Super, Not Divine

He can fly. He has both heat and X-Ray vision. He’s got limitless strength. He’s invulnerable to everything except a green rock. You would think that all of that would be enough. But evidently Superman now has to be something more. According to the two most recent Superman films and numerous media outlets, the Man of Steel’s real secret identity is not Clark Kent but Jesus Christ.

Am I exaggerating? Only slightly. A Google search for “Superman and Christ” yields over 12 million hits. The Washington Post and CNN have both run stories making the comparison. So has the Christian Broadcasting Network and National Public Radio. The filmmakers behind Man of Steel only did not retreat from this analogy, they embraced it. Director Zack Snyder admitted playing up the “Christ-like parallels” in Superman. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Wesley Morris laid the case out perfectly in a recent Grantland article:

"Instructed by his birth father to go to Earth and be man's savior, Clark floats from a spaceship — in a high-tech version of his Superman costume — with his legs together and arms wide open, as if he were on a crucifix. As a younger man in doubt, Clark visits a priest, and the camera frames him with a pane of stained glass depicting a New Testament scene in the background. As Superman, in U.S. government custody, he states his age as a perfectly messianic 33 years. Christliness has always been an element of the Superman myth. But this film's near literal insistence upon it becomes absurd since director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer don't dramatize the analogy, they presume it."

Later in the article Morris adds that “The movie is so serious about comparing Clark to the Messiah that it starts to feel like church.” In fact, Warner Brothers used the Superman-Jesus parallels to market the film to the Christian community.

To be fair, Man of Steel not the first Superman film to play off this comparison. In 2006, Superman Returns had Lois Lane saying “The world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I.” Later on, Superman states “The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son.” Like Man of Steel, Superman Returns showed its hero in a number of Jesus-like poses.

Also in 2006, Christian book publishers Harvest House released The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero, and advertised that the “Man of Steel actually champions the truth about the Super Man Himself—Jesus.” Stephen Skelton, who wrote that book, also interviewed Superman Returns director Bryan Singer for an article on the Dove Foundation website entitled “The Messiah of Metropolis.” In that article, Singer eagerly points out how his film evokes classic Jesus images.

Like many my age, I became a Superman fan largely due to Superman: The Movie and Superman II, both starring the late, great Christopher Reeve. I did not see any religious allegory in those films, and I didn’t want to. To a kid, Superman was what a superhero should be: someone with cool powers who defeats bad guys and helps those in danger. Largely due to Reeve’s performance, Superman always seemed like a real human being, even though he came from another planet. If Superman had been presented as a Christ symbol, it would have put me off. I did not have, and still don’t have, any ill feelings toward the Christian faith. However, as a Jew, enjoying Superman/Jesus would have been the equivalent of celebrating Christmas: something wonderful that I could not be a part of. Instead, enjoying Superman was closer to celebrating Thanksgiving: something wonderful that was for all.

When I grew older, I learned that Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were Jewish. I felt pride that the men behind one of the great American icons were fellow Jews. Last year my wife and I saw “The History of Invulnerability” a play by David Bar Katz. The play beautifully illustrated how Siegel and Shuster developed Superman in the 30s, a time when Anti-Semitism was running rampant in the world. The Nazis’ power was steadily growing. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a strong hero who could stand up to villainy and help the innocent? He was also a hero who kept his full identity secret, who was part of American society yet also somewhat removed. That likely rang true to many Jews in this country, who may have felt that they were not yet accepted as full Americans.

Siegel and Shuster did make some parallels between Superman and a Biblical figure, but it wasn’t Jesus. Superman’s parents, knowing their son’s life was in imminent danger, send him in a small craft to a foreign world. He’s raised by parents of this new world. He is accepted while knowing inside that he’s really different. He keeps his true identity secret until he has to reveal himself to save others. He finds his true calling and rescues his people. That's Moses. Kal-El, Superman’s Kryptonian name, in Hebrew means “Voice of God,” which is the key role Moses played in the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and their journey to Israel.

I’m not claiming that Superman is Jewish or that we should treat him as such. Countless others after Siegel and Shuster shaped the Superman we know. But there’s at least as much Jewish influence as Christian, so to claim Superman as a modern-day Christ is offensive. It shuts out Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and any other non-Christians from fully enjoying Superman and his adventures. In many ways Superman’s story reflects the American ideal. He’s an immigrant who combines his native heritage and natural abilities with what he learned in America to become someone greater. Shouldn’t that be available to everyone?

Adam Spector
July 1, 2013

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