Man of Steel: Apocalyptic Eco-Justice?
When it comes to superhero allegiance, our house sides with the Justice League. From the time my partner was given a Superman cape as a 5-year-old, he has always been a big fan. I bought him a Superman tattoo for Christmas the first year we were married. Ten years later when our daughter was born, we decorated her nursery with Wonder Woman posters and paraphernalia. We wanted her to look up from her crib and see a character created as a symbol against Patriarchy — a strong woman who (mostly) used reason rather than violence to bring about justice. Just to be sure the image was safe, we skipped the weak 1960s incarnation of Wonder Woman as Diana Prince working in a clothing boutique!
As a theologian, it’s always been tempting to pick up one of the many books or articles comparing Superman and Jesus, but until now I’ve maintained my resistance. It seemed as if the comparison was incongruent with Superman’s Jewish roots. Christians already renamed the Hebrew Scriptures the “Old Testament.” It seemed wrong to co-opt Superman too.
Yet with every movie that comes out, Superman takes on a bit more of the Christian/Jesus mythology — but whose Jesus is this Superman?
I’ll admit I was a little shocked to learn that Man of Steel was advertised so heavily with Christian pastors and churches. Clergy were given free screenings before the movie was released. There was even a Father’s Day discussion guide and a faith-friendly film trailer. But after watching the movie I was even more troubled. Why did the filmmakers think that an intensely violent, overly apocalyptic movie would appeal to Christians? I guess because it does.
Don’t get me wrong — there was a great take-away for people of faith and all people of good will in this movie. But I’m not talking about the intentional plot points that the filmmakers imagined might appeal to Christians, such as Superman being 33 years old, the scene in the church with the priest and the stained-glass depiction of the Garden of Gethsemane, the handcuff scene where he willingly turns himself in, or the scene where he falls through the air looking as if he’s hanging on a cross only to “rise again.” As a person of faith, I’m more interested in why Superman left Krypton. Could this be a story of eco-justice?
Unlike the story of the Messianic Christ who willingly left heaven to be embodied on earth and save the world, Kal-El left Krypton as a last resort. In this movie he was a refugee of environmental degradation. Perhaps this is the gift that the Man of Steel movie offers our generation. In other Superman stories, Krypton was unstable but its destruction was generally seen as a natural disaster or the result of war/violence. In this movie, the planet is unstable because of the actions of the planet’s inhabitants — due to an energy crisis they were harvesting the planet’s core. Even further, we learn that Krypton had been colonizing other planets by using a “world machine” that “terraformed” a planet so it could be inhabited by Kryptonians. With climate change and the ways in which the industrialized West still “colonizes” developing countries, we find relevant eco-justice lessons from the movie’s very beginning.
This fictional narrative of eco-justice climaxes with a showdown between Superman and General Zod. But while we learned a valuable lesson with Krypton’s demise, the movie’s depiction of our planet’s salvation leaves something to be desired. Like nearly all the previews for summer movies that we saw before Man of Steel began, this movie jumped straight to the overused theme of apocalypse. In 3D and XD we watched as buildings crumbled and Metropolis turned into a wasteland. Options other than war were never considered as the (Messianic?) Superman “saved” the planet from “complete destruction.” The apocalyptic nature of this ecological salvation caused it to fall short of a vision of justice.
But what if we re-wrote the story? What if people of faith refused the vision of the apocalypse and chose to instead lift up a different Messianic interpretation from the Man of Steel? Superman was never strong on Krypton. He only found great strength when he was embodied as human, living on earth. Unlike our typical theological understandings of the Jesus of scripture, Superman was not all-powerful in his origin (divinity?) but only powerful in his embodied life (humanity).
In the apocalyptic showdown, General Zod ridicules Superman by saying, “Where were you trained, on a farm?” Zod gets it right. Like any good Midwesterner, Clark Kent sees the farm — his connectedness to the land — as a deep source of strength.
Perhaps here we can jettison the apocalypse in favor of an eco-justice revision. If we are to restore the earth that God has created, it will be because of our connectedness to the land and its people. It will be because we are human, created and embodied to live as part of this planet. It will be because we are learning to care for our own embodied reality and the lives of those around us.
In the Ethics and Moral Theology class I’m teaching at Loyola University Chicago this summer, we spent this week talking about eco-justice. As we read about climate change and environmental degradation, there were no foreign villains to blame for the destruction of our planet. Like Jor-El’s impassioned speech on Krypton, we took responsibility for the ways we have all harmed and damaged our world. But we didn’t imagine an apocalyptic salvation. We relied instead on a better moral imagination as we suggested solutions to this crisis.
People of faith can certainly learn something from the Man of Steel movie, particularly in regard to the fragility of our own planet. Let’s just hope we don’t turn to an apocalypse for salvation.
Author’s note: Here’s a special shout-out to my friends who know more about Superman mythology than I do — Thanks David Garber, Michelle Brooks Garber, Wes Browning, Ken Sury, Garin Hill and Jim Gilreath for your advice on this blog post. And thanks to Chrissy Sofranko who made the rare treat of movie-watching possible by hanging out with our future Wonder Woman.