We live in the golden age of superhero films. While largely a product of risk-averse Hollywood, which is always seeking another franchise to construct or exploit, these films have proven to be bankable and generally entertaining. While The Dark Knight, for me, remains the pinnacle of the genre, The Man of Steel is a worthy entry into the canon.
As a character, Superman is not terribly interesting. We expect our heroes to win, but the nature of Superman’s powers make him nearly invulnerable. There are only a few ways to get dramatic tension out of the narrative arc: existential angst (“who am I and why am I here?”), the introduction of equals who pose a legitimate threat, or the vulnerability of those who surround him. Man of Steel manages to squeeze all three approaches to this particular plot, and largely to good effect.
Superman’s back story is told through flashbacks and the device works well here. Krypton is in planetary peril as Jor-El (Russel Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) send their son, Kal-El (later Henry Cavill) away to Earth with the explicit hope of saving both their people and to provide a model and hope for homo sapiens. His Earth parents, Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) do their best to encourage reflection and restraint in their precocious phenom. Mr. Kent, in particular, worries that people will fear and seek to hurt his son once they discover his true nature. This question, “what will they (people, governments, the military) do once I reveal myself?” becomes a dominant theme. Since Superman has no mask, and since his abilities are so remarkable, this is really a question of “when do I help people in public?”
We also are introduced quickly to General Zod (Michael Shannon), our antagonist, and his cohorts. Rival to Jor-El, Zod seeks to preserve the remnants of Krypton, though his coup fails and he and his crew are banished through a wormhole. Recognizing Jor-El’s son, and the material that traveled with him to Earth, as the last link to the past, they hunt him down, introducing the primary conflict between competing visions–Zod’s and Superman’s–for Earth’s future.
Finally, we meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams), our intrepid reporter, but here she is not merely the heroine in distress, though that does happen. She is, at least for a time, part of the solution. She is joined by her editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), but Jimmy Olsen is remarkably absent.
All of these things work well together. The special effects are quite good. I especially appreciated the way director Zack Snyder tried to portray Superman’s speed as being fundamentally inhuman. There is blur, to be sure, but we see Superman, and his enemies, execute several moves almost simultaneously, and before the humans can respond. And, as expected, many things explode–buildings, cars, planes, spacecrafts, and nearly anything else combustible. This is a very high quality popcorn film, but it also has a strong religious theme.
As Christians, we are often tempted to read too much into literature or films that portray broadly Christian themes. For example, because a film focuses on forgiveness does not mean it is about the forgiveness of sins in a soteriological sense, or movies about redemption are not necessarily a picture of the cross. Man of Steel, though, goes out of its way to make Superman a Christ figure. Beyond the trappings of the story (a father sends his son to another place so that he might save humanity), which have always had Christological elements, Man of Steel drops several explicit references to Christ which are unmistakable. Jor-El makes it clear that humans will see his son as a god, and, as such, he will have the opportunity to lead them away from the path of Krypton and toward a brighter future. He explicitly refers to Superman as a “bridge” figure between these tribes of humanoids. The story also makes it clear that Superman has had a sort of hypostatic union of his two natures, with his environment reshaping his physiology, even at a molecular level. He is clearly portrayed as the best of what both people have to offer. Also, we see that Superman, struggling with how and when to reveal his nature, notes that he has spent thirty-three years on Earth. Christ, in the Bible, commences his ministry in his thirtieth year and dies on the cross at thirty-three.
Two other visual references make the hints explicit. During one important scene, where Superman is asking a priest for advice about whether or not he should turn himself in to authorities, we see the character framed against a stained glass window that bears Christ’s image, most likely from his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was seeking counsel of a sort about his impending sacrifice. Just after this prayer, Christ is betrayed and turned over to the authorities. Also, when Jor-El speaks of Christ as a ‘bridge’ figure, he tells his son he will be able to not only save Lois, but he will ‘save them all.’ At that moment, Superman emerges from the ship in a perfect shape of the cross, adopting fully the pose of Christ and his sacrifice.
FINAL GRADE: 2.5/3 eggheads.