What would Superman do?

  • 19 June 2013
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What would Superman do about tax evasion, economic downturn or the G8? There's only so much anyone can achieve with x-ray eyes or being able to fly, or even (and this was a stretch even for Clark Kent) spinning the Earth backwards to turn back time.

But it was question raised on Radio 4's Thought for the Day on Wednesday by Rhidian Brook, who meshed the worlds of global politics with that of Kryptonite and capes.

When General Zod, Superman's nemesis in the latest film, complains that lawmakers have led Krypton to ruin with endless debates, he demands action. And Brook says it's possible to hear similar complaints coming out of the G8 summit.

"In the world of comic-books, when the powers-that-be fail to save us, a superhero flies in to do what the government, the law or the army are unable to do. They usually have cool superpowers - invisibility, a huge hammer, x-ray vision - and come fully armed with quasi-religious justifications such as: 'With great power comes great responsibility'; 'it's not what I am underneath, it's what I do that defines me.' Or 'I'm here to fight for truth or justice.' In the end, it doesn't matter what the colour of their cape is, the solution to whatever problem they face is nearly always the same - it's violence."

And for Brook, an author and screenwriter whose work has examined faith issues, the parallels with religion are clear.

Image caption Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel

"The promised deliverer - the Messiah or God's anointed one - was expected to appear with superpowers as standard," he says, before concluding that Jesus would have been a terrible superhero. The story of his origins is unpromising, he has special powers but uses them on the wrong people, and when he is tempted by Satan to jump off a tall building, "instead of donning the suit and letting the angels catch him, he refused to demonstrate his powers and used words instead".

Brook is not the first to notice the parallels. In 2006, just after the last big Superman film was released, there was debate about how director Bryan Singer had used much religious symbolism, including Superman falling towards the Earth in a pose echoing the Crucifixion (the Magazine wrote about the debate here).

As we noted then, it may be that there is no one religion that has a monopoly on Superman allusions - Rabbi Simcha Weinstein's book Up, Up and Oy Vey examines the Jewish influence on the development of comic books.

But for Zack Snyder, the director of the new film, Man of Steel, it's clear that the story of the man in blue is a powerful enough narrative in its own right.

"When we started to examine the Superman mythology, in the most classic sense, I really wanted to press upon the film the 'why' of him, which has been 75 years in the making," he told CNN this week.

"The Christ-like parallels, I didn't make that stuff up. We weren't like, 'Hey, let's add this!' That stuff is there, in the mythology. That is the tried-and-true Superman metaphor. So rather than be snarky and say that doesn't exist, we thought it would be fun to allow that mythology to be woven through."

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