After a lackluster summer of blockbuster releases, I was thrilled to see the Man of Steel return to the big screen this weekend. With Bryan Singer directing, I figured that things would be great. And they were, though not in the way that I had expected.
I came away from the movie thinking about how Hollywood touches the lives of everyday people in ways that the Church cannot. But in the latest installment of the Superman saga, I see undercurrents of Jewish and Christian faith that resonate with me.
Of course, Superman has always had his elements of Biblical lore. As a baby, Kal-El is spared death by being placed in the Kryptonian equivalent of a basket in which he is whisked away on cosmic currents of space/time to the backwaters of earth where an unsuspecting couple takes him in and raises him as one of their own. Not exactly pharaoh’s daughter, but you get the point…
Moses was on the backside of the desert of Midian when God spoke to him through a burning bush. For Clark Kent, the deserted place was the Fortress of Solitude, where the voice of Jor-El (el is Hebrew for “god”) calls to him from a projection that gives off light, but does not consume.
In the 1978 movie we see the parallels between Clark who returns to the world from his deserted place at the age of 30 and Jesus who began his earthly ministry at the same age following his desert trials. There are many more parallels that have been noted before.
Marlon Brandon’s lines from the original film are recycled in a few memorable places which strike me now in ways that they couldn’t when I was eight years old:
They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the Light to show the way. For this reason above all – their capacity for good – I have sent them you… my only Son.
The world of Metropolis, despite the big name, has been shrinking for the past 400 years. Her worldly citizens are heir to the scientific theories of Copernicus who dared to say that the earth is not the center of the universe. They have dealt with Darwin’s theory of evolution that knocked Adam off his throne at the pinnacle of God’s creation and reassigned him to a status just above the apes. They have accepted Freud’s identification of the subconscious mind and grappled with the implications of Einstein’s theory of relativity. With each passing discovery, their medieval Christian worldview has been slowly eroded.
But Metropolis still had its Moses who provided a Light by which to see and a hope for the future. As long as there was a Superman, things were okay. But when astronomers discover what appear to be the remains of Krypton in a distant galaxy, Metropolis is shaken yet again by the loss of one more seeming absolute when Superman disappears. The Son of Krypton returns home in search of survivors and he doesn’t even say good-bye. No one has seen him for five years. On his return, the hero finds that Lois Lane, embodying the vox populi, is about to receive the Pulitzer for her essay entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Hell has no fury like a woman scorned… And apparently the Pulitzer committee agrees: the world doesn’t need a Savior.
As early as 1882 Nietzsche wrote his famous line, “God is dead,” as he recognized that traditional values were disintegrating, resulting in a world where moral relativism and nihilism would displace black and white concepts of good and evil. In response to this Phantom Zone where the moral compass of the past no longer provides guidance, Nietzsche proposed the idea of the Übermensch, or Superman, who would replace the God of the past.
No longer governed by an external Law, the Superman would live by values that he himself determines to be valid.
And so it goes. Moses may have brought the Law, but humanity rejects the teaching, opting for feels-good-do-it attempts to meet our needs based solely on our own limited perceptions.
But the Man of Steel knows better. Facing the withering heat of Lois’ anger, Superman coaxes her into a short flight over Metropolis. In the silent night sky he asks, “What do you hear?”
“I don’t hear anything,” she snaps.
“I hear everything,” he replies. “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior. But every day I hear people crying out for one.”
It struck me in the right place, this response from secular Hollywood. For years now voices have asserted to anyone who will listen that Christianity must purge itself of the archetype of a fallen world in need of a Savior. Otherwise, goes the claim, Christianity will be marginalized as an irrelevant religion that no longer speaks to our modern culture.
It would appear that not every agrees. The headline of Perry White’s September 29, 2006 edition of The Daily Planet declares shocking news:
SUPERMAN IS DEAD
While the hype turns out to be unwarranted, perhaps Mr. Singer has a point. The Übermensch experiment has produced less than stellar results so far. On the whole, humans don’t appear to operate with enough wisdom to make decisions about what is right and wrong. And though we’re loathe to admit it, we still cry out for a Savior when the long, dark night of the soul overwhelms our illusions of control. Although we possess an enormous capacity for good, we still need the Light to show us the way.