Why the Superman of ‘Man of Steel’ is the Jesus we wish Jesus would be


I wish I could have written this…but as I’ve not seen the new Man of Steel, I’m ignorant of both plot points and story. Jeff Jensen (aka @EWDocJensen) has written a great and thoughtful blog post for Entertainment Weekly’s Popwatch blog. I encourage you to read it. There are some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want parts ruined, don’t read. I won’t say anymore.
Except this: based on what I’ve read online, we have reinvented Superman for our modern sensibilities.
And that’s not a good thing.

Originally posted on PopWatch:

[ew_image url=”http://img2.timeinc.net/ew/i/2013/06/11/man-of-steel-review.jpg” credit=”Clay Enos” align=”left”]It is often said that superheroes are modern glosses on mythic heroes of antiquity. Batman. Spider-Man. Iron Man. They are but many different modern faces of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and the whole metamorphic Campbellian crew, and the stories of their Herculean labors contain truths about human nature, heroic character, and our innate want for freaky cosplay. Or maybe just catharsis for 9/11. Probably just that. Yes, “mythology” sounds pretentious, like the rationalization of those who need to justify spending so much time filling their imagination with weird tales of fabulous people wearing outrageous clothes while engaging in ridiculously violent or risky behavior. It’s a lot of weight to put upon the colorful shoulders of these pulp fiction icons.

But some characters carry the burden better than others. And one character in particular seems to demand it. He is the superhero who reigns Zeus-like above all others, and…

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In a Boat With a Tiger

ImageLast night Rachel and I watched the Oscar winning film, “Life of Pi.” It was a homework assignment given to me by my friend, Kevin, who forbade us from any more coffee get-togethers until I’d seen the flick. I picked it up from Redbox on Blu-Ray, we put the kiddos to bed, and we settled down to watch…

…well, we didn’t know, exactly.

I mean, we both knew it was about a guy in a boat with a tiger, but we weren’t sure of much beyond that. I knew that the visuals were supposed to be remarkable and unlike anything anyone had ever seen, but I had no sense of the plot. Kevin had given me a bit of a hint – as had his girlfriend, Kristin – but knowing that a movie has something to do with God doesn’t quite constitute a spoiler alert.

So when the first five minutes of the movie were slow pans of various animals inside some sort of sub-tropical jungle/zoo-type-enclosure-thingy, Rachel turned to me and said, “I thought this was about a guy and a tiger.”

“It is,” I said. “But I have no idea how it gets there from here.”

I really didn’t have any idea how the crux of the story – Pi on the boat with a tiger named, strangely enough, Richard Parker – came about. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the journey. If you’ve not seen the movie I won’t spoil it for you, but it was moving and heart-wrenching and had me rooting for the boy with the unusual name the entire time.

In fact, the plot of the movie wasn’t what really captivated me. It rang true, even with its fantastical elements, and that was what mattered; you can watch a good movie with a great plot and not have it say something to your heart. While the story was fantastic, Life of Pi is powerful precisely because it says something about the nature of faith and the struggle we all endure to make sense of our lives on a daily basis. In Pi, plenty of people find a doppleganger: a person who, as a result of growing up in a multi-cultural world, has a powerful faith in God – be it Vishnu, Christ, or Allah.

Pi isn’t someone whose faith tradition was simply handed to him; he comes to believe the various things he believes because of his own search for meaning and purpose. He seeks out God in so many places because he believes God may be found. He sees the hand of God in places others can’t be bothered to look. And while I may not subscribe to the polytheistic ecumenism that Pi embraces, I can certainly say that the desire to believe in something, to see the majestic at work in my life, is a longing I can identify with.

Being adrift in a boat with a tiger isn’t a perfect metaphor for everything, but it’s apt for where my family finds itself right now. We are at the mercy of God’s hand; we are moved by His leading; we are aware that the danger before is also something of terrible beauty. And like Pi, we’re simply looking to come ashore somewhere safe. I can’t remember when a movie collided with my life so perfectly.

Is it for everyone? Nope. There are plenty of people who won’t be able to get past the fact that Pi, born in India, doesn’t stick with one religion over another. Others won’t be able to swallow the admittedly dream-like story. But for those who are looking for something undefinable, something outside the normal channels, this might be a movie for you.

I can’t promise it will say anything to you, but I can tell you that it stuck with me in quiet ways; long after I’ve returned the movie to Redbox, I’ll still be thinking about the visuals, and the story, and the power of a heart that is open to life’s great moments, no matter how they arrive. For that, I am grateful.

Oscars Recap: One Flew Over the Oscars Nest

ImageOnce upon a time, I was an Oscars junkie. I loved everything about the evening: the red carpet build up, the opening monologue, the early acting awards, the major technical awards, the best picture nominee clip packages, the musical numbers, the forced pairings, the uneven feel to the entire proceedings. As a movie nerd, the Oscars were my holy grail, because it allowed me to measure my tastes and judgment against the Hollywood elite. More often than not, I found we had different sensibilities, but on those occasions when Oscar and I agreed, I felt like one of the in-crowd, affirmed for my aesthetic perspicacity.

Over the years, Oscar and I have grown apart. Part of it is life situation: being a parent, there aren’t that many nights when you have the energy to trot out to the local multiplex and catch a flick. And even when those nights do come around, finances are an issue. When it costs $25 just to get in, the number of trips to the cinema drops dramatically.

But the real reason I quit going to the movies is because they kind of pushed me to the side.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge fan of cussing and nudity in movies. Even more recently, graphic violence has also turned me off. Even watching the clip package for Django Unchained on last night’s Oscars left me feeling queasy. Maybe it’s my old age. Maybe it’s things like Newtown. Maybe it’s just the fact that I see enough blood and guts in my news feed every day. I don’t know. And while I know that not all movies are slammed full of cussing and nudity and exploding body parts, I know that some of the ones feted as the best of the best last night had plenty of one or the other.

I didn’t see Silver Linings Playbook because multiple friends said that the F-bomb was prevalent. I didn’t see Django because of the violence (and, let’s face it, Tarantinian dialogue is often fraught with choice words). Same with Zero Dark Thirty (even though I enjoyed Bigelow’s Hurt Locker). I didn’t get around to Lincoln because…well, I never got around to it. Life of Pi seemed like a great rental (no offense to Ang Lee and his golden statue). I wanted to see Argo, but got warned off because of language. Les Miserables was a non-starter for me (I don’t really like movie musicals, no matter how awesome it is to see someone as all-around talented as Hugh Jackman). And honestly, no one I knew had even seen Beasts of the Southern Wild or Amour.

I don’t mind the occasional coarse word or two; I get that PG language isn’t always used in real life. And lest you think this is one of those “bash Hollywood as being out of touch with the mainstream of America”, I’ll tell you that I hear and see those words quite prevalently in the everyday language of our younger generation. So it’s not like I’m a prude when it comes to the reality of American speech.

I’m the same way with violence (less so on nudity). I get it as an artistic choice. And I don’t think we need to scrub movies of anything that might be offensive (otherwise, we’d miss out on some fantastic and thought-provoking work).

What I’m saying is that my life and my values make the Oscars an also-ran. What once would have been appointment TV is now a cultural temperature reading at best and an intellectual curiosity at worst. Even if Morgan Freeman hosted, I’d probably only watch it in pieces, flipping back and forth for the big awards. Last night merely confirmed that fact for me.

I’ll be blunt and say I found Seth MacFarlane tedious at best. EW.com’s Owen Gleiberman has a better assessment of his hosting gig (and overall telecast) than I could ever produce, and his note about the broadcast vacillating between snark and sincerity is spot on. I guess for me, the snark took center stage, and for the first time I found it not only unfunny but unpalatable as well.

It would be hypocritical of me to take people to task for their snarky comments when I spent the majority of my time live-tweeting my own attempts at humor and sarcasm during the telecast. I have no problem with sarcasm as a whole; I understand that in our day and age it’s the stock and trade of our popular culture, and some people carry it to the edges. It’s one thing when you’re using snark to push the boundaries of our corporate fuddy-duddiness as a way of encouraging us to relax and laugh more. It’s another thing when you use it as a blade to slice people out of genuine dislike. Last night, I felt like MacFarlane was slinging his blade very wide.

But hey, that’s the point of this post: what someone thought would make for a good Oscars telecast was outside my comfort zone, which just proves that both the Academy and I have changed. We’re no longer simpatico.

And that’s cool. I saw several people bashing on Twitter last night, and while I can agree with the perspective that might have driven some of the tweets, I can’t agree with the tweets themselves. It does no good to lambaste Hollywood with the same snark it lambastes others. Everyone loses.

My three favorite moments were the last three awards: Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln) and Best Picture (Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Grant Heslov – Argo). Each of the winners showed a humanity that was touching; whether it was Lawrence’s unfortunate trip up the stairs, Day-Lewis’ uncharacteristic humor, or Affleck’s barely contained joy, each moment reminded you of what the movies have always represented: the chance to flesh out dreams.

That’s what I miss from the overall Oscars ceremony: the human reminder that dreams can come true, on film and on that awards stage.

Maybe that’s the beginning point of my disconnect with Hollywood: I miss the humanity.


My Daughter and An Untamed Lion

Over the weekend, Rachel got a wild hair of an idea for something she wanted to do with Ella, and asked me what I thought about it.

“Do you think she would like it?” Rachel asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “She might. Of course, she might also get the fool scared out of her.”

“Well, I think she’ll love it,” Rachel said.

I nodded. “Then let’s see what happens.”

Rachel was right – Ella loved it. Loved so much, in fact, that she became obsessed with it over the course of the weekend. It took the arrival of Halloween and the prospect of 7,000 lbs. of candy to actually derail her train of thought. But I fully expect that she’ll be asking for an encore sometime in the future.

What exactly was this magical thing to which we exposed our daughter?

I love this story.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. You know, the good one from 2005.

Ella loved it, and I was genuinely surprised. I shouldn’t have been, but I was afraid that the story might be a little too slow for her, what with the back and forth between reality and Narnia. I was also concerned that Ella wouldn’t grasp that Narnia was an independent place that existed outside of time and reality (and to be honest, there were a couple of headache-inducing discussions on that topic). So it was with much delight that I watched as my daughter settled into the movie with rapt attention and thoroughly enjoyed it.

And I know she enjoyed it because she asked questions throughout the entire thing. All 3 times she watched it.

I’ve written before of Ella’s movie questioning habits, and how I hope that they lead to a career as a writer or other such weaver of imaginary realms. Her questions with TLTWTW were no less interesting, and a great deal more insightful. With human actors, she was much more empathetic with each character (indeed, she even felt sorry for Edmund at the beginning because he was obviously “a very sad and mean little boy”), and she seemed even more attuned to the nuances of the story.

“Why is it always winter but never Christmas?”

“Why does the White Witch treat Edmund nice?”

“Why does Mr. Tumnus get turned into stone for being good?”

“Why does Santa Claus give them swords and weapons?”

“Will Lucy use her magic stuff to heal everyone?”

But my favorite exchange came at what should’ve been the movie’s climax (and, movie critic hat on for a moment, that this scene is treated a little too mutedly is my biggest gripe with the film). Aslan, the Great Lion of Narnia, has voluntarily given himself up as a sacrifice to the Deep Magic of Narnia, in the place of the human traitor Edmund. Brutally beaten by those creatures who serve the White Witch (and a hideous imaginarium of creatures it is), Aslan is finally shaved of his majestic mane, tied down like a helpless house cat, and tossed onto the Stone Table at the feet of the Witch (played by Tilda Swinton with some seriously malicious joy). After gloating over the deposed cat’s figure, the Witch plunges a dagger into the lion with near ecstatic abandon and the great cat’s eyes close in death.

Ella turned to me, her eyes wide with horror, and said, “Daddy, why did Aslan have to die?”

“Because he loved Edmund and was willing to take his place.”

Her eyes rimmed red. “But that’s not fair. Aslan didn’t deserve to die.”

“No he didn’t,” I said, “but that’s what sacrifice is all about.”

“But why did Aslan have to die?”

“To satisfy the law.”

“But why?”

“Just think of it this way, Ella: Aslan is like Jesus, who died for our sins, even though he didn’t deserve to. That’s who Aslan represents: Jesus.”

She went mute for the next few minutes as the story turned. The forces of evil seemed poised to take Narnia for themselves. The forces of good seemed deflated (if still courageous) with the news of Aslan’s death. The opposing armies marched to face each other on the field of battle and suddenly Ella turned to me.

“Is Aslan going to come back to life?”

“Do what?” I asked.

“If Aslan is like Jesus, is he going to come back to life?”

“Just watch and see.”

“Please? Just tell me.”

“Nope,” I said. “You’ll just have to watch and see.”

Now, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that they do a good job of building up the tension to the big reveal: at sunrise, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan does indeed rise from the dead (personally, it was hard for the movie to capture my favorite part of the book; Lewis writes of the resurrected Lion, “There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again), stood Aslan himself” I just love that small detail that communicates so much!).

And as the camera reveals the Living Lion, Ella turns to me and says, “He’s alive, daddy! Just like Jesus!”

Now, plenty of people before and after me will better communicate the importance of Aslan in fiction, and there have certainly been plenty of essayists who have debated whether or not Aslan was really intended to represent the Christian Savior (personally, I say yes). All I can add to the discussion is merely this:

Sitting there, watching one of my childhood’s favorite stories played out onscreen, accompanied by my daughter, I was able to use the magnificence of art and imagination to communicate something deeply held and more deeply felt with my daughter. In a way that my mere words could never do, the character of Aslan told my daughter of the unfathomable love of Jesus for humanity and made that love live inside her heart. Her eyes when she said, “He’s alive, daddy!” were lit in a way that I’ve never seen them before, as if something greater than she’d ever known had taken root inside of her heart.

I won’t tell you that Ella Tebowed right there and made a profession of faith. I won’t even tell you that one glorious moment stuck with her the rest of the weekend (it didn’t; as usual, Ella was more concerned with why the White Witch was such a bad person). But for that one moment, the central truth to which I’ve dedicated my life to proclaim was as clearly and powerfully communicated as I’ve ever seen it. I will never, with mere words of theology or inspiration, accomplish what Lewis’ little fiction did. And as a writer, reader, and father, I couldn’t be more pleased to have shared that moment with Ella.

I’ll end with one of the more famous passages from the entire book. I think it sums up quite nicely some things that many preachers could never say in a lifetime.

“Is–is he a man?” asked Susan.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”