If you have been living on planet earth, you have been paying attention to what’s been happening in Hollywood: It is the Age of Superheroes. Iron Man, Thor, Incredible Hulk, Avengers, Fantastic Four, The Dark Knight Trilogy, the list goes on. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to tackle the first superhero—my favorite and arguably the greatest of them all—Superman. (Shout out to Ram Sriharan for helping unlock my dissatisfaction with the movie and preaching Jesus at the same time!)
Man of Steel is that attempt. I call it an attempt because while it is a good movie, it does not feature the Superman we all know and love, and therefore does not show how much Superman parallels Jesus. In the attempt of Zach Synder to modernize the hero, he ceased to let Man of Steel be Superman. Much like pastors who attempt to make the Gospel “culturally relevant,” you simply can’t. The Gospel of Jesus is counter-cultural. It goes against the current of the culture. Likewise, so does Superman. He goes against the grain. That’s the only way true hope and faith can be birthed. They stand alone, stand out and stand strong as beacons of what the world could be.
The movie gives us that initial false hope. Krypton is about to be destroyed. Jor-El sends Kal-El away from the destruction. (El in Hebrew is God so we maintain the “coincidence” of God the Father sending God the Son to earth.) We see snapshots of our hidden hero saving lives: the oil rig staff, his elementary school classmates, that intrepid reporter Lois Lane when she follows him onto his spaceship and a soldier. We hear that the Man of Steel at 33. “You were sent here to change the world,” Jonathan Kent tells his son.
Then it ceases to be Superman and simply becomes a good movie.
There’s that strange scene where Kal-El goes to church(?) to get advice from a minister—for a nice sermonette—when Zod appears, but it doesn’t make sense! (Go see Jor-El when someone evil from your planet shows up!)
Like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, the rest of the movie pins Jesus themes into that are a nice nod, but are easily dismissed by the plot of the movie.
We hope that he becomes Superman, but he never does. We subconsciously look for parallels to Jesus, but they are forced and give only false hope.
True Superman, True Jesus
In order to get a clear picture of Jesus and Superman, we must look at Scripture and the classic Superman movies.
1. Superman does not confuse action and inaction. Neither does Jesus.
In Superman (1978), there’s a pivotal scene in the beginning of the movie. Jonathan Kent is racing his son back up to the barn, when he suddenly has a heart attack and dies. (They did something similar in season 5 of Smallville.) Not in Man of Steel. In Man of Steel, we see our “hero” stand still and watch his father die.
Jor-El dies to save Kal-El. Jonathan doesn’t do it, too. He doesn’t have to. What makes Superman, Superman is his response in the first movie, “All these powers, and I couldn’t save him.” He learned the significance and limits of his great powers. It’s a defining moment for him that forces him to confront his destiny and the finiteness of people. I don’t want a Superman that would rather let someone die—even at their own request—just to protect their secret identity.
Besides, it’s not a secret in Smallville. (NO ONE IN SMALLVILLE CAN KEEP A SECRET! Lois goes to see Pete Ross and he sends her directly to the Kent farm!?!) It’s clear the entire town knows who he is. There’s no point in Jonathan dying.
In John 2, we read about The Wedding at Cana in Galilee. They run out of wine and Martha…uh Mary, knowing who Jesus is, tells them of this problem. His reply: “My time has not yet come.” Essentially, it wasn’t time for Jesus to reveal himself to the crowds. It’s simple for him (like Clark speeding to get dear old dad), but the cost would be high. Jesus performs turns water into wine, the servants put their trust in Him and amazingly the word about Jesus doesn’t spread until later.
Mythically accurate Superman that resembles true Jesus doesn’t confuse action and inaction. He acts when he is supposed to, and he holds back when he’s supposed to, which leads to my second point.
2. Superman cares about people. So does Jesus.
In Superman II, while Zod and the gang are attacking downtown Metropolis, they have an epiphany: “I have found his weakness. He cares. He actually cares for them.” They pick up an overflowing bus and Superman gives that amazing line, “No! The people!!” He then puts himself in harm’s way to save them, to stop the bus when it is thrown like a toothpick. After accessing the scope of the battle, he retreats not to run from the fight but to get the fight away from the city. In cartoons, comic books and movies, Superman is always looking to get the fight away from people. He wants to save people. Everyone.
We do not see this in Man of Steel. He gets into a fight in downtown Smallville, knocking robots and super-villains into filled IHOP’s and businesses. The terraforming machines are wreaking havoc and for suspense, they are allowed to blow up the city. Superman punches Zod through offices, buildings, streets, even while people are running in the background. Metropolis at the end of the movie is practically destroyed. (Level 5 nerds put the damage at much higher than real-life 9/11 Attacks.) Not once do we see the Man of Steel trying to move the fight away from the city. What about the town? What about the people Man of Steel?
If one person dies, Superman is grieved. Just one. Doesn’t matter if it’s dad, a villain or a civilian. Superman doesn’t want anyone to be hurt. He cares about presidents and pedestrians, because it’s dangerous being a president. It’s dangerous being a pedestrian. Ask Trayvon Martin. (Preach Ram!) Hawkeye and Black Widow saved more people from a bus in Avengers than Man of Steel in his epic return to the big screen.
I won’t parallel Jesus here. I don’t have to. Read any of the New Testament and we see on the surface—without the need for any interpretation or translation into Greek or Hebrew—that Jesus cares for people. He healed people. He touched people. He taught people. He fed people. He died for people. If nothing else, whether Christian or not, all can agree that Jesus cares for people.
That’s Jesus in life. That’s Superman in the comics. He would give his life rather than take it, which leads me to my final point.
3. Superman. Does. Not. Kill. Ever. Neither does Jesus.
At the conclusion of the movie, we see the fate of the world being decided by a fist fight. We land in a library and Zod, who has learned to master his powers, is reduced to using his eyes to kill when Superman has him in a chokehold. The Man of Steel is left with no other choice but to break Zod’s neck. Superman kills Zod.
Superman doesn’t kill. Heroes don’t kill. Specifically, Superman never kills. If the comic has a bad writer or low sales and he does kill someone, he either gives up his powers completely (see Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?) or is curled up in the fetal position for months until another hero comes along and convinces the truth (you know…villain isn’t really dead, villain has been resurrected, it was a set-up by Lex Luthor, etc.). Not Man of Steel. One hug from Lois and he’s back to knocking satellites out of the sky and smiling like everything is normal.
Something changed with Batman Begins. Heroes were suddenly allowed to kill the villain, or at least like Batman said, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” Iron Man did it. Two-Face falls to his death. Bane is killed by Catwoman(?). Talia al’Gaul falls to her death after Batman blasts her with missiles for 7 minutes.
Question, if you will kill, if you won’t save, why are you wearing the cape and symbol? Why are you out there fighting? Heroes believe the best of people. They want to change actions, but hearts. They believe everyone can change, and therefore everyone is worth saving. Not Man of Steel. (Preach Ram, pt.2).
In Superman II, Superman has Zod and the crew back at the Fortress of Solitude. What happens? He doesn’t kill Zod. He outsmarts him! He makes Zod defeat himself. That’s what Superman does. That’s what Jesus did. He didn’t kill Satan. He outsmarted him. He made Satan defeat himself.
Superman is subtly Jesus. This forceful parallel of Jesus to Man of Steel takes away from the mythos of Superman and even more, the reality of Jesus.
I will end my soapbox with a couple of final thoughts. First, this is the Superman that our children are being introduced to. A Superman, a generation of heroes that kill the bad guys. That concerns me immensely. Heroes are supposed to be counter-cultural. They allow us to escape to a world of mythical people with amazing moral strength that can do the impossible but never the line of that villains cross regularly. We don’t have those heroes anymore. Second, as Christians we must preach the true Jesus when “modernized” versions of Him appear on television, film, etc. I read one atheist use this movie to say this Man of Steel is more like the Jesus we want.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Jesus that acts when he is not supposed to is not a Jesus I want to follow. That Jesus gets down off the cross. He doesn’t choose to say up there. He would choose to save Himself.
A Jesus that doesn’t care for people doesn’t heal when He’s tired. That Jesus gets angry when the sick touch Him. That Jesus wouldn’t go to Jerusalem. He’d just keep preaching and teaching.
A Jesus that kills wouldn’t be selective in His killing. We think Jesus would kill “the bad people, the villains.” Well, if Jesus is the Jesus of the Bible, and He wants to kill bad, He would kill us all. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). He wouldn’t save anyone. He wouldn’t believe that even the worst of us can change.
I would rather a Jesus that rather than kill me He takes my place so that I may live. That’s the Jesus I believe in. That’s the Jesus I look for. That’s my Savior.
That’s Jesus. That’s the hint we see of Him in my favorite hero, the greatest of all, Superman.