One of the things we were hoping to depict is that Superman is not a god. We say he's a god-like figure but he's not omnipotent.David Goyer, screenwriter of “Man of Steel”
I’ve been struggling for two weeks to write a post about “Man of Steel.” A lot of the writers of Comics Alliance – a left-leaning comic book news site that I like an awful lot – have slammed the film as being antithetical to the character of Superman or as even being outright immoral and I think they’re just plain wrong. Articulating that, though, leads me into big, important issues of religion and morality that are far heavier than the usual wacky crap I post here and I keep getting bogged down in writer’s block. Philip Sandifer posted a brilliant redemptive reading of the film that strongly echoes my own opinions and I’d love to simply point people toward that post and say “Here, this is what I think.”
Except that I don’t entirely agree. I think the movie is more than a scathing deconstruction of the myth of super-powered saviors; I think it is in fact the hopeful, optimistic story David Goyer, Zack Snyder, and Hans Zimmer claim it is in every interview they give.
It is a celebration of atheism.
A refrain amongst the Comics Alliance critics is that Superman should be a source of moral authority, unwavering in his ethics and defense of life. He should never, ever kill. This is, frankly, a relic of the transformation of comics into a child-friendly, safe medium. Unwavering ethics are an immature response to a morally complex world. They are the backbone of religious fundamentalism.
David Goyer and Zack Snyder’s Zod is a religious fundamentalist. He is a man who believes so strongly in one thing – the restoration of Krypton – that he would rather terraform Earth into mimicking his home planet than keep the amazing new powers he and his followers have gained under the yellow sun. He believes so strongly in one thing that he is willing to hurt everyone – including himself – in order to uphold his fervent moral beliefs.
I live in Texas. You may have recently heard about an attempt by Texas state congresspeople to force through an anti-abortion bill that would have denied the right to choose to women in rural and poor areas across the state. They believe so strongly in the preservation of life that they don’t care how many people they kill to preserve their moral high ground. They, like Zod, are religious fundamentalists.
“Man of Steel” deliberately toys with Christian tropes. Clark Kent is thirty-three in the film, he talks to a priest before revealing himself to Zod and the Kryptonians, and he assumes a deliberately cruciform pose as he jumps out of Zod’s spaceship. This isn’t -- as so many otherwise reliable writers assume -- meant to compare Superman with Jesus; it’s meant to contrast them.
This isn’t turning the other cheek; this isn’t a miracle that makes everything work out all right in the end. Superman isn’t Space Jesus. The point of the film is that we really don’t even want Space Jesus. We need to admire someone who makes morally difficult choices and is hurt by them.
I can actually believe in this Superman.