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Superman continues history of casting religious shadows

Published: Friday, June 14 2013 12:55 p.m. MDT

Henry Cavill as Superman in "Man of Steel." (Warner Bros.) Henry Cavill as Superman in "Man of Steel." (Warner Bros.)

Over the 75 years since his premiere in Action Comics, Superman has cast religious shadows — whether it's been as a superhuman Moses sent in a spaceship basket to save his people, or an all-powerful Christ figure who watches over and saves humankind.

The new film "Man of Steel" is no different. Featuring both a miraculous birth and a sacrifice for mankind, the new origin film is filled with religious allusions to Christ.

In a recent interview with the U.K.'s Metro, director Zach Snyder explained, "I think the relationship between Jesus and Superman is not a thing we invented in this film, it is a thing that has been talked about since the creation of Superman."

With his birth as Krypton's first naturally born child in centuries, his other worldly father, kind and nurturing earthly parents, his days of wandering and his ultimate test at the age of 33, the relationship between Superman and Christ is a constant, quiet undertone of the new film.

Henry Cavill as Clark Kent in "Man of Steel." (Warner Bros.) Henry Cavill as Clark Kent in "Man of Steel." (Warner Bros.)

While the new "Man of Steel" does not shy away from this religious tradition, it does humanize it. Rather than watching the already perfected Superman, viewers watch as Clark Kent/Kal-El struggles to come to terms with his powers, his origins and eventually his choice to save mankind.

Along the way, he is guided by his Kryptonian father Jor-El, who encourages him to be a symbol of hope, and his humble and wise human parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, who worry about the world's reaction to the powers of their adopted son.

Russell Crowe as Jor-El in "Man of Steel." (Warner Bros.) Russell Crowe as Jor-El in "Man of Steel." (Warner Bros.)

As Jonathan tells Clark about his alien origins for the first time, "You're not just anyone. One day, you're going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it's going to change the world."

The new film strips Superman of the lighthearted portrayal that Christopher Reeve gave the character in the 1970s and ’80s. Instead, "Man of Steel" provides a more realistic and probing look at how someone with Superman's power integrates into society and chooses what to do with those powers. Does he remain in hiding, or does he come forth as a hero?

Henry Cavill as Superman in "Man of Steel." (Warner Bros.) Henry Cavill as Superman in "Man of Steel." (Warner Bros.)

Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who has studied the psychology of superheroes, recently wrote in the Smithsonian, "I think origin stories show us not how to become super but how to be heroes, choosing altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power."

This question and its religious implications are seen most clearly when Superman willingly gives himself up to the military and is turned over to General Zod, a Kryptonian and antagonist of the film.

Before turning himself in, Superman visits a small church in Kansas, seeking guidance from the local pastor. Sitting in front of a stained-glass figure of Christ in Gethsemane, Superman makes his choice to give himself up to the FBI and military in order to save mankind from Zod.

Handcuffed at a military base, Superman tells Lois Lane, "I'm surrendering to mankind," and not to Zod. It is mankind who will choose to either reject or accept Superman.

Throughout the film, Superman tries to help and save those he can, yet he fears the rejection of humankind. His acts of goodness could ultimately lead to betrayal and his downfall.

While the allusions to Christ are strong, "Man of Steel" gives insight into the very human struggles of the superhero. Instead of seeing the perfected hero, the viewer witnesses the internal conflict of one attempting to become that hero.

Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times and Features. Email: kharmer@deseretnews.com Twitter: @harmerk

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