March 6, 2023


How Superman Became a Christ-Like Figure in American Culture (Roy Schwartz, March 6, 2023, LitHub)

The first seeds were sowed with the development of his childhood years, largely by other writers. The one undeniably evocative motif that was there from the beginning is of a child sent down from the heavens by his father. But originally, he wasn't found by the Kents and raised in Smallville. In his first appearance, baby Superman is found by a "passing motorist" and turned over to a city orphanage, where he grows up. When the origin is revised a year later he's still raised in an urban environment, but this time he's found and adopted by Mary--same as Jesus's mother--and her unnamed husband. By 1951 Mary had changed to Martha, her husband named Jonathan and the hometown became Smallville.

With all the pieces in place, Clark's upbringing resembled Jesus's; both were born far beyond and raised in small towns. Both had surrogate fathers who were humble laborers, Jonathan a farmer and Joseph a carpenter. Both are celestial by nature and human by nurture, and it's the years of living as normal people that allowed them to experience, understand and cherish humanity.

With the onset of WWII the patriotic Superman quickly became an infallible American icon, and in the patriarchal, sanitized, comics-censuring 1950s he grew to resemble Christ in his saintly perfection. Though he hasn't been that way since at least the mid-1970s, it's a public image he still contends with.

But where Superman really first became a Christ figure is 1978's Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve. His father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is a white-haired man dressed in luminous white, reminiscent of God in Medieval and Renaissance art. In dialog evocative of New Testament passages, he tells his child, "The son becomes the father, and the father, the son" and "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."

It marks a fundamental shift in Superman's mythology, from a baby sent to Earth by desperate parents so he can be saved to a son sent to Earth by a benevolent father to become its savior. It recast the Last Son of Krypton as a reimagined Son of God, which became a central theme in later films and shows--though not the comics, which have largely stayed true to the original narrative.

The movie is otherwise suffused with Christian allusions, like Kal-El's spacecraft resembling a Star of Bethlehem/Christmas tree topper and Superman saving mankind from its own sin in the form of Lex Luthor's greed, to the point that director Richard Donner received death threats over the sacrilege.

These themes were further expanded in 1980's Superman II, in which the villain, General Zod (Terence Stamp), is given a tweaked origin story; the leader of Krypton's army, he attempts a coup but fails, and is cast by Jor-El to the Phantom Zone, a prison dimension of "eternal living death." He escapes, seeking to destroy the son of his jailer and place himself ruler of mankind.

It's the story of Lucifer Morningstar in Milton's Paradise Lost, and Zod is even remodeled from his comic book look with slicked-back hair and a widow's peak, sharply manicured beard, and a black and crimson outfit, resembling the popular image of the devil since Goethe's Faust. Superman, accordingly, is cast in the role of Jesus.

In the comics, the first real Christ allegory wasn't until the 1992-1993 storyline "The Death and Return of Superman." A yearlong opus spanning multiple series, it begins with Superman battling the monster Doomsday. Superman endures a Passion to stop him, stigmatically cut by Doomsday's spikes in lieu of thorns and nails, ultimately sacrificing himself to save Metropolis and the world. The issue of his death, Superman Vol. 2 #75, ends with Lois cradling his body like Michelangelo's Pietà.

When a vigil is held at his monument, people carry signs reading "Savior" and "He died for you," and shortly after, his sepulcher is found empty. Four Supermen then appear, false messiahs claiming his name or mantle (just as Jesus warns in Matthew & Mark). One of them, Cyborg Superman, is revealed to be a genocidal villain, and the real Parousia occurs in the nick of time for Superman to save mankind from the great deceiver, completing the scriptural arc.

Posted by at March 6, 2023 12:00 AM