Latest posts by Nat Brehmer (see all)
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Superhero stories are loaded with Christ allegory. From Batman to Spider-Man to Wolverine, we’re almost always bound to see a hero question their impact on the people and outstretch their arms in a somber wide shot when they’re at their lowest. It makes sense. For those who grew up in a religious household, most of the middle-class regions of America where comics were most embraced, The Bible was the first superhero story they ever learned. Christ was a larger than life figure, a superhero betrayed by the people he swore to protect, a figure more than a man, an icon meant to inspire and to lead us all to be better. No single superhero, maybe even no single character in all of pop culture has retained this particular image than Superman, especially on film and television.
Christ allegory in Superman dates back to the Richard Donner original film, in which Marlon Brando’s Jor-El gives a powerful monologue about how he is sending his child to the planet Earth in hope to inspire them to better themselves, even phrasing his intentions with the words “I give them you, my only son.” This phrasing is obviously meant to resonate with every audience member who can immediately hear it and recognize John 3:16 “For God so loved the world he gave His one and only son” and recognize—consciously or subconsciously—what the story is and what the film is trying to do.
Christ allegory made its way into the comics in a monumental and entirely un-subtle way in the 1990s with The Death and Return of Superman. The parallels don’t even need to be stated because they were meant to be so obvious as to beat the reader over the head with them. Superman was the figurehead of superheroes and had been for decades. Killing him off was beneficial for a lot of practical reasons, first and foremost. Number one, killing the most popular hero in the world in the pages of his own book would obviously boost sales. Number two, people had gotten bored of Superman. The ‘90s was an edgy time in comics.
Everything needed to be grittier, more extreme, more violent, leading to stories like Knightfall and Maximum Carnage. Killing Superman off and then bringing him back would be a way to reboot the character, to make him edgier and a little more rough around the edges than he had ever previously been. It was also an obvious way to sort of complete the classical arc of a character that had at this point already long been considered to be Pop Culture Jesus.
The comic was one of the most successful events of the decade and is widely considered to now be one of the most seminal Superman stories ever told. It got its own arc on Smallville (in the first episode of that show, for that matter, Clark is literally crucified) and two animated feature adaptations. It also provided an excuse for future film projects that, since the comics had gone this overt, they didn’t need to be subtle with their references anymore. And so Superman Returns brought back the lingering Christ-pose shots in spades.
In many ways, this all culminated in Man of Steel. In that film, Clark Kent, having a crisis of faith about whether or not to turn himself over to General Zod, who was holding the entire Earth hostage, consults a pastor over how he should proceed. This scene was used as something of a bizarre marketing ploy for Man of Steel-themed sermons that were available via MinistryResources.org and Warner Bros. even offered free tickets to pastors as proof that the movie supported their message. It was not the first time a studio seemed to get involve with religion on this level, the same had been done for the Chronicles of Narnia films.
The only real difference between the two is that Narnia is a Christian-themed franchise to its core, with evangelical ideas baked into its DNA, and Superman is abundantly not.
When one looks at all of the above examples it is almost impossible to reconcile them with the origin of the character, with the idea of Man of Steel sermons being genuinely fucking nuts. There’s no problem with any of this for a character who is fundamentally Christian. Two of Marvel’s best heroes, the X-Men’s Nightcrawler and the vigilante Daredevil, are Catholic. Nightcrawler is a devout Catholic who uses his belief system to help people and who genuinely tries to make the world a better place. Daredevil, meanwhile, is a terrible Catholic, a mess of a human being and a hodgepodge of contradictions and these are the things that make him such an interesting character.
With Superman, the problem is not the overtly Christ-themed nature of the way the character has been depicted for so many years. The problem is that this could not possibly be further from the character’s roots, from his origin, and from the things he was initially meant to stand for.
Superman was created in 1938 by two Jewish immigrants, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. That’s fairly common knowledge. Most people know that part of the story and yet most people never think to wonder whether or not it’s a little bizarre that the biggest Christ metaphor of the twentieth century was apparently created by two Jewish guys. But when you strip away the pop culture projection of this Christ-like image and look at this icon simply in terms of the foundation, of the rock solid concept that Siegel and Shuster created, you are left with a character who is fundamentally Jewish.
First and foremost, even when we think of the first part of Superman’s origin, a doomed planet and a character who is forced to grow up in a world that is completely alien to him, far removed from his own heritage, we are left with the ultimate immigrant story. But when you look at the specific origin of the character, a child sent off from his dying homeland as a baby in the hopes that he will thrive somewhere safe where he can start to make the world a better place, we’re looking at a character who directly parallels the story of Moses. Like Superman, Moses was meant to inspire and to lead. He was placed in a basket and sent floating down the river by his parents when they realized their way of life was at an end. Superman, of course, placed in a rocket by his parents moments before his home planet of Krypton exploded.
In one of the few instances of later storytelling further embracing the original roots of this character, in Adventure Comics #271 it’s revealed that Clark Kent and Lex Luthor knew each other growing up in Smallville. This idea was explored more and more over time, expanded on in comics like Superman: Birthright and finally the TV series Smallville to the point that the newly accepted canon seemed to be that Clark and Lex were great friends in their youth, even brotherly in many ways, but that a rift between them would cause them to take extremely different paths, especially as Lex accumulated his massive wealth and power.
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Superman’s pop culture evolution, considering that Lex Luthor was originally just created as a two-dimensional stock Mad Scientist character. Yet as Superman shifted further and further away from his original conception, Lex Luthor changed drastically in that same time to adopt an origin that retained much of the original Jewish themes of the series, with a backstory and connection with Clark that paralleled the relationship of Moses and the Pharoah Ramses, particularly in the animated adaptation The Prince of Egypt, which hit theaters just as this origin for Lex was beginning to be cemented and just before it would become the most well known origin for Luthor with Smallville.
But when looking at the Jewish origins of Superman and especially the character’s important role as a figurehead of modern day Jewish mythology, we can’t simply look at who he was created by but when he was created. Superman made his debut in Action Comics #1 in April of 1938, just over a year before the onset of World War II. The writing was on the wall. The Nazis had rose to prominence in Europe and Adolph Hitler was a leader of his people with many, many loyal followers at his back. It was an absolutely terrifying time. Nobody really knew for sure if war was on its way within the year, but the oppression was very real. On one level, Siegel and Shuster admitted that the character was simply wish fulfillment. They wanted to create someone who could do all of the things they wished they could do, someone who could be sure of himself, who could get the girl, and who had the power to fight back against his oppressors.
But Anti-Semitism didn’t begin and end with the Nazi party. It was everywhere. For many, many Jews both just before and after the war, having to lose one’s heritage became a matter of survival. Many families converted to Christianity when they emigrated to the States, and many more changed their names to something that sounded whiter, that would be less noticeably Jewish. It’s very easy to see that reflected in Kal-El’s day-to-day persona of Clark Kent.
While Clark was raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent under that name, the identity of mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent was something he chose to take on. He designed this persona so that people would not recognize him for what he really was, so that he could be someone that no one would suspect as being anything other than he appeared to be. For someone as powerful as Superman, especially given that he is an alien, the very idea of having a secret identity is purely and simply a means of passing. And for Jews around the world, when they were under a hateful microscope leading to one of the most devastating tragedies in world history, passing was a very real concern at the time.
For Superman, heritage was fragmented and scattered, but traceable. And home was something he could never return to. It simply didn’t exist anymore. This was the experience of the Jewish immigrant in America, in a nutshell. Over time, Clark Kent began to pass so well as something other than what he was that it appeared everyone else forgot too. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were fired off of their own book, they sued for rights which they clearly never got and while their names are on everything that features the character it became fundamentally clear early on that Superman no longer belonged to them. After World War II, into the cold war and the swelling American pride of the 1950s, Superman became branded as a symbol of “truth, justice and the American way.”
The more and more popular the character became, the further he drifted from the original incarnation. With the world’s most successful superhero being so overpowered and god-like, more and more writers and filmmakers adopted the Christ motif when they tackled the character to the point that it has almost come to define the character in the present day. But the origin, the core, of Superman is still there. It’s right where Siegel and Shuster left it. No matter what changes on the surface over time, the fundamental heart of Superman is Jewish. It is rooted in both Jewish experiences and folklore.
It is not something that will ever go away unless it is totally forgotten, and even then, it will be there waiting to be rediscovered. But so many lost their traditions after World War II that it would be a shame for Superman to meet that same fate so many decades later. And that is why Superman should be celebrated for the Jewish icon that he truly is and was always meant to be.