Tuesday, July 23, 2013

(Super)power out of control

This is a slightly longer version of one of my columns at MWR.

Superman is one of my favorite comic book stories. Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel is one of the better origin stories, but it has its flaws. Interestingly, the film’s strengths and weaknesses accentuate what draws me to Clark Kent’s story—and what leaves me wanting.

Snyder clearly accentuates the story’s religious themes. In the 1930s, Superman’s creators drew on many sources, one of which was the story of Moses. Over the years, the lore has taken on messianic themes, and Snyder gives us a savior sent from the heavens who grows up among humans, lives in humble obscurity and then reveals himself at 33 to lay down his life to save the world and become a beacon of hope for all.

Sounds familiar.

I was moved by Snyder’s depictions of Clark as a child wrestling with an identity that sets him apart from others. In one scene, Clark’s adoptive father comforts and gently guides him after he finds out why he is different. That made me ponder Jesus’ experience as a child and his relationship with his earthly father, Joseph.

copyright Warner Brothers Pictures

Snyder also gives us good image of “power under control,” a biblical understanding of the quality of meekness associated with Moses and Jesus. When Clark embraces his destiny as Superman, he shows remarkable restraint and compassion in his initial dealings with a fearful military and media. It gave me pause to consider Jesus’ power and restraint—and what that means for our own interactions with others and the powers that be.

But ultimately, Clark Kent isn’t Jesus. In fact, he’s more like us—a mixture of strengths, weaknesses, feats and failures yet wrapped in purpose, steps of faith and hope. And it is this very human mixture with which I resonate most.

Central to many comic book hero journeys is the struggle to right what’s wrong within even as they take on the wrongs in the world around them. Man of Steel doesn’t explore this as deeply as other adaptations, but Clark’s journey covers familiar territory: struggles with identity, trust, selfishness, fear, and deciding what is worth living—or dying—for.  

In Man of Steel, Clark overcomes these struggles by taking a “step of faith.” Clark chooses to embrace a purpose in spite of his fears and offer his own life in order to save others.

copyright Warner Brothers Pictures

But a disappointment in Man of Steel is how that choice is tainted by the staggering destruction resulting from Superman’s battle with his enemy, General Zod—and how Clark ultimately deals with Zod himself. Contrary to the earlier image of meekness, we witness the devastation of “power out of control”: a Metropolis in ruins and, presumably, an untold number of civilian (and Kryptonian) causalities.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Superman is Clark Kent’s dogged devotion to do all he can to avoid any loss of life—even that of his enemy. It is an essential aspect of his tenacious hope, and it is missing from this film.

The best of Man of Steel points me to our own Story. We too are called to take a step of faith, die to our desires and fears, embrace our purpose and use our empowerment to confront evil and approach life with “power under control,” sacrificial love and dogged hope.

But Man of Steel also reminds me why stories like this fall short. In our Story, God isn’t making us into superheroes whose battles leave a wake of wreckage. God is transforming us into the likeness of Jesus and calling us to a life lived together defined by sacrificial love and joint labor with him in his redemptive and restoring work.

And the power we have within us—the indwelling Spirit who is far greater than any super power—shapes our communities and response to injustice, oppression and evil in radically different ways than those of comic book heroes.

Like Clark, we are not Jesus, but our Christ-likeness can be a beacon for a greater Hope, one that not only saves the world but transforms our very souls.


(For a companion piece to this post, see Clark Kent is one of us)

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