Emile Durkheim Likes “Man of Steel”

Fourth of July we went to see Man of Steel with our son and daughter-in-law. Overall, a good retelling of the the Superman legend with some interesting twists. I particularly liked the flashback scenes where young Clark learns the power of his special gifts and struggles with not-fitting-in; an awful thing for a teen, even if you are a superhero. And I didn’t hate Kevin Costner!


I was a bit leery to see the movie because the previews had made a great deal of the Messiah references. Every time Russel Crowe speaks as Jor-El, you learn that Clark was supposed to be the model who would tell humans how to live. He came from another place and had powers that nobody understood. His family crest means Hope. And he came to earth but they didn’t understand him.

The backstory of Krypton was particularly telling. The planet had not cared for its environment and had so overused their natural resources the planet was destroyed from the inside out.

A critical point of the story is the presence of the Codex. All babies born on Krypton were genetically developed to fulfill specific roles: soldier, scientist, politician, etc. It’s a remarkably rigid class structure. There was no individual choice as General Zod observed — all he knew was to be a soldier for that’s what he was created to be.

Superman (Kal-El) was different. He was born in freedom because his birth was unlike anyone else’s (miraculous?) — apparently his parents made a baby the old fashioned way that no one had successfully done in hundreds of years. Somehow the entire Codex was merged into Kal-el’s genes so that he individually represented all aspects of Krypton society. It survives in him even though the planet doesn’t survive.

I won’t give away the rest — although Lois Lane is there,  Superman doesn’t die, and the military is inept. (One surprise is that something made Larry Fishburne really heavy unless I was supposed to be watching in HD!)

The contrast between Superman and General Zod made me think of Emile Durkheim and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Using Marcel Mauss’ data on Australian Aboriginals, Durkheim observed the overlap of community (clan) values with those reproduced through religious ritual. Through some detailed analysis, he comes to his conclusion that “Religion is Society Worshipping Itself.”

I’ve always explained to my students that while I don’t hold to Durkheim’s analysis with regard to Christianity, we must be vigilant against the elevation of cultural values to sacred realms.

It’s interesting, then, that the backstory of Krypton is between class immobility and the freedom to be fully human. When we create a Messiah-type of Superman, the language we use in describing him is about hope and freedom, individual achievement, overcoming obstacles, and being able to use your gifts for good. That’s set against the no-choice, bull-headed, selfish, brutal Zod (not his fault — he was created that way and can’t be anything else).

The Messiah imagery breaks down at several points. Russel Crowe isn’t a creator per se. The love interest is well done (interesting that Amy Adams is way smarter and braver than Margot Kidder in the original). And there is a key point where Superman tells a minister that he’s the guy they’re all looking for (after Zod gives his “Surrender Dorothy” message to the world) and there are huge stained glass images of Jesus.

But the Messiah imagery DOES work as a Durkheimian Civil Religious symbol. Superman is the expression of American ideals set against a totalitarian vision. His shows us what it means to be free and the pursue individuality even at the expense of all the innocent victims in the streets and in the buildings that were destroyed.

There were a number of media reports about the religious connection. Tom Krattenmaker did this interview on how the movie was promoted to evangelical churches. But it strikes me that more insidious than the direct Christ-parallel story is the substitution of American individualism, which is then somehow morphed into a Christ figure. The implication is that Christ would celebrate the individualism represented in Russel Crowe’s vision. As Durkheim would suggest, we’ve made our religious figures endorsers of our values — thereby worshipping ourselves.

And I still thought the movie was pretty good. Miles better than The Lone Ranger, which had too many holes to analyze.

5 thoughts on “Emile Durkheim Likes “Man of Steel”

  1. I was a sociology major as an undergrad but somehow I missed this Durkheim quote: “Religion is Society Worshiping Itself.” I’ll have to go back and read the original text so I can integrate it with my thoughts on the cross-pollination between Western/American ideals and Christianity.

    For the record, I liked the first half of the movie but got bored when it turned into American Violent Jesus Superman Extravaganza 🙂

    Thoughtful post. Thanks!

    1. I found the last third particularly troubling. In light of my Durkheimian argument, it shows that our cultural heroes are able to engage in wanton destruction to stop the bad guy. Those are also values we’re celebrating.

      I don’t expect moviemakers to be culturally detached, but I’d like them to be a bit more reflective about what they’re portraying.

  2. John, instead of leaving a long comment, I decided to email you back:)

    “The implication is that Christ would celebrate the individualism represented in Russel Crowe’s vision. As Durkheim would suggest, we’ve made our religious figures endorsers of our values — thereby worshipping ourselves.”

    I agree with this, and heartily! Not only does American Christ-Superman promote individualism, he also promotes a romantic ideal It’s helped by the fact the actor is incredibly good looking, which is the reason I enjoyed the movie, but Amy Adam, while certainly a more active Lois, is still of mostly romantic importance. The Christ figure as someone to fall in love with? I think it mixes up an already mixed up idea of what a Savior really is. Supe also has only half-hearted compassion. I was struck by the fact that he was trying to save Americans, but when the Sears gets destroyed in his fight with Zod, his first instinct wasn’t to look for survivors. In fact, he seemed pretty callous to the destruction around him. I also thought the movie was particularly insensitive to a post 9-11 New York, and that whenever Zod and Supe fought, technology got destroyed–even in outer space they needed satellites to crash into. I doubted there was some deeper metaphor there, just an action device to crash stuff up in an action movie. We like movies that show us what we want to see and tell us what we want to hear–and that includes blowing stuff up. Then we wonder why Americans are called violent…

    But I agree, as a summer blockbuster it could have been worseit was still pretty enjoyable! And I also liked Kevin Costner much more than I thought I would! Jen

  3. Superman was about Plato’s Republic vs. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. It’s not accidental: young Clark Kent is reading Plato’s Republic in a flashback to his childhood. We shouldn’t look to Superman as a Jesus-figure. In fact, he is a rejection of that, a new sort of model to which we can aspire. He does as he wills; he creates his own values. This is Nietzsche’s savior, not a vision of Christ.

  4. I am reading a book on Durkhiem by Kenneth Thompson. So far In have reached his work on suicide. Thanks for the quote ‘religion is society worshipping itself.’, I think either Kenneth or I missed this one.

    Nice post.

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