Man of Steel and the Importance of Heroes

Dear Church Family,

My wife and I recently saw the latest iteration of the Superman movie installments Man of Steel. Having been a fan of just about every other Superman movie before it (except for maybe Superman III, the one with Richard Pryor – what were they thinking!), I think this most recent one is my favorite. And that’s even taking into account that my wife and I watched a Superman movie marathon series while waiting for our daughter to be born ten years ago, but that’s another story altogether.

Man of Steel

There is much to commend this latest movie, Man of Steel. It is most certainly an origin story – in fact, Kal-El/Clark Kent isn’t even called “Superman” until the end of the movie, about the time he starts work at the Daily Planet. Yet, in this movie – unlike the others – there is a greater emphasis on his other-worldly origins as we learn more about the politics and problems of his home-world of Krypton. So, there is a greater emphasis on his biological identity, while revealing the character development of his earthly parents through flashbacks.

This movie also has a much more realistic ‘feel’ to it, and I don’t mean that the special effects and CGI is better in this one than in its predecessors, which it most certainly is. No, I mean that there is a shedding off of the ‘slapstick’ comedy, while Kal-El is portrayed as a hero with real flaws – wrestling with who he is, why did God make him this way (he actually asks his earthly father this at one point in the movie), and what’s his purpose. One might say that he has to grow in wisdom and in stature in order to understand his purpose and fulfill his role in this world.

Now, it might be very easy, at this point, to transition into the idea that Superman is a messiah figure who points to the one true Messiah. As C.S. Lewis points out, most all of our man made stories are reflective of the one true story of redemption. There’s also the fact that the Superman character was created by two Jewish immigrants in 1938. This has caused some to speculate about the messianic imagery in a religious sense, or more socially, how the Superman character was crafted as an immigrant figure whose desire was to fit into American culture as an American.

Whatever the intention of his original creators, the Superman of Man of Steel is (in my mind, at least) something different. Certainly, there are religious overtones throughout the movie. At one point, Kal-El speaks to a minister in church sanctuary (replete with stain glass windows of Jesus behind him) as he wrestles over whether or not he ought to turn himself in to General Zod in order to save planet earth.

Superman and Plato

But there are two aspects of this movie that come to the fore unlike they do in any of the previous tellings of the story. Peter Lawler, professor of government at Berry College and former member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, has written two very interesting articles that, I think, capture these very well. [By the way, though the President’s Council on Bioethics no longer exists, their reports and papers are an amazing collection of thorough study and insight.]

In “Reading Plato with the Man of Steel,” Lawler argues that Man of Steel is all about Plato’s Republic. In fact, at one point in the movie, during his growing up years, Clark Kent is reading Plato’s Republic, and then picked on and beat up by some neighborhood boys. Afterwards, he explains to his father how he had to restrain himself from fighting back. Lawler writes,

Superman is only here to help us, not redeem us, certainly not to save us from our sins or from death. And he doesn’t have any deep insight into the meaning of life or love. His life, like each of ours, is shaped by choice and chance. He has extraordinary power that falls way short of omnipotence. He’s a man born to love and die—not a god. Superman’s Kryptonian father predicts that the people of our planet would regard his only begotten son as a god, but that we did not do. We’ve never become so Nietzschean or whatever that we’ve come to think a merely Superman can replace our need for God himself.

In this respect, as a fleshing out of some of the issues raised in Plato’s Republic, Man of Steel wrestles with the proper role of government in shaping its citizens, the importance of individual freedoms, the effects of state-mandated child-development (as opposed to the family), when is military force (or any kind of force, for that matter) appropriate and just, what is the role of the military, etc. Indeed, the societies of Krypton and American/Western culture are compared and contrasted as each must deal with ethical and moral decisions that have been thrust upon them.

Superman and Masculinity

The other aspect of this movie, one which I was delighted to see, was the emphasis on the role of masculinity and fatherhood. In “Superman Has Two Dads!” Lawler writes,

Two of the three heroic “role models” in the film act mainly as dads, and the third—Superman himself—is who he is largely because of what he was given by those two dads. We’re reminded that fatherhood is less directly biological than motherhood, but that makes being a father a freer and arguably more sacrificial choice. The foster father, in fact, is more of a father than the biological one.

This is where Man of Steel, in my view, sets itself head and shoulders above any previous iterations of the story. True masculinity and manhood is defined by learning self-control, learning to defend the weak, learning to sacrificially love others. This kind of masculinity can’t be forced or coerced, it has to be developed through parenting, training, and mentoring. Though his human father is physically weaker than him, Superman is only able to be the hero that the world needs as he learns to emulate the strength of character which is instilled in him by his foster-father. [On a side note, the Lois Lane of Man of Steel embodies true femininity to a greater extent than any that came before her, as well. She is strong, but like both of Superman’s mothers (Kryptonian and Earthly), her strength is not manifested in her own self-promotion (like the previous Lois Lanes); rather, her strength is manifested in nurturing and protecting those she loves.]

The Necessity of Heroes

This element, the evaluation and esteem of true masculinity (with all of its difficulties and conflicting, inner turmoils), is what makes Man of Steel such a great movie. In our day, the idea of ‘a hero’ has fallen on hard times. People seem to think that we have no more need for heroes. Everyone’s flawed, no one’s perfect, so why even try to live up to an ideal – why even try to embody that ideal that others may look to you? What’s the point of striving after virtue, if no one ever seems able to obtain it? We look for character flaws in all of our heroes of history, eviscerating them of anything that they might teach us other than: no one is as good as you thought they were.

But, we need heroes. In contrast to postmoderism’s murder of the hero, the Bible admonishes us as Christians to “remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). What is true for Christians with regard to our faith, is true of all human beings with regard to virtue. We need heroes.

As Jor-El (Superman’s Kryptonian father) says to his son, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” And, as Jonathan Kent (Superman’s Earthly father) says to his son, “You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.”

I teach my boys that they are “Men In Training.” I tell them that the strength and wisdom and initiative that God has given them is meant to be used to help and defend those who are weaker – never for their own self-promotion or self-aggrandizement. And, though I often don’t get it right, I try to embody and live out that ideal before them – even as I try to point them to other men who embody and live out that ideal. Man of Steel embodies that ideal. Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman is not our Savior. He is not Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who rescues the souls of men. But, he is a hero and heroes are important.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch