I went to see “Man of Steel” yesterday, and I was struck by several moving elements in the story that I felt compelled to write about. It is a happy coincidence that these reflections take place on Father’s Day, a fitting place. Warning - spoilers ahead!
I need to take a step back though and give a sense of context. Like many boys, when I was growing up, Superman was THE superhero I wanted to be. Though my favorite comic book hero was Spiderman, in terms of where my imagination went when thinking of “playing the hero” it was always to Superman that I went. For me, this was not just boyhood fancy, but it was deeply tied to my Dad and the role he played in my life, or at least the role I wanted him to play.
You see, my Dad (Bob Holman) actually looked like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and even entered and won a Superman look-alike contest in Portland, OR. I was eight years old when the first Superman movie came out (1978) and I couldn’t get enough of these stories (Superman 2 was my favorite). The fact that my Dad looked like the hero I worshiped meant that all that I wanted from my Father and for myself became mythologically melded to this figure known as Superman (sorry I don’t have any pictures to post, though I can still see the framed picture of my Dad in suit and cape and goofy 70’s shorts standing on a Portland rooftop looking regal with cape blowing in the wind). I even prayed several times (the only prayers I remember praying, except for giving God the finger), “please, please, let me become Superman!” Looking back, the reason why I wanted to become Superman was because everyone loved him, and I desperately wanted to be loved, to be special, honored and cherished - all the things I felt desperately lacking in my childhood. If only I could be Superman, I would have a glory that would be constantly and endlessly affirmed, or so I foolishly imagined.
Thus, going to see the latest installment “Man of Steel,” I was mythologically expectant (despite having been very disappointed in Brandon Routh’s portrayal in “Superman Returns” a few years ago). I wanted to see what they had done to my favorite hero. I was delightfully surprised, to say the least. My expectations had been dampened somewhat by early reviews that weren’t too positive.
The first thing I noticed was that the development of Clark Kent’s (or Kal-El for you Kryptonians) moral character was far more important to the story than the development of his superpowers. In fact, his character guided and controlled the use of his powers, from beginning to end, and this in fact is what made him a good person. The issue of “what is a good person?” is something we all must wrestle with, and I believe that the best answer to this question is provided by Jesus and life with him in the Kingdom of God. See the Sermon on the Mount in particular - the good person is one who is alive in the Kingdom with him, immersed in his vision of reality and enabled by him to do the same things that he did in love, truth and service.
Second, I loved how the character of Superman was formed and guided by his relationship with his fathers. The message of both Jonathan Kent and Jor-El was more or less, “Son, you have to decide what kind of man you will become, and what you decide will change the fate of the world around you.” So few of us had fathers to communicate this message to us as sons, and we need stories and experiences to constantly remind us that this decision is ever before us. We have a will, and it is effective. The decisions we make will help create a certain kind of person. The kind of person we choose to become will drastically affect the world around us.
Human will, or agency, is a huge element to Superman’s story in this film. According to Jor-El, Krypton had degenerated to the point of genetically manufacturing their babies to fulfill strict and specific societal roles. There was no freedom to choose according to wisdom or desire, and Jor-El saw this as a huge weakness to Kryptonian culture. In this re-telling, Kal-El (Superman) was the first naturally born baby in centuries, which meant he alone had the freedom to choose what others did not. He could choose what role he would play, what kind of person he would become. He was not genetically engineered but a product of loving union, and this was one of the things that gave him an edge over General Zod and his followers when they attack Earth.
In order to think rightly about this we need to have a vision of the kind of person we want to become. If we have no vision, we will merely “float” and drift with whatever the strongest message is around us (the “social pressure of the strongest professional opinion.”). Recently I asked myself the question, “what kind of person would I like to be on my dying day?” What kind of person would I like to be in the last days of my life? How could that impact how I live today, and the choices I make? I would like to be the kind of person who is utterly confident in the goodness and mercy of God, free from attachments to things and others’ opinions, one whose only security is in the simple fact that I am loved by God, free from worry and anger. Lord, let it be.
Third, hiddenness and obscurity was essential to the development of Superman’s character. For much of the movie, our hero was hiding in the shadows, trying not to attract attention to himself. He still helped people (he couldn’t help it!), but he did it in hidden ways, and disappeared when too much attention was drawn to him. There was a glory to his powers that could not be trusted in the hands of certain types of persons. For a long while, he could not even trust himself. A huge shift occurs when he learns to trust who he has become and to entrust this person to the human race (a beautiful Christological parallel, see Philippians 2).
Lastly, Love (sacrificial, agape love) is the most powerful thing in the universe. Similar to the beautiful narratives in the Narnian Chronicles and the Harry Potter books, self-sacrificing love wins out over raw power every time.
On this Father’s Day, I am reflecting on the men in my life who have stepped in to “father” me from time to time (esp. my step-Dad, David!), and I am remembering that the best of all their counsel and living life with me is the same kind of advice that Clark Kent received from his fathers. With God’s resources available to me in Christ, I can choose to become the kind of person (in-Christ) that fathers others in ways that imitate his Fatherly heart. I don’t have to drift or compare myself with others; I can be God’s man, in this time and in this place, using whatever meager power I’ve been given to influence others toward goodness, beauty and truth, all of which find expression in the Kingdom of God in Jesus.