If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend going here first. What follows is unabashedly for those who’ve seen the film already and contains spoilers.
Man of Steel begs for this idea I read somewhere… that all stories boil down to being about fathers and sons. In this case, the story of a boy-turned-man trying to understand his fathers, one Kryptonian and one human, pulled my mind to the life of Jesus as the son of Joseph the carpenter. Did Jesus ever ask Joseph if he could just be himself? If Joseph would still be his “real” dad? Did Joseph ever warn Jesus that others weren’t “ready” for what Jesus had to say or do, and that they might not like it if he told them? (One certainly thinks that Jacob would’ve tried to warn Joseph in Genesis not to share his dreams with his brothers.)
Both fathers attempt to “help” Clark/Kal-El, and both of them sacrifice themselves for what they believe. In so many movies, the child-turned-hero is orphaned when their parent (mother or father) sacrifices themselves to protect the child. Crowe’s Jor-El literally fights to the death to protect his son’s spacecraft, but Costner’s Kent’s death is more multi-layered. We certainly get the impression that Clark could’ve saved him from the tornado, but he willingly died (saving a dog!) to keep his son’s secret safe. To allow Clark the opportunity to choose for himself when he would expose his secret to the world.
That morality choice is just the tip of the iceberg for what will follow. Antje Traue’s Kryptonian Faora tells Clark/Kal-El that he’s weaker because he’s moral, because he’s less evolved. She’s a representative of a culture that has taken choice/chance/free will out of the equation in their genesis chamber, and made it solely about doing what the society deemed appropriate and true. The Kryptonian society had basically taken emotion out of the equation in childbirth, but that hadn’t removed evil from the equation, had it?
Because Zod is obviously evil. Evil in terms of a good thing (protecting the Kryptonian race, i.e. doing his job) becoming a bad thing, a sin. Zod is evil because he moves from protection for good to destruction on behalf of revenge and self-service. What Faora and Zod deem evil because they can’t understand it actually gives Clark his strength, the desire for a united community, a humanity he can represent and be in relationship with, not just protect as his autonomous champion. (In fact, the film emphasizes it’s Clark plus humanity against the world, not Superman alone, with the efforts of Lane and Chris Meloni’s Colonel Hardy.)
But the most complicated issue happens in the director’s chair. Snyder struck me as a strange directorial choice for Man of Steel. Sure, he’d done superhero movies, but they were always anti-heroes, not actual good guys, right? And that concern, that reservation, proved accurate when Superman is forced to kill Zod to save the lives of a family. We’ve crossed a line that even Superman Vs. The Elite didn’t cross, and it strikes me that Snyder is daring us to consider whether or not we still see Superman as a Christ figure or not. But I’d argue he still is: by killing Zod, Clark sacrifices his own hopes and dreams of knowing Krypton and having Kryptonian community, doing so to save the lives of others. So, even in killing another, he sacrifices his own desires, wishes, and dreams on another’s behalf. Remember, we’re talking Christ figure here, not Jesus himself.
Sure, some people will see a Christian figure, even if this seems to trend toward the Judeo “uberman” that Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel were aimed at, as they struggled with bad stuff happening to good people and their own experience with loss. But to see Man of Steel as a Christian movie, or specifically heavy-handed in its theology? You’ve lost me. I do see the 42 like examples of Clark’s refusing to fight (“I need a superhero with the guts not to” to butcher Branch Rickey) of Christian morality, but this is a story about family, about belonging, about trust.
Those are the main topics buried under CGI and superhero elements: community and trust. Similar to Superman for Tomorrow, Clark seeks out the advice/confession of a priest, who urges him to “take a leap of faith; the trust comes later.” Clark surrenders himself to the military to show good faith, then surrenders to Zod and finds himself the subject of detrimental tests. His faith in humanity is proven in its reciprocal response, while Zod has proved to be everything Clark feared he would be. To protect the community, Clark recognizes the trust he has in the humanity he knows, and values that over a hoped for community with Zod, who has been untrustworthy.
In the end, it seems to me that this could’ve been an epic, Shakespearean tale of belonging, with or without a red cape.