There is a scene roughly halfway in Man of Steel that I can’t stop thinking about. General Zod has just issued an ultimatum to Earth: turn Kal-El over to him or be destroyed. Clark, unsure of whether Zod or the people of Earth can be trusted, goes to a minister for counsel.
I love the setting behind the conversation. Superman is probably the only major superhero that would naturally seek the advice of clergy. And I appreciate any movie scene that portrays ministers in a positive light. I also think that the minister’s ultimate advice to take a leap of faith is a wonderful piece of counsel in the context of the film.
Yet the thing that I cannot get off my mind is a particular shot in that scene. In it Clark is framed in front of a stained glass window depicting Jesus in Gethsemane. Later, if that image of men wrestling with their ultimate calling was not explicit enough, Superman escapes a Kryptonian ship to save the world with his arms extended unmistakably in the image of a cross.
Comparisons between Superman and Jesus are nothing new. I certainly have made them and the previous movie featuring Kal-El, Superman Returns, took the Christ allusions even further than Man of Steel. Since the latter movie released a few weeks ago, people have pondered if such comparisons are a misreading of the Superman mythos. I would in fact suggest that it is a misunderstanding of Jesus.
The comparisons between the two are natural. Both are sent by their father from a extraterrestrial plane. Both grow up and live as normal human beings yet wield incredible power. Both grow up to save the world in some capacity.
The how of that saving is where the stories diverge. Superman goes about rescuing the world by fighting back against the forces of evil he faces. Though he does not seek to throw the first punch, he will throw the last if he has to. On the other end of the spectrum is Jesus. With the cross and all that surrounded it, Jesus accomplished salvation not by fighting back, but by laying his life down. He took the brunt of the darkness entirely on himself. Jesus saves through power, but it is power in a completely counterintuitive form.
Thus when Superman is shown in a cross pose before he goes to fight some superpowered Kryptonian criminals, it is a misunderstanding of the sacrificial power of the cross (The Christ imagery in Superman Returns was closer on point as in that movie Clark did not throw a punch but sacrificed his life non-violently for the sake of others. Of course, this was also a movie where he fathered a child and then abandoned it for the reaches of space for years, which is decidedly un-Christlike. Though I’m sure Dan Brown nodded his head in approval). It doesn’t make me like the movie any less. I don’t expect profound theological nuance from the director of 300.
The difference is that Jesus saves us not with the sword (or heat vision and superpunching), but with sacrificial love that is more powerful than power. Reflecting on the difference between the two raises an interesting question with how we perceive the ultimate end of evil.
The melee in Metropolis that ends Man of Steel is probably how most evangelical Christians envision the end of evil: an epic battle to end all battles. That is what the symbolism in scripture evokes. Yet is that necessarily how it will all work out?
The all-powerful nature of God is a basic tenant of the Christian faith. Thus if God can defeat evil with the sacrificial love of the cross, then would God need a world-crushing battle to ultimately defeat evil? If there is nothing more powerful than God, would not God be able to dispatch the darkness in this world without a scorched earth, tooth and nail war?
As Christians look to Jesus, they see that justice, love, and righteousness could overthrow power as the world conceives it. He laid down his life and it brought evil to its knees. Why would that way suddenly be abandoned in the end? Is it necessary for the Prince of Peace to become a Man of Steel? Do we believe that more because we desire that kind of rock ‘em, sock ‘em finality? Is it the catharsis? I don’t know.
I could certainly be wrong, but I think God does not need the battle to eradicate evil. I look to what Jesus did and I suspect that an all-powerful God does not need the hell of war to bring about heaven on earth.