Making Superman, Jesus and other iconic figures “relatable”

Making Superman, Jesus and other iconic figures “relatable” June 4, 2013

It’s something of a cliché for religion-minded pop-culture writers to talk about the parallels between Superman and Jesus, especially when there’s a new Superman movie in the works, but Zack Snyder, director of the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel, said something in one of the film’s newer promotional featurettes that got me thinking about the parallel from a slightly different angle than usual.

Specifically, Snyder described how the approach taken by producer Chris Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer would make Superman relevant to a 21st-century audience: “What Chris and David did was, ‘Let’s let the audience participate in the experience of being Superman, without breaking the things that make him Superman.’ They were able to sort of make him relatable, ground him and make him feel real.”

Two things came to mind on hearing this statement.

First, I was reminded of a point that I have sometimes made in the past, regarding the difficulty faced by Jesus-movie makers who want to stay true to the gospels while engaging their audiences.

Normally, when audiences go to see a biopic, they expect to identify with the protagonist in some way, and to be swept along on the protagonist’s journey. Even when the protagonist is a really enigmatic character, like T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the audience is invited, on some level, to share the protagonist’s confusion about himself and his identity.

Not so with the vast majority of Jesus films, however. Most Jesus movies ask only that the audience look at Jesus and listen to Jesus; they keep him at an objective distance, so that the audience is rarely encouraged to actually identify with him — which is somewhat ironic, since one of the whole points of the Incarnation is that God became man in order to identify with us.

There are films that have tried to approach Jesus from a more subjective point of view — films that encourage the audience to identify with Jesus on some level — but these films have often had limitations of their own.

Films like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and the CBS mini-series Jesus (1999) familiarized Jesus to the point where he didn’t seem like a particularly exceptional human being, let alone God in the flesh.

The Passion of the Christ (2004) was far more successful at balancing the subjective and objective elements in its own portrayal of Jesus — I discuss that at some length here — but it was hemmed in by its narrow focus on the events following Jesus’ arrest. It would presumably be more difficult to sustain that sort of balance in a film that covered Jesus’ entire life or ministry.

Superman obviously isn’t divine or anything like that, but he does come from an older tradition of storytelling in which there was very little characterization beyond the fact that certain people were “superheroes” while others might be “supervillains”.

The character is, you might say, iconic, and the challenge faced by the makers of Superman movies is similar to that faced by the makers of Jesus movies: how to take the icon and give him flesh, personality, a dramatic character arc, and so forth, but hopefully without losing what the icon represents.

And that brings us to the second thing which came to mind when I first heard Snyder’s statement: namely, filmmakers have already tried to do that before.

Specifically, the makers of the first two Christopher Reeve-starring Superman films (1978-1980) tried to get inside the mind of the character by dwelling on his origins, his regret that he could not save his adoptive human father, his reluctance to submit to the will of his Kryptonian father, his romantic feelings for Lois Lane, and so on.

The Superman of the earliest comics and cartoons never seemed all that smitten with Lois Lane; he just enjoyed the fact that, in his disguise as Clark Kent, he could scoop her on stories and toy with her sense of who and what he was.

But the Superman played by Reeve was prepared to sacrifice everything — including the world-saving destiny mapped out for him by his father — in order to be with Lois Lane, indeed to sleep with her. (As I noted several years ago, the first two Reeve films basically do for Superman what The Last Temptation of Christ did for Jesus.)

This emphasis on the inner thoughts and feelings of Superman was carried over into Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), which, as Matt Zoller Seitz has noted, is all about the regret that Superman and other characters feel over the paths their lives could have taken, but didn’t.

And, as my friend Steven D. Greydanus noted at the time, Superman Returns is in some ways a more mature film than the Reeve films, which familarized their protagonist to the point of making him an overgrown adolescent: “Looking back at the earlier films, it’s hard to see his love for Lois as much more than a schoolboy crush. . . . Here, as he watches Lois from a distance, for the first time I take him seriously as a man who loves a woman and is struggling with it as a man.”

Improvement though it may have been, at least in that respect, Singer’s film was still only a semi-reboot, a long-delayed sequel to the first two Reeve films that ignored their other sequels; it was still tied to the conceptualization of those earlier films. Snyder’s film, on the other hand, is a full-fledged reboot; it will represent the first all-new big-screen version of the character in decades, so it could offer us a very different take on the Superman mythos than what we have seen before.

And maybe, just maybe, it will find a way to make the character relatable without going to quite the extreme that the first two Reeve films did.

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