Superman, Christ, and Choice

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One of the most popular blog posts I’ve written was a theological exploration of evil through the lens of the film, The Dark Knight. To continue the theme of superhero movies and theology, let’s talk about Superman.

After traveling a few weeks ago, I retuned home late one evening after the kids were in bed. After debriefing with my wife, I decided to vegetate by watching Superman Returns…the effort by director Bryan Singer to “reboot” the Superman movie franchise for Warner Brothers. Most critics, including myself, were very disappointed by the film. Superman Returns gives homage to Richard Donner’s Superman films (starring Christopher Reeve) by lifting characters, plot devices, dialogue, and even laugh lines from the original movies. But it had none of the Donner films’ magic.

The failure, I believe, is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the Superman character and the core tension that gives him a compelling story. And I believe there is a lesson here for those of us trying to understand Jesus’ messianic role in history.

The equating of Superman with Jesus has a very long history, and Richard Donner’s film in 1978 played this theme loudly. Marlon Brando (who plays Superman’s father Jor-El) sends his only son to Earth as “a light to show the way.” The problem with telling a messiah story is developing a worthy adversary. After all, Superman is indestructible and he has no character flaws. Where’s the tension? Where’s the story? Sure there’s Lex Luthor and Kryptonite, but a story with real gravity must be about a tension within the protagonist.

This is where Richard Donner’s films reveal their brilliance. Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980) both build tension around Superman’s struggle between self and duty. Will he fulfill his personal desires or sacrifice them in order to fulfill his calling? In the first film he faces a choice—rescue Lois Lane (his desire) or save millions of innocent people (his duty). And in the second movie the theme is repeated but with a twist. In Superman II the hero gives up his powers in order to fulfill his desire to be human and live with Lois. Only later does he realize his mistake as the world is devastated by a foe only he can stop. Once again, Superman must sacrifice his desire in order to fulfill his duty.

In a corny scene at the end of Superman II, yet one that is true to character, the hero realizes that Lois Lane’s knowledge of his true identity is a burden she cannot bear. And even though it will mean more pain and loneliness for himself, he erases her memory to spare her the burden he must carry alone. Once again duty overcomes desire.

In the original films, Superman’s greatest enemy is internal…his own desires…his own dreams. He becomes a hero only when he chooses to deny himself, take up his cross, and fulfill the will of his father. Choice is what makes these stories work.

This is what Bryan Singer and the writers of Superman Returns (2006) failed to emulate in their film. Singer’s Superman is not a hero fighting his own internal desires by learning to deny himself. Singer opts for a lonely hero whose desires remain unfulfilled due to circumstances beyond his control. He faces no choice. There is no internal war to wage.

In Superman Returns Lois Lane is betrothed to another reporter and is a mother. Sups still desires her, but rather than suppressing this desire in order to fulfill his duty, he is given no choice. Lois is simply out of reach leaving Superman longing from a distance—literally moping outside her house using his x-ray vision to become a super-powered peeping tom (thus fulfilling the teenage fantasy of every comic book geek). Singer’s Superman is not a self-sacrificing hero who puts aside his desires, but a self-loathing victim of circumstance.

Ultimately his loneliness is alleviated at the end of the film when he discovers he has a 5 year old son. But this “victory” is not Superman’s. It isn’t a triumph of inner character as seen in Donner’s films, but merely a new external circumstance that Superman discovers. Thus, in Singer’s film Superman isn’t a true hero—he’s a passive character responding to positive and negative circumstances that are beyond his control.

How does all of this relate to Christianity? Well, it’s about choice. A hero can only be one if he is given the choice to not be one. Free will is critical to the drama of Scripture even as it lives in paradoxical tension with the supremacy and sovereignty of God. I realize this conversation might send my Neo-Reformed friends into a tizzy, but the Scriptures speak repeatedly about Christ’s choice to empty himself (Philippians 2:7), his choice to resist the temptation by the enemy to take a shortcut to glory (Matthew 4), his wrestling in Gethsemane over choosing the cross (Matthew 26), and his choice to obey God in contrast to Adam’s choice to rebel (Romans 5).

Don’t misread me. I’m not seeking to undermine in any way the sovereignty of God, nor am I advocating the supremacy of free will. What I am saying is that any telling of the Christian story which diminishes or dismisses choice also removes the heroic excellence of what Christ has done. Similarly, we must recognize that Jesus invites his hearers to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow in his steps (Luke 9:23). If no volition is involved, the Christian life ceases to be a cosmic struggle with Christ as our champion and advocate, and becomes one of passive reactivity in which we—like Singer’s Superman—have no more agency than a limp fish.

Thankfully, Brian Singer’s Superman will not be revisited by Warner Brothers. It was announced last week that Christopher Nolan, the writer and director of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, has been contracted by the studio to shepherd a rebirth of the Superman franchise. I have confidence that Nolan’s outstanding story-telling capabilities will be a good fit for the Man of Steel.