18th Jun 2013

It’s Superman! – A More Serious, but Still Hopeful, Superhero

by Christopher Menzhuber 

For those of us who grew up dressing like him at Halloween, and devouring the comics, movies, cartoons and action figures, it is hardly possible even to say “Superman” without smiling a little on the inside.


You don’t have to love superheroes to love Superman. He is the uncomplicated, bright, unstoppable force for good. Even his brazen primary colors — red, blue, and yellow — declare an absurd optimism about who he is and confidence in the goodness of the world. “He’s a hero created for kids, by kids.” writes Jim Sternanko, historian of contemporary popular culture in the introduction to 2005 reprint collection Superman Archives Vol. 1 (DC Comics). His greatest power is that of inspiring and delighting the child in all of us. Because he speaks to each successive generation by symbolizing the highest aspirations of human fantasy and embodying timeless values, Superman’s ethos has been woven into the fabric of American culture over time and has developed into a God-like mythology.


It is this whole grand legacy director Zach Snyder wanted to tap into with the newly released movie “Man of Steel.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Synder described his film as “a more serious version of Superman. It’s not like a heart attack. We took the mythology seriously. We take him as a character seriously. I believe the movie would appeal to anyone. I think that you’re going to see a Superman you’ve never seen before.”


But this presents a challenge. Superman’s optimism and lightness, his power to fly above evil, is what we want him to be. It speaks to our desire for mirth even in this valley of tears. By taking Superman “more seriously,” Snyder has possibly confused Superman’s childlike appeal for childishness. “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly,” is a quote attributed to G.K. Chesterton. The Man of Steel could be grounded by trying to incorporate the weighty legacy of his character. On the other hand, relating to a culture obsessed with “anti-heroes” and growing cynicism is a darker job and may explain his most recent incarnation as a Messiah.


Since he was first revealed to the American public in the 1930s, Superman has been the prototype and archetype, the alpha and the omega for all other superheroes that would follow him. It is understandable how in the two most recent films, “Superman Returns” and “Man of Steel,” he is portrayed as a Christ figure. Whether this is supposed to honor Jesus or ratchet up Superman’s near “God-like” status is not clear, but the references are unambiguous and pronounced. In “Man of Steel,” Superman is 33 years of age, which tradition tells us was the age of Jesus at his crucifixion. Superman’s father sends him to earth to be a “bridge” between the Kryptonians and the people of earth, much as Jesus was the bridge between heaven and earth. Superman soon faces the choice to sacrifice himself for all the people of earth. And the identification with Christ happens no more obviously than in one scene where Superman drifts backward through space in cruciform shape after his father Jor-El says, “You can save all of them.” As a Catholic, I took pleasure in the obvious nod to religion, especially against the backdrop of many other anti-Christian, anti-life messages found in so-called hero stories. But it remains an uneasy overlay.


Setting up Superman as a “type” of Jesus Christ — as with all analogies to God — does raise some obstacles to personal faith when they are drawn so closely together as they are in this film. The greatest is the association of Superman’s earthly power and strength with Jesus. Whereas Superman represents an evolved human perfection, Christ the God-man redefines our notion of power in the joining of his omnipotent nature with a human one. There is “a reversal of values found in the figure of Jesus Christ and his message,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his 2012 book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. “From the moment of his birth he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends.” Even as we delight in the qualities of Superman that are Christ-like, it is good to be mindful of the limit of that comparison, especially as it relates to power.


It would be more fitting and less complicated to compare Superman to one of the angels, who belong to that “order of creatures who exist at a higher pitch of perfection and intensity,” according to popular speaker and theologian Father Robert Barron. They are the real “extra-terrestrials,” says Boston College philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft. “They are fearsome and formidable. They’re huge, they’re warriors. Since angels are messengers from God, they’re more God-like than we are. So when you look at an angel you look up in the direction of God so if you see them correctly you feel the same thing toward them as you feel toward God…which is awe.”


If comparing Superman to Jesus does not create that much of a spark, “Man of Steel” nevertheless succeeds in other ways. For one thing, the film recognizes that Superman’s moral goodness is as important as his superpowers. Morality is woven deeply into this story. For example, we are told that the first step that led to the decline and ultimate destruction of the planet Krypton was the decision to undertake artificial population control. For hundreds of year before Kal-El (Superman’s birth name), all Kryptonians were conceived in something borrowed from “The Matrix” called a “Genesis Chamber.” By asserting their scientific knowledge over the “choice and chance” of natural birth, the Kryptonians create a kind of Frankenstein, the antagonist General Zod, for whom the ends justify the means. “Every action I take — no matter how violent — is for the greater good of my people,” the General says. Superman, by comparison, is mocked by the Kryptonians as “weak” for having morals formed in the heartland of America.


Modern audiences might also identify with the “Man of Steel” through Kal-El’s sense of displacement on earth. When his powers begin to manifest from a very young age, Clark Kent (Superman’s human persona, of course) perceives he is different from other kids. They shun him and call him a freak. Jonathan Kent, his adoptive human father, confirms Clark is different by giving him part of the truth, but this confuses the boy even more. He doesn’t want to be special. But then Jonathan says something really prophetic: “Somewhere out there you have another Father who gave you another name. He sent you here for a reason.” These words can apply to each one of us, baptized or not, because God made us and has a plan for us.


What follows is Clark Kent’s universally human search for meaning. He wanders about using his gifts whenever possible, but without a real mission, until he finally finds a Kryptonian ship where he learns the full truth of his origins. Only when he knows where he came from and who he is does he finally get a sense of where he’s going. Once he has “found my people,” as he explains cheerfully to adoptive mother Martha Kent, he can radically shift from a slightly brooding, agonized wander into the happy and self-possessed Superman we know. This process of searching for meaning and ultimately discovering it only in our “Father’s plan” is something we all have to do. It is our vocation. The lifelong process of pursuing and finding God’s plan for us is the closest we will come to knowing complete happiness on earth.


The moral underpinnings and the portrayal of finding delight in one’s God-given vocation — not to mention the beautiful relationship between Clark and Jonathan — are sufficient for updating this version of Superman, making him more relevant for today, and treating him more “seriously.” There are other cosmetic changes which neither add nor subtract to the traditional Superman story, such as the darkening of his costume, the use of shaky camera technique, and the portrayal of Krypton almost like something from David Lynch’s “Dune.” Some elements seemed like artificial attempts to build gravitas that only weigh down Superman and the film.


The Messiah references and having Superman break one of his own cardinal rules preclude this “Man of Steel” from serving as a kid’s hero. The writing, acting, and effects of this film are good and interesting, but they don’t jell well enough to make a superb film. In light of the high bar set by the mythology of the character and from previous adaptations, “Man of Steel” is a good movie, and there are a lot of hopeful messages on display.


I think Snyder was right when he said this is a Superman we’ve never seen before, though he is still recognizable. Time will tell whether this incarnation of Superman has the power to save or needs saving.


Christopher Menzhuber writes from Minnesota.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)