Review: Man of Steel (2013)

(Warning: contains spoilers.  But hey, you’re going to see it for the action sequences anyway, right?)

The release of Man of Steel marks the 75th anniversary of Superman’s debut in the inaugural issue of Action Comics.  Do we need another big-screen reboot of the legend?

Christopher Reeve, with his endearingly bumbling Clark Kent, is probably still the best remembered face of the franchise.  In 2006, after his death, Warner Brothers cast Brandon Routh in Superman Returns.  Not bad–and better than Reeve’s mostly forgettable third and fourth outings.  But Routh didn’t so much play Superman as play Reeve playing Superman, a gamble that didn’t quite pay off.  It was limiting, distracting–and frankly, a little creepy.

For MoS, Warner kept the strategy of casting a relative newcomer (British actor Henry Cavill) in the lead, and surrounding him with reliable big-name talent.  Add the creative team of Zack Snyder (director) and especially Christopher Nolan (co-producer and co-writer, coming off his enormous success with The Dark Knight franchise), and you have the potential ingredients of a blockbuster.

So will Cavill go the way of Reeve, or Routh?  The film minimizes comparison by only giving us the pre-Daily Planet Clark.  Reeve’s genius was to almost make you forget the laughable idea that a mere pair of glasses could fool a skyscraper full of ace reporters.  Will Cavill be able to pull it off?  Time will tell.

The opening scene and subsequent scattered flashbacks give us a revisionist history of Superman’s background.  Krypton is a planet where children’s lives are genetically determined, without the freedom to choose their own path.  Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is a scientist; Zod (Michael Shannon) is a general in the Kryptonian military.  Both know that their planet is doomed by imminent ecological disaster.

Zod attempts a coup against the short-sighted ruling council.  Jor-El escapes the fracas, steals Krypton’s “codex” (think genetic datafile) and encodes its information into the cells of his newborn son, Kal-El, sending him to a planet where new Kryptonians might co-exist in peace: Earth.  Kal-El’s ship crash-lands in Kansas, where he is discovered and raised by the Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent as their own son.

The Kents name Kal-El “Clark,” without telling him that he’s not of Earth.  The film explores young Clark’s internal conflict: how disconcerting would it be to discover superpowers when you believe you’re merely human?  Clark, raised with strong morals, can’t help using his powers to save people, despite his father’s warnings to keep that part of his identity a secret.  Word is getting around.  Some neighbors believe it’s a sign from God, prompting Clark to ask Pa Kent, “Did God do this to me?”

Jonathan finally has to tell him the truth, showing him the spacecraft that brought him to Earth.  He tells Clark that he must discover the reason he was sent, but warns that the world may not be ready for someone so different, so powerful.  Jonathan later dies protecting his son’s secret as Clark watches in horror.  The adult Clark wanders the world in search of his purpose, taking on a variety of odd jobs under assumed names, leaving when his urge to rescue others draws unwanted attention.

When, on one of those jobs, Clark finds a Kryptonian scout craft long buried in the Arctic ice, he learns his history and destiny from a holographic projection of his father Jor-El’s consciousness.  It is here that he meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and accidentally activates a distress beacon that brings Zod and his cronies running.  Their plan: kill Kal-El, extract the genetic information from his cells, and remake Earth into a new Krypton, destroying all human life in the process.  Only one person can stop them.

Clark finally finds his purpose.

The internal and external conflicts play out together.  True to Jonathan’s fears, the U. S. military treats Superman as an enemy combatant until he earns their trust in his battle with Zod.  The battle itself is overly long and leaves a wide wake of collateral damage.  Much of Metropolis is reduced to rubble, and many are presumed dead in scenes that recall 9/11 New York.  But in the end, of course, Superman wins and the world is safe.

Many have noted the Christian thematic and visual elements in the film.  Troy Anderson, in a review, quotes director Zack Snyder: “The Christ-like parallels…That stuff is there, in the mythology. …We thought it would be fun to allow that mythology to be woven through.”

It’s more than just “allowed”–in some cases, it’s fairly blatant.  A brief catalog: Clark is 33 years old during his battle with evil; he is at one point called “the son of El”; when he seeks counsel from a clergyman, the camera clearly shows a stained-glass image of Jesus in the background.  When he’s told by Jor-El that he can save all of humanity, he doesn’t just speed away; he floats backward out of the wrecked spacecraft, arms outstretched as if on a cross.

Is this a good thing?  Anderson quotes culture critic Craig Detweiler, who believes that the story has the potential to point audiences “towards Jesus, the original superhero.”

Personally, I’m not so sure.

As Detweiler rightly notes: “Traditionally, Superman would only rescue— never kill.  In Man of Steel, we see a rather shocking act of violence that clearly deviates from Jesus’s sacrificial peacemaking.”  The internal and external conflicts collide.  In the film’s climactic moment, Superman suffers moral torment: will he–must he–take a life?  Considering the violence already inflicted, his decision is consistent.

For that reason alone, I cannot agree with Anderson that “Nevertheless, Superman is…an archetype of Jesus.”  Despite the many Christian motifs, it is simply too much of a stretch to take one who kills through violence to be an archetype of the One who died by taking violence upon himself.

The larger narrative context is important.  As in last year’s The Avengers, the orgy of cinematic violence is justified by a global threat to humanity by hostile aliens.  We see more of human heroism than sin; the invaders, by contrast, are selfish and snarling.  It’s Us vs. Them, and we want Superman on our side.  We’re the good guys; Supes has to take out the bad guys by whatever means necessary.  And when he does, we feel redeemed.

That, of course, is not the gospel: we’re not the good guys, evil isn’t simply “out there,” and hope doesn’t lie in our unrealized potential to do good, no matter what Jor-El says.

It’s an action movie, based on a comic book.  I get that: I’ve long been a fan of superhero movies myself.  And I don’t object to the use of Christian symbolism in films, far from it.  But when the language and images are used in such an obvious fashion, and the movie does such an effective job in hooking our sometimes unacknowledged belief in violence as a solution, we should be especially concerned to ask ourselves if the cause of Christ has been served well.

If it hasn’t, well, we can use the opportunity to talk to someone about what the Jesus of the gospels is really like.