In Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot, there is a scene where Superman and Lois Lane are in an interrogation room and discuss the emblem on his chest:
Lois Lane: What’s the ‘S’ stand for?
Superman: It’s not an ‘S.’ On my world it means ‘hope.’
I’ve always had a soft spot for heroes like Superman or Captain America—characters who symbolize integrity and hope. They can serve as moral examples for us to follow, as Mark D. White argues.
I, for one, was excited for a fresh take Superman, especially with Christopher Nolan’s name attached to it as producer. After the wonders he did with Batman, I was ready to feel similarly inspired by Superman and attend repeat viewings in the theatre like I did when Batman Begins came out, and in an increasingly bleak world with endless war, threatened government shutdowns every election cycle, and a deteriorating public discourse, I was ready for some inspiration and hope. With the release of the second trailer, my excitement grew. Screenwriter David Goyer suggested that Man of Steel would offer hope in a dark world full of “economic and political uncertainty,” saying, “Having been involved in the Batman films that are very nihilistic, I think people want someone who stands for hope, a kind of saviour figure, it feels like now is the right time to reintroduce him to the world” (James).
After seeing Man of Steel, the hope inspired by the official trailer gave way to the pessimism of the Honest Trailer.
Batman v. Superman doubled down on this pessimism, featuring a Superman overburdened by the hope he inspires in others (not to mention the at-least-partially-justified anger by some over the wanton destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel), with the movie ultimately ending in Big Blue’s death (Seriously? Can we have Superman smile once or something to offset the underlying sadness that weighs these films down?).
For a hero who is usually depicted as a Christ-like, messianic figure of hope, Superman kind of bummed me out. What does it say about a world in which Batman (even Ben Affleck’s Batman!) is more inspirational than Superman?
In Christian theology, eschatology refers to doctrines concerning the “last things” or the end of the world: the Second Coming of Christ, Final Judgement, the resurrection of the dead, the New Heavens and New Earth, and so on.
In the U.S. context in which I find myself, eschatology can be a particularly bleak subject matter, since the discourse on eschatology is dominated by a pessimistic view of the end of the world in which systemic justice is often ignored or downplayed due to the “always-around-the-corner” anticipation that the world is about to end. Why preserve or make better what will ultimately be destroyed? One’s task is to simply convert as many people as possible before the end comes. Christian life is simply a rush to get to the end of time as quickly as you can with as many people agreeing with your Christian views as possible.
The Turn Towards Hope
In his famous book, Theology of Hope, Jurgen Moltmann claims that relegating eschatological “events to the ‘last day’ [robs] them of their directive, uplifting, and critical significance for all the days which are spent here, this side of the end, in history” (15).
Rather than thinking of eschatology as a set of doctrines pertaining to a violent end for the world and creating pessimism about social change in the present, Moltmann argues that “eschatology means the doctrine of Christian hope” (16). In fact, he says, “Christian is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving…revolutionizing and transforming the present” (16). Christian theology’s very ground is hope and must “set out from hope”–resulting in “the responsible exercise of hope in thought and action in the world today” (11).
For Moltmann, this hope is based in the God of the Bible, whose character is revealed through the promises this God makes for the future. More specifically, Moltmann writes, “Christian eschatology speaks of Jesus Christ and his future” (17). Through God’s promises, Moltmann continues, “the hidden future already announces itself and exerts its influence on the present through the hope it awakens” (18). It is the resurrection of Jesus that creates “the condition for the possibility of new experiences” that bring about the transformation of the world—a future world defined by its contradictions with the present world order: “righteousness as opposed to sin, life as opposed to death, glory as opposed to suffering, peace as opposed to dissension” (18). Christian faith does not “flee the world,” but “it strains after [this] future” now (19).
In an interview from 2014, Zack Snyder addressed some of the criticisms about Man of Steel, particularly people’s comparisons with Christopher Reeves’ 1978 version:
People are always like, ‘You changed Superman’ If you’re a comic book fan, you know that I didn’t change Superman. If you know the true canon, you know that I didn’t change Superman. If you’re a fan of the old movies, yeah I changed him a bit. That’s the difference. I’m a bit of a comic book fan and I always default to the true canon. Not the cinematic canon that sort of, that in my opinion, plays fast and loose with the rules. And so, I feel like I tried to create a Superman that would set a tone for the world (Holmes).
So what kind of tone was Snyder trying to set for the world? As he told Forbes in 2014:
I think with Superman we have this opportunity to place this icon within the sort of real world we live in. And I think that, honestly, the thing I was surprised about in response to Superman was how everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman, you know? How tightly they cling to those ideas, not really the comic book version but more the movie version… If you really analyze the comic book version of Superman, he’s killed, he’s done all the things—I guess the rules that people associate with Superman in the movie world are not the rules that really apply to him in the comic book world, because those rules are different. He’s done all the things and more that we’ve shown him doing, right? It’s just funny to see people really taking it personally… because I made him real, you know, I made him feel, or made consequences [in] the world. I felt like, it was the same thing in Watchmen. We really wanted to show it wasn’t just like they thought, like the PG-13 version where everyone just gets up and they’re fine. I really wanted to show the violence is real, people get killed or get hurt, and it’s not fun or funny. And I guess for me, it was like I wanted a hero in Superman that was a real hero and sort of reflected the world we live in now (Hughes).
Real. That’s Snyder’s complaint about the 1978 Superman. Not real. Not like the comic book Superman. Not like Man of Steel‘s Superman.
I would offer that Snyder has downplayed the importance of Superman as a symbol of hope—even the importance of hope itself. People found the 1978 Superman inspiring, which is why they cling to him so much. This desire for hope seems lost on Snyder, and I would argue that our world doesn’t need a ‘realist’ Superman who’s mopey and just as despondent about the world as the rest of us. What the world needs is a Superman who inspires hope, not one who is (and continued to be in Batman v. Superman) just as lost as the rest of us. What we need is a Superman who is “a contradiction to the world” as it is (21).
Moltmann writes that “it is usually said that sin in its original form is man’s wanting to be as God” (22). Sure. And maybe we don’t want a Superman who’s too unrealistic and inhuman, but Moltmann also writes, “The other side of such pride is hopelessness, resignation, inertia, and melancholy,” in which temptation “consists not so much in the titanic desire to be as God, but in weakness, timidity, weariness, not wanting to be what God requires of us” (22).
What’s required of us. Like maybe being a symbol of hope that “can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin[s]…to contradict it” (21).
Moltmann says that “statements of hope in Christian eschatology must also assert themselves against…realism” if they truly want to create social transformation (25).
So, Zack Snyder, maybe what the world needs is a bit more hope than realism, for “God promises a new creation of all things in righteousness and peace, but [you] act as if everything were as before and remained as before” (23). Maybe we need an exemplar that helps us to imagine a better world. As Moltmann claims:
Christian hope cannot cling rigidly to the past and the given and ally itself with the…status quo. Rather, it is itself summoned and empowered to creative transformation of reality, for it has hope for the whole of reality. Finally, the believing hope will itself provide inexhaustible resources for the creative, inventive imagination of love. It constantly provokes and produces thinking of an anticipatory kind in love to man and the world, in order to give shape to the newly dawning possibilities in the light of the promised future, in order as far as possible to create here the best that is possible, because what is promised is within the bounds of possibility (34-35).
And what we have been promised exceeds the expectations of “sceptical realism” (34).
Crucifixion and the Dawn of Justice?
Speaking of “dawning,” I’ve given Zack Snyder a lot of grief in this post, but I have a pet theory that I’m hoping is true.
While Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ended on a less than hopeful note (with Superman’s death), I speculate that Snyder is making the DC movie universe earn its sense of hope. In other words, things have to be darkest before the dawn…and there might yet be a true dawn of hope in this story.
Moltmann writes that faith and hope happen
in a way that does not suppress or skip the unpleasant realities. Death is real death, and decay is putrefying decay. Guilt remains guilt and suffering remains, even for the believer, a cry to which there is no ready-made answer. Faith does not overstep these realities into a heavenly utopia, does not dream into into a reality of a different kind. It can overstep the bounds of life, with their closed wall of suffering, guilt and death, only at the point where they have in actual fact been broken through. It is only in following the Christ who was raised from suffering, from a god-forsaken death and from the grave that it gains an open prospect in which there is nothing more to oppress us, a view of the realm of freedom and of joy. Where the bounds that mark the end of all human hopes are broken through in the raising of the crucified one, there faith can and must expand into hope (19-20).
What the world needs now is a hope that exceeds all merely human hopes, which have left a world of sceptical realism and cynicism in their wake and have taught us not to hope ‘too much.’
We need a hope that has gone through death…and overcome.
Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 1967.
Adam Holmes, “Zack Snyder’s Blunt Response to Man of Steel Haters Who Complain about Superman,” Cinemablend, http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Zack-Snyder-Blunt-Response-Man-Steel-Haters-Who-Complain-About-Superman-110467.html.
Mark Hughes, “Exclusive Interview with Zack Snyder, Director of ‘Batman Vs. Superman,'” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/markhughes/2014/04/17/exclusive-interview-with-zack-snyder-director-of-batman-vs-superman/#32542ae47bf4.
Richard James, “David Goyer: We are in a darker place in the world, it was the right time to reintroduce Superman,” Metro News, http://metro.co.uk/2013/06/12/david-goyer-we-are-in-a-darker-place-in-the-world-it-was-the-right-time-to-reintroduce-superman-3839112/.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). He has chapters in Deadpool and Philosophy and the upcoming Wonder Woman and Philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.