There's a scene in the new summer blockbuster Man of Steel when Clark Kent (aka Superman) is sitting in a church during a crisis of faith. In order to save humanity he has to give up his freedom, and possibly his life. As he asks the minister what he should do, we see over his shoulder a stained-glass image of Christ kneeling in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. The message is so heavy-handed that we almost expect the pastor to say, “You know who you remind me of . . . ?”
In a recent interview with the U.K.'s Metro, director Zach Snyder explained, “I think the relationship between Jesus and Superman is not a thing we invented in this film, it is a thing that has been talked about since the creation of Superman.” Snyder certainly didn't invent the “Superman as Christ-figure” cliche, but he handles it with a unique brand of clumsiness.
Never one for subtlety, Snyder has Clark Kent/Kal-El state he is 33 years old (the age of Jesus when he was crucified!), has him give himself up in a crucifix pose (just like Jesus!), and—in a scene from the trailer—has his adopted earthly father Joseph, er, Jonathan Kent tell him he'll always be his son even if his real father came from the heavens above. There is even a unique twist on the virgin birth. On a planet where everyone has been born by immaculate conception, Kal-El is the first naturally born child in centuries. (On Krypton everyone is conceived through a sterile (immaculate?) process that doesn't involve sexual reproduction. In other words, every birth is akin to a “virgin” (pure; unsullied; undefiled) birth. For Superman to birthed by a woman who is not a virgin is the twist).
Of all the Man of Steel flaws—and they are legion—the most significant is that it misunderstands the reason why the character has endured in the popular imagination since 1938. Superman doesn't remind of Jesus; he reminds us of our dad.
Before superheroes became a phenomenon that appealed to all ages and demographics, they were written primarily for young boys and male teens. For us, Spider-Man represented the angsty, smart-mouthed hero we could be in the present—all we needed was a radioactive spider bite. Batman represented the brooding, brilliant hero we could be in the future—all we needed was training and a few billion dollars. But Superman was different. He didn't represent us so much as a hero from our past, the first superhero we ever admired—our fathers.
My own dad was a superman before I had ever heard of Superman. He was faster than The Flash (no matter how far my head start, he could always beat me in a foot race), stronger than Thor (he could open the lid of any pickle jar with ease), and more powerful than the Incredible Hulk (he could crush soda cans with a single smash of his fist). From the age of 2 to 7 I saw my dad as more amazing that any creation in the DC or Marvel universes.
But then it all changed. I don't know when exactly it happened, but I began to see my father as no longer Amazing, Incredible, or Super. He was just a man, a dad much like everyone else's dad. Like many other young boys before me, I found a perfect substitute in the pages of comic books. The unassuming Clark Kent could enter a phone booth wearing a suit and glasses and exit as the most powerful man on the planet. Unlike my own father, Superman never grew tired or frustrated. He always kept his word and always saved the day. Reading about Superman in the pages of the comic books was my first experience of nostalgia, longing for a time that had never really existed, when my dad could do anything.
Perhaps it's because I no longer need a father substitute or a Jesus in a cape that the movie left me unmoved. Man of Steel is passable popcorn-fare and easily the best of the film versions of Superman, if only because the previous incarnations have been atrocious. The score by Hans Zimmer is rousing, and the costume design is stunning (especially the uniforms of General Zod and his female commander). But the soon-to-be-dated CGI and the never-ending fight scenes between indestructible aliens left me bored and restless long before the interminable (two-and-a-half-hour!) running time was over.
Superb acting by the supporting characters, particularly Superman's two dads, nearly saves the movie. His birth father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), is a bold and manly Kryptonian scientist, while his adopted dad, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), is a protective and quiet Kansas farmer. Both men provide a model of fatherly love, but Costner steals the movie with only a few minutes of screen time. In one scene Pa Kent left me with a lump in my throat and the only genuine emotional response of the entire movie—all with a single gesture of his hand.
We may appreciate Superman because he represents what our fathers could never be, but Pa Kent shows us what we really need from our father: unconditional, self-sacrificial love. Superman may be the man of steel, but his earthbound father shows us what it really means to be Christ-figure.