Saturday, 15 June 2013

Fight or Faith

Superman - Man of Steel

For longer than any normal pregnancy the birth of the new Man of Steel film has been awaited with baited breath and the fevent prayer that it would be the worthy successor in the legacy that is Superman. 
The fact that the film was received with a round of applause, and I can't remember the last film I was at when that happened, says it all. It seems that the film community has found its saviour.

Superman as saviour is, like most superheroes, what he is all about. He is part of the original band of superheroes including Batman and Wonderwoman who entered the world through the comic imagination in a response to the tensions of the early 20th Century. The world had survived one World War and was fast tracking towards another when the blue, red and yellow streak of light first flashed across the storyboard. What the western world psyche needed was someone who could handle the 'bad guy' on a planetary scale. In a time of miltary escalation, the superhero had to be a superpower beyond our imagination.

In the Cold War tensions of the 1960's, with the added suspicions and fears about nuclear power, it was the mutated humans who fought the good fight; heroes such as the Fantastic Four, X men and Spiderman. The dangers that faced the world also formed it's heroes. 

What bound all the superheroes together was a moral compass that always pointed to the good, driven to protecting the weak and bear with the animosity and distrust of those they were meant to save. 

Their return in the 21st Century suggests that, under our bravado of being in control, the fear continues. Moviemakers have the technology - a la Six Million Dollar Man (1970's and in response to the 'space race' and developing medical technology) - to rebuild our childhood heroes. 'Pow' and 'Smash' now scream out of the Dolby speakers of a 60 feet IMax  screen with deafening force. Hi definition 3D (and soon to be 4K) imagery allows us the experience of flight, fight and fright in flinching reality. 

The cinematic experience often feels more real and more inviting than that late night walk home through the grey drizzle of city streets and the baleful glow of yellow street lights; flinching, this time, at the rowdy group of late night revellers or the street people's requests for money or a cigarette. 

What these icons now have, and Superman particularly, is a history. Superman's early life mirroring that of another Saviour. The Christian theme is undeniable.

But first, we get to see Krypton in all its alien glory. From a world that had ravaged itself into annihilation, a child is sent seeking refuge. His starship Moses basket sailing the celestial winds until it is found, on earth, by a childless couple; their poverty and  marginilisation shown by their life in a peeling timbered farmhouse in the middle of Kansas. They bring the child up with the constant fear that the 'authorities' would be looking for him, to take him from them.

An encounter with the local bullies, at around age 12 -  finds him reading Plato; a wise child indeed. His strength and strangeness acknowledged by the townsfolk who seem to honour his secret. Then his first act of life-saving wonder takes place from a fishing boat and, afterwards, baptises him in the depths of the ocean.

When the simulacrum spirit of his father finally reveals who Clark really is, and renames him as Kal-El, he enters into not one but a Discovery channel of deserts, his father's disembodied voice explains his mission - to protect our world and enable it to become what his homeplanet was not.

As the enemy looms over the planet, darkening the lives of the people, the relationship between Superman and Jesus becomes explicit. Clark enters a church to consider his options. His strong profile is etched against a stained glass window of the Good Shepherd and he leaves with the priest's advice to take a 'leap of faith'. Dali-esque images of Superman hovering over earth, arms outstretched cannot fail to suggest the offering of a life. 

Following the resulting fight for survival of the planet Superman is accepted as hero and saviour; following his own sense of morality with nowhere to lay his head.

The people of Metropolis has its saviour, their messiah and all is right with the world, until the next time.

In my Sunday Gospel blog for this week here I commented that the Jesus we want is not the Jesus we need. Superman is the proof of this. 

The messiah that is Superman does not hold his superpowers in check; his desire to appear 'normal' is a disguise willingly thrown aside at the first sign of trouble. In defeating the Krypton criminals he manages to raze most of the city to the ground, cause the destruction of half the military contingent, and still be called a hero. The side of right is also the side of might. 

Forgiveness, reconciliation, is not an option. The bad guys were born bad (DNA modified) and there is nothing you can do about.

At the end of the film, a twist in the tale that caused a moment of silence throughout the cinema. Superheroes rarely kill 'on screen' but General Zod has declared himself unredeemable, his nature is to destroy and a young family stands in the path of his bloodred laser gaze. Superman, we are to assume, is left with no choice but to kill Zod, breaking his neck in a cry of agonised frustration at the belief that 'there was no other way'.

And so Superman, for all his strength, abilities and desire to do good, is shown to be just one of us. The sigil on his armour that gave him his title means 'hope' in Krypton. It is hope rather that superpowers that he needs. Clark is a son of Adam; flawed, failed, human. Needing his own redemption, needing relationships of love and friendship, seeking a path towards a world that is not of this world.

And, for a comic book Superhero, that is probably just as well. 


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