I’ve made no secret among people I know that I was severely disappointed with this summer’s Man of Steel. Among very long lists of reasons why, a major one has been the over-the-top force-feeding of the idea that Superman is a representation of Jesus. On a normal day I’d assert that they are barely alike and that anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I remember no parts of the Gospels that tell of Jesus saving Mary Magdalene from the bald and maniacal Roman governor, Lex Luthicus. Nor do I remember scenes in Man of Steel where Kal-El spoke against the hypocritical politicians of Metropolis or sacrificing himself to execution as propitiation to Jor-El for the sins of Earth. (Take note: Jor-El did not send Kal-El to save the people of Earth; Jor-El sent Kal-El to Earth to save Kal-El and the Kryptonian race. Where is that Jesus parallel again?)
But this evening I had something of an epiphany. The two characters *are* alike. Not necessarily in parallels within their stories, but in how their stories have been handled and treated. In fact, they are so similar in this regard that I can explain it by describing only one, yet the description works perfectly for both:
The story is of a man of humble roots but a fantastic origin. He grows up and gives his life to saving those who cannot save themselves. His story has been told over many generations, and those who hear it and *understand* it have celebrated and been moved by its beauty. Over the course of many years, this story helped shape cultures and entire groups of people knew it as they knew their alphabet.
But as it became more commonplace, as the idea became engrained into the popular consciousness, many people claimed to know it but actually only knew the name and the images they had been shown throughout their lives. They had never actually picked up a book about this man to learn what the real story was. They knew the bullet points and little else. They still claimed to like the story; they still claimed to like that incredible man, but as they allowed it to be about culture and not about the actual story–to not be something that they tried to really understand and to be moved by it–they lost touch with what the message was in the first place.
As culture and societies changed, people began to mock the story. They said that we were too advanced or sophisticated or evolved to accept such nonsense. They would point out aspects of it that they interpret to be childish, or remnants of a long-gone era. The more holes they believed they found, the more the culture at large embraced those perceived holes as truth.
Throughout all of this, there always remained a steady stream of people who did read the story and who did understand the themes and ideas, and really did understand why it was so appealing. They would find themselves unapologetically drawn to it, and they hoped and yearned for a day when the world would see the beauty in it again.
So they would tell the story again and again. They would put it into modern contexts but keep the message the same; keep the characters exactly who they were all along while applying contemporary concerns and addressing current issues. Sometimes through this, new people would find the truth about the story, and they would join the ranks of those who showed it to them and attempt to tell more.
So then what happens when someone comes along and wants to re-tell this story on a large scale, but their motives seem to be less about the story and more about their personal gain? They update the story but remove and reverse all that made it what it was. They render the original concept utterly meaningless by all the alterations they make. All the world takes notice and celebrates the new interpretation because it is recognizable but flashier, is easy to swallow, and appeals to their senses; but those who have understood the story all along cry foul. They try to tell everyone that THIS story is not THAT story, but their protests are ignored and ridiculed.
“It has to be updated for modern society!” the new audiences say. “Surely you cannot expect us to go along with those outdated concepts. You’re only upset because you think you own this story and you only want it told YOUR way!”
“But those concepts are exactly the ones that we need in this modern age!” the others reply back. “The problem all along hasn’t been that the story is irrelevant, but that so many have missed what the story is really about! Contextualizing it to today can work but this has betrayed what this character actually stood for, and has undermined the entire meaning and message of the original story.”
Yet it feels as if it will be to little avail. How difficult it is to try to show others the quality of something when something that looks the same but is easier (yet emptier) is being offered to them by someone else.
And it is at this point that the two stories stop being similar. I can live my life without people “getting” the actual story of Superman, but my heart aches over those who would take an easier, false Gospel and think that they know Christ. So if we’re going to compare the two stories, let’s make sure we’re comparing what they really have in common.