Wednesday, June 12, 2013

is Superman a Christ-figure?

Wikipedia notes the religious dimensions of Superman's character, including the possible parallels between Superman and Jesus Christ:

Many have noted the examples of apparent Christian symbolism. [Director Richard] Donner, Tom Mankiewicz and Ilya Salkind have commented on the use of Christian references to discuss the themes of Superman. Mankiewicz deliberately fostered analogies with Jor-El (God) and Kal-El (Jesus). Donner is somewhat skeptical of Mankiewicz' actions, joking "I got enough death threats because of that."

Several concepts and items of imagery have been used in Biblical comparisons. Jor-El casts out General Zod from Krypton, a parallel to the casting out of Satan from Heaven. The spacecraft that brings Kal-El to Earth is in the form of a star (Star of Bethlehem). Kal-El comes to Jonathan and Martha Kent, who are unable to have children. Martha Kent states, "All these years how we've prayed and prayed that the good Lord would see fit to give us a child," which was compared to the Virgin Mary.

Just as little is known about Jesus during his middle years, Clark travels into the wilderness to find out who he is and what he has to do. Jor-El says, "Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and power are needed. But always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, and they wish to be. They lack only the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." The theme resembles the Biblical account of God sending his only son Jesus to Earth in hope for the good of mankind. More were seen when Donner was able to complete Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, featuring the fall, resurrection and his battle with evil. Another vision was that of The Creation of Adam.

The Christian imagery in the Reeve films has provoked comment on the Jewish origins of Superman. Rabbi Simcha Weinstein's book Up, Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, says that Superman is both a pillar of society and one whose cape conceals a "nebbish", saying "He's a bumbling, nebbish Jewish stereotype. He's Woody Allen." Ironically, it is also in the Reeve films that Clark Kent's persona has the greatest resemblance to Woody Allen, though his conscious model was Cary Grant's character in Bringing up Baby. This same theme is pursued about 1940s superheroes generally in Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero by Danny Fingeroth.

In the scene where Lois Lane interviews Superman on the balcony, Superman replies, "I never lie." Salkind felt this was an important point in the film, since Superman, living under his secret identity as Clark Kent, is "telling the biggest lie of all time." His romance with Lois also leads him to contradict Jor-El's orders to avoid altering human history, time traveling to save her from dying. Superman instead takes the advice of Jonathan Kent, his father on Earth.

In my post "The Tao of Chance," I discussed in some detail my criteria for determining whether a literary or filmic figure was indeed a Christ-figure. I proposed seven criteria for, or characteristics of, Christ-figures, and contended that a character would have to possess "a majority" of those qualities to be considered christic. To recap, those criteria are:

•ability to perform miracles
•self-sacrificing courage
•all-encompassing love for humanity
•messianic (i.e., revolutionary/paradigm-changing/leadership) potential
•a character arc that follows a via dolorosa
•a sense of mission
•resurrection/resuscitation and other prominent tropes (crucifixion/sacrifice, etc.)

Is Superman, then, a Christ-figure? Let's take a brief stroll through the above characteristics and think out loud about this.

1. Superman possesses more powers than just physical strength. He has heat vision, X-ray vision, invulnerability to most forms of attack, the ability to fly (and to spend extended periods under water and in outer space), hyper-acute hearing, hyper-acute sight, and other powers unnamed. I think it's safe to say that Superman is a miracle-performing being. His abilities defy the laws of nature, which is one of the qualities we associate with miracles.

2. Superman has little to be afraid of, which makes the courage question more interesting than it might appear at first blush. It's easy to say Superman possesses super-bravery, but it could simply be that his casual confidence has more to do with his awareness of his own invulnerability than with "being afraid and saddling up, anyway." What could possibly frighten Superman? I'm not talking about Superman's being frightened on behalf of others; I consider that a given, a trait inscribed in his compassionate nature. No—what interests me is what thing or event could possibly instill the sort of atavistic fear that a normal person might feel when confronting a great white shark in the murky deeps. Until I find an answer to this question, I can't comment intelligently on Superman's level of courage.

Joss Whedon may already have explored this issue for me, though. During the writers' strike of several years ago, Whedon gathered a group of stars and created a hilarious musical, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog," starring Neil Patrick Harris as Doctor Horrible, a wannabe evil villain, and Nathan Fillion (in self-parodic overdrive) as a conceited superhero named Captain Hammer* who, by the end of the musical, receives his first taste of true pain when Dr. Horrible's superweapon explodes in his hand. The event sends Captain Hammer into a blubbering, regressive spiral; he eventually has to undergo therapy. Up until that catastrophe, Captain Hammer threw himself into danger with aplomb. Once he tasted true danger, however, he went fetal. Would Superman be any different? Whedon's answer might be "no."

3. Superman's love for humanity, and his sense of duty toward it, stems from his childhood. It can never be a love among kindred beings, though, since Superman is an alien. While Superman may be outwardly human, his inner workings are a literally impenetrable mystery. Still, we can note with confidence that Superman's love for humankind is unquestioned. Having been adopted by earthling parents and possessing a human-like emotional makeup, Superman will have grown up feeling a sense of belonging with human beings.

4. Does Superman possess messianic potential? His father Jor-El seems to think so: "[Humans] lack only the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." The recent trailers for "Man of Steel" contain a Jor-El voiceover (Russell Crowe instead of Marlon Brando) that says something remarkably similar: "You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive for. They will race behind you; they will stumble; they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun." If this doesn't smack of imitatio christi, I don't know what does. Jor-El, at least, sees his son becoming a global leader. It might be interesting to see a film that explores the more political dimensions of Superman's calling. Because he's effectively immortal and practically omnipotent, Superman could easily set himself up as Earth's eternal benevolent dictator (and he could double as the enforcing army!). Jewish messianism also envisions the mashiach as a terrestrial political leader, not as a Jesus-like cosmic being who returns in clouds of glory to institute a greater order.

5. Now we get to a crucial issue: does Superman follow a via dolorosa? I have no idea what the new film might have in store for us, but based on previous films, it's not obvious to me that anything short of kryptonite can cause Superman any hurt or injury. Not knowing the entirety of the Superman mythos, I'll venture a "no" to this question. Superman strikes me as too strong and impervious to suffer as Christ supposedly suffered.

6. Does Superman possess a sense of mission? Oh, yes—as surely as he possesses an all-encompassing compassion for humanity. Jor-El taught his son well: Superman sees himself as all the Avengers wrapped up in one—Earth's mightiest hero.

7. The Wikipedia article, quoted above, makes mention of Superman's "resurrection," but I've never seen this on film, nor in any of the few scattered Superman comics I may have glanced at in my youth. It's hard to imagine Superman dying, much less coming back to life. Frank Miller takes a stab at this notion in his 1980s-era The Dark Knight Returns: Superman is brought low by a Soviet nuke codenamed Coldbringer, which blots out the sun and renders Superman a skeletal weakling. Superman drags himself to an immense jungle and, through some mysterious process, absorbs the solar energy contained within the jungle's biomass, thereby reconstituting himself. (This begs the question of why Superman isn't similarly weakened every single night, since the entire Earth, and not just a fallout-filled sky, blocks Superman from the sun.)

In all, with four out of seven definite "yes"es for the above criteria, I think it's probable that Superman can be read as a Christ-figure, albeit just barely. He lacks the ability to truly suffer or fear or sustain injury, which makes him more of a docetic Christ** than the Christ of traditional mainstream Christianity, but his personal history follows a recognizably christic trajectory. Still, it must be asked... will Superman, can Superman, die for our sins? Fat chance.

*I had originally called him "Hammer Man," but Mike writes in with a "correction": he's actually Captain Hammer. True, but as I point out in the comments, he's addressed as "Hammer Man" by one of the principals ("Thank you, Hammer Man"). Nevertheless, after some thought, I've changed "Hammer Man" to "Captain Hammer" in deference to how the character is listed in the credits.

**The heresy of docetism (which comes from a Greek word meaning "to seem," implying illusion) claims that the Christ did not truly suffer and die on the cross: being purely God, Jesus was incapable of such suffering and death. Whatever corpus was upon the cross was (depending on the form of docetism) either illusory or so utterly divine as to be impervious to suffering. In all probability, docetism was rejected as a heresy because it made a sham of the crucifixion event. Muslim christology might be considered docetic, as Muslims generally maintain that Jesus did not really suffer and die upon the cross, but was "taken up" by God.



John from Daejeon said...

While loyal, book-buying readers of the Star Trek novels got screwed by Paramount with Star Trek: First Contact, it looks like J.J. and Disney are doing it right and going with Han and Lea's children from the Star Wars series of novels in the new Star Wars film series. Personally, I'm not much of a fan of Luke's Jedi wife, but the force is very strong in the Solo children. While people may bemoan the fact that this smacks too much like "Twilight," the Solo children were born in book form in 1994--11 years before the punks from "Twilight."

Charles said...

On a related note: whether or not Superman meets the criteria for being a Christ-figure, it seems to me that humanity in the Superman universe is very different from humanity in the Biblical universe. Humanity in the Superman universe may have a capacity to do good, but the Bible hammers away at the point that only God is good and humans, left to their own devices, seek to walk in darkness. This may seem like splitting hairs here, but I think there is a significant difference between a basically good populace that simply needs a leader and a basically evil populace that needs a savior.

If this point is valid, can Superman really be called a Christ figure, even if he meets four out of seven criteria?

Kevin Kim said...


Interesting question.

In either case, whether we're talking about Jor-El's notion that humanity lives in darkness and needs light (implied in both of the Jor-El quotes cited in the post), or the traditional Christian notion that humanity is fallen (though not necessarily evil), we're talking about people living in an unsatisfactory state and in need of some sort of redemption.

You're right to cast doubt on Superman's christic role; I can't say that I've ever seen him redeem the human population, although he's certainly saved the population from utter planetary destruction on numerous occasions. I suppose this highlights the technical and theological difference between saving and redeeming.

How evil are we, though? The first chapter of Genesis goes through a song-like litany at each stage of creation, always ending on the refrain, "And it was good." This goodness, at least initially, included humanity. Much later, in John 3:16, we read that "...God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son..." What's to love about an evil humanity? Surely the Good Lord saw something in us worth saving—perhaps some "capacity for good." Obviously, we weren't unredeemable in God's eyes.

If your basic point is that there exists a disanalogy between (1) Superman's relationship with fictional humanity and (2) Christ's relationship with real humanity, I think you may be right that the disanalogy exists. But is it the disanalogy you think it is? Hmmm.

Difficult to see. Always in motion is the theology.

The Maximum Leader said...

Just to be pedantic... The "hero" of Dr. Horrible is Captain Hammer. (Played perfectly by Nathan Fillion.)

Kevin Kim said...

He is indeed Captain Hammer. But Penny sings (after being saved):

Thank you, Hammer Man, I don't think I can
Explain how important it is - that you stopped the van.

I would be splattered, I'd be crushed into debris.
Thank you, sir, for saving meeee.

(Lyrics here.)

It could simply be that Penny doesn't know how to address Captain Hammer properly. But Captain Hammer doesn't demur when Penny addresses him as "Hammer Man."

And then there's this.

Charles said...

I wasn't trying to imply that humanity was beyond redemption--I think it is pretty clear that the Biblical God does not consider humanity irredeemable. I do not consider "evil" and "redeemable" to be mutually exclusive ideas. Take Darth Vader: he's pretty much the epitome of evil in pop culture, but he is redeemed in the end.

I also agree that God indeed saw something good in humanity at first--he created humanity in his image, so that would make humanity good. But then humanity fell and became evil. Only a few chapters after the "It was good" chorus, we have this: "The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time" (Gen 6:5). This, of course, refers to antediluvian humanity, which was mostly wiped out, but even Christ called humanity evil ("If then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children..." Matt 7:11). I will admit that "evil" in the Bible is generally used to refer to deeds as opposed to nature, though.

Perhaps this is just a matter of terminology, or a lack of understanding on my part. You ask if the disanalogy is really what I think it is. The answer is: I'm not sure, because I'm not even sure of what I think it is. It was just something that leaped out at me as different, but I haven't really thought it through all the way.

(And I just realized that your Yoda-speak at the end may have influenced my choice of Darth Vader as an example above. Tricksy...)

Re: Hammer Man vs Captain Hammer. Captain Hammer was pretty famous, and I assumed that Penny knew who he was. I think "Hammer Man" just works better in terms of rhythm and internal rhyme and was easier to write lyrics around.

Kevin Kim said...


I think you laid it out clearly when you wrote:

"This may seem like splitting hairs here, but I think there is a significant difference between a basically good populace that simply needs a leader and a basically evil populace that needs a savior."

I suppose my own stance would be that it might not be warranted to assume, in the Superman universe, that Jor-El takes humanity to be basically good. He may only think that humanity has a capacity for good, i.e., an as-yet-unrealized potential. The light/dark imagery that both Jor-Els (Brando and Crowe) use is reminiscent of both the light/dark contrast in the gospel of John and the dualism found in Gnosticism.

It's entirely possible that Superman's father envisions Superman's role on Earth to be that of a savior in a religious sense: someone who leads humanity to evolve, collectively, into something better. What this might mean, specifically, I have no idea, but I'm pretty sure that Jor-El didn't intend for Superman simply to set himself up as humanity's policeman—not with all that "they will join you in the sun" talk.

Yes, I think that Christ's use of the term "evil" may be more a reference to deeds than to actual character, or it may be an ontological statement about our fallen status, and not a literal claim about how perverse and wicked and God-shunning we all are. That last might make sense regarding the Matthew passage you quoted: that quote is structured according to a formula seen frequently in the Sermon on the Mount, wherein the terrestrial is compared analogically to the celestial, with the celestial said to be orders of magnitude greater than the terrestrial: "As X obtains on earth, how much more so does it obtain in heaven?" If we read "evil" as "fallen" or "lowly," I think the analogy makes a great deal more sense, for it places humanity on a sliding-scale continuum with heaven, but also emphasizes just how great the distance is between humanity and heaven on that scale.

Charles said...

I don't necessarily have a problem with reading "evil" as "fallen," although I get the impression that you are unwilling to concede that the Bible makes a judgment on human nature, only that it judges human deeds. I guess that was my original point: that the Superman universe (appears to) posit a humanity that is good in nature, while the Bible (in my reading), posits a humanity that is fallen in nature. Granted, my reading may be somewhat colored by a fundamentalist upbringing, which can be difficult to shake.

Kevin Kim said...


I think most Christians, fundamentalist or not, assume humanity's basic fallenness, so I can agree with you to that extent.

As for the Bible, well...

I was raised in a Southern Baptist church until I was about eleven, so I've had my dose of hellfire and scary-God fundamentalism before our family switched over to the local Presbyterian church, where all that fire-and-brimstone lecturing was replaced by sermons reflecting the milder theology of mainstream liberal Protestantism (not that I'd have been able to articulate the situation that way, back when I was eleven).

Over the years, especially once I got to college, I came to see the Bible as an uneven, inconsistent document. Does the entire Bible "[hammer] away at the point that... humans... seek to walk in darkness"? I seriously doubt it.

We can divide the question of the goodness of the world into (a) the goodness of creation, and (b) the goodness of human beings. As to whether creation is good, the Bible contains passages that indicate both its goodness and its awesomeness. "Go to the ant, thou sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise," says the proverb-writer, holding up part of nature as a moral exemplar. In Job, God tells Job about a series of mighty creatures (e.g., Behemoth, Leviathan, the donkey) as a way of reminding Job of Job's own smallness in the face of creation. God is obviously proud of what he has wrought. So while many Christians contend (perhaps scripturally—2 Cor. 4:4) that this earth is the domain of Satan, there are biblical passages that uphold creation's goodness and greatness.

I do think the Bible is more consistent in what it says about people, but does it really put forth the idea that "only God is good"? Job again: he's considered one of God's most righteous servants. Or John the Baptist, who has the humility to recognize, when faced with the Christ, that he isn't fit to tie Jesus' sandals. Mary, Jesus' mother, gets short shrift in the New Testament (from my Protestant point of view—Jesus often addresses her merely as "Woman"), but apparently there's enough scriptural evidence of Mary's holiness for Catholics to have constructed an enormous and complex Marian tradition around her. Consider Revelation as well: the righteous will be spared from the divine wrath.

So I guess you're right: it's hard for me to concede that the Bible takes only one stance toward all of humanity. There are too many biblical exceptions (I could list some Old Testament prophets), too many bright points, for me to believe that.

That said, I of course agree that the Bible's general emphasis is on humanity's fallenness and its need for redemption. Certainly this is a theme that Paul and the ancient prophets both harped on—Paul in a personal, cautionary way, warning us away from wickedness, and the prophets in a more general way, in an attempt to save a given people from collective destruction.

But back to the disanalogy: if Jor-El's plan for Superman has a Johannine/Gnostic dimension, as I believe it might, then I think it's likely that Jor-El, too, sees humanity as "[seeking] to walk in darkness," hence the dark/light imagery favored by both Jor-Els. What this means to me is that Superman has, in a real sense, failed to fulfill his father's vision... and now that I think about it, that may be the disanalogy that is a strike against Superman's being a Christ-figure. By electing to be a policeman/guardian instead of a savior, Superman has chosen his own path away from his father's desires.

In Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ, Christ's final temptation was domesticity: a shirking of his cosmic responsibility in favor of a life less cosmic. Perhaps Superman has taken the Devil's offer.