[Theology Thursday] Hope and the Superman Myth

Note: this post will contain major spoilers from THE MAN OF STEEL film. If you haven't seen it yet, feel free to watch it and come back. I'll wait.

In the film, Kal-El (not yet called Superman) calls attention to the fact the symbol that looks like a big red "S" to American earthlings is actually the symbol for his family on Krypton, and that it also stands for hope there as well.

Throughout the film it seems as if writer David Foyer and director Zack Snyder are going to reinforce this theme: several times in the course of the film (presumably due to the upbringing of his adoptive earth parent's the Kents) he is seen finding a way to save lives.  Indeed, this has been a major refrain of most reviewers that I've heard that it is this stubborn refusal to end a life that marks Superman as an iconic comic book hero.
So what happened in the third act? Why was Superman not able to save both the family in the Metropolis train station and General Zod?1 Why do we get an odd snapping sound effect followed by an anguished cry of despair?

Some have postulated that The Man of Steel is the first of a trilogy that explores the development of Clark Kent/Kal-El into Superman.  This is plausible in that they do not call him Superman in this film. Perhaps he has to earn it. It may be that he has to learn the awful consequences of taking a life for himself.
If this is not the case, if the creative team of Goyer, Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan were not looking ahead when they sketched the film out2, then they painted themselves into a corner that they couldn't figure out how to extricate themselves from and keep the theme of hope intact.  The film is shot in very bright tones, quite opposite of the brooding and dark tones of Nolan's Batman films, but the visual tones do not sync up in the third act climax, and one is left with a disconnect between what has just happened and how it is presented to us.

I would not be surprised to see a third option at work here. Much has been made over the years of the comparisons that can be made between Superman and Jesus: they both came to earth as a baby and grew up to be truly good men, sacrificially giving of themselves for the greater good of mankind. This similarity was even shown in the film itself, between many of the lines of Superman's Kryptonian father Jor-El and John Kent (his adoptive earth father)3, as well as several visual elements Snyder chose to put on screen. In addition, the studios even courted pastors to incorporate clips from the movie in sermons, including someone to put together a resource pack for pastors full of Bible studies and sermon outlines that highlighted the similarities.

But at the end of the day, I have to wonder if the third act climax that caused so much discussion among Superman and comic book fans is due to the fact that Goyer, and Snyder4 just can't bring themselves to believe in an all-good, all-powerful hero. It is theodicy writ in four colors and projected on a screen. In this film, it appears that the producers believe that their hero must be able to fully enter into our human condition in order to truly be one of us.  This flies in the face of the Christian understanding that sin us not natural to humanity, that mankind was created in the image of God, and that by willfully turning away and rejecting that image within them, evil, pain and death entered the world. A messiah who is like us in this way cannot save us.

This is where the "Superman as a picture of Christ" metaphor breaks down. Jesus, in the words of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews "...understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are. But he did not sin!" (4:15 CEV).  On other words, Jesus fully entered into the human experience. The earliest Christian credal statements affirm the truth that Jesus was in every way God, and yet in every way man, including experiencing first hand what you and I take for granted.5  The Apostle Peter, one of the ones who would have been an eyewitness to Jesus, writes in his second letter quotes from a passage in Isaiah to describe Jesus, saying that He never sinned nor did He lie. (1 Peter 2:22).

Superman may ultimately be able to save the world from the plots of supervillains and aliens bent on destroying the world, but he cannot save the world from what plagues us the most - our own sin and  inhumanity. Only Jesus can do that. So hope will only by found in Him, even if He doesn't have a big red "S" on His chest to say so.



1 Or for that matter, all of the folks in the Metropolis skyscrapers? I myself walked out of the theater thinking that the events portrayed would have absolutely bankrupted the insurance industry.
2 I am inclined to believe that they were
3 I have several thoughts percolating about how The Man of Steel promotes and celebrates fatherhood, but that is another post.
4 As I was writing this, the fine folks over at Strangers and Aliens pointed me to this story which indicates that Nolan was not at all on board with the plan for the third act climax.
5 See the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed

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