kind in turn. The other significant scene is when Clark leaves Zod’s ship to go rescue Lois from the escape pod. He slowly backs out of the ship with his arms crossed, but it makes no sense in the context of what’s going on. It’s as if director Zach Snyder just wanted a cruciform scene so much that he just had to cram it in the film somewhere in case anyone had missed the connection.

What? No crown of thorns?

Ryan: There is something interesting, though, about Superman carrying the identity of an entire civilization in his very being with the Kryptonian Codex being part of his cells. I’m reminded of Acts 28:17: “In him we live and move and have our being.” There is something cosmic about this understanding of humanity’s relationship to Jesus that transcends another traditional, Evangelical notion of Jesus being someone’s “personal” lord and savior. However, as all superhero/Christ comparisons inevitably do, this one falls off the rails when Superman starts wailing on the baddies and eventually snaps Zod’s neck.

Tony: Yeah I agree. This almost feels like two movies. For the first ninety minutes or so, after the prologue on Krypton, we have Clark struggling to find himself and his purpose, but we do see a fairly solid personality being formed even in the midst of the confusion: an aloof but intelligent and very compassionate young man who values the wisdom of his adoptive parents, who values women, who takes an unassuming attitude toward strangers, and who does not respond violently to people who are violent towards him. Once General Zod and his followers come to Earth, however, the film turns into not only little more than spectacle, but one which seems to contradict the pensive moral and psychological landscape presented in the first part.

Ryan: And apparently along with beefed up special effects laden destruction, the latest blockbuster has to be ear-splittingly loud as if to remind us that we don’t have ginormous speakers at home. The death and destruction that accompanies this sound and fury has become so “eroticized” as to be offensive. It’s 9/11 porn. I don’t know if I can sit through one more generic city-wide destruction with low-angle shots of toppling buildings. The lack of creativity is boring, and the inability (or unwillingness) to attach any sense of despair over accompanying loss of human life (you know, all those people who live and work in those buildings) is arguably unethical.

Tony: Right, which is another reason why it feels like two movies to me. Here we have all this stuff in the first part about Clark doing what’s right and being a beacon to the world and leading people and all that, but then when the fighting starts he appears to not care one bit about the destruction of property and human life which inevitably results from all the over-the-top carnage. The collateral damage is whitewashed, however, as it is in almost all superhero movies for the sake of the PG or PG-13 rating necessary to make more money.

Ryan: You’re exactly right about the relationship between money and ratings. It’s good for box office, but we must also ask ourselves what cultural and social messages (not just religious) these 13-year-old and younger viewers are receiving. I know this is something you’ve thought about in regard to other blockbuster films as well.

Tony: You mention the lack of creativity being boring. Another aspect which I am starting to find boring, but which is common in many superhero films, is the moral dichotomy between heroes and villains, particularly with the hero representing compassion and sacrifice while the villain represents Nietzschean amorality and Social Darwinism. Both of these are present here, chiefly in the attitude of Zod’s lieutenant Faora-Ul. Superman is considered morally exemplary because he is compassionate toward the weak, i.e. humans. I think there are films in which this distinction is portrayed well and provocatively, but it is becoming a rather overdone staple of the superhero genre, especially when the hero then acts in the same violent manner as the amoral villains whose ethical vision he or she is supposed to oppose. The killing of General Zod would seem to be an example of this, although Superman seems genuinely remorseful after the act. What would have made this scene and decision more powerful is to have Clark suffer more emotionally because of it; a more drawn out depiction of the psychological anguish of killing another person. Because of this, the perpetual death of villains at the hands of a supposedly compassionate and moral hero, the lesson and virtues of kindness, sacrifice, protection of the weak, etc. risk being ultimately subsumed under or absorbed by a metaphysics of violence. Historically and culturally, of course, this is what Americans love to tell themselves. Look how compassionate we are! Look how noble and sacrificial! We have no choice but to invade sovereign nations and spy on our citizens and assassinate “terrorists” and incarcerate people without trial and impose our values on non-white people. The message of Man of Steel, which is, to be fair, shared by most American action and superhero films, is not really about compassion. It’s about the spectacle of violence and destruction masked as compassion.

About J. Ryan Parker
  • Lars

    Finally got a chance to see this and thought it accomplished what it set out to do – reboot the franchise and one-up the sci-fi/superhero genre (damn you, Transformers!).

    The marketing to churches feels like an attempt to generate more box office than actually believing Christians will relate to it any more than say Iron Man or Batman. The iconic images of Superman floating, arms outstretched, in water or space are cinematic shorthand for pathos – he’s (nearly) dying to save humanity, except he’s doing it over and over, just as he’s dying to self repeatedly. It’s all calculated to be sure, but, for me, often effective. The carnage is, alas, what the formula demands. The greater the stakes (lives at risk), the greater the urgency, the greater the CGI effects budget. It can all be rather numbing and gratuitous but that, and a 3D option, is how you know it’s a summer blockbuster.

    Regarding the superhero stooping to the level of the villain, this is tricky territory. If Zod is merely captured and imprisoned, there’s little catharsis (and you’ll be accused of cynically setting up a sequel when he surely escapes). Zod is so “evil” Superman HAS to destroy him. In a similar vein, it won’t it be the thousand years that Christ locks away Satan that gets believers excited, it’s when he gets released and toasted in the Final Battle and then thrown into the lake of fire where he and the unbelievers “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” that warrants a standing ovation. (Rev. 20:9-10) Still, when I read passages like this, I get the sense that the Good News is also “about the spectacle of violence and destruction masked as compassion.” Then again, I was raised a Pentecostal.

  • Mark Antony

    From an atheist point of view, Superman is not at all comparable with Jesus – Jesus is easily trumped by Superman, morally speaking. For instance Jesus, in the stories where he walked the earth, could apparently cure any concievable disease, even long term death – but he never tries to share this ability with humanity, or use it for much more than proving his credentials as a demigod. If superman had access to that kind of medical technology, power, whatever you might want to call it – he’d devote his whole life to spreading it about so that it could continue on after his death, and help the maximum number of people possible. In some of the superman stories he devotes considerable time and resources to things like “a cure for cancer” etc. Jesus on the other hand offers a cloud and harp filled eternal afterlife, not something terribly impressive to a non believer lol In fact it sounds quite Hellish, especially considering the inhabitants of Heaven are smugly looking down on the “failures”, trapped in pointless eternal torture, unable to ever be redeemed or rescued. Could any good person really be happy, knowing what was going on below? Only a completely evil person could ever be happy in “Heaven”, so for someone good, its really the worst Hell possible. An exceptionally good person would gladly trade places with any total stranger in Hell. You can bet your red underwear that if Supes was in Heaven he’d fight like Hell to rescue those poor bastards, and he’d allways give them a second third forth fifth chance to reform themselves, basically forever – hes the King of forgiveness (lets not pretend for 1 second that Jesus’ Dad has this sort of character, weve all read what he thinks like right? a total fucking prick really, a fantastically inhumanly cruel and unjust monster – I know I dont need to cite any of the huge number of examples of this in the bible)

    Also, while Supes and JC both have a strong “turn the other cheek” vibe, Supes will drop this in a milisecond when third party innocents are in danger. I dont really know any examples of JC ever doing this kinda thing

    Supes :) far far gooder than Jesus :)

    PS the above article does nod to the fact that in MoS, Supes is terribly broken by his neccesary killing of Zod, its obvious Supes regarded this outcome as the worst possible and a total fail on his part, even something that will make him think himself a failure for the rest of his days – then the article goes on to act like Supes thought as little of this as might someone as ruthless as Wolverine! Just twisting the story out of its own writing to fit .. whatever the fuck