At the London premiere of Man of Steel, the film’s screenwriter David Goyer said, "I feel like we are in a darker place in the world… it feels like now is the right time to reintroduce him to the world." The original creators of Superman, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, felt about the same when they wrote the comic in the 1930s. “The world needed a crusader," said Siegel when he was asked in an interview if Superman was a response to the grim times (these were the years that Adolf Hitler was on the rise in Europe and America had its own share of woes at home).
Over the decades, the Superman story has been tweaked and adjusted to respond to the needs of the readers’ present. For instance, Shuster and Spiegel’s Superman was a response to their experience of being children of migrants. Superman was the story of someone who came from elsewhere and became more American than apple pie. His invulnerability—bullets bounced off his chest like popcorn, chains couldn’t restrain him, etc.—made him uncannily similar to another superman, the one imagined by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and whose most famous fan boy was Hitler. (This is particularly ironic since both Shuster and Siegel are Jewish.)
Tweaks were made to Superman’s story over the Sixties and Seventies, but the most significant rewrite happened in the 1980s when DC Comics hired comic book author John Byrne to reimagine Superman. Byrne’s Superman lived in the present. There were chinks in his Kryptonian armour and he faced tough competition from villains. More than invincibility, the immigrant in 1980s’ America needed to be resilient and that’s what Byrne established in Superman. He had his vulnerabilities but Byrne’s Superman could pick himself up after a setback.
After Byrne, Man of Steel—written by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, and directed by Zack Snyder—is perhaps the most hyped rebooting of the Superman story. Here’s what Nolan and Goyer figured today’s world needs Superman to be: Jesus Christ.
The idea of Superman being a Christ-like savior isn’t new. Him being sent to Earth, the way he keeps saving the world selflessly and his celibacy are among the aspects of his character that have made many see the Son of God in Superman. Until Man of Steel, Superman was arguably Christ-like. Nolan and Goyer’s Superman is a modern-day Jesus Christ.
Just as Jesus is believed to have left his heavenly home to come to Earth in order to save it, so does baby Superman. Russell Crowe as his father Jor-El goes so far as to say "He’ll be a god to them".
As a child, the Son of God alarmed his community with his wisdom. As a boy, Clark Kent freaks rural Kansas out with his strength.
Jesus left his home in Nazareth as a young man and wandered around for many years. So did Superman. (Though Jesus probably didn’t appear gloriously shirtless and kinda on fire to folks doomed to certain death. He may have had a following much sooner if he had.)
Superman’s got a special fondness for his mum, much like Jesus.
Both of them had a lot of blue in their wardrobe.
They can both walk on water.
There is an actual Holy Ghost in Man of Steel. Jor-El is killed soon after Superman is born, but he exists as a know-it-all hologram on earth who guides his son, saves Lois Lane and even debates with the villain, General Zod.
Jesus was 33 and single when his messianic identity was revealed to all. Superman is 33 and single when he says he will sacrifice himself to save Earth and its people. (Let’s ignore the fact that the damage caused by his fights with Zod and other Kryptonians would make most weapons of mass destruction seem like firecrackers.)
The one wound on that perfect Kryptonian body is below the ribs, precisely like the wound on Christ’s side.
And in case you weren’t convinced about Man of Steel wanting to be a Christian epic, when evil Zod’s evil deputy, Faora-Ul, declares herself to be pro-evolution, it’s just the provocation that the slightly-exhausted Superman needs to return to fighting mode.
But it isn’t enough for Man of Steel’s Superman to be a contemporary Jesus Christ. The one non-evil character who questions Superman in the comic books is Lois Lane. She may not be a feminist icon, but she does challenge him from time to time. She helps create the mythology of Superman with her adoring articles, but she also tests him, particularly in the iconic Christopher Reeve-as-Superman movies. Not in Man of Steel.
Amy Adams plays a Lois Lane who literally and figuratively is a follower. She spots Clark Kent walking into a cave and she follows him inside. From the very beginning, courtesy Superman healing her, Lois acknowledges him as a hero and savior. Later, she happily follows him into the enemy ship. When Lois has to choose between Earth and Superman, she chooses Superman. Because that’s what those of true faith do.
In fact, following is women’s work in the Man of Steel universe. Diane Lane, as Martha Kent, follows her husband and then her adopted son’s lead. I’m not sure if we were supposed to read into the fact that Snyder shows her collecting apples in the scene in which the evil Zod reveals himself. Mercifully, she drops them so Clark/Superman isn’t tempted to bite into one.
Martha isn’t shown making one decision or doing much more than help set up situations in which Superman can look a little more powerful. Even Faora—black leather and kickboxing skills notwithstanding—is a follower. Just as Lois follows Superman, Faora follows Zod. There’s some attempt to explain why Zod acts as he does, but Faora doesn’t have a mind of her own. She simply obeys orders. The only moment in which something of her own personality shows up is when she says she believes in science and evolution. And she gets thrashed by Superman for her ridiculous opinions.
Nolan has acquired near-divinity status thanks to films like Inception and his retelling of Batman, but neither he nor Snyder are particularly good at creating women characters. The net result is that in Man of Steel, you get a world that is a boyish fantasy full of action, explosion and machismo. The absence of mischief isn’t surprising considering how Nolan mercilessly stripped the humour and kitsch out of Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy. (It is one of the great ironies of the world that Nolan’s Joker is the one that asks, “Why so serious?” If only someone would ask Nolan this question.)
What is disappointing is that Nolan, who revived Batman so skillfully, is the producer and writer of a film that presents a world with no shades of grey (perhaps the numerous storm and rain sequences are supposed to compensate for this?). There’s no one in this Metropolis who poses any intelligent questions, certainly not the Pulitzer prize-winning Lois Lane who utters tacky lines like, “If I’m not wearing a flak jacket, I get writer’s block.” Women here need rescuing by men, as is obvious from that idiotic Daily Planet employee who spends most of her screen time wide-eyed and immobile so that her big, strong, male editor (Laurence Fishburne as Perry White) can physically remove her from danger.
In Man of Steel, there are two kinds of people: those who revere Superman and those that try to kill him. The former are good, the latter are bad. And when there’s action, Nolan and Snyder’s Superman has two words for women: "Stand back." Frustratingly, that’s precisely what they do in Man of Steel.