Despite their mixed reception by both audiences and critics, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) attempt commentary on issues ranging from government surveillance, terrorism and police tactics to the superhero genre itself. In both films, the most striking motif is the comparison of Superman to Jesus Christ. Of course, Snyder is not the first person to highlight allusion to Christianity in the Superman story, but in the most recent films, the blunt allusions to Superman-as-Jesus have been especially overt. Snyder uses the superhero Christ figure to question our need for a messiah and highlight the moral complexities of believing in an all-powerful alien responsible for the salvation of the human race.
The origin of Superman—a supernatural, messianic figure sent from a different world to guide and lead the human race—is eerily similar to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Kal-El, as Superman is originally known, is adopted by a childless married couple in Kansas who are emblematic of Mary and Joseph. In Richard Donner's Superman (1978), Martha Kent, Superman's adoptive mother, remarks, "All these years how we've prayed and prayed that the good Lord would see fit to give us a child." Many Christian theologists and film critics have noticed the similarities between Jesus’ death and resurrection with Superman’s similar narrative arc. Yet while the original Richard Donner films had a clear religious subtext (the spacecraft that takes Kal-El to Earth was in the form of the star of Bethlehem), Snyder makes an even more overt case for Superman-as-Christ.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman sacrifices himself to defeat Doomsday, an alien creature hell-bent on destroying the planet. This particular scene is a reference to the iconic Death of Superman comic book, from which Batman v Superman draws heavily. When Superman’s body is being taken away from the wreckage, three crosses burning in the background provide an unmistakeable religious symbolism. Here, Zack Snyder references Jesus’ crucifixion, which according to the Bible took place alongside the crucifixion of two criminals.
There are also notable similarities between General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) temptation of Superman and Satan’s temptation of Jesus Christ. In Man of Steel, General Zod offers Superman the chance to turn his back on the human race and form a new Krypton, but Superman refuses. In the Gospels, Jesus is also offered three chances to betray God by Satan while fasting for forty days in the Judean desert. Despite Satan's offer to give him all of the kingdoms of the world, Jesus refuses Satan for the good of mankind.
In Man of Steel, the religious allusions continue. Before his fight with Zod, Superman talks to a pastor, and a cross is not-so-accidentally hanging above his head. Superman even stretches out his arms into the shape of a cross before his final fight with Zod, after which Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) reiterates Superman’s legitimacy to lead the human race.
In addition to highlighting Superman's messianic characteristics, Snyder ensures that his other characters exhibit some religious (or anti-religious) undertones. In Batman v Superman, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) muses on God in several monologues, also mentioning angels, demons and the devil himself. Lex Luthor is a caricature of a God-fearing radical. As Superman’s adversary, he sets out to prove that Superman is fallible. Lex Luthor’s disdain for God become clear when he says to Clark Kent, “I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, then He cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you be.” Even though Luthor’s motivations are unclear throughout the movie, Luthor’s disdain for religion fuels his hatred of Superman. Anti-religious undertones continue when a statue of Superman is vandalized with the words "False God."
Snyder's overt use of religious imagery has not escaped its share of criticism. Detractors have called the religious subtext forced and shamelessly manipulative. Alissa Wilkinson for Christianity Today argued that some may find the anti-religious statements "offensive, but mostly it’s just lazy, because it’s not there to do anything, to make any actual statements about good and evil and God.” Other critics have agreed that the film's problem was not in attempting religious commentary but in not using its religious references to actually say much or discuss theology in depth.
But, if they may be on-the-nose, Snyder's films use Christianity as a lens through which to explore goodness. Even though Superman is an all-powerful alien, he’s also a beacon of justice and hope for regular people. Yet this identity is no longer presented with the same optimism and faith that earlier iterations of Superman enjoyed. Snyder's films weren't met with critical acclaim, but they offer a mainstream exploration of Superman as one of our culture's most enduring messianic figures — an exploration that is highly critical of our need for such a messiah at all.