‘Man of Steel’ screenwriter David S. Goyer on Superman and religion

“People are always so quick to point out the Christ allegory in “The Man of Steel” but Superman has always struck me as a combination of Old Testament and New Testament; he’s a sort of fusion between these two figures, both Moses and Christ,” screenwriter David S. Goyer said.  So what’s Jewish about the new Superman reboot, “The Man of Steel,” which soared at the box office with  $125 million in ticket sales during its opening weekend, the largest June opening in history?  I caught up with Goyer (also the scribe behind Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “The Dark Knight” trilogy”) to find out. 

Q:  What did you take from Jewish texts to depict The Man of Steel?

A:  I read the Old Testament again, especially the book of Exodus and the story of Moses.  I also read the New Testament, as well as a couple of different translations of the “Gilgamesh” epic poem and Beowulf – any sort of original texts I could find that related either to a savior or a god-like figure who has one foot in the mundane world and one foot in the land of the gods.

Q:  What’s the link to Moses in your film?

A: Obviously the idea of Kal-El’s [Superman’s] parents casting him off into the stars is a blatant reference to Moses in the bulrushes.  And while Superman’s adoptive earth parents are not pharaohs, Superman is a [being] from one race raised by members of another race; he has to come to grips with his own heritage just as Moses did.  If you follow the biblical story, Moses is raised in an Egyptian household, but ultimately embraces Judaism and the fact that he comes from a different lineage. 

Q:  Of course Superman was created in the late 1930s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were Jewish.

A:  Yes, and as Jews they were both well versed in the immigrant experience; a lot of people have said Superman is the ultimate immigrant story. He is viewed as an alien on earth; he’s the “other” and people tend not to trust the “other.”  We draw on this a lot in the film.

Superman is also very much a story of assimilation; Siegel and Shuster wanted to get into legitimate publishing but because of their Jewish background some doors were closed to them.  That’s why a lot of Jewish creators ended up falling into comic books initially, and why so many of the major comic book characters, including Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Ironman and The Fantastic Four were all created by Jews.

And many Jews in the 1930s were obviously feeling elements of persecution or having relatives who were persecuted in Nazi Europe, so I think there’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment as well in creating these heroic figures who had the ability to stand up to injustice.

Q: Superman’s nemesis, General Zod, not only wants to annihilate the human race; he is a proponent of genetic engineering to create the Kryptonian ubermensch.  Is he in any way a stand in for the Nazis in your film?

A:  Without hitting the nail too much on the head, we were aware of these elements.  I wasn’t the first person to suggest there might have been some genetic engineering going on on Kyrpton; I believe it was John Byrne in the 1980s who described Kryptonians as being born in these birth matrices.  But we thought we could take it one step further and we depicted a kind of “Brave New World” culture on Kypton in which each person is genetically bred to fulfill a predetermined role in society, and that definitely hearkens back to the notion of eugenics.

[Director] Zack Snyder and I talked a lot about how we couldn’t ignore the Nietzschean ubermensch aspects of Zod. He is a racial purist and he does want to define which bloodlines should rule; he doesn’t want to share the earth, and he makes that explicitly clear in the film. He feels that humans are an inferior race.  If he could he would have exterminated all of humanity, so we deliberately use the word “genocide” to describe his intentions in the film. 

Q:  Did you try to make Zod empathetic in any way – to avoid making him a cardboard cutout villain?

A:  I don’t think any villains think of themselves as a villain; I mean Hitler didn’t think of himself as a villain.  So to a certain extent the less cartoonish you can make these antagonists the better.  From Zod’s perspective, he’s doing what he was genetically bred to do, which is to protect the Kryptonian race at the expense of other races.  He thinks what he’s doing is heroic.

Q:  Why is the Superman story important to you, as someone who happens to be Jewish?

A:  I’d like to believe that we live in a world that can be tolerant of all races and all religions and don’t demonize people because they are different.  So if people get that message from seeing the film, that’s a very good thing.