After months of waiting, I finally watched the Man of Steel in a midnight showing early Friday (or late Thursday) night. My first comment is that the critics are idiots–it was a fantastic movie. Unsurprisingly given the team of Nolan, Snyder, and Zimmer, this is easily the best Superman movie to date; plot, cast, visuals, emotional complexity, etc. surpass anything that’s been done with the franchise yet.
But I’m not here to write a movie review. Like most films do, it got me thinking about theology. There have been a number of recent articles on difference and similarities between Jesus and Superman. I haven’t read any of them, but I’ve seen them online and the parallels and divergences aren’t hard to imagine–intentionally so with the former.
Superman is a Messianic figure, a son sent by a father from a different world, raised by surrogate parents, come to save us all. He’s not one of us, but he identifies with our cause, fights the battles we can’t against demons too big for merely human strength. He’s a shining beacon of truth, morality, and hope to a people who misunderstand and fear him despite his unrelenting will to save. The film plays this up to the point where its unmistakable, revealing him to be 33 years of age, and even setting him in a church struggling with a decision about whether to sacrifice himself for the planet, with a stained-glass picture of Jesus in the background.
Of course, every Messianic analogy breaks down and it’s easy enough to point that out with Superman. He really isn’t like Jesus in some very important ways–one of the biggest is that he’s not really human. He might identify with our cause and plight, but he doesn’t ever fully share it. Unless he’s exposed to some Kryptonite or Red Sun, he’s impervious to just about anything you throw at him. Jesus knows what it is to feel human fear and pain–he’s wasn’t bullet, or nailproof. Superman doesn’t bleed out and die, but Jesus does.
The flidside is that he’s not fully divine either; Superman is at best a demi-God. His feats of power, strength, speed, flight, and lasers do not entitle him to the title “Creator.” He is not eternal, immutable, immortal, or omnipotent, no matter how potent he is. He is a being among beings but not the source of all being; a superior being perhaps, but still on the ‘creation’ side of the Creator/creature distinction (if that holds in the DC Universe.)
In fact, when you think about it, theologically Superman is more like the Arian picture of Christ. The teacher Arius taught a savior who was not the eternal Son of God, (“there was a time when he was not”), and yet not a normal man either. He was a mediating being, the chief over creation who was yet still a part of it, and not to be thought of as equal to the Father.
Similarly, the salvation he offers us is that of a shining exemplar, not a redeeming Savior. Yes, he sacrifices himself for us and fights the battle we could never fight, against a ruthless enemy we could not beat. And yet, like so many other popular Hollywood Messiah figures, the goal is that one day he can teach us, inspire us, when we’re ready, to live a new a better way. In a sense, he saves, yes by feats of strength and moral courage, but the redemption of mankind will come by imitation. There is no atonement, or conversion, for Superman is the heroic, morally-educative Pelagian Christ.
This isn’t a real knock on the movie, of course, or even the Superman character. It’s not Kal-El’s fault–only Jesus can be Jesus.
And that’s really the point I’ve wanted to make. While all of our heroes, in some way, seem to point us to the ultimate Hero, all of them fall short. Some have pointed out that Batman is fully human like us, knowing our pains and plight, and in that way, he’s really the more Christ-like hero. The problem is that when he dies, he dies. Part of what makes Jesus glorious, and that the Superman myth draws on is our need for a Savior who can rescue us from the curse of death; we need a hero who can’t be held down by it. Down the line I could go, with blockbuster hero after hero pointing out the various ways they either measure up, or fall miserably short.
The key difference that I’ve seen, though, is that not one of the various heroes on offer can truly offer us the redemption we need most–that liberation of the soul that comes when our sins are paid for and the Spirit is poured out in our hearts, setting us free from our bondage to sin. None but the Crucified and Risen one is strong enough offer me the salvation of a conscience cleansed from sin and reconciled with God.
Soli Deo Gloria