An Icon of The Man of Steel

In The last week, the internet (or at least a certain portion of it) has been abuzz with excitement, loathing, and a good deal of speculation.  This storm of strong emotions and opinions was set in motion by the release of a single image:  The first official look at Henry Cavill in full costume as the new Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (check out the link to view a glimpse of the reaction).

For those who aren’t familiar with Mr. Snyder, he gained fame in 2007 when he directed the surprisingly popular, stylized epic 300.  He went on to direct Watchmen, another film adaptation of a popular graphic novel.  Earlier this year, Snyder helmed a project of his own imagining, Sucker Punch.  While the film was a huge flop, it was just as visually unique and interesting as 300 and showcased Snyder’s signature hyper-stylized story-telling.

What fewer people will know is that Snyder got his start directing commercials.  You know, those miniature movies that have only 30 seconds to grab your attention and then hold it long enough to burn themselves into your consciousness, at least until the next time you go shopping?  It’s not surprising, then, that Snyder is so adept at turning a comic book, which is essentially a series of still images or icons, into a good movie.  He knows how to capture just the right look, just the right confluence of emotions, into short and memorable images.  His movies, for the most part, are really moving images.  That might not sound surprising.  After all, isn’t that just the definition of a movie?  But think about how many boring or unmemorable movies you’ve seen where people just sit around talking.  Such films could just as easily have been audio books, with little change in the audience’s experience.

We often refer to popular things/places/people as being “iconic.”  That’s because icons are more than just images, they are images that affect us deeply, even change us.   They are powerful in the right hands.  George Lucas once remarked that he had an image in his head of a man riding through the desert on horseback wearing a fedora.  From that single image we got Indiana Jones.

It’s also not surprising that such a sensational reaction should come in response to the first image from Snyder’s new film.  Message boards and comment sections of comic and film websites around the internet are buzzing either in high praise (suggesting that this single image alone is better than all of the last 3 Superman films combined) or harsh scorn (this is not the character I’ve grown up with!  And his hair looks stupid!).  It seems there is no middle ground, which is just what you would expect from an icon.  Mere images can be ignored.  Icons touch something deeper and provoke the strongest reaction, one way or another.  If I were to venture a guess, I would bet money that Snyder himself had the primary hand in crafting this bit of promotional genius.  It is, after all, an advertisement of sorts, which is his original forte.  And here Snyder is working in reverse.  Rather than taking a still image and turning it into a film, he is essentially taking his film and turning it into a still image.  And true to form, he manages to convey quite a bit in only a single frame.

Some readers may be wondering why this particular subject is being treated here at the EO.  In part, it is simply good for Evangelicals to stop and think critically about images from time to time.  The practice of iconography in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches is something that Protestants have always strongly rejected, but few Evangelicals in America today are familiar with either the practices themselves or the debates surrounding them.  This can often lead  either to an unwitting practice of the very thing that Evangelicals claim to reject, or else an over-reaction of the sort that leads to smashing beautiful stained glass windows.  Neither response is a good one.

It is also helpful to remember that while visual icons can be useful and powerful tools, an icon doesn’t need to be visual.  Another common phrase we use is to say that a description (whether written or verbal) “paints a picture” of something.  This is precisely what the Bible does with Jesus.  It is perhaps a bit surprising, in light of popular images of Christ (which all have the basically uniform look of a lighter-skinned man with long dark-brown hair and a short beard), to realize that the New Testament gives almost no description of Jesus’ physical appearance.  And yet Jesus is arguably the most iconic figure in history.  In this respect I think we clearly ought to follow the lead of the Scriptures and be very wary of creating images of Christ Himself.  Yet this does not mean that we shy away from the use of images altogether, even for religious purposes.  An iconic image can be a powerful tool, whether for education, evangelism, or marketing the next summer blockbuster.

Click here for a hi-res version of the image.

Published by

David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.