By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Jane Curtin once ended a very old Saturday Night Live skit by saying something like, “Next time on the show we consider the question, ‘Who would win if God and Superman had a fight?’” The answer is God. That settled, the question is a reminder of Superman’s religious origins, which help us understand one of last summer’s best films, Man of Steel.
Superheroes are everywhere in our culture. But that wasn’t always so. Ancient stories featured superhuman men like Hercules. Medieval stories featured knights capable of superhuman feats. When modern materialism came around, such supernatural figures were abandoned or converted into monsters (Shelley’s Frankenstein and H. G. Wells’ Aliens, for examples).
Since it wasn’t cool to believe in supermen anymore, we stopped making those kinds of stories. But our desire for things greater than ourselves can’t be suppressed for long, and so, in 1933, high school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, the first colorfully clad comic book superhero. Since then we have created hundreds of superheroes.
Consider how closely the desire for superheroes is connected to our deepest religious impulses—the desire for God and for divine rescue. Superman was invented by a pair of Jewish boys from Cleveland whose roots influenced their creation. He is the son of Jor-El sent to earth from some distant place. His name is Kal-El, and El, the name of both father and son, is a Hebrew name for God (the root of Elohim). He comes to our world to fight for truth and justice. He has earthly parents who raise him and teach him good. In the ’30s, modern man’s desire for a messiah was just as strong as it was in ancient times and as it is today.
In the Man of Steel movie, the filmmakers speak directly to this biblical influence in the Superman character. He keeps his identity secret until he meets the spirit of his father who instructs him to help mankind. He is 33 years old when he finally is revealed to man. He fights a Satan figure who wants to play god (but is instead merely a Zod). And, at a key moment in the story, he faces his Gethsemane: Clark Kent is sitting in a church. He has to decide whether or not to reveal himself. Over his shoulder is a famous stained glass image of Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Clark has a conversation with a priest (a “father” figure) who gives him the guidance he needs. He commits himself to saving mankind.
Comic book superheroes used to be ideal—good and pure of heart. They had no psychological hang-ups, no temptations they couldn’t overcome, no dark side to their personalities. That started to change in the ’60s and ’70s. Now most heroes in comics and superhero movies suffer every manner of human weakness and then some.
For this reason, Superman has always been a difficult subject in Hollywood filmmaking. It’s easy to work with a Dark Knight like Batman or raging killers like Hulk or Wolverine. But it’s always been difficult for mankind (especially modern man) to portray great goodness in a convincing way.
It seems we’re better at making villains than heroes. Darth Vadar is more interesting than Luke Skywalker. Peter Jackson’s orcs are better bad guys than his elves are good guys. Generally speaking, Batman and Wolverine are more interesting than Superman or Captain America.
But Joss Whedon pulled off an imminently good Captain America in the summer of 2012 (in The Avengers) and Zack Snyder did an amazing job of making Superman both compelling and a good man in Man of Steel. It takes deep imaginative talent to make very good heroes interesting, but this most recent Superman movie pulled it off.
Worth the Watch
As with all movies, there were things I didn’t like about Man of Steel. I’m not a fan of the “shaky cam” technique as I call it. And the death of Clark’s earthly father was a bit unbelievable. But I loved just about everything else. A few people I talked to thought the action sequence at the end was too long. I couldn’t believe what they were saying! We finally get a villain who can stand up to Superman one-on-one, along with the technology to give them a fight sequence that matches their abilities, and these people wanted the fight to be shorter? This was the first Superman movie in history that had a believable, no holds barred, no limits on special effects super battle in it, and I for one had a blast!
Watch Man of Steel with your kids and grandkids, and then talk to them about the real hero, Jesus, to whom Superman and all great heroes ultimately point.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.