The Christ Figure of Superman and the Protestant Gaze

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


The Christ Figure of Superman and the Protestant Gaze
By Keelan Jamison

There seems to be a dominance in Western story telling in trying to display the messianic or Christ figure. The Christ figure can be found in multiple stories and especially in film. If we were to look at the most recent representation of Superman in Man of Steel there is a clear story telling of the Christ Figure which follows the same tropes while there’s also some gaze theory happening as well in what I would like to call the Protestant Gaze.

According to Catherine Albanese, a professor of Religious Studies, America has a sense of sacred stories, or a creed in narrative form. A creed is something which gives people a basic sense of their human condition. To basically say that certain narratives or stories give a meaning for American citizens to share. American Protestantism mostly shares a belief set of individualism (a sense of self-reliance and self-worth), higher law (belief that God’s law trumps human law), and millennialism (mostly pre-millennialism which is a belief that Jesus will return to save us before the end of the millennium).

With the Christ figure is where doom has been brought about to the world when all of a sudden an unknown figure appears to bring about peace or a better world. The figure tends to be a bit mysterious at first and there also seems to be this idea of a sacrifice from the figure that helps bring about peace. Also this figure tends to take a pre-millennialism action which basically means the world was doomed unless this figure comes to save it.

The Man of Steel as the Christ Figure

The most recent adaptation of superman being the Man of Steel there is this obvious sense of a Christ Figure taking place in the film. Clark Kent is “out of this world”, he will “save it”, and it tends to follow a certain Christ like path. He was the first natural born of his species in centuries, he comes from a no name town in Kansas, he has revealed his powers, but doesn’t want to grab attention to himself, he doesn’t reveal himself until he finds it necessary, he’s about 33 years old, and he’s there to save all of humankind even if it means to go against his own people (that being General Zod).

Throughout the film though we don’t just see a powerful Christ Figure, but also a struggling Christ figure as well. He struggles to figure out what’s the right thing to do at what time and when should he then reveal his powers? There seems to be this set of morals that Superman must figure out for himself yet he does get a better idea and guidance when he finds a Kryptonian Scout space ship and finds his father’s consciousness which then tells him his origin and the capabilities or powers he holds.

Where much of the question of sacrifice comes in is when General Zod invades Earth and asks for them (people of Earth) to bring forth to him Kal El (Superman or Clark Kent). Superman has trouble over whether or not he should give himself up for the fate of humanity because although he doesn’t trust General Zod he also has some issues with trusting humanity as well. Superman does though in fact give himself up/reveals himself to the public and is then taken by General Zod. Much of the film is then taken in the form of action pack scenes and then the eventual last conflict between General Zod and Superman. They fight it out until Zod begins to threaten civilians with his laser eyes which then Superman decides to snap General Zod’s neck and in effect kill him which in turn Superman has just killed the last of his people for the sake of humankind.

What makes this protestant is the fact that there seems to be this sense of no matter what actions we may take Superman is still our guiding light to a better world. Only Superman can save us and help bring peace to the world. There’s this pathos of only through Superman (Christ) alone can we be saved. There’s an emphasis of higher law as well since Superman does go against certain rules, like when he saved the bus full of kids which in turn revealed his power, because it was the right thing to do. A sense of a higher morality exists. There’s also this protestant pre-millennialism placed where the world was in shambles until Superman came to save the day.

The Protestant Gaze

Gaze theory is the idea or view of how something is being looked at. So for example with the male gaze there is this view that females are always just objects to be looked at for the male viewing pleasure. The gaze usually can happen in three forms as well with camera, character, and audience. The camera and character gaze can be easily distinguished for we can tell if we were meant to look at something or someone from the eyes of the character or not (not being the camera), but with audience it’s much more subtle. The audience gaze tends to be more of an inner response of the audience (those viewing) towards what they may be seeing.

Now then with an obvious Christ figure narrative taking place in Man of Steel there’s also this cinematography aspect that takes form in what I would like to theorize as the Protestant gaze. The film does tell a story of a Christ Figure, but there is also some Christian imagery that takes place to showcase this as well. One of the most obvious times a Protestant Gaze may be occurring is when a character does the Christ pose. The Christ pose being like Jesus crucified.

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There are two Christ poses with the first pose happening in the beginning, he is in the water, and the second time he is in space. The film nearly stopped it’s pacing just to have us gaze at super man with his arms out in the crucified Christ pose which we take in a camera gaze form, but us as the audience feel or sense the Christ figure when looking at these two scenes. The placement for these scenes almost signify as if Superman is saving us from the depths of the Earth while also saving us in the Heavens. As if Superman is everywhere or always present to protect us.

Man-of-steel-Christ-pose

Possibly another obvious scene in where Superman is a Christ Figure and the Protestant Gaze is occurring is when he is in the Church. This is a vital scene as well within the movie since Clark Kent is questioning whether or not he should give himself up to General Zod. He is looking for guidance to this question of whether to sacrifice himself and of course behind him is a glass window pane depicting Jesus praying to God on a rock.

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Where the Protestant Gaze occurs here is we can clearly see the glass window of Jesus praying to God and it may be Jesus asking God for guidance. We see Clark Kent looking for guidance of whether to give himself up to Zod and almost as if looking for an answer. It’s this depiction of Clark Kent next to the glass window depicting Jesus do we then equate Clark Kent as Jesus.

Although the previous scenes are very obvious images of Christ, the one scene where I feel as though a protestant gaze is taking place is when Lois Lane follows Superman into the Kryptonian Space Scouter. She comes into contact with a robot like thing which then zaps her which she then proceeds to scream in pain and fear until Superman runs to her to calm her down. Where she then calms down is when she looks at Superman. When she looks at Superman we then see through her gaze the face of superman. There’s then this gentle mood that takes over the screen and we are left with looking into the face of Superman or the Christ figure.

The scene with Lois Lane being saved by Superman is very similar to a scene we would see in renaissance art depicting Jesus. The painting Christ Healing the Paralytic by Palma Il Giovane is a good example of a scene where we would see Jesus healing. By comparing the painting and the saving Lois scene it grants a good comparison of the two figures. Because we can see the similarities with both scenes we can then see the Christ figure and of course when we look through the eyes of Lois we see the Christ Figure. It is here where the Protestant Gaze is most prominent.

Jesus-Heals-the-Paralytic

So with that Man of Steel is an obvious example of the Christ figure which takes a prominent role in our societal narratives especially with the pre-millennial Christ Figure. Because of the gaze we take upon the character of superman this influences our notion of Superman being a Christ Figure and gives us a certain way of not only telling Superman’s story, but also gives us the ability to gaze upon Superman as if he were Christ.

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