Great Caesar's Ghost!
So I read this review of the religious theme in "Man of Steel" before I saw the movie, and I thought it was thoughtful, if a little middle-brow, and insightful to a degree; and that it had a curious hole in its center. Then, as is usual when I read movie reviews, I saw the movie, and thought: "What movie did he see?"* (and yes, I do know this idea of a religious theme is something being promoted by the studio. Of the making of marketing pitches there is no end. The sermon points in that article may well play a role here before we are through.)
Let me just start with that review, and yes, this is a spoiler, so stop if you don't want to know something about the movie. Here's a curious point in the review:
My issue with it occurs when we start equating the Superman story with the story of Jesus. As we hear the marvel in Lois Lane's voice saying, "He saved us," we can't help but begin to connect the two. The problem is, despite the similarities of circumstance, they are so very different.
Okay, minor quibble: Lois Lane doesn't say that, a minor character (her intern, we find out), says it. But context is all (spoiler alert!). The premise of the movie is that nobody on Earth knows who Superman is (including Superman!) until General Zod shows up. He comes with a team of Kryptonians, and between their super powers and their technology they are frightening proof indeed that "We Are Not Alone." (Dealers in conspiracies and black oil these guys are not.) Superman is an alien, too; Zod announces that when he announces his arrival, and when Superman is finally revealed as Superman (I know, I'm not making this clearer, but in the movie this story works), humanity is more than a bit leery that he's not as dangerous as the guys in the space ship. Sure, he's been on Earth for 30+ years, but who's to say he wasn't the scouting party? So, come to the end of the movie, and Superman has dispatched the bad guys in typical Hollywood cataclysmic fashion (trust me, they blow up real good!). It falls to the intern to look on in awe and wonder, and say what everyone else has realized: "He saved us." Meaning, he didn't ignore us, or attack us, or leave us to the un-tender mercies of the bad guys. He fought his own people to save the people of earth.
Otherwise, he is right; Jesus and Superman are so very different; and most of the discussion about this "religious" angle in the movie, is missing that point.
For example, unless you want to invoke an early heresy and put a twist on it, that Jesus fought God, who was really a demi-urge and therefore imperfect, in order to restore Paradise, it's really hard to find a Christ figure archetype in the plot of this movie. Because just saying "He saved us" is not, really, to invoke Christianity at all.
Sandlin insists the allusions to Jesus are intentional:
There should be little doubt that serious efforts were made to make connections between Superman and Jesus. In one scene, what is essentially a spirit form of Superman's father, Jor-El, stands with his son looking over the Earth and tells him, "You can save her, son. You can save them all." Then, Superman steps out into space, arms outstretched, his body in the perfect shape of a cross, and he does not rush off to save Lois Lane (and the rest of us) until the camera captures a full shot of that image. He is our savior.
But I'm not so sure. I was even looking for this scene, and even when I saw it, I thought: it's just a dramatic pose. It's Superman showing he is supremely confident, even in orbit around the earth, leaving a hole in the side of a damaged space ship, about to plunge into the atmosphere to save Lois Lane in a falling capsule: he's got it all under control. No hurries, no worries. If it was meant to echo the Crucifixion, then it did it about as well as the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Sugar Loaf mountain.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, ya know?
And what does it mean to say "[Superman] is our savior"? Does the sentence mean the same thing if we substitute "Christ" for "Superman"? There is a muddle here, because even the move's studio is happily pushing the notion that "Superman saves!":
-- "Although fully aware of the bloody cost, Jesus decided to willingly submit himself to Roman soldiers. Jesus is arrested and tried as a common criminal, sentenced to death for crimes he did not commit. He pays the price for our individual and collective sin. The One genuinely innocent man takes on the burden of a gravely fallen people. The Man of Steel is faced with a similar test. Should he lay down his life for humanity? Do we deserve such sacrificial justice from Superman? The words of his father, Jor-El, resonate, 'You can save them...you can save them all." He places Superman's life in context. 'You will give 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 wonder [sic].'"
It isn't really hard to recognize that the "salvation" offered by Superman in the movie has nothing to do with fundamentalist/evangelical Christian soteriology; but the distinction is intentionally blurred in those sermon notes. The muddle is in the idea of salvation, and that salvation is, and must be, a religious concept. But it isn't, and even in Jesus' day, it wasn't.
The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.
Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom, by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p. xi.
We need to consider that rather carefully. "Save" is an English word with several meanings. We save money by buying something for less than we thought it would cost. We save money by putting it in a bank account. We save time, but we can't save time the same way we save money. We used to say a girl was "saving herself" for the right man by remaining a virgin until her wedding night. We save bottle caps or postcards or food from one meal for another, later meal. We save a cat from a tree, save a seat in a theater, save ourselves from an embarrassing or tedious situation. We save face, save our breath, save our place in a book, take a stitch in time to save nine (okay, does anybody do that anymore? Or even know what it means?). We save water, we save electricity, we save gasoline or energy, all by not wasting them foolishly.
And none of those touch on the meaning of "saved" as used in "Man of Steel" or in the phrase "Jesus saves!"
At no point in "Man of Steel" does Superman proclaim the Kingdom of God is already present and operative in this world. Which is the real problem here: not that Superman is or isn't meant to be a Christ figure, but just what a "Christ figure" is. We use the term too loosely. Northrop Frye, the man who taught us to think in terms of archetypes like Christ figures, said that even Jesus of Nazareth was a Christ figure. He's not the origin of the archetype, in other words; he's an example of it. But that only means the archetype has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. So getting the archetype close to the religious figure is already to misunderstand the use of the archetype. And, as Crossan and Reed say, the preaching of Paul, in the footsteps of the preaching of Jesus, proclaims "a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace." Not much there to build a comic book on, or a comic book movie. Better, for comic books, is the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace. Which, despite the complaints of some about how this movie ends, is precisely what this movie engages in. (Spoiler alert! again!). The movie ends, as that linked review complains, by violating the once inviolable principle of Superman. But that inviolable principle is really an act of piety: just because Superman has superpowers doesn't mean he can't kill, unless you mean that those with the greatest power must exercise the greatest restraint. And if Superman actually did that consistently, he'd be a pretty dull superhero. So it's a matter of how he exercises restraint, which is supposed to mean he cannot possibly kill. But why not? Because he is "holier" if he doesn't? Because he is worthier of our admiration if he proves himself more restrained than us? I'm not arguing Superman should ever kill; but that it's a measure of our piety toward the idea of Superman that we would be offended if he ever did; offended to the point we think he's no longer Superman, if he takes a life.
The reviewer arguing Superman can never kill brings the point down to this:
The way the movie bends over backward to get to that moment is an embarrassment of plot illogic. The fact that nobody involved in the making of the movie could come up with a clever way for Superman to not kill Zod — like maybe use any of his superpowers besides his incredible ability to punch real hard — says more about the filmmakers than about Superman.His only real "superpowers" are his ability to punch real hard; that and fly, burn things, and see through stuff. Which of these powers gives him the ability to keep an equally superpowered and malevolent being from destroying all human life, without killing that being? It's not like, at that point, Superman has any alien technology left capable of rendering Zod powerless, or imprisoning him for all time. Zod has made it quite clear annihilation of all non-Kryptonians is his only purpose now, that he is reacting out of nothing but hatred because Superman has destroyed the one purpose Zod was born for: to protect Kryptonians. Superman has made it clear his loyalties lie with humans, so Zod has no purpose left but to, in effect (and he makes this explicit) commit suicide by...well, not cop, so by Superman. And Superman has no choice but to oblige him; that, or render all his actions so far in the movie completely irrelevant. It is, actually, a rather neat dilemma; and Superman's reaction is, in part, the reaction of a man who has just killed the last member of his own species.
That could be something to build an interesting sequel on. But it's certainly not Christ-like; not even for the archetype. It does, however, create an even stronger sense of piety, because Superman loved humans so much he killed the last Kryptonian who could be an unmitigated threat to them. It starts the cycle, in other words, over again. War, victory, peace; back to piety. He is much closer to a god at the end of the film than he has ever been in the comics. A Greek god, though; not a Christian one.
Superman saves the same way Caesar does. He does it by eliminating our enemies.
And that's the problem: there is no Christ figure here, because there is nothing vaguely Christ-like about Superman. The "crucifixion" scene in the movie might be compared to the Christ Triumphant, the fully robed (as opposed to nearly naked form on the crucifix) Christ with arms outstretched, and wearing a crown: the Christ who has triumphed over death, with the cross now not wood he is hanging from, but the backdrop symbolizing his victory over death (thus the stance of Christ the Redeemer on Sugar Loaf Mountain, just without a giant cross). But that Christ comes after death and three days in the tomb; Superman's moment of outstretched arms comes after a few minutes in Kryptonian atmosphere, which serves to drain his powers as effectively as green rocks do in other Superman stories. It's a problem for him, but it's not death, and it's not three days in the grave.
The other part of the problem is the one of reducing Christianity to soteriology, and soteriology to a simple affirmation of faith in Jesus as the Son of God. The "sermon notes" promoted by the movie studio are the most egregious example of this ("How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again. Let's consider how Superman's humble origins, his high calling and his transforming sacrifice point us towards Jesus, the original superhero." I would submit how we are treating others is far more important a Christian issue, than how we are treating ourselves.). But the very question of salvation is the issue here: are we saved by Caesar disguised (by us) as Christ? Or are we saved by being disciples of Christ? And what does that mean, and what does that salvation mean? Superman makes no claim on the people of earth; he establishes no new method of behavior, he proclaims no basilia tou theou. He's supposed to be a shining example, but that seems to be more a contrast between the expectations of his real father and the fears of his adopted father (who dies so his son won't expose his alien nature. Now that's a sacrificial figure!). But the nature of salvation: what is that? All this discussion of Superman as the Anointed One doesn't just blur that issue; it obliterates it as surely as the black hole created in the movie destroys the Kryptonians.
And that's the real problem with all this discussion of Superman as savior.