As the latest British actor to play an American superhero, Henry Cavill tries to jumpstart the cinematic Superman franchise with Zack Snyder’s new “Man of Steel” — which opens upon Superman’s 75th anniversary.Clay Enos / AP
A friend and I had just finished watching
Man of Steel
. As people shuffled out, I turned to my friend and asked him what he thought.
“I liked it,” he said, with a little hesitation. ” But I dunno. In some ways, Superman, he’s just too super.”
Poor Superman. The guy can juggle semi-trucks, weld with his eyes and fly. And yet in spite of that—or rather, because of it—we sometimes have a harder time embracing him. He’s just too strong, too kind and too good. Too super.
Oh, we like Superman just fine. The weekend’s box office tallies ($128.7 million over the first four days) are proof enough of that. He’s America’s first and most powerful superhero. Born in the heart of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II, he embodied not only the hero we needed, but the hero we thought we could be: Strong. Courageous. Good. Perhaps our self-image was as much myth as Superman himself, but it was one many Americans bought.
Today, we know better. Our black-and-white sense of the world has bled gray, and the idea of a superhero fighting for “truth, justice and the American way” feels a bit pretentious. These days, we prefer our superheroes flawed: The narcissistic Iron Man, the troubled Dark Knight, the tragically angry Hulk. They’re heroes, yes. They may be blessed with preternatural strength or speed or the coolest gadgets this side of Google’s R&D department. But they’ve got issues. Even as they hop around in their tights and capes and metallic suits, they feel strangely relatable. Deep down they’re people. Just like us.
But Superman, he’s not like us. In many ways, he feels too good for us; too wonderful to be believed.
I wonder whether that same dynamic—the inability to believe—is at work when we look at the country’s slow erosion of faith.
According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 17.8 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation. A 2013 Gallup study found that three-quarters of Americans feel that religion is losing its influence. There are loads of reasons why rates of religion are falling. But when it comes to my own Christian faith and my own struggles with doubt, I find the biggest barrier is often Christianity’s own outrageously grandiose promises. Is it possible that an all-knowing God could care about me? I wonder. It seems preposterous—and that’s before we get to the part where he sent his only Son to die for us. The cynic and me feels like it might be part of a late-night infomercial: “But wait, there’s more! Order now, and you get eternal salvation!” It’s hard to believe such a pitch days. Like Superman, it seems too good to be true.
There’s always been a Messiah-like element in Superman—a baby sent to earth from beyond and destined to save the world. But never has Superman been so Christ-like as in Man of Steel.
He keeps his nature mostly hidden as a child, just as Jesus did. He reveals himself to the world at age 33, the age when Jesus began his ministry. And he does so by turning himself into human authorities—allowing himself to be “captured” for the sake of humanity. Never mind that no one can make Supes do anything he doesn’t want to do—just as no one had real authority over Jesus during his own pre-crucifixion saga, either. By the time Superman floats in space with his arms splayed out as if nailed to an invisible cross, it seems like overkill.
The religious themes keep coming: Free will. Sacrifice. God-given purpose. Man of Steel isn’t just a movie. It’s a Bible study in a cape. The messages are so strong that its marketers been explicitly pushing the film to Christian audiences.
I’m part of that Christian audience, and the messages do resonate. It’s great to see reflections of Jesus in this superhero. But for me, the power in this story isn’t just in how Superman and Jesus are similar. It’s how they’re different.
Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Jesus made the lame walk. Superman can see through people’s skin. Jesus helped the blind to see. Superman saves the world through his muscle and might and derring-do. Jesus, according to Christianity, saved it in the most unexpected way possible. He was no CGI superhero, but a man on a cross.
In many ways, the promises of Christianity seem too good to be true. As my pastor says, that’s why they call it the Gospel—the good news. Maybe the message is so unbelievable that we needed, and need, a more believable, relatable messenger. And so Jesus came not as a superhero, but a carpenter.
Superman is a pretty great superhero. And it’d be great if people grew closer to God by being carried up, up and away. But for us to truly find him, maybe we need the sort of savior who can take us by the hand and walk with us, step by halting step.
Paul Asay is an author and movie reviewer for Plugged In, a Christian entertainment review site. He lives in Colorado Springs with wife Wendy and his two children. You can read his blog at paulbasay.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter at @AsayPaul.