With the release this summer of the film Man of Steel, once again our culture returned to a story and a character that have sparked remarkable fascination since the 1930s. This latest, umpteenth treatment of the enduring Superman myth earned $113 million at the box office in its opening weekend.
Created by two high school students in Cleveland, Ohio, who had an insatiable taste for comics and science fiction, the Superman character was sold in 1938 to what would later become DC Comics. And from that humble beginning, Superman has appeared in countless iterations in comic books and graphic novels (there is a difference), live-action and animation television shows, video games, and motion pictures. The “Man of Steel”—with the ever-present blue costume, red cape, and the letter “S” emblazoned on his muscular chest—has become a cultural icon.
Through the decades since the first appearance of Superman, as succeeding chapters have been added in the various media, this superhero’s backstory has emerged. He was born on an imaginary distant planet named Krypton and was sent to Earth by his scientist father, Jor-El, shortly before the destruction of Krypton. He landed on a farm in Kansas and was discovered by a farmer and his wife, who adopted, protected, and raised him to adulthood. Early in his childhood, however, he began to show signs of supernatural powers and a highly principled sense of justice, both of which increasingly provided his motivation to right the wrongs that he encountered all around him in society.
Whether Superman was the very first superhero has been the subject of some debate among fans and scholars. (And there are quite a few who would include themselves in both groups.) But he has certainly become the most widely recognizable and has pretty much set the standard for the genre.
The concept of superheroes has, in fact, become so popular that (try not to laugh here) there are actually some real people who literally design and don garish costumes of their own and seek to go about redressing injustice in their communities. And others, who apparently prefer a less active role, have sought to contribute to the phenomenon by embellishing the myth through the creation of further details. One such, for example, has conjectured as to the religion of each of the superheroes—and identified two as Seventh-day Adventist.1
In Man of Steel, however, this most current Superman incarnation, the issue of religion has attracted even more attention. This in itself is nothing new with regard to the Superman myth. Cultural critics have repeatedly pointed out religious themes in past accounts. They have identified and explored evidence of what many consider to be very concrete Christian motifs and images in the film itself.
In commenting on the very first full motion picture depicting this most popular of superheroes, Superman: The Movie (1978), Roy M. Anker observes that it is “a dead-on dramatization of the Christ story. It is the genius of the film that this plays out in such a way that while religious viewers enjoy it mightily for all the right reasons—what it is like to experience an incarnation and a supernatural ‘friend,’ as Superman responds to Lois Lane’s question, ‘Just who are you?’—they generally fail to recognize what stares them straight in the face for two hours and twenty minutes.”2
Similarly, media commentators, in print and online, have quickly called attention to a surprising number of details in Man of Steel that seem to refer to familiar Christian ideas.
“A father figure from another world,” writes Jonathan Merritt, of the Religious News Service, “sends his only begotten son to Earth who, at 33 years old, must sacrifice himself to save the human race. . . . The Superman reboot is filled with messianic parallels—from the caped hero stretching out his arms as he falls to earth only to rise again to a scene where [he] ponders whether to accept his destiny while he sits in a church in front of a stained-glass image of Jesus.”3
But the discussion of Christian qualities in Man of Steel has also focused outside the content of the film itself over the awareness that this particular film actually targeted Christian viewers. Warner Brothers, the studio that produced the film, hired the public relations firm Grace Hill Media to market it to people of faith. Previously Grace Hill had created for the same audience promotional resources for The Blind Side (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), and many others.
For Man of Steel, Grace Hill worked with author, theologian, and Pepperdine University professor Craig Detwiler to make available sermon outlines, film clips, and a nine-page downloadable briefing entitled “Jesus: The Original Superhero.” The approach seems to suggest that references in the pulpit to a motion picture will increase its theater attendance.
“‘We believe there’s an underserved audience in this country. Filmmakers rarely deal with faith even though Christians represent one of the largest segments of America,’ says Mark Burnett, who, with his wife, Roma Downey, produced ‘The Bible,’ the record-breaking miniseries on [TV’s] History [Channel].”4
The choice of words in such a comment may come as a surprise to some, who may have always assumed that Hollywood seeks to “target” rather than to “serve” their audiences. DeVon Franklin, a Columbia Pictures vice president, describes the process from a slightly different angle: “As filmmakers we’re always trying to identify which markets are growing.”5 But whatever the motivation, motion picture production companies are recently recognizing the existence of a faith demographic that is calling for topics and treatments that resonate more directly with their beliefs.
So in what ways does the increase of films featuring superheroes relate to people of faith? The popularity of current media depicting Superman and other supernatural beings of his kind—Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Hulk—must first appeal in some elemental way to viewers. Screenwriter Brian Godawa offers at least one possible explanation for this interest: “The proliferation of comic books adapted into movies signals a contemporary hunger for hero worship, the desire for redemption through the salvific acts of deity.”6
Nineteenth-century Scottish clergyman and author George McDonald writes of “the soul’s hunger, the vague sense of a need which nothing but the God of human faces, the God of the morning and of the starful night, the God of love and self-forgetfulness, can satisfy. . . . It is this formless idea of something at hand that keeps men and women striving to tear from the bosom of the world the secret of their own hopes. How little they know [that] what they look for in reality is their God!”7
That humanity is in need of a savior may be little recognized in the consciousness of today’s culture. Yet the realization that we cannot save ourselves—much less the world—is the first step in a turn to God. And despite humanism’s insistent emphasis on humankind as the only promise for a future, the way in which the heart clings to the need for heroes may be an opening for a message of hope that only God can fulfill.