The parallels between Superman and Jesus are so screamingly obvious that I’ve often thought some enterprising cinema should screen a series of Superman/Jesus double bills. They could start with The Last Temptation Of Christ and Superman II, the one in which Clark Kent temporarily decides to give up his powers for the love of a woman, Lois Lane, just as Martin Scorsese had Jesus do with Mary Magdalene.
Instead, as widely reported last week, the enterprising marketing team for new Superman movie Man Of Steel has created a set of sermon notes. Titled “Jesus: The Original Superhero”, it suggests that ministers use the film’s story to “educate and uplift your congregation” – and, implicitly, encourage them to buy movie tickets.
“Man Of Steel provides a thrilling picture of what sacrifice, duty, courage and honour look like,” the notes say, either oblivious or indifferent to the uncomfortable parallels between this and, for example, McDonald’s trying to indoctrinate schoolchildren into buying their products via free educational packs. You thought a church pew was somewhere you could go to escape the endless psychological manipulation of capitalism? Not any more. Having been caught napping by the huge, surprise success of Mel Gibson’s self-financed The Passion Of The Christ, these days Hollywood studios are working hard to lead Christians into blockbuster temptation.
Were producer Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder complicit in this plan for Man Of Steel? The film does play up the religious parallels a little more than previous versions of the story. Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent is a bearded, conflicted, wilderness-wandering Superman (“I’m surrendering myself to humanity,” he says as he allows himself to be taken captive by the Romans – sorry, I mean by General Zod). But all this is still subtext – just as it was in, say, The Matrix, which referenced Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne as much as it did the Bible – rather than writ large as it was in the loopy sci-fi movie Knowing, in which angels rescue children from a fiery apocalypse and deposit them in a new Eden (without so much as a packed lunch or spare pants, but that’s another story).
Regardless, Superman has always been a kind of American Jesus. If you believe the romanticised version of his origins, he was dreamed up as a fantasy saviour for a Europe conquered by fascism, by the children of Jewish immigrants who’d found a safe haven in the US. The truth is more complicated (for the whole story, read Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures Of Jerry Siegel And Joe Shuster – The Creators Of Superman, by Brad Ricca) but the result is a character who’s become somewhat emblematic of US cultural colonialism.
Watching Superman: The Movie again recently, I was struck by the moment when Christopher Reeve tells the world that he stands for “truth, justice and the American way”. A Hollywood blockbuster probably wouldn’t get away with a line like that now. By 2006’s Superman Returns, it had become a slightly apologetic “truth, justice, all that stuff”. In this context, it’s even more unsettling to see Superman being likened to the son of a god. Are these the lengths Americans need to go to these days to feel good about themselves?