The Theology of Superman 5 June 2013
It is perhaps the biggest cinema event of 2013. After a massive explosion of comic book movies (CBMs if you haven’t got enough time to type the full phrase), Superman is finally returning to our screens. The Hulk may satisfy our id, Spiderman gives hope to every awkward high school student, and Nolan’s Batman proved comic books on the big screen need not be camp – but in the end, they have all been setting up for the return of Kal-El. To many, Superman represents the pinnacle of superheroes.
But comic books aren’t simply about aliens, radioactive serums and villainous masterminds – they can be important sources of theology too. In fact, the link between religion and Superman is a topic of more than a handful of books and academic journals. It’s the way Superman ties into religious imagery and theological teachings that I think has kept the character popular and relevant through the ages.
Superman’s popularity isn’t simply about the fact he is ridiculously strong. There have been more powerful comic book heroes in the past, yet they fail to capture public imagination. Rather, it’s Superman’s inherent goodness that makes him so popular. Let’s face it, he could quite easily take Lex Luthor for a quick tour of the moon and end his troubles. He doesn’t. Instead, he decides to face off his adversary on moral grounds, using his strength only to prevent harm. The message is that it is Superman’s unwavering strength of character, rather than his Kryptonian muscles, that make him a model for humanity to follow.
Harry Brod has famously explored the theme of Superman as Jewish prophet in his book ‘Superman is Jewish?‘ ‘Kal-El’ (Superman’s birth name) is Hebrew for the Voice of God. He is sent from Krypton much like Moses is sent down the Nile. He is raised by adoptive parents, much like Moses. The similarities are perhaps intentional; Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were both Jewish.
That isn’t to say he is wholly Jewish. There is strong messianic imagery present too. The Christian allegories became much more significant in the movies than the comic book incarnations. Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies in which Superman’s father Jor-El speaks to his son are perhaps the most clear: –
“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.”
The imagery continued in Superman Returns. The weakened hero falls from the sky (who wouldn’t be a bit tired after throwing an island into outer space?), assuming the classic crucifix pose. After suspense around his death, a nurse visits him in his hospital ward – finding only an empty bed; a Magdalene-esque revelation.
Muslims too are able to see prophetic stories mirrored in the Superman stories. The prophets are described as being shepherds and men of the land, much like Kent’s rural farm upbringing. Close to the announcement of their prophethood, they will recede to solitude and meditation (famously the Cave of Hira for the Prophet Muhammad, and of course the Fortress of Solitude for Superman). Upon their return to civilisation, they often head straight to the urban metropolis – this could not be clearer, the Daily Planet’s headquarters are based in Metropolis itself.
Whether the allusions are intentional or incidental, they are a large part of the key to the popular appeal of Superman. The stories re-tell the most evocative and most salient aspects of sacred theologies.
The stories are however not the preserve of the religious. By adopting a derivation of Nietzsche’s ubermensch, the comics entered into a debate about humanity’s end goal. The nineteenth century was full of the highs and lows of human achievement – from two world wars to space flights. Humanity seemed capable of unspeakable horrors and noble heights. Superman articulated a vision of humanity in which the end goal could be optimistic and hopeful, that humanity could rise above petty divisions and warfare. Earlier comic incarnations, writing through the Second World War and subsequent Cold War, were perhaps less confident about mankind’s final end. However, by the time the eponymous movies were produced, the hope was more confident. The new Superman movie, Man of Steel, seems to be following a similar theme, borrowing a line from one of the most successful comic book stories. Jor-El tells his son: –
“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
Karen Armstrong has argued throughout her works of the importance of myth. Myths tell human stories on epic scales, and their truths are not literal but axiomatic. Superheroes seem to do the same, allowing us to explore the most important questions through new avenues. As the philosopher and theologian Chesterton wrote: –
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”