The latest Superman movie is being marketed to play off of the similarities between the character's origins and the Christian tale of Jesus. But Man of Steel doesn't do nearly as well in mining that narrative vein as prior Superman films.
Which is one reason why the movie is more "meh" than some of those films.
Does anybody really need a recap of Superman's origin story? Even as his home planet is about to explode, his parents put infant Kal-El into a tiny spaceship and send him into the void. He lands on Earth, takes on an earthling identity and grows up to become a mighty hero. (Small spoiler alert: There's not much to give away, but if you want to know nothing about the movie, come back after you've seen it.)
Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, high school classmates in a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland. So it's no shock that the story has echoes of Exodus, where baby Moses is sent out on the river, is adopted into Egyptian society and grows up to become a mighty hero. The parallels, however, were never intended to be exact.
Since the creation of the character in 1933, some of the many writers over the decades found ways to evoke the Christian story in the power, humanity, and sacrifices of the strange visitor from another planet. So it may not be surprising that Warner Brothers has tried to explicitly and directly sell Man of Steel to Christian audiences.
The movie company invited pastors to advance screenings and hired a Pepperdine professor to write a sermon outline. Reactions have been mixed. Some pastors say they're on board. Others condemn the movie as (no kidding) Satanic. Which seems more than a little over the top to me.
No question the filmmakers punched up religious references where they could. Clark Kent actually visits a church and asks a priest for advice. Careful viewers will spot a couple of crucifixion poses. The relationship between Kal-El and his dead dad and Clark Kent and his adoptive father carry echoes of Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Joseph.
And the first half of the film is actually pretty good. It's the part that focuses on the "man" part of Superman. But when the interminable battle scenes start, the flaw is not just that they are repetitive opportunities for product placement. They share a problem that Superman's writers have always faced:
How do you keep a battle interesting when the hero is well-nigh invulnerable? For all the CGI smashing and bashing going on, there's only a moment when Superman ever seems worse than winded. And that moment has nothing to do with fighting. Since his Kryptonian foes are likewise invulnerable, what's the point?
And that's where this film falls short not only of the Christian mythos, but of prior Superman stories and movies.
Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was a spatterfest, but Gibson totally got this truth: At the core of traditional Christianity is the willingness of Jesus to take on the physical imperfections and pains of every human being -- and then some. The literally essential human vulnerability of Jesus creates an emotional bond for many of the Christian faithful.
Christianity is far from the only faith to demonstrate the essential humanity of its archetype heroes, of course.
Moses had a speech impediment and an anger management problem and was not allowed to take part in the ultimate triumph of the Exodus story. Gautama Buddha is said to have come up with the Middle Way toward enlightenment after trying and failing at more extreme methods. Muhammad was an illiterate merchant before he received Islam's holy text.
Prior Superman movies have proven that it's possible to include that sense of vulnerability and risk in these stories.
I may be one of the few moviegoers who liked the 2006 reboot Superman Returns, the one where Lois is the mom of Kal's son. That film had even more Christian imagery than this new one. It also included one of the several ways Superman's writers over the decades have reduced his invulnerability: Kryptonite.
The dastardly Lex Luthor (played marvelously by Kevin Spacy) takes a shard of Kryptonite and stabs Superman in the side. Sorta like the way Jesus was stabbed in the side while he was on the cross, get it? And there were at least a few minutes in that film where I wondered exactly how Superman would survive his trials. (Not that there was any doubt.)
In the same way that Christianity trades on the physical vulnerability of Jesus to demonstrate humanity and empathy, the Superman stories where the hero actually gets hurt make it easier to identify with the guy in the tights. It makes us care. We got little of that in this movie.
In Man of Steel, I mostly wondered how the writers would finally figure out how to end the battle in a way that would make even a scintilla of sense. Their solution blasted a hole in the traditional moral code of the character: Superman doesn't kill.
It was a cheap way out that defies what has kept the character popular for 80 years. Superman is usually strong enough to quickly defeat his enemies if he's willing to kill them. In fact, the only dramatic tension in a lot of Superman stories is wondering how he'll find an alternative. (Recall the cult cartoon short "Bambi Meets Godzilla"? Superman vs. Lex Luthor could run much the same way.)
Narrative weaknesses aside, I wonder about pastors who thought about using that Man of Steel outline. Given how the film ends, how exactly do they close their sermons? It's not like the New Testament has Jesus mowing down the Romans, swinging his cross like Thor's hammer.
Though that might make a pretty cool summer movie. With zombies.