This summer marks 75 years of Superman. The character was created by two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, in the mid-1930s as a synthesis of all the stories, hopes and archetypes they cherished growing up. Many of which stemmed from the Old Testament.
This Judeo/Christian worldview is in the character’s DNA. That’s why it’s seemingly impossible to stray far from biblical types when adapting or discussing Superman—specifically the Savior.
Man of Steel, the latest Superman installment, is no different. It is agile with more emotion and worldview on board than you may initially expect. The movie boasts a massive ambition—reintroduce to a 21st-century audience a character who stands for values like truth, justice and hope in the wake of the widely-embraced cynical Dark Knight and frothy Marvel franchises—and doesn’t come up short of reaching it. It is both satisfying and affecting as a cinematic experience.
Man of Steel is a first-contact story, both in sci-fi and societal terms. From the beginning, the viewer is presented with a parallel to the Moses story: The hero is born into a doomed populace but saved by biological parents who send him down a river of stars in a small craft. He arrives and grows up in a very different world, only to learn of his true origins later in life despite the way his upbringing in the new world shaped his ideals. His history comes back to him when the world needs him, and he becomes, just as Superman’s earliest maxim suggested, “champion of the weak and oppressed.”
This deliverer imagery is thematically seeded throughout the film—not only in the broad strokes but in the quieter moments. In a sense, the tale of two fathers shaping a son is the underlying thread of the story. One father saves him to become a bridge builder and leader. The other nurtures him to become a man of steeled resolve and conviction.
Russell Crowe’s gravitas carries his scenes as Jor-El, yet it is Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent that leaves the greater mark on Clark and the viewer. The interspersing of Smallville scenes with the current events of Clark’s life is especially effective. Jonathan struggles, as all fathers do, to protect his son, knowing eventually his young man must face the world. He seeks to impart responsibility and protection as virtue into his son—even up to the point of his own death.
The values of humility, self-control and sacrifice shape Clark into adulthood. Late in the film, there is a church scene where Clark makes a sacrificial decision. Christians will especially notice (and I think appreciate) the dialogue married with the imagery.
This story of Clark’s resolve, as perfectly played by Henry Cavill, is the stirring crux of the movie, though certainly not its only affecting aspect. The final near-hour of the film is a relentless onslaught of poignant battles that produce some of the sleekest action sequences of our still-young 21st-century cinema, eclipsing even the climax of Marvel’s The Avengers. The story hurls a personal, Justice-League-level threat at one man, and we get to viscerally experience his resolve to fight the impossible.
And that is what the Superman character has always been about. Batman fights death. Superman fights the impossible. It’s what his story has always echoed and all other superheroes imitate to a lesser degree. We need to be protected, defended and delivered. It takes someone outside of us to fight impossible evil. We know deep down it can’t and won’t be us doing it. We know we aren’t strong enough—or pure enough. Truth is, not one of us really WANTS to be the one fighting ultimate evil. It takes someone greater.
In real life, it won’t be an alien from another planet—it won’t be Superman. Yet a fictional alien on a big screen brought to life by an array of elements—strong acting, realistic direction, seamless visual effects, a redemptive narrative—steers our affections, however shakily, toward the true harbor of not the Man of Steel but the Man of Sorrows—the Savior. And that makes Man of Steel both worthwhile and edifying.
Man of Steel earns its PG-13 rating with a few expletives mostly uttered by a bully on a school bus and the aforementioned intense action scenes.