Man of Steel isn’t bad for a superhero blockbuster—which is to say that it does a good job of not being terrible despite the twin handicaps of having Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder attached to it. Their movie is a work of popcorn theology—supersized, with extra butter, and a couple pillars of salt; but, as its faith is as widely practiced and sanctioned as any in our culture today, its message is as worthy of scrutiny as that of a televangelist. It’s no secret that the ur-hero, who came to Earth from Krypton to save us from a fallen angel named General Zod, has been resubstantiated as a Christ figure. His conception was the opposite of immaculate: Kal-El is the first of his kind in centuries to be born of copulation rather than bred into a destiny like his scientist father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and Krypton’s generalissimo Zod (Michael Shannon). When the advanced planet, starved of resources, blows up, Kal floats down the Nile to Kansas in his space bassinet, and is raised by a farmer named Kent (Kevin Costner) with a bumper crop of moral fiber. Kal (Henry Cavill), whose name is anglicized to Clark, has godlike powers in this new environment, but a hypersensitivity to it, too. His Joseph figure teaches him restraint for his own safety’s sake—humans aren’t ready for the Second Coming; we don’t even have a cross of kryptonite to nail him to. The way he hangs around truck stops during his post-high school years, if Clark wasn’t a closet superhero, I’d expect this saintly lumberjack to be a closet something else. But he’s essentially a free-agent Good Samaritan, without branding. When Zod and his junta, exiled from Krypton and thus its only other survivors, arrive on Earth, Clark has to save his adopted people from his bloodthirsty compatriots, who are angling to strip-mine our planet and turn it into a new Krypton. Like a transplanted sports fan, Superman is torn between home teams.
What Man of Steel makes clear, which previous iterations of this franchise (which dates back to 1938) may have glossed over, is that doing the right thing is a choice. Granted, I need to brush up on my Bible, but the immediate parallel that occurs to me isn’t in Scripture, but Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. When, way back in the Captain America period, Superman stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, it was as much about choice as being drafted into World War II was. It was about duty. No questions asked. Virtually all superhero movies are about choice on some level, but the immaculate, unearthly Superman may be the only one for whom this solemn peroration is appropriate. Nolan’s Batman was a mortal in the real world, even if the director gave no evidence of familiarity with it; Nolan’s Superman is in a real-ish world, too—but, here, the setting is even less stylized than Gotham, and serves as a contrast between men and this god among them. Or at least it should. There is an idea behind Nolan and David S. Goyer’s conception, and that counts for something; but, as usual, it gets as worn down as the Metropolis skyscrapers that are battered by Zod. If the material were really to be brought up to date—and, on top of that, made intellectually respectable—Superman must guide his new neighbors down a path that allows us to avoid the self-destructive fate of Krypton. If that planet stagnated because its population was deprived of choice, surely it’s on the filmmakers to demonstrate how humans are saved by their capacity for choice—and not simply by a Caped Crusader: the deus ex machina of childish escape fantasies. Making him a Christ figure—even making him human—is an easy way out, because the humans aren’t compellingly human, but are mere pawns in a spectacle that is likely much more cynical than Goyer or Nolan anticipated it would be. Our foremost faculty, it is implied, is not our liberty but our helplessness. Marx’s line about religion being the opiate of the masses is often misunderstood, but the logic behind the misunderstanding clarifies why makers of blockbusters are now mining the Church for material: superheroes once provided escapism; they now stand for ritualized self-delusion.