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.