'Man of Steel:' Superman, the savior?

Biblical parallels run throughout the Man of Steel's story.
Published June 12 2013
Updated June 12 2013

Rising from the dead — 2006's dull reboot — like someone else we know, Superman returns as mankind's savior in Man of Steel.

Comparisons to Jesus may be sacrilegious but are unavoidable in the movie's moments of comic book deification, when crucifix poses are struck, other cheeks are turned and something like Tebowing precedes taking off in flight. There's a church scene with a stained-glass messiah peeking over Superman's shoulder, faith established in disbelievers and the superhero having two fathers, one who art in the heavens.

Man of Steel is a summer movie sermon of religious parallels, from Superman's genesis to a Revelation-sized climax. Screenwriter David S. Goyer and director Zack Snyder are not the first to make that comparison — even Godspell's Jesus wore an "S" on his chest— but they're the most obvious with it.

"It's baked into the DNA of the character," Goyer recently said from Los Angeles by telephone. "We talked about it many times, (saying) let's not ignore it; let's lean into it.

"The biblical narrative has always been part and parcel with the Superman myth, although I would maintain that it's not just Jesus and the New Testament. It's also clearly the myth of Moses in the Old Testament as well. The way that (Superman as a baby) is sent away from Krypton is absolutely an allusion to Moses in the bull rushes. There's no way to get around it."

In fact, Superman's name on Krypton is Kal-El, which translates in Hebrew to "voice of God," or "vessel of God."

The association stretches back to Superman's Action Comics origins in 1938, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — both Jewish, like Goyer — combined biblical allegory and the Mesopotamian myth of Gilgamesh, another god among mortals. Goyer likened himself and director Zack Snyder to anthropologists, relying on those antecedents and similar myths — including Hercules and Beowulf — to craft their version of Superman.

"Yes, there are allusions to Christian mythology, but I think it's more accurate to say there are allusions to all sorts of these heroic figures with one foot in humanity and one foot in the land of the gods," said Goyer, 47, who also co-wrote Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.

"We're not trying to tread on religion by any stretch of the imagination. . . . But it's clear that other creators before us, and the creators of Superman himself, were looking to those myths, those elements of Judeo-Christian faith, as a starting point for the character."

On a subtler note, Goyer pointed out the movie's references to animals seeming to understand the hero's significance, like Krypton's creatures signaling his birth in Lion King style, and a scene with Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) floating unconscious underwater — arms spread as if on a cross — and a giant whale passing by.

"One thing a lot of these heroic figures seem to have is this affinity for animals and wildlife, something that Gilgamesh had, and the Bible talks about Jesus having," Goyer said. "I remember Zack asking me why the whale was in the script. It's because the animals know what he represents before the humans do. Zack immediately got that and ran with it."

The biblical connection extends beyond Superman to the subplot of mortals mistrusting his godlike superiority. Then there's his Man of Steel nemesis, General Zod (Michael Shannon), who declares his intention to destroy humans and rebuild Krypton on Earth.

"I based his diction on people speaking in the Old Testament," Goyer said. "There was a certain formality to it that I felt would give a kind of timelessness. I'm not talking about specific words, but the diction and structure of his message is biblical in its general feeling."

First and foremost, however, Man of Steel is secular escapism. Nobody will be passing collection plates, urging moviegoers to tithe more than what they spent at the box office. But Goyer won't be surprised if Friday's entertainment becomes Sunday morning's church sermon.

"Ministers have (used Superman's story) for decades, going back to the '50s and George Reeves' Superman on TV," he said. "I'm sure they have, and I'm sure they will."