The Problem with Superman

I recently watched Man of Steel, the newest Superman movie, and walked away disappointed. Those of you who know me well know that I prefer Batman over Superman (and Marvel over anything from DC). In the right hands, Superman can be an interesting character at the center of some excellent storytelling. The first two thirds of Man of Steel was an excellent example of this type of storytelling but then something happened during the climax of the entire film that exposed the major flaw with Superman that prevents him from becoming a truly compelling character.

Note: Major spoilers follow, ye be warned

When I saw the first trailer for Man of Steel, I was astounded. Zach Snyder had finally gotten the Superman mythos right. No longer was Superman simply a champion for truth, justice, and the American Way, he was finally going to be portrayed as the messianic figure he was meant to be.

You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.

That’s some pretty heavy Jesus-language right there. And it’s appropriate too. Superman is certainly a messianic figure. He is a God among mortals. His power and morality are something that all of humanity—not just Americans—can look to as an ideal. And Zach Snyder brilliantly allows us to see the formation of Superman’s character in the first half of the movie. What does it mean to have all of this power as a child? How does someone so powerful learn to be altruistic? These are the questions Snyder poses to the audience and we would do well to ponder them.

These themes aren’t simply reflections on Superman, they’re questions we should be asking ourselves. Jor-El tells Superman, “Embodied within that hope is the fundamental belief in the potential of every person to be a force for good.” That potential is not just found in superheroes, it’s found in me and you. Jesus recognizes that we have tremendous power to shape our world, that’s why He asks us to partner with Him in His Kingdom-building work. We all have the capability to commit great acts of goodness—or evil.

The climax of the movie is devoted to a battle between two gods, Superman and General Zod. Zod chose to use his supreme power for evil and it’s up to Superman to stop him. In the end, Superman is forced to kill Zod to protect humanity—he compromises his morality to stop this mad man. Zod has caused massive destruction, thousands of people have lost their lives and Superman resorts to punching him until he is no longer able to restrain him. For the entire first three quarters of the movie, Superman struggles with how humanity will react to someone with such great power. Once his secret is out, he engages in a prolonged fist-fight to protect humanity. Superman’s physical strength becomes the center of his identity as a hero.

This is where the Jesus-metaphor breaks down. Yes, Superman is physically powerful and that certainly makes him exceptional but his heroism is derived from his ability to responsibly use his power. His heroism is defined by his morality. Despite all of his power, Superman is unable to overcome his equal except by killing him. Snyder spends the beginning of the movie examining how Superman learns how to control his power and the moral implications of that power and completely abandons those themes during the climax.

We love to celebrate our flawed heroes. Their moments of weakness allow us to relate to them and make them more human. You might even go so far as to say that the more flawed a character, the greater hero they are able to become. This redemption narrative is very compelling and can be used to great effect for certain characters. But Superman is meant to represent Jesus who didn’t compromise his identity during these moments of weakness. Snyder forces Superman into a position where his identity as a hero is completely destroyed. We should be celebrating Superman’s ability to overcome his moment of weakness with his morality intact, not celebrating him because he had to succumb to the evil he was facing to defeat it. Therein lies the hardest dilemma writers face when writing Superman stories, “How do you allow the audience to relate to Superman without having him compromise his identity as a messianic-figure?”

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