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Depth or Mockery? Theology in the “Man of Steel”

Whenever a new movie comes out, there is always a little bit of give and take amidst the people who like the movie and those who don’t.  Opinions go back and forth regarding plot line, acting ability, and the general success of the film’s opening weeks.  This is all fairly standard in movie-land.

 The new superman movie, however, seems to be a bit different. Even though the “Man of Steel” had a very positive opening weekend, it opened in the midst of certain controversy around the movie’s theological content.  At issue is the manner in which a clear identification is made between Superman and Jesus Christ.   While I have not seen the moive yet, there are clear examples of this from the movies trailer.  From drowning to burial  the trailer is filled with popular images of dying and rising. As well, this movie sets Superman’s battle for the salvation of humanity during his 33rd year on earth.   Also, in case you missed the other two biblical references, the trailer shows Superman with arms spread wide while his Kryptonian father Jor-El declares “you can save them . . . you can save them all”.

 Obviously, not all are happy with such a theological overlay to this popular movie.  In response, @Drtysxyministry tweeted “Sadly, in equating Superman to Jesus, Warner Bros. shows they have no real sense of Jesus’ life & ministry.”  

 Personally, I don’t find the theological themes all that upsetting.  I do echo @Drtysxyministry, however, it is clear that the makers of the movie have no real understanding of Jesus.  Yet a messianic identifical is nothing new for Superman.  The Original movie, starring Christopher Reeves, included a speech by Jor-El where he declares that the human race “can be a great people Kal-El; if 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.” Some refer to this quotation as “Jor-El 3:16”.   Even the comics franchise has made biblical associations, employing the dying and rising motif in the 1992.  In a much publicized event within the comic-book world, Superman dies at the hands of Doomsday only to rise to life in a later issue.  So rooted is Superman in messianic imagery that some have even made the connection between Superman’s real name, Kal El with the Hebrew language, stating that Kal-El could be translated as “all that is God.” 

 What is more, drawing theological points from the popular entertainment venues of the culture is nothing new. Whether it be an appeal to Aslan as the dying and rising savior, to the depiction of humanity’s salvation by the ‘new son of man’ in the movie “The Matrix”, popular entertainment has always been a grab-bag of illustrations used in Christian preaching and  witness.  As my friend and fellow priest, @gatewoman, commented in a tweet, this is because ‘everyone’s looking for a savior and avoiding Jesus”  I would agree with her, and see the theological side of “Man of Steel’ (even in its errors and shallowness) as a place to enter into discussion regarding our need for a savior.

 Yet, there is something uncomfortable about manner in which the new Superman movie has been infused with theological material.  What is uncomfortable is the notion that movie was given a theological angle, not for literary or stylistic reasons, but for sheer marketability.  The strong theological images of the movie are baits on which Warner Bros. attempts to hook the Christian audience.   Throughout the United States, Warner Bros Studios aggressively marketed Man of Steel to Christian pastors and priests.  Invitations were sent to an early screening, where they were met with a nine page set of ‘sermon notes’ entitled “Jesus: The original Superhero” (see this article for more details).  Obviously, the idea was that Christian preachers would discuss the theological merit of the movie during their Sunday addresses, and thus encourage their congregations to see it. As the movie opened on Fathers day weekend, one could see an even more insidious plot whereby a direct connection could easily be made between Christianity, Fatherhood, and Man of Steel.  In other words, to truly be a christian father you must see Man of Steel

I find this uncomfortable because what lies behind this marketingis not a respect for the Christian audience, but a view which sees Christian people as a mere consumer market.  Christians are sub-set of the main population who need to be specially handled in order to be coerced into buying a product.  Jesus, in Man of Steel, is not an archetype or literary allusion, he is a marketing gimmick. and as a person of faith, I find this move both uncomfortable and insulting.  Conviction of faith is not a weakness to be exploited in pursuit of box-office success.  Plus, it is ultimately arrogant of Warner Bros to approach Christian pastors and preachers with a message that says ‘we have summed up your theology quite nicely and you should have your congregations see this movie so they understand their faith better.”  Really?  Why should I care about such theological content in this movie, when Warner Bros has clearly taken a stance which states that such theological elements are ultimately unimportant to the movie beyond their ability to garner cash among a certain group of individuals?   This doesn’t make me hopeful for the quality of the movie.

I don’t know if I will see this movie or not.  If I do, I am not sure if I will use it any ministry related-discussion or purposes.  What I do know is this:  I know that I will be the one who decides what theological lessons are appropriate for my congregation, and will not preach a certain sermon simply because the movies told me so.



Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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7 Responses to Depth or Mockery? Theology in the “Man of Steel”

  1. Hmm. A Facebook friend observed, “Superman tells Lois Lane that the symbol on his chest is not the letter ‘S’ but the symbol for hope on Krypton… I wonder if the creator of Superman knew his Latin and made the symbol a tongue-in-cheek reference to “spes”, the Latin word for hope.”

    Given everything else I’ve been reading, I wouldn’t be surprised. I, for one, am not offended by poetic retellings of the Gospel story: ones that place Jesus in the modern world, imagining how God’s incarnation might be lived out in today’s poverties and injustice. However, imaging Jesus as a “man of steel”–a commanding figure that dominates oppressors though strength and violence seems to confuse our faith entirely. After all, wasn’t Jesus crucified? Didn’t he allow himself to be tortured and broken, sharing the experience of all those who suffer? Isn’t Christ’s death and resurrection our greatest example of God’s strength in human weakness?

  2. Thanks for your reflections, and for some of the background info – especially on the marketing to pastors part. I am not surprised at all, it just confirms suspicions about views and perspectives of seeing faith as the angle to sell something. Brian Blount ( President of Union Presbyterian Seminary) talks about the concept of the “slaughtered lamb” from Revelation specifically, to talk about Jesus’ superpower (my term not his) – because he uses it as a verb. The Empire was “slaughtered-lamb-ed” by Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection, the power of his vulnerability overcame the power of the Empire to take and control life, or the lives of so many.
    Also, Bill Cliff (chaplain at Huron University College) talks about the myth of redemptive violence, and how pervasive that narrative is in all media – print, audio, visual, and otherwise. The idea that the only way to restore balance in any situation is violence is found in so many aspects of human life, society and culture, that for many of us we cannot recognize it, and the challenge to “think outside the box” especially in terms of the Gospel stoyr of Jesus’ life, is incredibly challenging. When we see the Gospel in light of that redemptive myth of violence, we perpetuate and continue that myth, and it completely removes the liberating and powerful message of the Gospel.
    Whether its Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, or Superman, they all share the myth of redemptive violence, which is counter Gospel.
    My 2cents.

  3. David Burrows

    Great points Scott, although I would mention that the myth of redemptive violence that Bill Cliff speaks of comes from the writings of Rene Girard in Violence and the Sacred, (1977). Mimetic desire is one of his main themes, and this does come across in most of the storylines of Marvel, D.C., as well as Star Wars and Superman. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter writings for me don’t seem to fit the example, however. In her writings the use of violence and its response doesn’t bring about the balance that is seen in the rest of the narratives. To me Rowling’s writings offer the dialogue of community, faithfulness, sacrifice, love, and justice with violence as the last resort. Harry’s self dies, and the order is re-established through submission and humility for the sake of love, rather than by violence to end a violent order

    • David thank you for the correct source in Rene Girard (in fact Bill probably cited Rene and I forgot/couldn’t remember!)
      And thank you too for reflections on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. I admittedly don’t know my Harry Potter as well as I should, and should be careful of lumping things together like that.
      Again, thank you.

      • Right on. I’m with Scott re: Harry Potter, though. I simply don’t know enough to comment.

        So: How did we get here? I’ve heard wars rationalized (too many times) with scripture simply because Jesus turned over a couple of tables… the only passage in the NT where he does anything more violent than grilling a fish! There’s a certain amount if irony in choosing that passage, too, given that Jesus was reacting against the perverse system that had used religion as a means for social domination.

  4. Kyle Norman

    Thanks for the conversation all. It just goes to show that something as seemingly simple as Christian imagery in popular cinematography is actually quite far-reaching with possible unforeseen consequences.

  5. I found the idea of using the church to sell this movie offensive. Jesus is reality Superman a fictional charecter. Comparisons do not work, indeed they may even be blasphemy. Mind you it is not the 1st time this has been done , back in 1981 they marketed “CHARIOTS OF FIRE” to the churches as a “Christian movie” which it might have been I didn’t see the link as central theme just a sidebar. But Superman is total fiction so why sell through the church even to the point of giving sermons to pastors.
    This should never happen. Of course Hollywood won’t listen and if they see the Christian community as a target audience they will do this again

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