By Kyle B. Stiff
Apparently it’s no secret that the Christ myth has been interwoven with the story of Superman. If the movie wasn’t obvious enough, there are already articles about how the movie’s creators consciously used Christian themes in Man of Steel. This is nothing to roll the eyes at. Really, if you add some “ancient aliens” theories into the mix then you’ve got one badass movie that thankfully parts ways from its origin as a comic about a brightly-colored character that few people can identify with (and is probably only read out of habit). The Man of Steel is all about a god becoming human and a human waking up to the mystery of his divine self.
I’ll lay out some points of interest in no particular order.
In the beginning of the movie we get to see a literal “war in heaven” between not two but three forces. Each of these forces represents different ways of thinking.
First, we have the divine establishment in the form of a council of sharply-dressed elven-types (not sure what they’re called) who represent the status quo. The status quo of Krypton is exactly the same as it is here: Consume everything you can until your world falls apart. Try to keep the peace and don’t do anything outside the norm because the inevitable collapse of everything is better than change of any kind. Expand as much as possible. Most importantly, suppress the individual. Note that the rulers had so much control of their population that they created each individual citizen as a unit tailor-made to fit his job, his role in society. Their society was both perfect and stagnant. There was no room for anything new.
The second force in the Krypton struggle was led by General Zod, the perfect soldier. His forces represented another philosophy: Power is the ultimate force in existence, and control is the full flowering of that force. Enshrine the ego. I AM the only thing that can keep everything from falling apart. Destroy what you don’t understand. I was born for a specific purpose which I already understand; to learn and add to that understanding, or even to change in any way, would threaten the ego and is therefore blasphemous.
The third force in this struggle was a small one, and included only Jor-el and his pregnant wife Lara. Their philosophy is the same one espoused by every hero in every story. You can’t control every unforeseen detail. Survival is good, but sometimes letting go is better. Be willing to change; your traditions and your culture and your pride are weaker than reality. Sometimes you have to rebel.
Superman’s true name Kal-el, and Jor-el for his father, contain the same root word – el – which is possibly a name of God or, if you want to get really whacky and go in for some ancient astronaut theorizing, “the people of El”. (If you have no idea why importance should be placed on the word el, then check out the comments section where I stuck some info too boring to fit in here.) Jor already looks like Jah, as in JHVH or Yahweh, one of the possible names of God. K for Kal, the next letter in the English alphabet, is simply the next avatar in the divine series. One God, many faces.
So the story of Man of Steel is about someone who slowly begins to realize that not only is he a god, but he’s also an outsider. This is one of the coolest aspects in the new movie. Instead of a straight-jawed guy in pajamas who somehow symbolizes “The American Way” (whatever that means), we have someone dealing with a true dilemma. In fact, he’s dealing with the dilemma of dilemmas, the very problem at the heart of existence. He knows there’s something divine and good about himself, and by association he knows that reality itself is divine and good, but in his day-to-day life he feels like an outsider dealing with problems others cannot understand because they only care about taking advantage of one another for short-term gain. If Superman wanted to become a psychopath screaming about being a victim as he forced humans into labor camps bearing mottoes like DO GOOD UNTO OTHERS OR FACE PAINFUL DEATH, then he could easily rationalize it.
But he doesn’t. One of his superpowers is his humility. He knows that he’s here on Earth to learn, not to pontificate. In that regard, he has to meet other godlike sages, or angels with dirty faces, on his journey.
One is Lois Lane. This may be a stretch, but note that Lois Lane’s initials are L.L., which could be pronounced el el. That’s a double-dose of hidden divinity ya’ll. If God incarnates and then forgets that he’s done so in order to learn, then Lois would be ideal for such a character. (Or, if you want to get really crazy with this theme, you could say that the entire movie is a dream in the mind of God. Superman, God’s conscious self, is aware of what he is. Lois would then be a character or dream-piece presented by God’s unconscious self so that his conscious self could learn an important lesson via interaction!) While Superman is clean-cut, chiseled, and either brightly-colored or presented in stark black-and-white tones, Lois is small, cute but not ridiculously attractive, and colored in earthy browns. But she also has many of the best human traits: Curiosity, willingness to thumb her nose at authority, determination, ability to think for herself, inability to hide the truth, and an unwillingness to go along with anything that’s obviously unfair.
Whether she’s divine and unconscious about her divine nature, or simply the embodiment of all humanity, perhaps her most human quality is her inability to see the divine even when it’s right in front of her. For example, Superman still only has to put on a pair of glasses and a suit… and this chick can’t even make out the matrix behind the scrolling digits even when he’s right in front of her.
(Strangely enough, Lex Luthor also has the same initials. Maybe Superman can’t learn about humanity/divinity just by dealing with the good parts of humanity. Maybe he also has to deal with the dark side, too, if he wants to become fully human/divine himself!)
Superman’s adopted human father is another interesting case. He’s a decent dude who does the best he can with what he’s given, but like a lot of practical people, it’s easy for him to ignore his intuitive apparatus when his brain cringes in fear. This guy gave Superman tons of sensible talks when he was a kid, and even rationally understood that he would change the world, but he was constantly afraid that Superman would be hated and shunned when the truth came out. Like a lot of YouTube trolls, he tried his best to sound and appear completely reasonable with a lot of great rational arguments – but ultimately he was trapped in a dark room and cut off from real life. (SPOILER ALERT until end of this paragraph!) His philosophy came to its inevitable end when he died in a storm, unwilling to let his adopted son use his strange powers to save him. Note that in the occult “four elements” system of organization, “air” is often associated with rational thought. “I can’t let my boy be found out. If he saves my life, others will find out what he is. Therefore I must die.” The logic is airtight, but it’s also defined by fear.
As for Zod, he was made for a specific purpose by an institution that’s easy to understand. Kal-el, on the other hand, was made by an indefinable force for an inscrutable purpose. Ruthless leaders like Zod are necessary for the protection of the state, but Kal-el is completely out of place, a hindrance really, and his existence only seems “necessary” when you take an incredibly broad view of things. Zod’s forces are a lot like Monsanto: They want to own the “codex” of DNA so that they can control all life. Superman doesn’t need to control it. It’s already a part of him.
Then there’s the evil chick, Zod’s attack dog Faora-Ul (and yes I had to look her name up). She’s a perfect servant in that she has no moral sense of her own. She can kill or do anything as long as her master’s will is served. She’s powerful, too, and was most likely created as a black-ops wetworks specialist capable of going to any length to uphold the establishment. During her fight with Superman, she says something to the effect that she’ll win because his moral sense holds him back, and ties that in with evolution and the fact that she’s an apex predator, the natural product of a cold and uncaring universe governed only by chance.
From her perspective, Superman must seem hopelessly deluded. Like I said, it’s no secret that the Christ-myth is a part of this Superman movie; if you have any doubts, just check out Superman going into full-frontal crucifixion pose after his father says, “You can save them all.” Also note that he’s 33, the same age as Christ when he reached his climax and end. Now, if this was a production made by actual right-wing Christians intent on spreading their influence, then Faora’s mention of evolution in contrast to Superman’s old-timey morals could be incredibly annoying and akin to Walker Texas Ranger shouting Bible verses while spin-kicking border-crossing drug-runners. But I think it’s pretty obvious that there are no real Christians behind this movie, just people with a knack for welding old and new myths together. So when Faora mentions evolution, it sets up a very interesting dynamic. The scene is no longer about two CGI monsters duking it out. The fight represents (at least for a moment) the battle between, ONE, the materialistic belief that life is an accident and the purpose of survival is survival, and thus a sociopath would be the perfect flower at the peak of creation, a predator unbounded by morality, and TWO, the belief that something more hides behind matter, some unseen force must have demanded the creation of life, and thus survival itself is less important than the journey to find and understand that unseen force – and thus it’s no stretch to say that the intuition telling us what’s good and what’s bad might have some basis in the true, unseen reality. The good servant Faora, or any sociopath for that matter, may be using a strategy that only works in the short term.
If we want to stick with this theme of Superman being another version of Christ, it’s interesting to note that his father, Jor-el, is not really real during most of the movie. He’s a hologram based on a memory, an image, an artificial construct. I suppose a hardcore Christian could say that this represents the fact that we’re separate from God, but we still have his word – the Bible – to guide us the same way Jor-el guides Superman. A cynic could see this same thing as a clever way of saying “God is dead.” Of course, a huge weirdo who likes to go for the third option might say that Jor-el is a hologram in the same way that the entire universe is simply an echo of the first spoken word, or a shadow created by the first light, a recording of a higher reality playing back on lower-end materials (and even sometimes out of order, thus creating “glitches in the matrix” like déjà vu, ghosts, the Bermuda Triangle, and all that stuff).
If you’re really turned off by the Christian themes in Man of Steel, check this out: There’s a difference between the values held by Christians two thousand years ago who used to scratch the sign of the fish on their doors and met in secret when compared to the right-wingery of people repressing their shadows and enshrining their egos. Take note of Jesus’s own “anti-Christian” message! It’s always fun to consider his statement “You are gods,” as opposed to the idea that we are all sinners in the hands of an angry god. Or consider “turn the other cheek,” that is, be humble and learn from the world rather than see the world as something that you have to turn into something else or “save”. Also remember that when he was asked about heaven, Christ said, “The kingdom of heaven is within” – meaning you should get to work on exorcising your own demons before you troll the shit out of the YouTube comments section looking for lost souls. Note that Superman doesn’t preach. He doesn’t tell anybody that they have to be this or that. He’ll even let someone kick his ass or humiliate him in public when he could easily torture them on live television and no one could stop him or, if he was tired, he could just use his laser eyes and roast their heart into a wad of bacon. He doesn’t do any of that because he’s wise enough to know that the world doesn’t need any more rabid, out-of-control egos. Also take note of how cool it is that the superhero who has always represented America does not jive with the “dystopia lite” that America has become, which we see when Superman destroys a drone and tells some military dude that their relationship isn’t going to be founded on fear, but on trust.
Near the end, we see Superman as a child posing in his cape and looking down on a dog who lovingly gazes on this living ideal. While it’s possible to see this image in a negative light – that we are animals looking up to a beacon of perfection – keep in mind the very simple truth that ultimately we are Superman. We can act like General Zod or Superman’s adoptive father or that redheaded little shit that picked on young Clark, but ultimately we are that divine spark that the animal part looks up to. Like Superman, we can handle getting shitted on every now and again because we’re here for something more important.
Hey readers! If you can handle reading about Christian themes in pop culture without worrying about breaking some commandment or having your head explode in atheistic rage, then you should check out this piece about Gremlins, or this piece about the video game Infamous, or this ridiculously controversial piece about the SAW series.
If you’re in the mood to spend some money and find out what “those in the know” are reading, I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.