***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***
Now that some of the dust has settled in Metropolis, I’d like to address one of the criticisms I’ve seen about Man of Steel. It involves the portrayal of Superman as a messiah figure. One scene has Superman leave a Kryptonian ship with arms outstretched in an obvious crucifixion pose after his father says, “You can save them all.” Another, my personal favorite, has Superman questioning whether he should turn himself in to General Zod (a personal sacrifice) whilst in a church. Behind him is a stain glass window of Jesus at Gethsemane, which is where Christ asks the cup be taken from him but ultimately, after prayer, knows that he must selflessly sacrifice himself. Other notable similarities are that he is handed over by those he means to save (humans) and being condemned to death by his own people (Kryptonians). While to some extent I agree that Snyder is a bit heavy handed with his suggestions, I don’t think that viewers should find these allusions offensive.
There are two types of criticism that I’ve seen regarding these references. One is from the viewer that believes Snyder is making an unnecessary connection between Superman and Christ. The second is from a Christian viewer who feels that such a comparison is offensive or even blasphemous.
First, if you’ve seen any Zach Snyder films, you would realize that he is no Mel Gibson. These Judeo-Christain references are simply Snyder staying true to the original intentions of the character. Superman has been portrayed as a messiah figure from his conception in 1938. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman’s creators, were the sons of Jewish immigrants. The created Superman in a time when Hitler’s Nazis were rising to power and America was in the Great Depression. It is no surprise that they would dream up a powerful messiah figure to vanquish evil and deliver the less fortunate. In his early conceptions, Superman not only fought the Nazis but also slumlords and others who sought to imprison and oppress the poor.
“The image of Superman as Earth’s savior is nothing new. Throughout the story of Superman, who is widely viewed as America’s chief legend in the nation’s pantheon of folklore and mythology, we find images and ideas that closely link him to the Judeo-Christian Messiah tradition. The very crux of his story is that of a hero who descends from the heavens to save humanity by repeatedly sacrificing himself for them, in service to them and out of love for them.” (voices.yahoo.com)
If Superman can be seen as a messianic figure, he is more of a Jewish messiah than a Christian one. Jesus was executed and resurrected, but Superman triumphs as one who fights constantly for peace and justice. The comic’s Kryptonian names have been known to have Hebrew origins with Kal-El translating as “voice of God” (in the comics it is Kryptonian for “star child,” and in Man of Steel for “hope”). Superman’s origins are also more Mosaic than Christian. Like Moses, Superman is sent away in a vessel by his mother to save him from certain destruction.
Messiah references specific to Christianity are only attributed to the character at a much later date. It isn’t until the Richard Donner Superman the Movie that Kal-El sends Superman with the intention of saving the people of Earth. The most notable of Christian messiah references, of course, is in Death of Superman where Superman dies to save the world from Doomsday, only to be resurrected. But then, in comics, who hasn’t died and been resurrected?
Snyder’s messiah references are more of a tribute to Superman’s original intention as a character as well as his evolution over 75 years, and not some attempt at sneaking religion into a film.
Now for those who feel that these references are an affront to Christianity, perhaps the best argument for why Christians should not be offended by messianic references comes from Karah E. House’s article in response to the previous film, Superman Returns:
“[In Superman Returns] Superman tells Lois that the world cries out for a savior, and we assume he’s insinuating that he is that savior. But look at how many times Superman has to save the world: bombings, terrorist attacks, nuclear strikes, petty crime, theft, murder . . . the list goes on and on. Superman is a perpetual savior. His acts of salvation are short lived and must be carried out again and again; every time he pays the bill for humanity, humanity wracks up new charges and he has to start all over again. Not so with Jesus. Jesus is an eternal savior. His act of salvation influences not only the here and now, but all people for all eternity; he paid a one time price that pays the bill forever.” (voices.yahoo.com)
If anything, Christians should be flattered that their beliefs are so entrenched in American culture that they have become a significant part of the mythos of the fictional character most widely recognized as representing America. Non-Christians should recognize that such references are a part of Superman’s origin and the many changes he’s undergone as a character these past 75 years.
I propose that Superman is an American messiah, embodying values in American culture, both good and bad. It’s very American to fight for the less fortunate. It’s also very American to solve conflict through violence. We like it when our heroes wear red and blue and our enemies wear black. It makes it easier to know who to bludgeon.
If there’s any criticism I have of the film, it’s that it took the Americans so long to stop shooting at Superman. What’s he need to do, fly in with Old Glory and an eagle on his arm?