For most of us, the story is all too familiar. A being descends from the heavens in the form of a child. Raised by adoptive parents, the child grows in stature and strength, leaving his rural upbringing to become a savior to the world.
It is the origin story that Christians and comic book fans everywhere know by heart. It is the story of Jesus Christ. But, it also happens to also be the story of Superman.
As a lifelong fan of comic book superheroes, I excited for the new reboot to the Superman franchise “Man of Steel” to swoop into theatres. Like when most new ovies come out , TV starts to replay prior installments. On FX other night I watched Superman Returns. And as a Christian, watching the movie gave me more than I bargained for. I was looking for a little escapist fantasy. Instead, I found my thoughts soaring “up, up, and away”–as Superman would say-into the very heart of reality, heaven itself.
Why heaven? Because Jesus Christ is there. And The Superman Returnsl draws some very interesting parallels between the Messiah and the Superman Returns. The Christian overtones begin early in the movie with the opening lines, spoken by Jor-El to Superman in which he says,
“You will travel far, my little Kal-El, but we will never leave you-even in the face of our deaths. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father. And the father, the son.”
This shows Jor-El, father of Superman, to represent a God-like figure, giving his powers to his only son, as God did to Jesus, and the part of the son becoming the father and the father becoming the son is a staple to the Christians beliefs that God is three entities, the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. Jor-El furthers this comparison with another quote by saying,
“Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.”
Superman was created 70 years ago by Jewish teens Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (a Canadian!). No doubt they were thinking more of the original Moses than the new Moses (Jesus) when they dreamed up their iconic character, but the allusion to Moses is unmistakable in the Superman story. As their home planet, Krypton, is destroyed, Jor-El and his wife Lara set their infant son Kal-El adrift, not on the river Nile, but into outer space, in the hopes that a good family on Earth will raise their son as one of their own, even though he is truly a king. Of course, Jonathan and Martha Kent did just that in Smallville, Kansas, naming the boy Clark, Superman’s alter-ego.
Superman’s alter ego is mild-mannered Clark Kent, reporter at the Daily Planet. The names Clark and Kent, some say, have double meanings that reinforce the Christ connection. “Clark” is an Old English term for a Clergyman, and “Kent” may be derived from the Biblical Kenites (Genesis 15:19 ). He switches between these roles to live on Earth as both man and superhero. Jesus also had a dual persona, that of a man and that of God and the Holy Spirit. These dual personalities, as both man and something higher, is another comparison between Superman and Christ.
Although the Superman legend springs from Jewish roots, just as Christianity itself does, the creators of Superman Returns have made their own mark on the character–a mark that looks an awful lot like the cross. Superman film directors like Richard Donner (1978′s Superman: the Movie) and “Superman Returns’ director Bryan Singer chose to portray Superman as a Christ figure. The “S” on Superman’s chest might just as well stand for “Savior.” Singer acknowledged as much in a recent interview with Wizard magazine: “Superman is the Jesus Christ of superheroes.”
Christ lived in a time when Hebrews sometimes referred to God as “El,” Superman’s birth name is Kal-El son of Jor-El. Christ and Superman were both sent from above to offer salvation for humanity. Both had “evil twins,” the Anti-Christ and Bizarro. Finally, and most tellingly, Christ and Superman both died, and were subsequently resurrected.
Obviously, Superman is a myth; Christ is a historical person, “born of the Virgin Mary …(Who) suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Superman is not Christ. But he is a Christlike figure, as we all should be. What we are dealing with is more of an allusion to Christ (a la Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings), rather than a straight Christian allegory like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, where Aslan = Christ. But Superman Returns’ Christian allusions are no illusion.
Consider: Superman is sent to earth as a baby in a rocket ship shaped like a star, which lands in a rural cornfield. Christ’s arrival was also heralded by a star seen by shepherds in a field. Superman is raised on earth in a “backwater” town reminiscent of Nazareth: Smallville. Like Christ, Superman grows up where people have no idea of the powers he possesses, or what his true identity – hiss true nature, a Christian might say – really is.
Jesus was raised by an earthly stepfather named Joseph, a carpenter. Clark (which, incidentally, means “cleric”) was also raised by a manual labourer, farmer Jonathan Kent. Ironically, Clark’s parents were originally named Mary and Joseph in the comics, but later were changed to Martha and Jonathan. Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El, sends Kal-El to earth with these words in Superman Returns: “They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. That is why I have sent them you, my only son.”
If this does not evoke echoes of John’s gospel, I don’t know what does! Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 1:4,5–9;8:12) and God’s one and only Son (John 3:16–18). The early Church’s members were first called members of “the Way” (Acts 9:2. Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Interestingly, “El” is Hebrew for God, which may or may not have had some significance in the creation of the Kryptonian names of Superman and his father. El the father and El the son evoke the Trinity, as does the line repeated by Jor-El and Superman in Superman Returns, “The son becomes the father, and the father, the son.” Jesus said to Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Superman hovers above earth and listens, via his super-hearing, to myriad cries for help from below. This scene echoes what he will later tell Lois: “You said the world doesn’t need a savior. But every day, I hear people crying for one.” Superman answers those cries, flying to the rescue, faster than a speeding bullet, breaking the sound barrier with a boom. This recalls Christ’s hearing our prayers on earth. His response is even faster than Superman’s. God “is an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
Superman’s mortal enemy is Lex Luthor: a name that phonetically evokes that of Lucifer. Luthor is insanely jealous of Superman’s powers, just as Lucifer was of God. There is a scene where Superman, weakened by Kryptonite, is savagely beaten by Luthor and his thugs. The violence is raw and very reminiscent of The Passion of The Christ. Seeing Superman stripped of his powers and thrashed reminds one of Jesus, holding back His great power, brutalized by the people he came to save. Superman is then stabbed in the side by Luthor with a shard of Kryptonite, an unmistakable allusion to Christ being flogged and beat by the Romans before being sent for crucifixion and while he was on the cross, he was stabbed in the side with a spear.
Luthor’s gal pal Kitty Kowalski calls to mind Pontius Pilate’s wife Claudia Procula, who tells Pilate not to harm Jesus, having been warned in a dream. Kitty is visibly disturbed during Superman’s beating, and later throws away Kryptonian Crystals possessed by Lex, which had given him the edge in his battle against Superman.
Just as Christ did away with sin through His death, burial, and resurrection, Superman, after saving earth, falls (in a cruciform pose) from space to earth, where his impact “buries” him in a crater, seemingly dead. Is this the end for Superman? Not really Warner Brothers will just do another reboot!
Much more can be said, more than we have space for here. Of course, the comparisons between Superman and Christ the final comparison between Christ and Superman is how both of them died to save the world and came back from the dead. Christ died on the cross to abolish sin from humans, saving us in the afterlife while Superman ‘died’ launching a colossal hunk of Kryptonite infused land into deep space to save the lives of millions of people, and the world from Lex’s evil plans (also interesting to note that he falls back to earth with his arms outstretched as if he were on the cross).
Christ is buried in a tomb and is discovered missing three days later as he had resurrected from the dead to speak with his disciples. Superman flat lines in a hospital and goes into a coma while the world waits eagerly to hear whether he lives or dies, until one day a nurse enters the room and he has dissapeared. Superman is last seen telling Lois that he will always be around, much like Jesus had told his disciples before.
But they forget that what attracts us to the character of Superman is, well, his character, as well as his saving powers. He is to, as Jor-El intones in the film, “inspire others to moral good.” And what people are attracted to in Superman–the qualities and powers of a savior–can only be found in the reality of Christ, the true Super Man.
In the movie, Superman returns after a long disappearance. We, too, are waiting for our hero, Jesus, to return in glory. However, as Christians, we are not asking Our Lord, as Lois does of Superman after his long absence, “How could you leave us like that?” We always have Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, where He never leaves us or forsakes us. “I am with you always” (Matt. 28: 20).
Really, we can all identify a lot with Superman, because we are all aliens of a sort. This world is not our home, but “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there”–no, not Superman–”the Lord Jesus Christ, who … will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21). When He returns, we will all be Super.