Man of Steel and the tiredness of Christ figures

Josh Larsen

Jeffrey Overstreet
June 18, 2013

I seem to remember that Christ asked us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. And, when persecuted himself, he prayed for God's forgiveness upon his enemies. I haven't bothered to see Man of Steel, as I roll my eyes at the amount of chaotic, noisy, explosive smackdown that so-called "Christ figures" bring down on their enemies in superhero films. When Jesus uses military terminology in talking about fighting evil, he uses it subversively. The sword? It's the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God, not a weapon of mass destruction. The breastplate? It's the breastplate of righteousness, not bulletproof self-preservation. Most superhero movies indulge our fantasies of doing exactly the opposite of Christ's call to humble suffering, love for our enemies, and peacemaking.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
June 18, 2013

Your point is well taken, Jeffrey, and I think also applies to another commonly cited Christ figure: Gandalf. Yes, he is resurrected, but he's always been a bit too militaristic for me to function as an instructive Christ figure.

June 18, 2013

Hollywood always blurs lines, doesn't it Josh? It might be the line between love and lust, or righteous indignation and revenge. Here they blur the line between a superhero and people's understanding of the Son of God. The Deacy quote really gets at what would be more productive than merely allowing the line to remain blurred: how does media fit in with our doctrine/theology of God, others and self?


Andrew Gilmore
June 18, 2013

Great read, Josh!

I think that Christ-types in literature and film is unavoidable if for no other reason than this: the story of Jesus runs deep in the consciousness of the Western world.

Of course these figures fall short of Christ. If they didn't, they'd be unbelievable because there is only one who is Good.

Esther Aspling
June 19, 2013

Okay yes, but you have to admit the movie was really good. I totally agree and see the dangers of implanting Christ into characters, especially if only to pander to the Christian audience. But I do think there is value in telling certain values and characteristics in a fiction form. I've totally benefited from C.S. Lewis' space trilogy as it gives God a whole new perspective in my life.


Josh Larsen
TC Staff
June 19, 2013

Well, I actually disliked Man of Steel quite a bit, but that's another conversation. I think we're in agreement, though, on your second point. What I appreciate about the Deacy quote I use above is that it recognizes the value of theological readings of art (we do a lot of that here at TC). It's the emphasis on Christ figures, specifically, that I find limiting.

Nick Olson
June 19, 2013

Generally speaking, I agree with Jeffrey that too often these sort of "Christ-figures" appeal to the conquer-by-might Messiah that so many then and now were expecting and hope for.

Even so, I also wonder if the type of movie like Superman--which has an other-worldly, mythical quality to it--shouldn't be judged on such a 1:1 ratio. I mean that in the sense that the villains in these sorts of movies are more often larger-than-life symbols of evil that, in these worlds, a Christ-figure *would* destroy while sacrificing for the people who are on the verge of being crippled by it. I guess I just wonder if, in these worlds, the "sword of the spirit, breastplate of righteousness" type of stuff doesn't deserve a bit more slack for going literal.

Like I said, I generally agree with thrust of article and Jeffrey's comment. More thinking through these things than directly countering.

Nick Olson
June 19, 2013

That said, I'll always think Samantha the Hairdresser more heroic than Superman.

Michael Scichowski
June 19, 2013

I am curious Josh, are you advocating that more films inform our understating of Christ? That is the obvious antithesis of your headlining quote.

The theology found in cinema is obviously meted out.

I think the tiredness you are pinning down is the capitalized approach some Christians (pastors especially) take on tying pop culture to Christianity.

Now that a decent Superman film has arrived, glaring christological symbolism with the obvious fate of atonement being "hard to capture," it isn't that film has failed to teach us about Christ, it is that we have failed to establishing the Christ of Scripture.

Snyder's Man of Steel is as good as I think Hollywood will ever get to give Christian's a look at Christ on the big screen, but this should cause us to stir in our spirit's to be reminded that the Christ of Scripture reigns supreme and none can compare.

Then we do see a good film, with explicit Christology and we see that it fails...we do exactly what I think it is you are suggesting., and fill in the gaps. Teach why Superman isn't Christ and why the atonement is a crucial determining factor for that understanding.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
June 20, 2013

If I'm advocating for anything, it's caution in the labeling of Christ figures. I'm certainly not demanding that more films inform our understanding of Jesus - there are plenty of other avenues for that. Rather, I'd ask that our theological exploration of movies go beyond, "He flies, he saves, he's Superjesus!"

As for Man of Steel, I'm afraid I found it to be weak in general (see my review here: http://www.larsenonfilm.com/man-of-steel) and unhelpful as a "Christ figure" movie in particular.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
June 20, 2013

You're probably right, Nick, in terms of allowing for these otherworldly qualities to have their place, especially in a superhero story. Yet if doing so further removes them from being instructive Christ figures, I'd rather skip the Christ-figuring altogether.

Josh Pease
June 21, 2013

You touched on something profound here that resonates with me: the Christian culture I grew up in tended to be very literal in its reading of movies. In other words, we look for very obvious, Chronicles of Narnia-esque allegories about Jesus, redemption, etc. (I should say here I love C.S. Lewis & the Chronicles with all my heart)

However, I think this is problematic in that 1) these allegories are extremely difficult to do well and instead tend to be pedantic, to the point that they rob Christianity of its beauty. 2) I think movies are at their best when they're not trying to be allegories (with Christ-figures, 1:1 metaphors, & literal interpretations) and rather make us FEEL things that are true.

The best kind of movies don't tell us what to think, but what to feel. I tend to get behind movies that don't say "forgiveness is good" but that make forgiveness seem noble and courageous and beautiful. Movies make us FEEL, and the feeling makes us think.

I fear sometimes that when it comes to the arts Christianity has gotten too literal. We should celebrate movies that stir our affections not just to Christian ideals, but to Christian feelings. That reorient our souls to things that are true.

Elliott Scott
June 24, 2013

I was listening to Air 1 (the radio station) yesterday and they mentioned that Warner Bros. had actually hired people to write sermons pertaining to the new Man of Steel movie as a marketing scheme. Personally, I think that was highly professional on Warner Bros. part; we are all consumers.

However, as it relates to this article, it is so evident how iconic Superman is as a Christ-figure. He is the epitaph of who we are most familiar with. Obviously I would rather Christ be the sole figure because He is the one who paid the price (among other reasons).

I loved this article Josh! I love reading the relevance of Christ in our culture today.

Bob Robinson
August 16, 2013

The one-way-street concept is very helpful. I think Cool Hand Luke is an amazing film, a tragic story with clear Christ Figure images. These images inform the watcher about what Luke’s role is in the film, thus bringing a depth to the story that makes it come alive. But to say the character of "Cool Hand” Luke is a model of Jesus Christ that can be used evangelistically would be a terrible mistake!

If Luke is of any help to us in understanding the real Christ, it is in our stepping back and reflecting on our assumptions and expectations about who Jesus is.

As has been said, when we reflect on Superman destroying half the city of Metropolis in his (far-too-long) fist-fight with Zod, or the militarism of Gandalf, we should pause and think. Instead of Christians watching these characters and attempting to draw a straight line over to Christ, perhaps we should step back and think for a moment about how we far too easily take the Prince of Peace and skew him.

I've written something at The High Calling about this and quote you a bit in it. Thanks for making Christians "think!"


August 4, 2015

What's weird about this to me is how backwards it all is. I don't think it's necessarily a "Christ-figuring" problem as much as, maybe, you're doing it wrong. Or more accurately, too many Christians are doing it wrong and that's what you're talking about. It wasn't long ago that you would never hear a "Christian perspective" on a major Hollywood film unless it was about NOT going to see Harry Potter or else your kids would become witches. Now they want Harry to be Jesus? Sheesh.

The value in recognizing Christ figures in our culture's storytelling always seemed to me to be about recognizing a hunger for the eternal (God, Justice, Protection, Provision, Belonging, Community, Forgiveness, Redemption, Purpose,) that most people didn't realize they had. E.T. told me more about our species' collective recognition that we needed someone (or some thing) from beyond ourselves to come rescue us from ourselves. Same with Star Wars and our species' collective hunger for redemption. That kind of recognition creates the possibility of more authentic communication and even organic evangelism. But looking to Yoda for a representation of who Jesus was is just stupid. Instead we see in Yoda humanity's need for a shepherd, our hunger for sages, the need for us to invert our expectations of what a hero looks like.

Expecting the culture of a fallen world to accurately depict anything about Jesus is ludicrous. Heck, Christians can't even get theology right in blatantly "Christian Films" most of the time. But, recognizing our culture's hunger for God, when we see it, is valuable and formative.

And these days you need to add in a weather eye for marketing manipulations. The "Christian Moviegoer Block" is a force to be reckoned with and no Hollywood producer with his salt will fail to reach out to those people. It's just too bad Christians make such easy targets.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
August 9, 2015

"Organic evangelism." I like that phrasing, John, and agree That popular culture often better echoes the Gospel than fully represents it. Thanks for weighing in.

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