Man of Steel aka Man of God
I have previously explored my issues with Superman as a superhero on this blog; I’ve always found him a bit too holier than now, and way too divine for my liking. In my opinion superheroes are so popular because they are able to do things we as regular human beings are unable to do, and yet through their owns struggles and backstories remain relatable and human. However, I have never thought this of Superman, and the newest reboot, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel doesn’t do much to help this image.
As I stated in my previous post, I was actually coming round to the idea of a more vulnerable Man of Steel thanks to the great Grant Morrison and his interpretation of the superhero in his book Supergods. When you consider Superman in the context of him being a refugee without a home, who is fighting as the champion of the oppressed, he develops a wider purpose for his readers. Yes, it’s always fun to read about those indestructible men and women who are the protectors of earth, but deep down we all want to see that they are in fact just like us because it gives us that vain geeky hope that we too could be like them.
However, any possibility of this more humble image is completely shattered within the first action-stuffed 15 minutes of the film during which Jor-El actually states his son’s messianic status when Lara worries that: “He will be an outcast. They’ll kill him.”, to which Jor-El gives the humblest of responses: “How? He’ll be a god to them”. Far from the usual and more modest explanations found in previous renditions. I mean, talk about your glaringly obvious and not-at-all subtle biblical parallels. But the Jesus-touting fun doesn’t stop there, oh no.
Further in to the film the now deceased Jor-El appears in front of Clark/Kal in a bit of technological flair that really needed to be explained a hell of a lot earlier, and when Kal stumbles in his esteem and self-belief good old Jor is there to keep him down to earth and teach him the important lessons in humanity and compassion. Oh wait, no he’s not, he’s there to generally patronise the human race and yet again make lazy messiah comparisons. “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” This one speech actually manages to sum up the reason I have never been a fan of Superman. Hell, he even does it in the first sentence: “an ideal to strive towards.” Because that’s what Superman always has been: an ideal version of the human race, the perfect image which we can never live up to.
Later again in the film after another rousing Jor speech we see the single most cringeworthy and lazy piece of iconography in the whole film. I am of course speaking about the Christ pose. Yes, as Superman descends back to earth after conversing with his seemingly omnipotent father, he does so with his arms outspread. I actually couldn’t quite believe it when it happened. I thought up until this point that maybe these horrible biblical undertones were just a product of my snobby film degree brain creeping up on me but lo and behold there it was, a ridiculously in your face piece of religious symbolism. Beyond this, there are a couple of more subtle references, such as when Clark mentions very specifically that he is 33, the same age at which Jesus himself was crucified. It makes sense then that it is at this age that Superman is called upon to sacrifice himself for the good of mankind. Although, granted, flying yourself in to a huge alien-built gravitational weapon is a bit more glamorous than being crucified. Additionally, there are more subtle blocking techniques such as the scene in the church (with the priest we have never heard of until this point) where we are shown the two saviours side by side.
However, one thing that is missing in this holy parallel is the figure of Satan, evil and temptation. I know that general Zod is supposed to represent the evil force in this film, but if I’m being honest I never really resented him for his mission. Yes, the whole destroying the human race in order to restore his own lost race would suck big time, but is it a truly evil motivation? No, is the short answer. Zod is a man who has been entrusted with the survival and endurance of his race, a race that he is obviously proud of and wants to preserve at any cost. Rather than feeling that Zod is an evil person through and through, I saw him more as a sad relic of a lost civilisation who is desperately trying to restore what has been lost to him. Hardly Satan material if you ask me.
Perhaps the greatest downfall to this holy image, and actually to the image of Superman himself, is the fact that in the end he defeats Zod by snapping his neck. This is a betrayal to a moral belief which both Jesus and Superman share: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Throughout Superman’s life in comics he, much like most other superheroes, makes a point not to kill in order to resolve a conflict. Much like the other staple comic book heroes such as Spiderman or Batman, Superman often uses cunning and intelligence in order to outwit his opponents and come to a more peaceful resolution, leaving no moral grey area. This is the plot point that most religious viewers take issue with, and quite rightly. Many religious critics take issue with Snyder’s interpretation of the message, saying things like: “Superman … is there mostly to satiate that part of the American psyche that wants their messiahs to punch things, too.”
However, if I give Snyder and his scriptwriters the benefit of the doubt for a second, perhaps this scene had a purpose. Perhaps this was the almighty sacrifice of the story. In this scene I suppose it could be seen that Superman has given in to his human urges and his anger, because the only way to truly ensure the safety of Earth is to sacrifice his moral obligation.
As if there needed to be any more evidence, it turns out that the religious elements of the film were not only ok’d by Warner Bros Studios, but actively enforced. I know this because I have visited the Warner Bros funded “Man of Steel Ministry Resources Website“. Yes, it is a website which provides resources and materials intended to help Pastors create sermons based on the film, encouraging them to draw direct parallels between Jesus and Superman.
I bring this up not to make fun of religion and the means through which its disciples try to evolve their teachings and the means through which they can preach their beliefs; there are certain advantages to the commodification of religion in this era. My point is not that religion has no place in films, or in comic book films in particular. I think film is the most dynamic, engaging and effective medium through which important messages can be conveyed, and that the messages and questions raised by religion can be among the most important and the most worthy of being raised. However, one of the great pitfalls of portraying any controversial message through film is that you can’t just shove it in people’s faces and hope that everyone will identify with it. We have Mel Gibson for that kind of thing. No, the point I want to make it that above all else Man of Steel is an example of lazy filmmaking.To make matters worse, this film is lazy not only in its theological elements, but in its composition as well.
What struck me from very early on was the complete lack of any character development. It seemed as though Snyder and his team rested very heavily on the fact that everyone knows who Superman and Lois Lane are anyway, so why bother developing their characters or trying to give them any identifiable qualities beyond those which already exist in popular culture? In lieu of proper character development, Snyder has instead over-stuffed his plot with what can only be described as “Disaster-porn”. From the word go there are constant scenes of disaster, violence and action, leaving little time for anything truly compelling or interesting beyond the fixation on religious iconography; hence why this post has been more a religious discussion than a straight forward review.
In my opinion, Snyder’s film offered nothing new whatsoever, with regards both to the composition of its story and in its attempt at a religious message. One thing I will say is that Snyder managed to rein in his signature cartoony style to a level which actually produced some pretty stunning shots (e.g the sweeping shots of Kansas’s landscape during flashbacks). However, the parallels between Superman and Jesus are as old as the character himself, and Snyder doesn’t seem to have made any effort to develop upon the character or the story that comes along with him. Instead what we’re left with is a boring story with some impressive, if overdone, special effects and a dull and lazy attempt at adding some depth to a well-established character.