“Once, there was a civilization,” says the announcer in the Superman: The Movie trailer, over a shot of Jor-El doing science stuff with crystals, “much like ours, but with greater intelligence, greater powers, and a greater capacity for good.”
Jor-El touches the machine, and the starship rises to the ceiling, and then everything goes to hell. We see people fall into the red pit of their doomed civilization, and then: BLAM! the whole planet explodes.
“In one tragic moment,” the announcer resumes, “that world was destroyed. But there was one survivor.” We see Kal-El in the star bubble, a brief clip of the crash landing, and then Pa Kent is kicking at his tire. Ma taps him on the shoulder, and they look at the wreck of the spaceship.
As they gaze in wonder, the announcer says, “Because of the wisdom and compassion of Jor-El — because he knew the human race had the capacity for goodness — he sent us his only son.”
The music swells, and we see little K, standing up with his arms outstretched, and we wonder: if Jor-El was so all-fired wise and compassionate, maybe he could also have sent some pants?
That’s about as explicit as anybody needs to get, really. The answer is yes, the filmmakers intended to draw some parallel between the story of Superman and the story of Jesus Christ. So I’m going to lay out the case for the proposition “Sure, Superman is kind of like Jesus,” and then we’ll figure out where we are from there.
Okay. As the trailer says, the magical and wise science wizard Jor-El sends his only son to Earth, with specific instructions on helping people, making life better and other early Chinese writing. The spaceship looks like a star. Kal-El is raised in a relatively low-status household, and is then inspired to discover his true identity and purpose. He has magical abilities that set him apart from other men, including raising someone from the dead. (In this case, the part of Lazarus is played by Lois Lane.)
And then he punches a lot of people, and does a lot of property damage, and he spends a lot of the story desperately in love with a woman who doesn’t appreciate him. This is where the parallel with Jesus starts to break down, although don’t say that to the Christians, who are pretty determined to claim Superman as their own.
For example, Stephen Skelton, who wrote the breathless book The Gospel According to the World’s Greatest Superhero in 2006. In his introduction, he details some “startling revelations” about the connection between Superman and Jesus:
For instance, did you know that…
Superman and his father share the last name of El — the Hebrew word for God. Thus in the Superman story, when “El” the father sends “El” the son down to Earth, “God” the father sends “God” the son down to Earth.
Superman’s earthly parents, Martha and Jonathan, were modeled after the biblical parents Mary and Joseph — and as I later discovered, Mary and Joseph were the original names of the earthly parents.
Superman’s enemy is a villain called Lex Luthor, a name suspiciously like Lucifer. And both figures are fueled by the same all-consuming, all-corrupting hunger for power and glory.
And that’s just the tip of the Kryptonian iceberg.
If you’ve been reading this blog, then you know that at least two of these revelations aren’t as startling as Skelton thinks they are.
The names “Jor-L” and “Kal-L” come from the comic strip in 1939, and were then respelled “Jor-el” and “Kal-el” in the 1942 Adventures of Superman novel, and honestly, it’s just a science-fiction name. It could have been any letter. The idea that Jerry Siegel thought “hey, I think this guy in a space tunic is a supernatural entity, and I’ll make ‘L’ part of his name to represent the Hebrew word for God” is laughably remote. People also say that “Kal-El” could be translated “Voice of God”, but I am informed by Reddit that “Voice of God” is actually קול אל (“Kol El”). It’s a cute coincidence but not an actual thing.
And the idea that Jonathan and Martha Kent were “modeled after the biblical parents” strains the meaning of the phrase “modeled after” beyond the breaking point. For one thing, Mary was a virgin and actually gave birth to Jesus, and Jor-El didn’t send a rocket full of space sperm to impregnate Martha Kent, thank goodness. The Kents just found the kid, and raised him, which is actually kind of like Moses, and it’s also kind of like Tarzan, Dick Grayson and Little Orphan Annie. Orphans in stories get adopted; otherwise, they die and the story is very short.
Also, I don’t know who told Skelton that “Mary and Joseph were the original names” for the Kents, but that is half-true at best. As we saw yesterday, the first time the Kents are mentioned in Superman #1, the wife is named Mary, and the husband doesn’t have a name. They were known as Eben and Sarah for a while, and briefly John and Mary, but Pa Kent was never Joseph. On its own, I don’t find “Mary” particularly startling as a coincidence, because Mary was the #1 most popular name for girls in 1939. When they used “John and Mary” in 1948, those were the equivalent of “Smith and Jones” as the classic generic first names.
And the Lex Luthor/Lucifer wordplay is just lame, and I refuse to engage with it.
But people like playing with correspondences like that, and I’m not such a confirmed grouch that I would want to dump on people who are having a good time and not hurting anybody; if talking about Superman helps Stephen Skelton express his ideas about religion and salvation, then I don’t need to pick a fight with the guy.
On the other hand, while I’m on the subject, I might take a minute to nitpick on David Bruce, who wrote a listicle-style post for HollywoodJesus.com called “How Superman Retells the Story of Jesus“, which it doesn’t. By the way, there’s a website called HollywoodJesus.com, and if you’re looking for a startling revelation, that’s my personal pick of the day.
The comparison gets off to a bad start right at the top, saying, “Superman comes from the planet Krypton — which sounds like Tikkum olam, a Hebrew concept of restoring the world’s wrongs.” Personally, I don’t think Krypton sounds any more like Tikkum olam than any other handful of random sounds you might pick out of a comic book, and anyway, it’s Tikkun olam. It actually sounds a lot like Tickle Me Elmo, which raises a bunch of new questions.
Bruce references all of the evidence that I’ve mentioned so far — the Hebrew word for God, the star, Mary and Joseph — and he points out that in the movie, Martha is wearing a cross and carrying a Bible at Jonathan’s funeral, which is perfectly accurate, as far as that takes you.
The point where I think it gets interesting is when he equates Lois interviewing Superman with the Gospel writers, and then says, “The flight with Lois is a takeoff on Peter’s walk on water — (Matthew 14:28-29) Both Peter and Lois slip downward.”
It’s true that Lois is essentially spreading the Gospel of Superman to the readers of the Daily Planet, but that interview is played as a hormonally-charged flirtatious dance that climaxes with a flying sequence that’s clearly a metaphor for sex, and if that’s what Jesus was up to with Peter and the Gospel writers, then there are a lot of things that I missed in that story.
In fact, to claim Superman as a Christ-figure, you have to ignore the fact that most of the movie is a love story. The romantic triangle of Clark/Lois/Superman is an essential part of this mythology, and it has no parallel in the life of Jesus. If you want to say that Eve Teschmacher is Mary Magdalene witnessing the resurrection, then I’m not going to argue with you about it, but if there’s no place in this reading for Lois Lane beyond “disciple”, then it just doesn’t work, and that’s all there is to it. Lois is not Superman’s disciple; she’s much more important and complex than that.
But I think the biggest difference between Superman and the story of Jesus is that Superman doesn’t want people to worship him, or follow him. Superman’s services are offered free of charge to whoever’s in his general vicinity with no strings attached; he doesn’t require people to believe in him, or even know that he exists. He doesn’t have any special message for the world, beyond a general expectation that you should act in accordance with the civil laws of the United States. He didn’t emerge from a farm on Kansas with a new way of thinking about life on Earth, and its relationship with Heaven. He just rescues cats and punches people, and if you piss him off then he wrecks your house.
So it’s kind of pathetic, as a retelling of the story of Jesus — walking through the outlines of some Jesus-adjacent events, but drained of insight and inspiration. If you made a movie about Jesus where he does all the flashy miracles but doesn’t actually say anything profound, then it would be the story of a very nice magician.
Honestly, I don’t really understand it when people talk about Superman as being a god. My personal view is more that he’s a reckless, whimsical and dangerous space monster, and if that’s your view of God, then you may need to keep mulling that over for a while.
The key difference is that Superman didn’t create the world, and neither did Jor-El. Superman doesn’t really build anything, other than his own secret ice castle and wax museum; he’s more involved in the area of breaking stuff, and not apologizing for it. He has ridiculously good eyesight, but he’s not omniscient; he can do things that no human can do, but he’s not omnipotent.
It’s true that if Superman chose to, he could hold the world at ransom and become an “all-powerful” dictator, as the Phantom Zoners try to do in Superman II, but that’s not a thing that a god does; that’s just a terrorist who acquires a lot of political power because he poses an unbeatable military threat.
Yes, Superman could flatten a city in an afternoon, but that’s the power of an atomic bomb, not the power of a god. He doesn’t make anything, he doesn’t control events, he doesn’t have a plan, and he doesn’t offer spiritual salvation. He’s just really, really strong, and nobody can hurt him.
I don’t think that comparing Superman to Jesus or calling him a god helps you understand Superman very well, and in my opinion, the comparison takes all the stuffing out of Jesus. Still, if it helps you get through the day, then I can’t stop you. I’ll just turn the other cheek, and you can let me know when you’re finished.
1.18: Opening the Box.
— Danny Horn