Superman is the Jesus Christ of superheroes. At first glance, with the second coming of Superman upon us in the form of "Superman Returns," one might read that line and wonder just what Christian evangelicals are up to now. As one recent post on "Superman Returns" at rottentomatoes.com asked, "Can't we leave God out of this for once?"
It depends on who the "we" is. In this case, that line--"Superman is the Jesus Christ of superheroes"--comes from none other than the director of "Superman Returns," Bryan Singer, in an interview with Wizard magazine. And if those words don't carry enough Christic resonance for you, when asked what "Superman Returns" is about, Singer told Entertainment Weekly magazine, "It's a story about what happens when Messiahs come back."
One might wonder just what Singer is up to. Why are the movie makers promoting Superman as a Christ figure? One reason is because the Superman storytellers always have; that spiritual history started almost in the beginning.
In the late 1930s, we first learned the identities of the kindly Kansas couple who take in the special star child when Pa Kent turns to Ma and says, "Look Mary! It's a child." With Mary as the mother, it is little surprise later on when we learn Pa's middle name: Joseph. While Mary was later changed to Martha, Joseph continues to be Jonathan's middle name today.
In 1942, George Lowther, narrator, writer and later director of the highly successful Superman radio show wrote the first Superman novel, "The Adventures of Superman." In his novel, Lowther gave Superman and his father the last name of "El"--a Hebrew word for God. So from that point forward, with the father christened Jor-El and the son christened Kal-El, the Superman story became one of El (God) the father sending El (God) the son to save the Earth.
In 1952, George Reeves began his run in "The Adventures of Superman" television show. As Superman comic book writer/artist Jerry Ordway described, Reeves was "the fatherly Superman... mainly because Jack Larson's Jimmy Olsen character was so integral to the plot." As the son who represents a father, Reeves became--in the words he used at the beginning of each episode--the embodiment of that "strange visitor... who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men." Of course, we're still talking about Superman.
In 1978, "Superman: The Movie" made explicit much of the symbolism linking Superman to Christ. So said Tom Mankiewicz, the writer of the movie, on the film's DVD: "The metaphor was clearly there when Jor-El sends Superman to Earth with God sending Christ to save humanity."
Among the many Gospel-inspired story elements, the film also incorporates the journey into the wilderness--like Christ going into the desert, Clark goes into the artic. There, Clark builds the Fortress of Solitude, which looks like a cathedral, to commune with the spirit of his father. He will emerge for his mission at age 30--the same age that Christ began his public ministry.
In 1992, in the "Death of Superman" comic book storyline, Superman dies. The death issue sold an astonishing six million copies, making it the best-selling comic book ever. The murderous villain responsible for our Christ-figure's demise was called Doomsday: The Armageddon Creature--and if that doesn't ring a biblical bell, after you finish this article, please turn in your Bible to the Book of Revelation.
After Superman's death, it was only a short time later that his tomb was found empty. But don't take my word for it. To quote Lois Lane, "Oh Lord! It's empty! His tomb is empty!" And sure enough, after his literal death, Superman was literally resurrected to life. Good thing too, because neither his story, nor his re-telling of the Gospel story, was finished yet.
From 2001 to present, "Smallville" has been chronicling the beginning of the never-ending battle for truth and justice. Notably, in the pilot episode--with a nod to the Passion story--Clark winds up on a cross: The school bullies inadvertently get Clark around kryptonite, and in his weakened state, he is unable to resist as they tie him to a scarecrow mast in the middle of a cornfield. "I thought there were a lot of metaphors between Clark and Jesus, actually," commented David Nutter, director of the episode. "And I tried to throw in as many of them as I could."
Now, momentously, with the first Superman movie in nearly 20 years, Superman returns. As director Bryan Singer sums up, "There's definitely an allegory--a Judeo-Christian allegory--that's happening in the mythology of Superman, right up to the fact that he descends from the heavens." Here he's descending for the second time--an event with obvious allusions to the Second Coming.
As the storyline of the new film picks up, Superman has ascended into the heavens, returning to Krypton after the planet explodes to see if he is in fact the Only Son. The film focuses on his return, which the studio press release paints in spiritual language as "an epic journey of redemption."
To prove that point, in the movie, Lois is heard to say the almost anti-Christic line: "The world doesn't need a savior. And neither do I." To which, Superman responds, "You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior. But everyday I hear people crying for one."
That last sentiment exactly encapsulates the way in which the popularly accepted Superman story has come into being. On one side, the Superman storytellers were looking to tell the most significant story they could--and they consciously gravitated toward the Gospel story. And on the other side, the audience was responding to the most profound figure they knew--and, consciously or not, they were drawn through the symbolism of the Gospel Savior.
In closing, our reading today comes from the well-known verses--originally found in "Superman: The Movie" and repeated in the first trailer for "Superman Returns": "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."