Ok, so last night I watched this year’s Superman movie by Zack Snyder. I recognised the high-contrast desaturated look of the movie from 300, and it was mostly a big techno-romp, with a little bit of classy acting. Henry Cavill did ok in a title role that required some angst as well as a lot of heavy hitting. I liked him better when he was wearing the beard. Russell Crowe was pretty impassive as superman’s father, Jor-el; I felt he could have been played by a computer simulacrum – which is what he was supposed to be playing a lot of the time, so was that good acting or not? Michael Shannon as the supervillain was sufficiently nasty, while actually managing to look like a man with integrity according to his own lights. It was great to see Laurence Fishburn doing a sterling job – even in such a cramped role. Amy Adams as Lois Lane was competent in a forgettable role. For my money the big awards should go to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Superman’s adoptive parents. Decent script-writing and understated acting made for some touching scenes as they worked out their relationships with a distressed child. And it was those relationships that gave the action movie a beating heart.
*Spoiler Alert* Don’t read the following if you don’t want to find out what happens in the movie:
Driving the big fisti-cuff/ let’s knock each other through buildings/ throw bombs at one another/ rip planets apart conflict is the decision facing superman as he has to choose between two futures; that offered by his fellow Kryptonians (the exiled leaders of a failed military coup on their now-destroyed home planet) to use the earth (and Superman’s own genetic material) as the foundation for renewing the Kryptonian race – at the expense of our entire planetary ecology. Or to fight against his own kind in defence of the technologically and physically overmatched humans. The flash-backs through his childhood and emergence into adulthood through his adoptive father’s death provide a coherent and believable set of motivations for Superman to reject the cruelty of the Kryptonians in favour of those who have given him shelter, understanding, wisdom, and love. Cool. There is very little drama in this decision-making. We know from the outset that he’s on our side; that one of his major motivations is to protect others. That character development almost manages to make up for the absurdities of superman’s powers (it looks like they tried to give his flying some basis in physics – but utterly failed, sorry) and the continued referencing of 9/11, a bit of LotR (Gandalf leaping from Saruman’s tower onto an eagle), a MASSIVE borrowing from the matrix as machines pluck pods of babies grown in an artificial environment, and even some Harry Potter (a blogger as the combination of Rita Skeeter and the Quibbler). As my eldest son said, “Don’t pick at it, it makes it worse!” Let it pass – those are minor issues.
The big issue for me is the central conflict for Superman; which isn’t actually a choice between Kryptonian planetary destruction over defending the helpless little humans, but rather the question does he positively accept his super-powers and use them to make a difference, or does he stay in hiding and lay low, so that humans won’t reject him out of fear of his differences? Essentially, it’s the reluctant messiah complex. And it’s framed as such. In the early moments of the movie, Jor-el predicts that humans would see his infant son ‘as a god’. At the turning point of the movie, immediately before he offers himself to the invaders as a ransom for the people of earth, Clark Kent seeks counsel from a young priest in a church. As they talk, you can see over his shoulder a stained glass image of Christ kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane, praying “If it is possible let this cup pass me by – but not my will, yours be done.” The obvious happens; Clark Kent puts on the cape, becomes Superman, and gives himself up to the evil General Zod. He even submits to a sort of death; losing his superpowers on their spacecraft, and then hallucinating sinking into a landscape of skulls. But he inevitably recovers, and (with some help from his ghostly Father) knocks the baddies out of existence (eventually).
So what we have here is a clearly contrived Superman-as-Jesus parallel. I guess it helped the movie to sell well in an America where Jesus is supposed to be something of a military crusader and his anti-violence message is derided and underplayed. This is the key discontinuity at the heart of this movie – and perhaps at the heart of modern culture. We want a messiah; someone to protect us from the evils that we have brought upon ourselves (no matter how much we protest that they are ‘aliens’ from ‘out there’ – we created our own enemies!) But we want that messiah to be just like us. Mark Driscoll, in the article linked above, has a point; the Bible is not a comfortable document for modern peace-makers. But nor is it a comfortable document for modern war-mongers. And at the heart of the Christian scriptures is a Jesus who most emphatically did not use violence or force against his enemies; instead he prayed for their forgiveness. He sought their reconciliation. He gave himself up to death (real death, not just some hallucination of it) on their behalf. Driscoll reads the pages of Revelation as if he were one of the oppressed minority churches of Asia to whom that book was written, and who were being assured – through powerful visual metaphors – that they are on the winning side, that they will overcome evil “by the word of their testimony and by the blood of the lamb“!!! Not by boxing their enemies through buildings and then breaking their necks. For someone living comfortably within the most militaristic society in history, that’s just got to be a bad idea. Driscoll is acting as an apologist for the modern incarnation of Revelation’s Beast.
Superman is the messiah as we want him; a messiah who conforms to our violence-fetish culture. He overcomes evil through bravery, yes. But mostly, just because he’s stronger and smarter than the other guy. And actually, that’s just a little bit unbelievable. What Christmas was all about was God becoming flesh, not steel. God joining us in our suffering, so that we can join him in his perfection. If I had to choose between messiahs, I know I’d be tempted to pick superman, oh yes! But I hope I would choose Jesus, instead. Because beating ourselves up all the time doesn’t actually work. We need grace and forgiveness, not pyrotechnics. Jesus Christ, not Clark Kent.