It’s big. And I’m not just talking about its 143 min. runtime, its universe-spanning plot, Han Zimmer’s colossal score, Zack Snyder’s apocalyptic visuals, or even its $120 million projected weekend box office. In fact, it’s not just “big;” it’s messianic.
It becomes clear pretty early on that Snyder wants us to identify his version of the Man of Steel with Christ. This is not Snyder’s invention—in virtually every iteration, Superman invites such comparison—however, Snyder is careful—if not a little bullish—about highlighting this connection. In addition to the usual Christological trappings that accompany Superman, this Kent is born miraculously—the first natural Kryptonian birth in centuries—he agonizes over his decision to hand himself to the authorities while standing in a church featuring images of Christ agonizing in Gethsemane; he hovers before the military like an image of the Second Coming; and he is sure to tell us that he is 33 years old (the same age as Christ at the time of his crucifixion).
(Note: for an interview with Snyder on the Christ-like nature of Superman, check out this interview with CNN).
So what are we to make of this alignment of Superman with Christ? Recognizing the comparison, of itself, has little value. The question that remains is what does the text have to say through this comparison? First, I think we need to be clear that Man of Steel is not a sort of Lost Gospel of Snyder—for all of his similarities to Christ, Clark is not him. Clark is uncertain of his role and his future, can be mildly (if humorously) vindictive, and needs the guidance of a human father to help him realize his identity. Also, while Clark’s being a child of both Krypton and Earth echo Christ’s nature as fully human and fully divine, it is not the same thing. As much as some Christians might like to, we cannot see the film as a vehicle for revealing Christ—technically speaking, such a view would have to condemn the film for its Arianism, or perhaps Monophysitism, rather than lauding its Christological significance. If one wanted, he could make Kent into a sort of post-Liberal, post-modern pastiche Christ—but this is not the Christ of the Bible.
So what does this film tell us through its alignment of the Man of Steel with Christ? This is what I love about this movie. Despite being just a little bit drunk on humanist optimism, Man of Steel depicts a humanity that is both flawed and beautiful. It shows us multiple images of humanity’s potential for cruelty, particularly toward that which is different—Young Clark is repeatedly a target of this sort of venom. Yet, the film shows us that humans can also be capable of deep, even sacrificial, love. The mother figures are particularly poignant here, depicting tremendous tenderness and strength. Yet, for all the mixed bag that is humanity, Man of Steel shows a human collective that cannot save itself. The persistent theme of the entire movie is the idea that Clark will ultimately—for good or ill—lead humanity. Thanks to the love of two strong mothers and the guidance of two wise, loving fathers, Clark, ultimately, provides this leadership as a sort of Christ figure. He does not merely save them from cataclysm, he provides a shining example of selfless, sacrificial love.
In the iconic biblical scene in which Christ tells a leader of the people that he must “be born again,” that leader, Nicodemus, responds with incredulity, wondering “How can a man be born when he is old… Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?” (John 3:3-4). Man of Steel opens with an evocation of this passage. After setting the stage with a birthing scene, the film soon depicts Jor-El literally undergoing a re-entrance into the womb—swimming through the fluid in which the population of Krypton is incubated. Our first scene of the grown Clark retreads this ground, depicting Clark unconscious in the water, a bright light shining above him—a sort of re-enactment of Christ’s baptism (itself a symbol of re-birth).
Man of Steel is not, by any stretch, a “Christian” film, nor is it a pop-cultural lost gospel. Nonetheless, it is significant for the way in which it depicts a humanity ripe with potential for both good and ill. It further succeeds because it shows that that humanity is not able to save itself—it needs someone better to both literally save it from destruction as well as to set an example after which it can follow.
Christ made it clear that re-birth was a pre-requisite to entry into the kingdom of God. Man of Steel shows us two saviours—Jor-El, who saves his son, and Clark, who saves humanity—yet both must first undergo re-birth. What would it look like for humanity to do the same? Perhaps even better yet, what would it look like if those who claim to have undergone this second birth already, were to act with the sort of sacrificial love we see in Clark Kent… and Christ?