When Man of Steel finally came out about two months ago, it was released to enormous hype and expectations that had been built up in the months previous. This was the Superman movie that everyone had been waiting for. But when it was finally released, audience reaction was surprisingly split down the middle. The movie wasn’t met with the same acclaim that had followed Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Half the audience seemed to love it, or at least like it, while the other half seemed to hate it. Personally, I didn’t like the film. And while I have many, many problems with the film, most of those problems have already been addressed by other people who express themselves more eloquently than I do (this video is the best representative of my opinion, and this video’s just fun!) But out of all the issues that people have brought up concerning the film, there’s one major bother I had with the film that only a few people have looked at very closely: the correlation between Superman and Jesus.
Before I begin, let me get a few things out of the way. I do think there is a definite place for Jesus imagery and parallels in mainstream media or entertainment. There needs to be some kind of justification for it and it needs to be well-executed. I think the Chronicles of Narnia books are great and I think that Lewis’s intent with the books (how would Jesus reach out to the inhabitants of worlds other than our own) is incredibly creative and very admirable; I love that Les Miserables is still a popular story in the public consciousness; I think it’s one of the best stories of someone transformed by Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. I even think that the Christ parallels drawn in the last Harry Potter book were incredibly well executed. I’m not claiming that there aren’t commonalities between Superman and Jesus: they’re both gods among men which makes them outsiders on Earth, they both have incredible power that they use for the good of mankind, they make sacrifices to save the human race, etc.
There are clearly parallels to be made between these two, but many of those parallels are not mutually exclusive to Superman and Jesus. Heroes with great power that choose to use their power for the good of mankind: heroes that choose great sacrifice in order to save the world is an incredibly common trope that is not unique to Superman. I mentioned Harry Potter before as an example, but in the superhero genre specifically you also have Wonder Woman (who uses her great power to help humanity, and in one of her earlier incarnations, had to sacrifice a life spent with her people in order to remain in “Man’s World”), the X-Men (who are seen as outsiders, use their powers for the good of humanity despite the prejudice and opposition they are met with), and Spider-Man (“With great power comes great responsibility”) just to name a few. Man of Steel is also not the first movie that has emphasized commonalities between Jesus and Superman. Both the Richard Donner Superman movie and Superman Returns contain parallels between Superman and Jesus. In the original Superman, Jor-El (played by Marlon Brando) says, “They [humanity] can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be, they only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them to you, my son.” And in promoting Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer talked about how he essentially made the film as a “second-coming” story and the Christian imagery was intended to be taken as such.
Again, Christian imagery does have a place in movies, and especially superhero movies. However, what is important is that a film that uses Christian imagery, especially when comparing a character to Jesus, must earn the right to do so. Superman Returns is such an example. While the imagery that it employs is of the not-so-subtle variety, it earns the right to use such imagery to compare Superman to Jesus. The movie is about how the world needs a savior, like Superman, to save them, and it does a pretty good job of showing Superman doing just that: using his powers to save people. At one point in the movie, he is presented with the choice of saving Lois, who has been taken by Lex Luthor, or preventing a natural disaster from destroying Metropolis. Though Lois is the love of his life, he must first save the people of Metropolis because that is his true purpose: the very reason he was sent to Earth of all places. Now, I’m not saying that Superman Returns was a great movie, or even a great Superman movie. I’m saying that it is thematically consistent in its portrayal of Superman as a Christ-like savior. Despite the film’s problems, it does succeed in this particular area. Superman is a humble, compassionate, and sacrificial hero who does the right thing for the good of the world no matter what the cost. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Superman as portrayed in Man of Steel.
The primary reason that Man of Steel fails is because the filmmakers don’t focus on Superman the character, but rather the “idea” of what Superman means. Superman Returns does this too, but it takes a more dimensional approach to it. What Superman means to the world is the subtext of the film, while the action of the film, what Superman does in response to what his presence means, is the meat, the main “text” of the film. The first half of Man of Steel is relegated to spelling out what Superman means and how Clark must live up to the ideals laid on him by his two fathers. That’s all well and good, but all the speechifying must lead to a payoff. The character must take the knowledge that has been given him and apply it to his mission. Does the Superman in Man of Steel do this? Not really. He either ignores everything that his fathers have told him in regard to the ideals he upholds, or he takes the wrong message from them. Let’s take a few quotes from the beginning of the film and see what Superman does to apply the message in those quotes:
“Born on Krypton and raised on Earth, you had the best of both and were meant to be the bridge between two worlds.” – Jor-El (Superman destroys the Codex carrying the future generations of Krypton, and kills all the surviving Kryptonians that came to Earth).
“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards.” – Jor-El (Superman destroys his hometown [including the IHOP! Gasp!] and half of Metropolis by throwing and punching his opponents through the buildings, likely killing anyone who was inside said buildings).
“I know you wanted to hit him. I wanted you to hit him. But would it have made things better?” – Jonathan Kent (Superman apparently answered “yes” to the rhetorical question as that’s what he proceeds to do to the bad guys for the rest of the movie).
“You can save them. You can save all of them” – Jor-El (Or most of them. Or even some of them. Whatever).
Superman in Man of Steel should not be compared to Jesus because, while aspects of his ideology match up with Jesus’ own, he does not follow this ideology as evidenced through the course of actions that he takes. His purpose on Earth is to save humanity from great threats (as stated very bluntly by Jor-El), but it is Superman that ends up being the real threat to humanity. He shows little to no regard for human life, throwing his opponents through buildings, destroying any life, land, and property that was in his way. During the film, I think he went out of his way to save maybe one person who wasn’t important to the plot after he became Superman. The rest of the time, he devotes all his energy to punching the bad guys as hard as he can, doing much more damage to his surroundings than to his opponents. I probably wouldn’t be as bothered by this if the whole first half of the movie wasn’t devoted to setting up Superman as a savior, someone who is meant to be a protector of humanity, someone who is supposed to stand as a beacon of hope for the world. Instead, he becomes responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, the destruction of his hometown, and a good chunk of the biggest city in the world (the destruction that pervaded Metropolis may not have been all his fault, but he deserves a majority of the blame for the destruction of Smallville, as he had the power to draw the fight away from the populous and yet he did not. Besides, it’s freaking Kansas! There is so much open space where three super-beings can have a fight and incur no civilian casualties or property damage!)
Superman also doesn’t go through a true experience of personal sacrifice. There are no consequences for any of his actions and he commits them at no personal cost. Everyone around him makes sacrifices instead of the other way around. Jonathan Kent sacrifices himself for no reason– I mean, to protect his son from exposing his true self. Toby from The West Wing and that general guy sacrifice their lives to stop the giant Terra-forming machine from completely destroying Metropolis. The future of the Kryptonian race is sacrificed so humans can continue living on Earth. And Laurence Fishburne is willing to sacrifice his life so Not Jimmy Olsen doesn’t have to die alone. Superman, meanwhile, punches bad guys and throws them through buildings. Oh, and he kills Zod. That moment at the end of the film is supposed to be the big moment of personal sacrifice, the action that he must perform that costs him greatly. Does performing that action really affect him, though? Maybe? He does have a moment of anger and grief immediately after doing it, but as soon as the moment passes, he seems fine, and the movie doesn’t bother to bring it up again.
This is the Superman that Man of Steel wants the audience to associate with Jesus Christ. A “hero” who inflicts more damage than he prevents, can’t be bothered to go out of his way to save anyone who isn’t his girlfriend or important to the plot, lets others perform the truly self-sacrificial acts, and feels kind of bad for killing his mortal enemy but ultimately shrugs it off. This Superman has very little in common with Jesus, yet the movie tries so hard to make the connection stick. Therefore, the question becomes “why was it so important that Superman be a literal Jesus-figure in this movie?” It wasn’t incredibly crucial to the story, certainly not to the extent it was in Superman Returns. And this is not a case of me reading too much into it. The “Superman-as-Jesus” imagery is very overt and very purposeful.
Why was it so crucial for Superman to be Jesus in this movie? I wondered and wondered about it until I found this, which subsequently led me to this. Based on these articles and the way that the Christian symbolism is placed into the film, it would seem that the reason this parallel between Superman and Jesus exists is because Warner Bros. wanted to market the movie to the Christian demographic. This is not the first time that Warner Bros. has done this. Both The Blind Side and The Book of Eli had similar marketing campaigns where sermon notes were prepared for churches to preach to their congregations about biblical messages that tie in to the movies. It’s a way for Christians to feel like their viewpoint is being represented in mainstream media and for Warner Bros. to reach a demographic that Hollywood is often hostile towards. I suppose I’m okay with Warner Bros. employing this strategy for movies like The Blind Side and The Book of Eli because those are movies about Christians and about the Bible, respectively. Man of Steel is a superhero movie that shoehorns in parallels to Jesus, even though they’re not earned or warranted, because they want Christians to feel justified when they pay money to see the movie.
The io9 article says that “the sermon notes ask, ‘How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?’ And then the sermon includes stuff about the themes and ideas of Man of Steel, after which the pastor is encouraged to say, ‘Let’s take a look at the trailer for Man of Steel.'” Call me “old fashioned,” but I don’t believe church should be used so blatantly as a promotional tool for movies. That being said, I understand the arguments that support this kind of promotion and I understand why pastors are eager to use it to get people interested in coming to church. Craig Detweiler, the theologian who prepared the sermon notes for Man of Steel, defended his involvement in the marketing campaign by saying, “All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like Man of Steel, this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service.” That would be all well and good if the film was actually “a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice, and service!” Instead, it’s a movie that tries desperately to associate Superman with Jesus, despite the fact that very few of Superman’s actions support such an association.
A film that associates its main character with Jesus must earn the right to do so during the course of the film’s running time. In order for the filmmakers to earn this right, they need to show that the ideology of the character matches up with what Jesus stood for as well as convincingly show that the character’s actions are consistent with that ideology. Again, Superman Returns was relatively successful in this venture. Jesus advocated peaceful solutions to conflicts, and Superman never throws a punch during the film. (It’s true this doesn’t lead to an incredibly exciting superhero movie, as all your hero does is lift a bunch of heavy things, but it still remains consistent with the Jesus metaphor). Jesus sacrificed himself to save humanity, and while Superman didn’t necessarily sacrifice himself, he did suffer greatly and nearly died in order to save the world from Lex Luthor’s nefarious plan. All in all, both Jesus and Superman in Superman Returns possess great power, they don’t use it for their own betterment, they protect those who are weaker than them making them a priority, and they solve conflicts through (mostly) non-violent means. In Man of Steel, Superman throws his opponents through buildings that he just told innocent civilians to take cover in. He destroys more than he saves, and can’t be bothered to go out of his way to save anyone who’s not immediately important to him. This is not a character who should be compared to Jesus and certainly not a character who should be preached about in church as a role model.
Well, that’s my incredibly long-winded take on one of the many failures of Man of Steel. What did you think? Do you agree that Man of Steel failed in comparing Superman to Jesus, or do you think it was done well? How do you think Man of Steel compared with Superman Returns in portraying Superman as a Christ figure? What’s your take on Warner Bros.’ way of marketing the film to churches? Do you think it’s a good idea or do you think that they should stay out of churches? Feel free to voice your opinions in the comments below! Next time, I’ll be looking at the relevance of movie criticism in today’s social climate! Join me then!