Man of Steel: Making Sense of All That Christ and Death Stuff


Sometimes, there’s just too damn much to say about a movie than can fit into any one review. (Even Stephanie Zacharek’s exhaustive, excellent one.) So, here’s more: Stephanie Zacharek, our lead film critic, and Film Editor Alan Scherstuhl hashing over all the portentous craziness in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel

Warning: This discussion is thick with spoilers. It’s nothing but spoilers. In fact, we might spoil books four and five of Game of Thrones, too, so consider yourself well and truly warned.

To: Stephanie Zacharek
From: Alan Scherstuhl

Stephanie, is it too much to ask for these movies to mean something?

So, in his 33rd year, Kal-El, son of Jor-El, reveals himself to the great mass of humanity he had been sent by his father to save. Or something like that. Between Henry Cavill’s scraggly beard, and this Superman’s habit of stretching out his arms like he’s either on the cross or about to take a Nestea Plunge, Man of Steel has more Christ imagery than a Vacation Bible School feltboard.

Just before letting mankind imprison him, Superman asks a priest for advice—while standing beneath a stained-glass window depicting Jesus in prayer at Gethsemane. He harrows a hellish place in the Earth’s core. And that 33 years old thing really confounds me. Yes, this Superman is a bit of a late bloomer, preferring to be an itinerant man’s man in the Paul Bunyan mold, but the idea that he’s north of 30 before donning his red-and-blues strikes me as misguided as the idea that Batman takes all those years off before The Dark Knight Rises and then cries in a hole for half the movie. It’s a bold, big-idea take on the character that, onscreen, is much less fun than just watching the character have an adventure.

And the big ideas, as you point out in your review, are hopelessly vague: So, Superman is kind of like Jesus—so what? It’s not as if the film makes anything of this connection, or has him sacrifice himself in any meaningful way. In fact, if Superman were like Jesus that wouldn’t be too much of a compliment to Jesus: The cosmic forces that Superman defeats in Man of Steel only threaten humanity—and kill tens of thousands of us—because Superman happens to be hanging out here in the first place. That’s a logical—and theological—hash.

All those buildings that get destroyed in Metropolis with the force of several dozen 9/11s? That’s all the direct consequence of the hero’s existence. Something’s off.

To: Alan Scherstuhl
From: Stephanie Zacharek

I think it’s OK to want these movies to mean something. But they need to mean something meaningful. And pasting a Jesus metaphor on Superman just isn’t going to cut it. First off, the idea of self-sacrifice for the good of mankind is at the heart of superhero movies to begin with. If you want the comparisons to be there in Superman, they’re so obvious an eighth-grader could write a pretty dutiful, if dull, term paper on them: An otherworldly guy sends his only son down to Earth to do good for mankind, and although the son is benevolent and powerful, he has some very human weaknesses. Yadda yadda.

I had to keep myself from snorting when I heard that reference in the movie—as direct as a church pew carved out of good, aged oak—to Superman’s 33 years on this Earth. In Man of Steel, Clark/Superman’s suffering is presented as this really austere, existential thing. I actually like religious overtones in my comic-book movies, but only when they’re really crazy. I love, for instance, the vibe of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy movies; those pictures are like intense, nutty Catholic art, the Italian stuff where you have Jesus pointing to his heart spurting blood, with this expression on his face that says, “Look at all I have done for you!” Even the sets are grand, like cathedrals with lots of gold leaf. The Jesus stuff in Man of Steel is just so dour and serious and dumb. Where’s the pageantry? Where’s the religio-glamor?

And as lovely and deeply human as parts of Man of Steel are, I do blanch at the careless destruction of Metropolis. A critic friend and I were discussing this, and he said that if Man of Steel were really true to the spirit of the superhero, Superman and Zod would have taken their battle elsewhere, instead of knocking windows out of buildings, seemingly not caring about how many innocent citizens might get killed or hurt in their schoolyard brawl. That, to me, seems like a Christopher Nolanism—this idea that a superhero movie needs to be about something Big and Dark, and the best way to convey that is to suggest, but not show outright, injury and death among the general populace. It’s a cheap way of raising the stakes. It’s a way of signaling to people, “Hey, this superhero stuff is really deep and significant.” Without actually making it deep and significant.

To: Stephanie Zacharek
From: Alan Scherstuhl

I shudder at the thought of those Man of Steel term papers, since I taught college English during the reign of The Dark Knight, a movie paper-writers assured me was about chaos and duality, even as none of those paper-writers ever let me know what it actually said about chaos or duality. I felt that frustration as I watched Clark Kent hitchhike around all done up like a Kris Kristofferson He-Man Christ: “But what about this Super Jesus?” I wanted to ask.

In all this carping, I don’t want to overlook the fact that much of the movie works. The Kansas material is affecting—he wears a Royals shirt!—and the superhero battles here are the first I’ve ever seen onscreen that measure up to the scale of actual comic books. The lengthy battle in downtown Smallville is a legitimate marvel, a rare case where the too-muchness (your phrase!) of movies like this seems a form of generous madness. To say that every punch looks like a million bucks is to lowball the pricey, creative mayhem.

The later fights are bigger still but lack that first one’s clarity, and they’re also more afflicted by the problem you mention: Rather than destroy such wide swaths of Metropolis, the Superman the world has loved for so many decades would find a way to take the battle elsewhere. There’s glory in the moment he and Zod smash each other into a goddamn satellite, but the movie offers no explanation for why Clark can’t continue to chuck him into lower Earth orbit—and actually save some of the lives he’s been sent to save.

And then, at the end, to save a handful of lives, this Superman dares what no previous Superman would. [EVEN BIGGER SPOILERS THAN BEFORE, PEOPLE, SERIOUSLY.] Coldly, like the morally compromised hero of some spy flick, our Superman snaps the neck of his antagonist, which is exactly what Jesus would not have done. Or Superman, as most of humanity has understood him. Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, has assured me: In thousands of comics, Superman has only killed, once—a couple Kryptonians who annihilated every living person on an alternate Earth. He then exiled himself to space for a year; this Superman, by contrast, seems to punish himself with journalism school.

There’s lots of talk of ideals in the Superman movies and comics—isn’t the point of ideals that they’re held to even in the face of serious adversity? And isn’t the point of Superman that his humanity is greater even than his powers, and that with those powers he can achieve the most humanistic of ends? So why does he cave in to the temptation that James T. Kirk avoided just a month ago in Star Trek Into Darkness? As he’s got Zod choke-held in Metropolis’ knock-off Grand Central Station, why doesn’t Superman up-up-and-away them both through the ceiling? Or burn an eye-ray hole in the floor? Or blow the civilians to safety with his super-breath? Why does he not spirit Zod to the Arctic, imprison him in some hokey/fantastic Super Jail, and then have to explain to the world that we have to trust him on this one?

In short, why in the hell does Superman kill? And what does it mean that Snyder, Nolan, DC, and Warner Brothers think this is what the world wants?

To: Alan Scherstuhl
From: Stephanie Zacharek

That idea of “We’ll have to trust him on this one”—that’s essential to the spirit of Superman, and Man of Steel isn’t completely ignorant of that. I love that moment where Superman is led to jail in handcuffs, and Lois looks at them quizzically—like, can’t he just melt those dumb things away? And he explains that if wearing the handcuffs willingly makes people more comfortable with him, he’s fine with it.

Superman can do anything—just about—which is why people have loved him for years. As you’ve said, Alan, he has so many other options open to him: melting a hole in the floor, anything. He has all these tools that mean he doesn’t have to kill a man. Plus, he’s just a really good guy. So why, in this version of the Superman story, does he kill? It’s untrue to the spirit of the character, but maybe worse yet, it makes him like every other bozo who “just can’t take it anymore” and loads 100 bullets into someone. Well, OK, it’s a little more visceral than that. But still—Superman should have a greater sense of honor than this, and he should also have his wits around him, even if he is fallible.

That moment breaks faith with the audience, and it makes Man of Steel not more affecting but more generic. It’s very much like every other blockbuster out there—where there’s so much destruction and mayhem that nothing really registers that much. It seems that Snyder, David Goyer, and Nolan feel they have to push the character to his limits or the audience won’t care anymore. But there are millions of ways to make an audience care just with the structure of a scene, or by trusting your actors.

Last summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man was a terrific example—in retrospect, that was one of the rare recent quiet superhero movies, one that relied largely on the strengths and charms of its actors, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. (Not to mention Sally Field, who may have given a better performance as Aunt May than she did as Mary Todd Lincoln.) That’s what really frustrates me about Man of Steel. Most of the actors, with the exception of Michael Shannon, who just does his trademark eyeball-bulge thing, are terrific, and Snyder is attuned to that. There are plenty of scenes where the performers get to do exactly what they do best. I’ve gone on and off Kevin Costner over the years, mostly off. But he brings just the right amount of common-sense gravity to Jonathan Kent. And Cavill makes a lovely Superman. There’s something both confident and unassuming about him.

It’s really important that Superman be charming, something the filmmakers obviously understood. There’s a lot that’s right with Man of Steel. But in the end, maybe the filmmakers just didn’t trust Superman enough.

See Also:
Superman Movies Matter More Than the Comics: A Film-by-Film Breakdown
In Man of Steel, There’s Greatness in the Superman Origin Story