It happens most of the time I think about him… no sooner do I imagine him, be it his code or his feats that I feel myself misting up. Though I am a man of more than thirty winters, his name still provokes a profound personal response in my emotions: Superman.
But he was never my favorite superhero growing up. No, that honor belonged to Batman. Whenever I tied a makeshift cape around my neck, it was always as the Dark Knight – never the Man of Steel. I knew, yet in my childish flights of fancy, that I was not even worthy to play at being what he represented.
I could always relate easily to Batman, the flawed “chaotic good” anti-hero, who rejects proper law and order in lieu of vigilante justice. Make no mistake, Batman is an honorable hero on the whole – but there is an ultimate ethical compromise in what he represents, and his flaws are all-too-human. Perhaps it is this, more than anything else, that makes him so easy to relate to.
However, Superman is something else. Whether intended to or not by his creators, I believe Superman represents a literary “Christ-figure” in our culture, and might even be helpful in communicating the nature, purpose, and nature of Our Lord.
As a Christ-figure, Superman often draws direct and indirect connotations between himself and Jesus Christ, such that it is often cited and/or derided by secular pop culture commentators. From his habit of assuming a “Jesus Christ pose” (legs straight down and arms outstretched) while suspended in mid-air, to his salvific mission toward humanity, the curators of the Superman mythos borrow generously from those of the Christian messiah. What’s more, the parallels (whether intended or coincidental) are hard to ignore.
Superman has a sort of “divine paternity” – at least, a divine paternity in the comic world motif.
Kal-El (Superman’s proper name) is the only son of Jor-El. In fundamental Christian doctrine, Jesus Christ (God the Son) is understood to have direct kinship with YHVH “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (God the Father).
They’re not related in a universal sense the way all of humanity is connected, but a very particular sense. Jesus is the “only begotten son” of God, as Kal-El is to Jor-El.
Of course, it’s also worth mentioning that the name “El” itself has divine allusions. Whether in the Canaanite religions (“El” is a generic ancient Semitic term for “god”) to that of the Judeo-Christian appellation of El Shaddai (God, the Almighty), Elohim (God, the Divine), and other cognates.
And there’s much, much more….
I could delve into how Kal-El’s boyhood life and miracles have uncanny parallels to that of what little is known of that of young Jesus. I could expound upon how young Clark Kent leaving Smallville upon reaching maturity finds parallels with both the pre-Messianic Jewish diaspora as well as Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Not to mention how many plot points in Superman I and II mirror those of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry.
But that’s not really the point of what I’m writing today.
In this latest reinterpretation of the Superman saga, I find myself stirred in familiar ways, and my thoughts directed far above a costumed hero’s exploits – my eyes looking beyond him toward the true savior, of which Kal-El is but a dim shadow.
“Every person can be a force for good.”
Our story opens on the destruction of a world by the upheaval of General Zod, the vile betrayal by one meant to serve and protect, against the just ruler, Jor-El – an easy parallel for the heavenly betrayal of former archangel Lucifer (and his minions) against God the Father.
While this “paradise” is destroyed in the initial battle, Jor-El knows that the war is far from over. Jor-El sends his son to earth. Of course, there are plenty of areas where the narrative arc fails as a clear metaphor (and this is one of them), but I submit that it’s not meant to be so.
While Jor-El sends his son away to save him from the destruction of his own home world, YHVH instead sends His son to earth both to achieve the ultimate victory over evil – as well as to accomplish the ultimate salvation. Jor-El is motivated by hope, while El Shaddai is motivated by a loving-kindness for His creation as well as a holy wrath against evil.
Kal-El grows up in our world, bullied by oafish fools. So too was Christ not even respected as a prophet in his own hometown.
Within them both abides more strength, more absolute power, than either of their respective scoffers can even imagine. The ruling authorities fear and malign them both.
It doesn’t matter.
As the world is crumbling around them, they both hurl themselves into the burning fray. Fearless, courageous, inexpungable. Superman fights for the visible world of civilization, order, and finite justice against an evil tyrant. Jesus sacrifices Himself to pay the debt of sin caused by the Fall, condemns Satan to Hell as final judge, and saves His people for all-time through the redemption of the Universe.
Superman is not stoic or indifferent to his mission. From the core of his being, he hates evil. Unlike Batman, he doesn’t find a “little bit of evil” to sometimes be expedient for the cause of the greater purpose.
Superman, in the more compelling scenes of his story, is seen screaming and raging at the cruelty and wickedness of his adversaries. In his heart, he passionately despises the victimization of the innocent and will not stand for it to occur.
Superman (more often than not) exemplifies a pure form of heroism. Risking all for others. Giving of himself. Taking nothing for his own.
Of course, he’s also the “Man of Steel” and not as easily damaged by the elements.
Superman knows that he is the way he is for a reason. To lead, guide, and protect those who are weak and good, from those who are powerful and evil. Superman loves virtue deeply, and so he must hate depravity deeply.
Like your friendly neighborhood firemen, police, and first responders (most of whom feel a profound sense of “calling” about their work), they run into the burning building, they face down violent criminals, they use their “powers” to save those who are injured.
“You can save them… you can save all of them.”
Superman and Jesus Christ both are defined by their salvific nature. “Jesus saves” is a cultural trope in itself. One cannot think of Superman without picturing him swooping in at the last minute to “save the day.” Even for those who consider Jesus as a merely a “historical figure” and/or “good, moral teacher” cannot help but concede that what He represents in our civilization is someone who is wholly good, giving himself for others.
I simply cannot see or imagine myself in this light.
Sure, I can do my meager bit of good. I can do my little part in the greater plan. I can be a foot soldier, following the commands sent from on high, but it is wholly irrelevant The war will be won without me.
Like Batman, I am just a man. Tender flesh, fragile bone. Aging quickly with each passing season. Just another nameless man among the millions, hiding behind my mask, hurling myself into the fray in nightly diversions.
Sure, every once in a while I might achieve a small victory against the “dime-store hoods” of ideas. But it is a meager work indeed.
And for me, and men like me, the Joker always gets away.