There’s a scene in 2013’s Man of Steel where Clark Kent goes to church seeking guidance from a priest. Aliens combatants, from Kent’s home planet Krypton, are broadcasting a message to draw him out of hiding. He’s torn between stepping forward or remaining in the shadows. The priest stands over Kent, from the aisle, as the Kyrptonian confesses from the pew.
Normally in a scene with two characters speaking the cameras are positioned over the shoulders of the characters to show their point of view. First we see a camera tilted upward to show Kent’s view of the priest (who eventually sits on a railing, but is still looking downward). We should then see a reverse shot from the priest’s perspective looking down on Kent. Instead we see a shot that’s tilted upward, as if the priest was looking at Kent from the floor.
Why did director Zack Snyder choose to frame the shot this way? My theory is that he meant to emphasize the stained glass depiction of Christ over Kent’s shoulder, kneeling in prayer, just as Kent is. As far as symbolic references go this one isn’t that subtle.
This weeks article is all about when it’s a good idea to link your story to icons with deeper meanings, and when they can hurt your story by feeling unearned. I’m going to focus on Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice because they’re filled with examples of heavy handed symbolism.
(Spoilers for Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice follow).
Full Disclosure: I don’t hate either film. There’s a lot to like in both, but this isn’t a review of either movie. It’s an examination of visual shorthand.
When Messianic Symbolism Works and When it Doesn’t
It’s common for fantasy heroes to be given mystical credentials. Fiction is filled with chosen ones who were prophesied to bring balance to the force, slay all the vampires, and defeat the evil Lord Voldemort, but only a few of them are upgraded to full messiah status.
A few that come to mind are Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia and Neo from The Matrix.
Aslan works as a messiah figure because his story is a religious parable. The Chronicles of Narnia is a fairytale retelling of the last days of Jesus. It’s author, C.S. Lewis, is a theologian. The story’s religious symbolism doesn’t feel shoehorned in because it’s ingrained in everything that’s happening.
The Matrix gets away with its messianic symbolism because it openly debates it. The prophecy that predicted Neo’s emergence as “the one” feels less heavy-handed, because he questions it. The prophecy of the one turns out to be a system of control, implemented by the machines, to play on mankind’s messiah complex. It isn’t until Neo dismisses the prophecy that he lives up to it.
Man of Steel is packed with religious references and symbolism too:
- Jor El, Superman’s biological father, predicts that Earth will revere his son as a God.
- Jonathan Kent tries to teach young Clark Kent to turn the other cheek.
- Clark kneels in prayer beside Jesus’s stained glass likeness.
- When Superman exits General Zod’s ship he floats out to space in a crucifixion pose.
For a film about a super powered alien Man of Steel lays its messianic metaphors on thick. This creates a weird narrative dissonance. Superman is represented visually as Space Jesus, but his behavior isn’t all that Christ-like. Sure Jonathan Kent tries to teach him turn the other cheek, but when a trucker pours beer on Clark’s head Clark reacts by crashing the man’s livelihood into a tree.
Man of Steels spiritual symbols insult devout believers by implying this story is as relevant as the one their faith is based on, and they insult skeptics by shoehorning religion somewhere it doesn’t fit.
Full Disclosure: I’m not a fan of organized religion in entertainment, yet I appreciated all of the confession scenes throughout the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil. I’m not a Catholic, but I found Matt Murdock’s crisis of faith riveting. So what’s the difference between Daredevil’s religious themes and the symbols found in Man of Steel?
For me it’s similar to difference between Johnny Cash’s lyrics on faith and Creed’s. Johnny Cash’s music comes from a sincere place. His prayers are vulnerable and relatable. He explicitly details his foolish nature and begs for the wisdom to become someone better. Meanwhile Creed keeps their lyrics on the surface with superficial declarations of faith. One integrates faith into a personal crisis, the other is just faith for faith’s sake.
In Daredevil, Matt Murdock never leaves the confessional with his questions fully answered. He’s a vigilante who spends his nights bludgeoning criminals, not simply to prevent the suffering of the innocent, but because he enjoys inflicting violence on the guilty. Matt is morally in the grey. Daredevil’s writers knew the mere presence of a crucifix in their hero’s home wouldn’t make him righteous. Murdock’s crisis of faith is ongoing, illustrating how important it is to him.
Meanwhile Superman goes to church to contemplate the good book’s stance on a possible alien invasion, and visual shorthand gives us an unearned Christ comparison.
Daredevil uses faith to serve a narrative function. Man of Steel uses it to inflate its own importance.
Symbolism should be Essential to a Story’s Theme
Film is a visual medium and Man of Steel’s director Zack Snyder has an incredible eye for evocative imagery, but both of his Superman films use iconography that feels unearned; not just religious iconography, but images that evoke historic tragedies.
While Batman V. Superman improves on the religious symbolism of the first film by making Superman’s godlike status part of the narrative debate, it references a number of images it hadn’t earned.
There’s a montage sequence showcasing Superman’s heroism. In it Superman averts another shuttle launch disaster. The footage evokes the Challenger tragedy. Later Superman rescues a family trapped in a flooded home. They’ve painted the Superman emblem on their roof to get the Kryptonian’s attention. When he floats out of the sky he’s haloed in sunlight, like Saul’s vision on the road to damascus. This shot evokes the recent Hurricane Katrina flood victims.
These images would feel less like cheap visual shorthand if they were fleshed out into scenes, but they’re part of a series of quick cuts. It’s like Zack Snyder heard the audience’s complaints that Superman saved so few people in Man of Steel so he shoehorned this sequence in to compensate. “Look up in the sky. It’s Space Jesus.”
Now Snyder is not the first artist to imply connections between Superman and Christ. In the death of Superman storyline, Superman dies only to be born again with long flowing locks. The main difference between the comic book incarnation and this one is that the Superman from the 1990s represented the best in humanity. He never said things like, “If I wanted it, you’d be dead already.”
Full Disclosure: I’ve misused Christian iconography in an early draft of one of my screenplays.
The script was called Savior Complex. It’s about a private eye who joins a cult to lure his ex girlfriend out. The private eye schemes his way into the cult leader’s inner circle, but when the FBI surrounds the compound his cover is blown. The cult leader tricks his followers into believing the feds struck first, persuading his flock to die with him. The private eye is forced to abandon his mission, of saving the love of his life, in favor of saving the entire congregation. The private eye gets stabbed in the side for his troubles. When the cult leader tries to ignite a gas filled temple with a pistol our hero puts his hand on the barrel, and muffles the blast with his palm.
I didn’t have a clear statement to make when I gave the private eye Christ-like wounds. I just thought the symbolism made the story more interesting. Here was a skeptic sacrificing himself for the devout, except well he didn’t. The private eye survives his ordeal in the end. The more I thought about it the more I felt like my anti-hero didn’t need Christ-like wounds to highlight his sacrifice.
How Should Messiah-Figures Be Represented in Fiction?
If your hero is a full blown messiah-figure there’s a few things that are required:
- Sacrifice does not a messiah make. Your hero has to be an exemplary person like Christopher Reeves’s Superman who remained a charming boy scout in the face of cynicism.
- Your hero has to take a page from the book of Yoda and “Pass on what you they have learned.” Your hero has to teach those around them to better themselves.
- Have a message. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the sermon on the mount, but a messiah-figure needs to share their beliefs. Neo and Superman may have Christ-like deaths, but for the most part they represented their beliefs by kicking and punching. If that’s how your hero expresses themselves then ease up on the messianic symbolism.
If you’re going to use symbolism from religion, a historical event, or a national tragedy honor what you reference by making it integral to your story not just a quick association for a cheap emotional response.
Ask yourself: am I trying to score intellectual points I haven’t earned? Does this iconography represent the theme of my story? Am I piggybacking a basic story on the shoulders of larger concepts? Is the inclusion of this symbolism more likely to engage or offend my target audience? How subtle am I being? Do I feel emotionally invested in its inclusion or did I put it there to inflate my story’s relevance?
3 thoughts on “When Symbolism Goes Wrong”
Really excellent post, Drew. Compare Snyder’s heavy-handed symbolism with Nolan’s subtle use of symbolic imagery in Batman Begins in this fascinating analysis by my mentor David Freeman; I think it serves to emphasize the points you’ve raised here.
On the subject of symbols, David says: “Symbols are not pieces of a puzzle — they’re not something that audience members are supposed to, after the film is over, ‘figure out’ what they meant. Instead, symbols are supposed to address the subconscious, and contribute to the emotions of a scene or story.” He teaches that 95% of the techniques masterful storytellers use to create an emotionally effective narrative operate beneath the audience’s conscious awareness; as for what that says about Snyder’s talents, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Hey, so far, it feels like guys’ night out here in the comments section. (Man, what I wouldn’t give for an actual guys’ night out with you two, Drew and Sean!)
Drew, this was a really cool read. It made me think new thoughts, or at least thoughts in new ways; and I’m all about that.
Now, this might not be the most erudite addition to the conversation, but … your assertions that messiah-characters can’t go upending log trucks when they get miffed made me think of a comedy routine I heard decades ago. I don’t even remember who the comedian was, but the bit that came back to memory here was this:
“I wonder if Jesus was like other kids when he was young. I mean, imagine him out playing kickball and one of the other kids gets mad, grabs the ball and stars stalking away, saying, ‘It’s my ball! I’m taking it back and going home!’ And imagine Jesus replying, ‘Yeah? Well, it’s my earth. Get off.’ And out into space flies the other boy with his red ball.”
Not related, but from the same routine:
“I bet Mary wasn’t very popular with the other mothers. I mean, here’s Rachael or whoever sitting in the mothers’ circle, saying, ‘Little Isaac took his first steps today! It was so precious!’ and then Mary chimes in, ‘Oh, well, you should’ve seen my Jesus! I was giving him a bath, and he just crawled right up on top of the water, the little dear!’ “
One of the (many) things that makes Superman: The Movie such a high-water mark of both fantasy and superhero cinema is that it succeeded in finding the humanity in Superman: his longings, his less-than-divine impulses. Much of that, of course, is owed to Christopher Reeve’s absolutely magical performance (he even makes the later, lesser Superman movies worth watching), but it’s also in the writing and directing: Consider the scene in Smallville where young Clark, left behind on the football field to clean up after the team, beats them home anyway by outrunning them. At first pleased with himself, his adoptive father lovingly lectures him on the perils of using his unique powers merely to show off. Moments later, Jonathan succumbs to a heart attack, and that creates Clark’s “fatal flaw” — that despite his extraordinary powers, he was unable to prevent the rather ordinary death of his own father. That’s what compels him to be a better person — to become Superman.
At the end of the movie, he is confronted with his failure to save Lois Lane — history has repeated itself: another loved one has perished and he was unable to prevent it. So, he defies Jor-El’s explicit admonition not to interfere with human history and “turns back time.” Now, in Superman: The Movie and Superman II, there are — oddly — no punitive consequences for his defiance. But, if you’ve never seen Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, go watch it back-to-back with the first film (preferably the extended edition) and see what a two-part master class in storytelling it is. In the Donner Cut, Superman faces the ultimate repercussion for his hubris: the “death” of yet another father. It’ll take your breath away.