American Jesus

by Kevin D. Williamson
The Gospel According to ‘Man of Steel’

Superman is an object of dispute — at least comic-book-nerd dispute — between Judaism and Christianity. One camp sees Superman as Moses in tights: an infant sent away by his parents to avoid certain death, discovered by members of an alien culture who adopt him as their own, who eventually discovers his true identity, whose characteristic activity is delivering his people to safety. They note that Superman was created by Jewish artists (writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster) at a time of Jewish crisis (1933), and that as an immigrant struggling to fit into mainstream American society, he was a familiar figure to American Jews (Mr. Siegel and Mr. Schuster were both children of immigrants).

Another camp sees Superman as the American Jesus: The only son of a distant and powerful intelligence sent to Earth as a savior.

Man of Steel, the new Superman film from Zack Snyder, is firmly in the New Testament. Some of the Christian allusions in the film may seem ham-handed — Superman pointedly mentions that he is 33 years old, though the significance of that fact may be lost on much of the post-literate American film-going audience. But it would be impossible for all but the most culturally illiterate to miss that during the dark night of Clark Kent’s soul — when he must decide whether to willingly give himself up to his enemies — he comes to his decision in a church with a painting of Jesus praying at the Garden of Gethsemane looming over his right shoulder.

Jews and Christians, of course, have a more significant dispute over a savior figure, but note that Superman’s beard here even reflects that of Jesus in popular culture: Henry Cavill starts off with a pretty solid bush but pretty soon is all the way down to being barely bearded, like Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in King of Kings

Mr. Snyder turns up the Christianity a notch or two even above what annoyed Thomas Hibbs in Superman Returns a few years back: Kal-El is not only the last surviving son of Krypton, he is Krypton’s only begotten son. Everybody else on Krypton has been genetically engineered and farm-grown in pods reminiscent of The Matrix — and that is not the only aspect of Man of Steel that brings to mind that trilogy. (Another is the presence of the great Harry Linnix as General Swanwick, yet another by-the-numbers general destined to be constantly annoyed and upstaged by an inexplicable flying messiah figure while Lawrence Fishburne carries on the background.) 

All of that is standard Superman stuff, and standard movie stuff, too: Hollywood may not have much respect for the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, but filmmakers love to raid its rich store of powerful imagery, having not yet come up with anything of their own that quite compares. (Cult is the root of culture.) The film does manage to wildly violate the Superman canon in a way that will no doubt enrage the hardline purists — and shock even casual fans — but it is strangely reverent regarding the story’s religious overtones.

Beyond the obvious Christian decoration, there is a serious theological theme (and perhaps a political one) at work in Man of Steel: Delivering us from evil is a collaborative effort. Superman may approach omnipotence, but in this telling, mankind must participate in its own salvation. Superman cannot simply swoop in and save us; we have to do some of the heavy lifting, inspired by his example toward acts of heroic self-sacrifice and radical charity.

This is particularly resonant given that the principal villain, General Zod (played with aplomb by Michael Shannon, who suffered through a much less deft theological meditation on Broadway last year in Grace, which I reviewed here), is more or less John Milton’s Satan, perplexed and enraged that the almighty has favored such weak, flawed, and ridiculous creatures as ourselves over the angels, chafing under the duty that not only was assigned to him but is the sole reason for his existence. 

As for the politics of the film, I cannot imagine that the casting of Harry Linnix as General Swanwick was at all accidental. Mr. Linnix is surely the leading contender to play Barack Obama should a film be made about his presidency in the near future. He looks not exactly like President Obama but like an idealized President Obama, an Obama cured of his terminal case of narcissistic weeniness. Here, he even talks a bit like Obama, clipped and proper, though a good deal more gruff. And his final act on screen is to complain when Superman brings down a $12 million drone, which has been sent to spy on him to discover, as he puts it, “where I hang my cape.” Superman insists that we can trust him: “I grew up in Kansas!” (But there remain questions about his birth certificate.) If Superman is the idealized American, then General Swanwick is the idealized representative of the federal government: Barack Obama with an arsenal, a uniform, and a dose of testosterone. Angels and ministers of grace defend us.

Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and author of the newly published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.

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