Thoughts on Man of Steel, Batman and God

Editor's introduction:

I saw Man of Steel a week after it came out.  I would have gone opening night but I was out of town and unable to make it to a movie theatre. I loved the movie and I was pleasantly surprised by all of the obvious references and allusions to Jesus in the film. I was going to write a review for when all of the sudden Jim Reed sent me his take on this very topic.  Once I read Jim's thoughts, I shelved my own ideas, read on and you'll understand why.   

Derek Bonesteel

Man Shaped gods
by Jim Reed

In light of overblown comparisons to Jesus, what form of salvation do Superman and Batman actually communicate?

Picture this: A young child, 8ish, sits on a ridge, shading his eyes from the setting sun in order to look toward the construction of a marvelously beautiful city. Perhaps he is awaiting the return of his father, a man skilled in construction. A few years later this child, now a young man, travels with his father the four miles to assist, as is his craft, in the construction of this glimmering triumph of culture and art; a city on a hill that cannot, nor aims to be hidden. The problem with this city: though it now shines, it is a city of ghosts and terror, burned to the ground and made an example in the name of liberty and peace.

At the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, a Jewish insurrection in Sepphoris brought the Romans to town. Rome, like any other empire, wanted only two things: money and peace. Sometimes, however, in an empire system peace requires intimidation and violence. The day the Romans came changed everything, not only for Sepphoris, but also the small town of Nazareth, just four short miles away. I wonder how Jesus, growing up in the shadow of intimidation, developed such a bizarre concept of Israel’s god.

The Zack Snyder helmed, Christopher Nolan produced Man of Steel has been largely overblown in Christian circles for its overt and “redeemable” Christian symbolism. Indeed, the Superman mythology draws heavily from Jewish and Christian typology, as well as many other hero myths (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), and this new representation seeks to assure us that this man is an ideal to strive after; the incarnation of a god worthy of stumbling before, crawling after, and hoping in. He is certainly an ideal moral standard, but one birthed from the cultural and communal mores of his upbringing. He is not “god become man,” but “god shaped by man.” And this god saves in the only way our culture seriously hopes any god will save us.

Part of the problem with Superman, and Batman for that matter, is that they ironically seem to perpetuate the very threats they’re fighting to eradicate. As Alfred himself notes in The Dark Knight, evil crossed the line only because Batman crossed it first. Violence builds upon violence, and ever more creatively does it shape the communities and nations from which it is perpetuated, like an ever-circling carousel. For Superman and Batman, violence and injustice are never destroyed, not completely. People are still victimized and trampled within the grid of the cities they are devoted to protect. At a systemic level, they cannot save the world over, only people whose ideals match those of the culture from which they are birthed. Even if they could save everyone—what are they saving people from, and what are they saving people to do? Our iniquities always rise to the occasion, so even after these impressive yet ultimately vain acts of salvation, people forget and find ways to marginalize each other. This marginalization erodes good will and best intentions, and is a systemic reality of all people groups. Unless, of course, a better way is provided.

Jesus was a man who, according to the Gospels, understood himself in the context of a larger story—an understanding that came with deliberation and time. One of the beauties of the good news Jesus preached and lived is that while it is inextricably cultural, it is also supracultural, speaking to and transforming the lives, hearts and minds of people in cultures the world over. Violence and oppression are not vanquished, as a simple perusing of the news will attest, but perhaps Jesus has rendered it pointless.

Jesus did not fight evil, injustice, and oppression with more violence, but rather allowed himself to be crushed by those very things, and in the process demonstrated a new kind of heroism. Perhaps the greatest victory of the cross and subsequent resurrection is that rather than forcing one peoples to be subject of another, with tyranny the reigning mode of peace, Jesus treats friends and enemies with the same heart: subjecting himself to the hatred of both with a new kind of humanness that points to an alternate form of peace—one that obliterates enemies by making them friends, and eradicates evil by exposing its ultimate and immediate futility.

Neither Superman nor Batman are ultimately able to provide any lasting hope. Not because they don’t measure up as the iconic national symbols many see them as, but precisely because they do. They are American, through and through. As American culture shifts, so shift our symbols of hope. They counter aggressive oppression and attacks on our national and personal security in the only way we know how to counter these attacks: equal or greater violence while valuing self-sacrifice for the gospel of… (insert specific cultural, national, economic, and/or moral system here).* Violence and intimidation have long been used by national superpowers to protect the freedom, rights, and order of their people, just as Rome was “required” to do with the pesky Jews at Sepphoris in 4 BCE. Batman ultimately inspired the people of Gotham in a Marxist sort of way, inciting, with his blazing symbol, the rise of the proletariat. And in the end, Superman has given us a false ideal, and false sense of security and progress, because he is an amalgam of our own culture hopes. On this carousel, progress and security are myths, and ideals are bound by dominant cultural.

*—This is not intended as an attack on American, or any other nation’s troops, nor am I anti-American. I am forever grateful to all who serve, and heartbroken that freedom comes with the price of violence.

By Jim Reed

June 20, 2013