Monday, June 17, 2013

(Arche)typical: Observations on Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel"

As is characteristic of heroes, Superman has arisen again victoriously.  Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, played by Henry Cavill, is a respectable contemporary remodeling of the idea that was spawned by two high school students, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, in 1933.  That this hero originated in the minds of two children of Jewish immigrants during the interim between World Wars gives cause for reflection, but that such a hero would reemerge now is perhaps a harbinger of things to come.  Though Siegel and Shuster first envisaged Superman as a powerful telepathic villain (inspired in part by Nietzsche's  idea of an Übermensch), he was eventually transformed into the hero of epic proportions that has found his niche in pop-culture, filling comic books and movie screens ever since.  In brief, Man of Steel resurrects the superhero par excellence in a way that is both recognizably traditional and conspicuously modern, complete with effects and a musical score (see also here) that are entertaining enough (if such a thing is possible) for a postmodern audience.

Almost as intriguing as Superman's biography is the evolution of this "Man of Steel" over time.  Struggling to escape depression era poverty, Siegel and Shuster made several attempts to publish their story, but with little success.  At one point Shuster was so discouraged that he burned all of the pages of the book.  Only the cover survived when Siegel rescued it from the fire.  Finally, Superman appeared in what is now the most valuable comic of all time, the June 1938 edition of Action Comics #1 (one copy sold for over $2 million).  Superman gradually progressed from comic books to daily newspaper comic strips to radio, animated cartoons, a television series, and to film.  Superman found renewed vigor in Richard Donner's 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve, and the story was revived yet again, among other places, in the 2001 television series Smallville.     

By now Siegel and Shuster's Superman is an American icon.  Critics have already parsed the story ad infinitum, but Snyder's Man of Steel opens the door for fresh interpretation.  Although I admit to being distracted by the incessant battles and dizzying special effects, Man of Steel still managed to draw my attention toward two major and corresponding archetypes, namely Moses and Jesus Christ.  Snyder's film does not shy away from the Biblical references that Siegel and Shuster may or may not have had in mind while writing the story.  Whether it be Kal-El's (whose name means "Voice of God" - קל-אל - in Hebrew) metaphorical basket of bulrushes, Cavill's cross poses with outstretched arms, the image of Christ in Gethsemane on the stained glass windows of the church, or the symbolic age of 33, Man of Steel abounds with overt Biblical and Christian symbolism.  Despite the gratuitous violence and destruction that are by now Hollywood mainstays, most of Snyder's scenes focus on acts of Christian love: the young Clark Kent saving his drowning fellow students (particularly the class bully), patiently enduring mockery, obediently yielding to his earthly father's (played by Kevin Costner) request not to be saved from an approaching tornado, and of course, Superman's meek and willing surrender to General Zod's forces of evil and a human race that knows not what they do.         

Considering his super good deeds, perhaps it may be instructive to review the circumstances and conditions that called forth the original Superman, written and illustrated by a pair of friends from Jewish immigrant families during the Great Depression between the World Wars.  If ever a Moses figure was needed, was it then?  Furthermore, the resurgence of Superman over the years (albeit in different forms and media expressions), including Snyder's most recent film iteration, may stem from, and even presage (as I have already surmised in a previous blog post), an augmenting communal longing for a modern Moses or a savior figure.  Indeed, setting aside the earth shattering Hollywood wrestling matches, Man of Steel weaves together (whether consciously or not) the Old Testament Moses and the New Testament Jesus almost as naturally as the Bible itself  (see also 1 Ne. 22:20-21).  This is, of course, an exaggeration.  But hyperbole is in some ways what Superman is all about.         

In summary, Man of Steel is a tolerably good, if not mildly enjoyable, portrayal of the father of superheros, a father whose mythical biography is rooted in Judeo-Christian metaphors and whose evolution over time and space may bespeak a growing popular yearning for hope, deliverance and a better world.  If a fictional Man of Steel can be so well received in his return to the big screen, one can only hope that Christ's literal return (see Articles of Faith 1:10) will likewise be a welcomed event.