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Returning to Superman

John on August 15, 2006 at 4:56 pm

Last month I read an article in the Christian Post about the messages inherent in the Superman mythos. The article in question, written by Jordan Ballor, was timed to the release of the film Superman Returns. It suggested that the Superman myth had more in common with the teachings of Nietzsche than of Christ. I responded by e-mail and the Christian Post published my response to Mr. Ballor as a letter to the editor.

Today, I discovered that Mr. Ballor had offered a response to my letter. He writes, in part:

I do think, by the way, that my argument has been at least partly misunderstood by many of those who read the piece. I don’t claim any direct genetic link between Nietzsche’s philosophy and the genesis of Superman. I do, however, think that the quote from Superman’s father Jor-El sounds a lot more like the prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra than anything in the Bible.

It’s also clear that the movie itself, Superman Returns, attempts to draw the Christ/Superman parallel, rather crudely and ineffectively at times. But the Superman legend is not restricted to the movie, and while the film is an occasion to talk about these issues, I don’t think it is the only relevant datum.

One reader contends, by contrast, that “Superman in this film is not a figure who exemplifies worldly power, but one who exemplifies self-sacrifice.” He also states: “I honestly believe this is the most ‘Christian’ film since Narnia and before that Mel Gibson’s Passion.” (The author of the letter blogs here.)

That sort of language makes me pretty uncomfortable.

Comments are not enabled on his post, so I’ve decided to reply to Mr. Ballor here.

My reference to Superman as a “Christian” film was to its themes and use of thinly-disguised elements from the Gospels. We can certainly disagree on how successful it was at doing that of course, but personally I did not feel the handling of these elements was “crude and ineffective.” On the contrary, it affected me and my co-blogger Scott as being a fairly profound telling of the Gospel story. And as I noted elsewhere, we were not the only viewers struck by the overt use of the Gospels in Superman Returns.

Does it create a perfect correspondence to the story of Jesus? No. But then neither does Narnia. Neither did Lord of the Rings. In each case, however, the Christian viewer is bound to be struck by the themes being communicated. They are not just familar but somehow seem to be lifted directly from the Gospels and transported into a specific fantasy setting. The same is true with Superman Returns.

When I wrote my “Non-Spoiler Viewing Guide” I was concerned not to spoil the film for people who hadn’t seen it. Now that the film has been in theaters over a month, I can point out in more detail what impressed me (skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers).

The climax of the film is the moment when Superman is given a Christ-like wound in his side by the villain, Lex Luthor. He then carries a symbolic weight of sin on his shoulders, moving it agonizingly into space to protect mankind. As he does so, the massive rock cuts into him like a crown of thorns and we can see that it is literally killing him to carry this massive burden for the world. Immediately afterwards, he falls unconscious, his arms outstreched like Christ on the cross with the whole earth as a backdrop. In the language of this or any film, he is a savior of the world. He plummets to earth as if dead and the scene cuts to a Daily Planet headline which reads “Superman Dead.” The audience is allowed to ponder this a moent, then only slowly the camera pans to another headline that reads “Superman Lives” and we immediately understand that no one yet know the outcome. A bit later, we cut to the hospital where a dark haired nurse carrying a stack of bandages and towels walks toward Superman’s room, not unlike the women going to Jesus’ tomb. She enters to find his bed empty and the room’s window open. Symbolically, superman has risen.

There were many other instances of elements borrowed from the Gospels in the film. I won’t go into them all. My point is simply that — whatever one decides about the Superman mythos in general — this film in particular is written around the Gospels every bit as much as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. More to the point, it seemed clear that the reason Mr. Ballor didn’t know this was that he had not seen the film at the time he wrote his critique. That was the main thrust of my response, i.e. don’t tar this film with a broad brush.

Everyone will have their own response of course. I don’t insist that everyone should or will agree with me. But I do believe a majority of viewers will find that Superman Returns stands much closer to my interpretation of it than to Mr. Ballor’s.

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