Friday, June 14, 2013

The Son of Man and the 'Man of Steel'

So when did Superman convert?

That's the question that some are asking after the premiere of "Man of Steel." Within a few hours of the film's premiere, some news sites were already pointing to allusions to the Christ story in the latest take on the 75-year-old superhero. Others pointed out that Warner Bros. was using subtle marketing to make the connection. It isn't something the director Zack Synder is shying away from either. In an interview, he is quoted as saying:

"Making him Jesus is a mistake, but allowing people to have a conversation about whatever relationship they have with the Jesus story through the movie is undeniable in the material, and if you don't include it in the film, then you're really sort of denying the mythology that is Superman."

1978's "Superman: The Movie" was the child of many screenwriters - Mario Puzo, Robert Benton, Leslie and David Newman, but traditionally Tom Mankiewicz bears most of the credit for shaping what director Richard Donner called an unfilmable script into what became the first two Superman pictures. It was Donner's film that was the first to tie the Superman legend to the Christ story, and Mankiewicz's decision to do so.

The pivotal scene in the 1978 movie comes when Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), for reasons he cannot explain, has traveled to the North Pole, heeding the call of the mysterious green crystal that was within the spaceship that brought him to earth. Clark hurls the crystal into the water, and it creates the Fortress of Solitude. Inside, Clark converses with a recording of his long-dead father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando).

For his journey to earth, Jor-El prepared lessons for his son on the laws of space and time, on earth culture, philosophy, physics, etc. Within the Fortress, this ghostly presence begins to instruct Clark on his true identity as Kal-El, the only survivor of the destroyed planet Krypton. Just prior to Clark's return to humanity, Jor-El warns him that he is "forbidden" to interfere with human history, but that his leadership should stir humans to do so. He then reveals his ultimate aim for his son:

"Live as one of them, and discover where your strength and your power will lead you...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." 

I remember the thrill - and the simultaneous feeling that something had been violated - that ran through me when I sat in the theater at the age of eight and recognized immediately who we were really talking about here. Where Christ had walked as one of us, was one of us, Superman was meant to lead human beings to find the good within themselves. But Christ leads us to seek within ourselves Himself, though we cannot find Him without His action, not ours. I had a feeling that both Jesus - and Superman - had been taken in an unexpected direction. It was my first, and not my last exposure, to the Christ figure outside of church.

In Gerard Jones' "Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book." the author states how Superman, indeed most of the iconic comic characters of the thirties and forties, were the brainchildren of Jewish boys and men. Superman's co-creator, Jerry Siegel, lost his father in a murder. So the picture of a man invulnerable to bullets was more than fantasy for him. And the evolving story of Superman's complicated identity - his being the inheritor of a vast, ancient civilization, a traveler representing a disappeared way of life, indestructible, a man of tomorrow who carries within his blood the remnants of the past - all of that sounds very Jewish. And also, very much like Christ.

Synder's "Man of Steel" carries on this part of the Superman mythos, and in a much better way than Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns." The movie is, for the first hour-and-a-half, very clever and very visually breathtaking. The Kryptonian sequences and the evoking of its culture are wonderful, and the device of Clark's emerging consciousness of his past and his destiny are told well in a manner much like Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins." (Nolan conceived the story along with David Goyer and produced the movie.) The movie suffers from an, at times, overly serious tone, and lacks the sense of easy humor and "aw shucks" entertainment that made the Donner film so enjoyable. The ability to destroy an entire city in CGI, or depict epic fistfights between superpowered beings, has become so obligatory in summer movies that the last thirty minutes play in a loud blur and lack a certain satisfaction. Knowing it took 12 years to build Freedom Tower after the 9/11 attacks, I silently calculated how many centuries it would have taken for the city of Metropolis to rebuild itself after General Zod's attack before Clark comes looking for a job at the Daily Planet.

But Snyder's Superman doesn't stray far from the Metropolis Gospel. Once again, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) entrusts his son to earth as his planet dies. And he has safely recorded enough of himself so that his son, at the proper time, will discover his identity and his mission. When Kal-El (Henry Cavill) does stumble on the truth, he must deal with the conflicting sense of mission - honoring the Kryptonian father who sent him, and the human father (Kevin Costner) who knows that the moment humanity discovers Clark Kent, both it and he will change.

When General Zod (Michael Shannon) emerges from his exile and wandering the universe, he demands Earth turn over Kal-El to him. This presents the Kryptonian son of Kansas with a problem - does he reveal himself at last, to face whatever happens from that moment forward? Once this is done, he can never drift back into anonymity. This isn't a small problem. After all, we learn that Clark lost his earthly father as Jonathan died trying to prevent him from revealing himself.

So Clark, in needing to talk to someone, goes to a church. He consults a young priest, revealing himself as the object of the planet's concern. Is it the right time to do this? The priest tells him simply that he will have to have faith to move forward. In case the point is lost, the camera reveals, right over Clark's shoulder, the stained-glass portrait of the Son of Man.

And so, at last, we see Superman revealed, in cape and suit, surrendering to the U.S. Army in order to preserve the human race. This is Christ's sacrifice, though without a crucifixion once Superman steps onto Zod's spacecraft. When Superman calmly informs the military and scientific observers that their drugs and weapons cannot harm him, how can we not be reminded of Christ's words to Pilate before the Cross: "You would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above."

It is only in sacrificing himself that Superman discovers his destiny, as we expect him to. And that too is a Christian motif, since how else can we identify with the Savior unless we are willing to sacrifice who we are, and for those who do not know Him?

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