I am unsure as where to start.
This movie is everything one could hope for a Superman movie in today’s current cinematic sphere. It has the naturalness of “realistic,” as much as realism is attached to a story about aliens and a man who can fly. Several key story elements are re-worked, not so that this is simply an update or re-imagination. No, instead what this movie does is to fix certain elements of the story long expired but capture the hope and dream of the Superman arc, to refocus it back to where many of us have known it to always be.
Warning — Minimal Spoilers.
Superman will always contain the messiah myth(os) as told by Christians. This is not surprising given the context of creation of the character or of the ethnicity of the creators. Indeed, the key to writing good fiction is to use the myths of the cultures so as to steal, pardon the pun, the emotional attachment. While fanboys and critics may joke about Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns and the overindulgence of this particular handing of the Superman storyline, Singer had it correct — the world does need a savior and this is the void filled by Superman.
Zach Synder, director of The Watchmen and 300, has delivered a sublime retention of the ‘Superman as Jesus’ imagery without following in Singer’s footsteps of the “Superman on the Cross in Space” scene. There are other connections beyond the “only begotten son” aspect. In Man of Steel, Kal-El/Clark/Superman is 33 years old. He faces a choice to sacrifice himself for the fate of humankind — only one of these character traits is introduced by Synder. But there is something more, something liberal Christianity may rather enjoy. Kal-El is born so that his entire planet may break free of the rigidness of the patriarchal-imposed determinism but in doing so equally offers the people of Earth the same nature of free will — to be whomever they desire to be, without sovereign control or fear of punishment. Kal-El is the sacrifice offered so that we might be free to finally flourish as humans.
There is more. There is the topic of faith in Man of Steel. At one point, Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner) tells the young Clark that when people find out about him, everything will change — even their beliefs. We are left to assume Kent means religious beliefs. Yet, when General Zod demands the lone Kryptonian who is hiding on Earth, Clark’s first stop is what looks like a Catholic or perhaps an Episcopal Church (although, I pretend it’s United Methodist) where he speaks to the bewildered priest about who he is. Synder shoots the scene with the backdrop of the stained-glass painting of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was betrayed. This is the Garden for Clark. This is where he has to decide if he will have himself delivered up or turn and run. The priests gives him his answer and Clark disappears. Clark must take a leap of faith and trust humanity. On the same token, at the end of the movie, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) tells Clark she knows the long-dead Jonathan saw the entire thing, implying (the belief in) heaven still exists even after the introduction of alien races and information of an ancient universe. Faith is not mocked in Man of Steel but upheld as one of the greatest things about humanity.
Equally represented, and perhaps for the first time better than John Schneider’s portrayal of Pa Kent in the CW’s Smallville, is the willing step-father of a boy mysteriously sent to him. I am unsure if there has or ever will be a better actor given to the role of Jonathan Kent than Kevin Costner. This role is not the one usually played, as the adoptive father only there for a few minutes on film. Instead, we see the continued impacting role the elder Kent has on Clark. There is one particular scene, after a teenage Clark saves several school children, where Pa Kent suggests a possible — better — outcome was to let the children die. Or another scene where young adult Clark spouts the familiar “You aren’t my father!” line. It is not merely Superman who has his character drawn from Jewish and Christian tradition, but so too the adoptive father who must endure even the temperamental tantrums of a son he knows was sent to him for a purpose yet unfulfilled.
Finally, there is the symbol of Superman’s chest — hope.
The sublimity of the Messiah Myth(os) is not the only aspect of the story brought to better light. Lois Lane is no longer the most naive Pulitzer Prize winning reporter on the planet, but as portrayed by Amy Adams, actually does her job. This is a welcomed update for fathers who get tired of having their daughters watch the only female in the show turn out to be the constant damsel in distress. Without revealing too much, Lois Lane is every bit the hero Superman is. Another welcomed update is Kryptonite, but I will not spoil this either.
This movie will be a great one for fanboys and fangirls, but so too theologians and other socio-religious critics. Man of Steel delivers not just great action, fantastic special effects, warm and original dialogue, but the chance to explore our theology as told and re-told by the many who surround us in the cloud of witnesses or has holographic projections of our consciousness.
I think St. Mark would be proud.