Summer. The time of year we mock up godlike beings and watch them slug the daylight out of each other to the beat of our ancestors’ ritual bonfires and flaming wheels. Here we are.
Superman, “son of El” whose power draws support from the Sun, seems the most natural fit for our attention.
Furthermore, he is the first, and some may argue the best, superhero–that creature ornamenting the nation’s consciousness since the early-mid Twentieth Century, breaking the mold of the folk hero and renewing the demigod along pop-culture lines. (One may argue, however, that demigods have always belonged more or less to pop culture, and had became the stuff of academics and classicists and serious modern poets long after the public imagination had moved on and they were retired.)
I’ve not said anything new. Much like Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel, should we believe the accusations. Don’t. It has brought with it more than a few reinventions, and these their own trajectories. In any event, the film is worth discussing. And nearly everyone, whatever their opinion, is. But this isn’t a movie review. Nor is it a drawing of battle lines between comic books and screen. Or Reeve and Cavill. Or “our” Superman, and “yours”… Ceci n’est pas une gripe. I take instead the one thing that really surprised me. No, not that.
Ex-captives, under the command of a military leader, who after many years in exodus are, for the survival not only of their people but their way of life, bent on violently settling a new homeland. You hear the audience chat about Space Nazis. A lot of it tongue-in-cheek. But it’s consistently what one hears when it comes to describing General Zod’s Kryptonians. Because that’s what we’re comfortable with. Truth be told, if it hadn’t been for the monotone raised by these remarks, I may not have given the allusiveness of the film much thought. However, Man of Steel seems to have more uncomfortable ideas embedded in it.
A second look at the top of the last paragraph maybe isn’t necessary. Less necessary is that an analogy a storyteller uses is a good analogy, or a factually historical one. This is partly why, on the other hand, Godwin’s Law can exist; and why oftentimes people consciously put the Holocaust inside the ancient Hebrew conquests as though it is a double image they are trying to bring into focus. If an analogy can be understood, that is everything. So what is disconcerting about Man of Steel is that such a line has materialized between Space Nazi (at least two of the Kryptonians in the film have distinguishing Germanic accents) and a characterization by far closer to the blurb version of the biblical defeat of Canaan than to the predations of Nazi Germany. It doesn’t matter if the analogy’s not instantly recognizable. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Let’s get real, though. Screenwriter David Goyer is himself a Jew. One who, by his own admission, had brushes with anti-Semitism growing up. And while franchise co-creators Siegel and Shuster famously patterned the Superman of 1938 onward after concealment and assimilation in Diaspora–roughly a decade before the declaration of a Jewish state, I might add–they did so by grounding him in a myth meaningful to them, a rocket ship a good futurist transliteration for the basket among the reeds. The emergent angst that runs the film through is nothing new either. Trying to discover or get in touch with one’s heritage in an alien world, and the question of preserving it, defining it–writers have gone back, redeveloped, branched off, and blown this up over the years. There’s a pretty even continuum.
Let’s take a further look. Clark Kent, as much as his home is Earth, is a Kryptonian, named Kal-El. A Kryptonian the same, and not the same, as Zod and Zod’s followers. Depending on which meaning of the word one turns to, a Hebrew is quite different from a Jew. “Jew” is historically younger. A Jew is a descendant of the kingdom of Judah, nominally the last surviving of the twelve tribes of Israel; Israel the collection of Hebrews once united under Moses and then Joshua ben Nun. In Man of Steel, Krypton has its own tribes, its different castes. Kal-El’s father Jor is of the science caste, from which Kal himself is only “loosely” descended. The militarist Kryptonians–its fierce protectors–are obviously from the warrior caste: they are the battling Hebrews of old, and Zod–as I’ve alluded before, but hadn’t explicitly connected them–is the Joshua-ben-Nun figure. The existential and moral differences between Kal and Zod, and Kal’s refusal to transplant and restart Krypton’s outlived, rigid and violent history, bring to mind a soft, even ambivalent, Jewish apologetics. A Jew of course is different from a Hebrew–and yet–and yet–. In one way, what we have is a choice as to the “kind of man you want to grow up to be,” as Jonathan Kent, Kal’s adopted father, puts it; the kind of successor to Moses one should be. And in another, there is a distancing oneself from the unflattering aspects no longer, or which one feels should no longer be, relevant, or widely a part of one’s culture. The film is caught in a reflex of defending one’s culture from history while still allowing it a sense of history. (This sense of history is made tangible in Kal’s “Superman” suit. It is the only old-Kryptonian thing to make it to the end, and, cleverly, bears the family crest meaning “hope”: hope is the one remainder from the past, and the sole thing left around to enter the future.) At times the film pushes even further. I had said “loosely” descended when describing Kal earlier. The description is ironic. Kal, as we learn, is “Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries.” He had not been biologically engineered. In other words, he is free bodily from the traditions of his people, too. If ever there was an analog questioning circumcision, this is it.
Questioning–seemingly at odds with the Superman of yesterday–is relentless in Man of Steel. However, by making Zod, the Joshua ben Nun stand-in, the villain–decisively, as an embodiment of complete destructiveness and hopelessness–Goyer does form a clear statement about identity. Not that he doesn’t allow one last gasp. Extending the screenplay’s method of analogy into the tragic–in the most controversial scene–he backtracks, so that what we end up with is the emotional plight of an individual who has helped, with his own hands, by grappling with its heritage, erase his own culture.
How sympathetic this is may just depend on whether the pain and guilt, and trauma of ambivalence, is felt to be genuine, or not.
Man of Steel: A tale of two Joshuas?
Only it’s not that simple. The real difficulty with analogy, and the ineradicable Jewishness that swims in Superman, comes from Man of Steel’s punched-up Christian imagery and themes. There’re a dozen or so allusions to the accepted Christian narrative of the life of Joshua ben Joseph–“Jesus,” rendered in the Latin–falling somewhere between the heavy-handed shot of Kal as Clark as Kal in the church, framed by the stained glass window, and the subtler one of him atop a mound of skulls. It’s no mystery Jesus was a Jew. Or that the messianic sect of Judaism gathered around him had played with the same analogy at work in Goyer’s screenplay, contrasting a modern Jew against Joshua of the Tanakh. No, but what it amounts to is again the tearing in two of Jesus’ identity; a rip-off starring Superman. And this after Nolan already Christified Batman. It’s getting to be a bit much.
It is far from Jewish apologetics, too. About as far as an apologetics can be pushed is using the Hebrew-Kryptonian analogy to denounce Israeli aggression in Palestine–a kind of doubling back and reevaluating, giving a new ironic lens to assimilation, with Clark Kent in the spotlight. You’re past the limit when you reach for the Gospels.
Here’s where it gets slippery. This second, Christ-Kal analogy may not be anti-Semitic either, but it was nevertheless a questionable decision to commit to it when the villains resemble the forebears of the Jews. In a sense, the Christian-European anti-Semitism that has been going on for centuries is revitalized. I say “in a sense,” because anti-Semitism clings to symbols, whole parts of the subconscious, used in the cultural imagination of the West. Participating in this imagination, namely with the Christ figure–used to crucify Jews endlessly–one risks blindly passing on a string of themes, however powerless or distorted beyond instant recognition, woven through it. Zod and his followers’ refusal to adapt to Earth’s conditions and join Kal in coexistence with its people, comes to mind. Whatever adaptation, or coexistence, would mean–one Kryptonian blending in is more believable than an army–doesn’t matter so much as how this points to and mimics the condemning of those who do not convert to the ways of the “our Lord and Savior.” The dangerous aliens, it says, showing us the World Engine, if they are not made to be like us, will destroy us all. Which returns us to the problem of the third factor in the Hebrew-Kryptonian analogy. If Nazi was just a decoy, there wouldn’t be a problem. It would still be lazy, but not a problem. The issue is that Nazi is an analogic convenience. It attaches itself, through the popular imagination, too easily. Like a target. And like a target it reduces whatever it attaches to to one unmistakable purpose. Nazi lebensraum, military and eugenics engineering, and, above all, acts of genocide, these things snap right into place when thinking about the Kryptonians in Man of Steel. Never mind that Zod’s forces are not interested in genocide. Their goal is to terraform Earth. To colonize it, to rebuild home there. If there is “genocide,” it is a side-effect. Zod’s forces don’t care about ethnic cleansing; they don’t consider humanity at all. This is without even mentioning the summary at the top of paragraph five. Or the bulk of what I have already gone through, that Kal is of their race. I mean, the whole race’s sacred identity (the Codex, the film’s MacGuffin), allegorically is broken down from an object into living tissue and is literally in him! Kal is a zooming, flying, indestructible Ark of the Covenant! (Krypton’s destruction merges that of the First and Second Temple.) Earlier, when I’d said the film is caught in a reflex of defending one’s culture…, it may have seemed strange, or contradictory. But where a single man is the recipient and therefore the bearer of a culture, it makes perfect sense. Alas, this is all ignored, neverminded, and the Hebrews are drawn into analogy with the very people who persecuted them, later, as Jews, persecuted them with the very same underlying logic as all communal-victimism movements parading Christ had, through the centuries. The complexity beneath the film’s surface, beneath the surface of culture, breaks down; the danger of analogy (as a mode of thought) reveals itself. Everything sinks into a cartoon again. And with Christ so foregrounded, and Nazis so irrelevant, we risk swallowing Man of Steel as Christ(ian America) versus foreign colonizers/terrorists. (I can’t help but think how much more emphatic this must read in Islamophobic Europe.)
Which of course, if not shunting the Hebrews off into cardboard villainy, forgets about the Jewish drama completely. So why is this important? Well, to take nothing away from “current events,” the topical is a surface reflection. The real fight is at the level of history. In other words, the past does not exist in any appreciable sense outside of the present. It is, past against present, present against present. Or, a single man is the recipient and therefore the bearer of a culture. In an age with no temple, Jew or Gentile, in a mobile, floating age, this is especially true. Man of Steel’s deeper analogy gets at the resurrection of the dead. Ghosts, if we’re not careful, are what, while still living, we will become, too. Ghosts, if they find themselves alone, purposeless, soulless, may take us to a bitter nihilism. Ghosts, however, must be sought out. We do not and we’ll never even realize how much we’re losing.