I’m on vacation right now, but after watching screenwriter Max Landis’s tear-jerking review of Man of Steel, I realized I really need to get down my thoughts about this recent movie. The film speaks quite strongly to the spiritual state of America (particularly Christians in America), so it needs to be discussed! It’s been out for about three weeks now, so I’m going to go ahead and discuss the big problematic ending…
Man of Steel, a recent retelling of the Superman origin story, has been getting very mixed reviews. For the most part, critics do not like this movie, and neither do diehard superhero fans (like yours truly). On the other hand, the film certainly has its supporters as well, which is probably why it’s sitting squarely at 56% on rottentomatoes.com. Of particular interest to us though, Man of Steel has been widely embraced by Christian audiences because of the movie’s very intentional Christian imagery. For example:
Much is made of Superman’s alien father sending him to earth to be a symbol of hope. In fact, the line “He’ll be like a god to them” is said multiple times.
Superman’s age is given as 33 years old, the age at which many of us believe Jesus was crucified.
At one point, Superman discusses his problems with a priest in front of a large stained glass window clearly depicting Jesus (just in case the parallel was not already clear).
The list of connections to Jesus goes on and on and on, and Christian magazines and bloggers are raving about this movie. In fact, a number of websites are now offering resources for sermons and Bible studies based around Man of Steel, but there’s something about this that just doesn’t sit right with me. While it’s flattering to have Hollywood directors pander to us like this, the more I think about it, the less comfortable I am with drawing connections between Jesus and Superman– especially this movie’s depiction of Superman. This movie didn’t really meet my expectations for a Superman story, but that’s a rant for another day. The more pressing issue is that this movie doesn’t meet my expectations for a story about Jesus.
***SPOILERS FROM HERE ON***
The ending of Man of Steel depicts the entire city of Metropolis being destroyed in a giant fight between Superman and the film’s main villain (General Zod, a brutal military leader from Superman’s home planet). As the two super-powered beings punch each other through buildings and knock the city apart, it is implied that countless lives are being lost, and the parallels to 9-11 are jarring. As their battle draws to a conclusion, Zod corners a family in a collapsing building and is about to kill them, forcing Superman to take the life of his opponent in order to save a family of innocents. Yep, to save these people’s lives, Superman anticlimactically snaps the villain’s neck because there was no other way to stop him.
If that big finale sounds profound and moving, trust me, it wasn’t. Despite the cast and crew’s best efforts, the scene comes off trite and hollow and pretty much made me hate the movie, but the worst part is not that Superman takes the villain’s life (something which would have never happened in my beloved comics and Saturday morning cartoons). The problem is that Superman has already allowed hundreds of thousands of people to die during their fight, so his sudden concern for this one family is not believable. If those other thousands were acceptable losses, then it doesn’t make sense for this superhero to care about this random family all of a sudden. His previous lack of concern undercuts the significance of the scene. Where the stakes should be their highest, there was no real tension because, in my mind, I had already concluded, “Superman doesn’t really care about us. The movie’s just trying to make a point.”
But all I’ve really argued so far is that this is bad filmmaking and a poor treatment of our country’s most enduring comicbook character. I haven’t explained yet why this is offensive to my faith. Stop and think about it:
In this film, numerous physical parallels are drawn between Superman and Jesus (bearded, 33 years old, superpowers, dresses in blue and red, two dads, etc.), but Superman never truly acts like Jesus. Throughout the film’s first act, Superman devotes his adult life to wandering the country and hiding his powers rather than building relationships with people and seeing what it’s like to be human. Superman pushes away most of the people who attempt to draw close to him and spends more time avoiding attention than helping people. And, in Man of Steel’s final act, Superman is completely fine with letting thousands of people die so that he can beat down his enemy in a disaster scene of apocalyptic proportions. Superman is ignorant of the people’s suffering (or, even worse, indifferent to it), preferring to focus only on a big over-the-top fight that is leveling buildings and costing lives– a fight that he could have easily taken elsewhere to save scores of people. Bad enough that the film portrays Superman this way, but to draw a connection between this and Jesus? That’s too far.
Indifference and careless violence weren’t in Jesus’s game plan. Facing a foe that sought to wipe out the human race, Jesus laid down his life and died for us in an act so scandalous that the majority of the world still doesn’t believe it happened. Knowing that we were incapable of overcoming the menace of sin against our souls, Jesus allowed himself to be nailed to a cross so that we might be saved through him. In his time on earth, Jesus sought to connect with people and show them love. When his followers faced sickness and despair, Jesus brought comfort and healing. He reached out to those on the margins and those in danger. And he still seeks us out today.
Does this movie’s hero even approach that level of love and self-sacrifice? Not in the slightest. This movie’s Superman gives a triumphant pose while people die in the explosions behind him. Max Landis put it better than I could, so I’m going to use his words:
“I guess what I’m saying isn’t so much an opinion on ‘Man of Steel’; it’s more about what superhero movies have become…. At the end of Superman and a lot of these movies, all I’m seeing is fire and death.… At the end, a ‘hero’ stands tall as all of society has crumbled behind him. That isn’t a superhero to me. A guy who stands there after everyone else is dead– that’s a rock star. And I don’t want to see movies about rock stars…. Put the ‘hero’ back in the superhero movies because I think the ‘super’ might have taken over.”
This movie gets Superman completely wrong, but worse, it gets Jesus wrong too. Man of Steel has a lot to say about what we think a hero is nowadays, but I don’t think I agree with what it’s saying, and I hope you don’t either.
Grace and Peace,