Man of Steel (PG13)
In a 1997 episode of The Simpsons, Reverand Lovejoy announces to his congregation: “I remember another gentle visitor from the heavens. Who came to earth… and then died… only to be brought back to life again. And his name was: E.T., the extra-terrestrial. I love that little guy.”
It’s a cute joke, not only pointing out Lovejoy’s own obliviousness, but Hollywood’s interest in raiding Christian symbolism for easy-to-use allegories.
CS Lewis used allegorical fantasy effectively in his Narnia books to anchor Christian teachings. But the Hollywood screenwriter – with a copy of Bible quotes in one hand and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in the other – cynically searches for padding to fill out his or her thin plot. The cruciform pose; the Pietà; the resurrection itself. All these recurring images have featured in films from The Matrix to Woody Allen’s Bananas, instantly recognisable to large swathes of Western audiences.
The press office for director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel has been busy alerting journalists and bloggers to the presence of Christian themes within the film (‘Man of Steel marketing campaign seeks to align Superman with Jesus’, 19 June 2013, The Guardian).
The story begins with a father sending his only son to Earth, stating: “He’ll be a god to them”. The boy is then raised by a childless couple, who keep his heavenly paternity secret from the authorities.
The adult Clark Kent is explicitly stated to be 33, having spent years in the wilderness hiding his identity. In case audience members are not paying attention, Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer have their hero ponder his fate in a church while facing almost certain death – his own private Gethsemane moment.
That scenes of brutal violence on a mass scale – forcing our hero to take rather unChrist-like direct action – have not been treated as a contradiction with the proposed Christian themes is, frankly, odd. Instead, critics like The New Yorker’s Richard Brody have seen this as confirmation of an underlying message:
“[e]ach blow landed wreaks horrific destruction. I found myself thinking of Gog and Magog, of Sodom and Gomorrah, of the Flood, and remembering that the term ‘Biblical’ implies catastrophe[.]”
The joining of spectacular scenes of destruction to supposed Christian values suggests Snyder sees himself as a latter-day Cecil B DeMille. The insistence on Superman being a Christ-figure is strange, when the more obvious comparison would be Moses, as outlined by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein in his book on the influence of Jewish culture on comics, Up, Up And Oy Vey.
It was Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film, with a screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz, that first framed the character as a distinctly Christian hero. The director in 2001 complained of receiving death threats following reports he was “approaching [Marlon] Brando as God and his son as Jesus”. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006 went further, its hero enduring a crucifixion.
So Man of Steel is beating a dead horse instead of taking a different approach. Rather than an engaging allegorical work, the film pays lip-service to religious values to gloss over sickening scenes of destruction.