5 Stars – Best Action Adventure Movie of 2013 – starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Christopher Meloni, Michael Shannon and Laurence Fishburne; directed by Zack Snyder; Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, Syncopy
After a mediocre Iron Man 3 and a good-but-not-great Star Trek: Into Darkness – both films being nothing more than entertaining roller coaster rides, which is fine for some viewers but not for me – Man Of Steel delivers, not just the requisite ride, which is expected of all summer blockbuster movies, but a good story and a Christian message to boot. Henry Cavill (Immortals, The Tudors) gives us a version of Superman that is naturalistic and emotional, as opposed to Christopher Reeves’ take from the 1980s that was stiff and two-dimensional. With the script, David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises) introduces us to a darkly realistic Superman: one full of introspection and doubts, replete with past hurts and pain, and yet determinedly hopeful.
Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises) started production on the film, and then turned it over to Zack Snyder (300) to direct. I had my doubts about this triumvirate – Nolan-Snyder-Goyer – simply because Superman is not Batman, and these guys had Batman in their blood. (300 has that same “Dark Knight” kind of feel.) DC Comics‘ Superman is a character very much like Marvel Comics‘ Captain America – you could almost add him to the list of baseball, hot dogs and Mom’s apple pie. He’s all-American and he’s uncomplicated. Batman, on the other hand, is darkly complex, a psychological roadmap of twists and turns. I was afraid they would turn this simple, refreshing character into a Dark Knight clone.
But, delightedly, they did not. What they did do, surprisingly, is give us Superman as a Christ figure – the Son of Man as the Man of Steel. Man Of Steel is fraught with Christian symbols. Where this came from, I do not know, because, while there is a lot of spirituality in comics and graphic novels – and much of it Christian – I don’t think it’s this blatant. I know that Superman is the most righteous of all the superheroes – again, like Captain America, who also is full of virtue and a model for boys to follow. But to think of him as a Christ figure is to take him to a new level. Yet, there it is, throughout the film: Superman as Christ. Substitute Superman’s muscles for Christ’s spirit, Kansas for Galilee and Metropolis for Jerusalem and you have, in essence, the same story – the salvation of mankind by a dual-nature being – fully God and fully man.
Superman is a savior. The first thing that tipped me off was the scene where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife are putting the baby Kal-El into a spaceship destined for Earth in order to save him from the destruction of the planet Krypton. I thought, “That is Moses being placed in the reed basket and sent down the Nile River.” Think about it. He’s being sent away from destruction to a people with which he has nothing in common in order to save them. That was not only the calling of Moses, it was the calling of Christ. Notice that both Kal-El’s name, and that of his father Jor-El, end in El. El in Hebrew means God. I doubt if that was an accident.
Like Jesus, Kal-El (Clark) was raised by an adopted father – in his case, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). Kent instills in his son the idea of always being a force for good, and of always doing the right thing. He warns Clark that people may not accept him, and that they’ll probably be afraid of him because of his powers; and so he needs to keep his identity a secret. This is not unlike Christ, who warned his disciples not to make His identity known.
Superman begins his “career” of saving people at the age of 30. So did Jesus. He begins as an itinerant worker. Jesus began as an itinerant preacher. Both men did so, partly to conceal their identities, and partly to avoid their enemies.
Superman discovers his origins and purpose from his father’s facsimile in an arctic outpost. Moses did the same thing from a burning bush, and it could be argued that Jesus discovered these things during his 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. Such a”briefing” could be said to be a rite of passage – a spiritual rite of passage. Every believer, and every great character in literature and film, has one. It is what defines them. Superman is such a character.
I really like the fact that the story of Superman has a “grunge” phase, which is what his time as an itinerant worker is. It makes his story more real. I also like how the filmmakers tell his backstory using flashbacks. It’s far more effective than if they had just told a straight chronological story, because it relates those events to his present sufferings. When Clark finally becomes Superman, he’s spectacular, as you would imagine. He’s got the hair, the muscles and the cape. But he has more than that. One of the things we discover in his conversations with Lois Lane is the meaning of the “S” on his chest: it isn’t an “S” for Superman; rather, it’s the symbol for hope on the planet Krypton. Superman represents hope. That’s what Christ represents as well.
As Superman, Henry Cavill has it over Christopher Reeve hands down. Not only is he more comfortable with his muscles – Reeve was stiff and bulky – but he’s a far better actor. He has some very emotional scenes, and is very believable in them. His relationship with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) works well, as far as chemistry. In the analogy with Christ, we are Lois Lane – the one he loves, the one he saves time and time again, the one he would die for. The best part of Clark Kent is his struggle with himself – his attempt to reconcile his two natures – and thereby decide where his allegiances lie – with the remnant of Krypton, who are basically the bad guys; or with residents of his new home, Earth. Of course, he chooses the latter.
Trust is a prime motif in Man Of Steel. I already mentioned Clark’s father’s advice about not trusting people with his identity. In one scene, Clark is in a church, seeking answers to the question of who he is and what he should be. As he’s leaving, the pastor, in a desperate attempt to help, blurts out something to the effect of, “Trust people.” Later, when Superman is finally recognized by Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) as a friend, not an enemy, he says something to the effect of, “I trust you.” Trust is the foundation in any relationship, and certainly with both the Man of Steel and the Son of Man.
In Man Of Steel, there’s the obligatory violence, as Superman fights against the bad guys – the only other survivors from the destroyed planet Krypton, who are traitors, exiled from the planet for insurrection. The leader of this group, General Zod (Michael Shanno), is not my favorite villain of all time. There is nothing compelling about him. And the final showdown with Superman is over-kill, in my opinion. It would have been just as effective – and the movie could have been brought in at 2 hours run time instead of 2:23 – by having him die with his compatriots. Must every action-adventure movie end with a final showdown? In this case, I don’t think it was needed.
One of my favorite scenes is the last one. I won’t be giving anything away if I say that it is when Clark Kent shows up at the Daily Planet for the first time wearing his glasses, obviously promising a sequel. I thought, “Now that is Clark Kent.” At last: an actor who can pull off both Superman and Clark Kent without one of them seeming ridiculous. Bravo!
Final Note: I’ve mentioned before how Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan is a cultural Christ figure (http://www.waitsel.com/classic_literature/Tarzan.html). Well, so is Superman. As such, I think he’s also a symbol of Righteousness (http://www.christianknighthood.com/Righteousness.html). Both of these characters came out of the early part of the 20th Century, reflecting the values of Americans at that time. Can we recapture those? We need to, and this film definitely gives promise to that hope.
Waitsel Smith, June 16, 2013
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Text © 2013 Waitsel Smith. Photos © 2013 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.