Superman and Salvation

I have almost no interest in superheroes. Never owned a comic book; didn’t get remotely excited about The Avengers coming together; and think that the only really great superhero movie was the one where Heath Ledger’s Joker embodied evil — I honestly can’t remember anything Batman said or did in The Dark Knight.

Man of SteelBut I am interested that many people are interested in superheroes. In particular, that so many Christian writers are responding to the latest reboot of Superman as a film franchise. It’s tempting to note the film as another, rather transparent example of Hollywood trying to market to a Christian audience. (Here’s the “Man of Steel Ministry Resources” site.) Jonathan Merritt is surely on to something when he writes:

On the one hand, there is much to applaud in Hollywood’s effort to explore religious themes through film and television. Too much of it is merely mindless entertainment without any redemptive elements to speak of. The more art produced that expresses the good, true, and beautiful, the better.

And yet, the whole ordeal makes me a little uncomfortable because it represents another step forward in the commodification of Christianity. In a land of profit and greed, these trends illustrate once again that unchecked capitalism can leverage anything—even faith, even Jesus—to turn a buck. As one comic blogger said, the effort “comes off like a money grab.” It’s hard to disagree with him.

Let’s be clear that Warner Brothers isn’t trying to spread the Christian gospel; they are trying to make a profit. And, whether we like it or not, religion in America can be a lucrative business. In this case, generating profit means transforming pastors into marketers, hocking movie tickets from their pulpits. If the real test of morality is not just the nature of a behavior, but how that behavior shapes us as human beings, then this trend fails that test.

But at the same time, you don’t have to know much about the Superman story to know why a company like Warner Brothers thinks this is a potentially fruitful strategy. I’ll leave it to Paul Asay’s recent post in the On Faith section of the Washington Post website to outline the Christ/Superman parallels:

Henry Cavill as Superman
British actor Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel – Wikimedia

There’s always been a Messiah-like element in Superman—a baby sent to earth from beyond and destined to save the world. But never has Superman been so Christ-like as in Man of Steel.

He keeps his nature mostly hidden as a child, just as Jesus did. He reveals himself to the world at age 33, the age when Jesus began his ministry. And he does so by turning himself into human authorities—allowing himself to be “captured” for the sake of humanity. Never mind that no one can make Supes do anything he doesn’t want to do—just as no one had real authority over Jesus during his own pre-crucifixion saga, either. By the time Superman floats in space with his arms splayed out as if nailed to an invisible cross, it seems like overkill.

The religious themes keep coming: Free will. Sacrifice. God-given purpose. Man of Steel isn’t just a movie. It’s a Bible study in a cape.

(I’m sure I’m not the only one who can’t recall much about the last Superman movie, Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns, but digging back into Peter Chattaway’s review for Christianity Today, it is interesting that he came away feeling that “whereas the first film [Richard Donner’s version with Christopher Reeve] had an almost mystical sensibility that lent itself to religious allegory, the new film does not.”)

Asay then notes the marketing campaign, admits that he’s not immune, but concludes:

But for me, the power in this story isn’t just in how Superman and Jesus are similar. It’s how they’re different.

Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Jesus made the lame walk. Superman can see through people’s skin. Jesus helped the blind to see. Superman saves the world through his muscle and might and derring-do. Jesus, according to Christianity, saved it in the most unexpected way possible. He was no CGI superhero, but a man on a cross.

Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
Poster for a 1951 film in which Jesus, er, Superman battles the mole men – Wikimedia

Asay developed this in much greater detail on his own blog. Reflecting on a moment in his childhood when he wondered if Superman might really be real, only to be disillusioned, Asay asks “the inevitable question: If Superman and Jesus are so much alike, is Jesus real? Plenty of us call on Him in our darkest times. And sometimes, it doesn’t feel like we get an answer. Are we calling in vain? Are we just longing for someone to save us—someone who’s not there?”

As in the Post post, Asay’s answer emphasizes the differences between Superman and Jesus, but he develops the paradox (“the greatest paradox of them all) of “a ‘Savior’ who, it appeared, couldn’t even save himself” in ways that he couldn’t in a brief post for a more religiously plural audience:

Two thousand years ago, we were looking for Superman. We got something even better, even if it was hard to recognize at the time. Jesus didn’t just save our lives or homes or society: He saved us—the soul of us, the core of us.

We get that. And yet (paradoxically) we don’t. And maybe, in a way, we’re incapable of getting it. We’re human, after all—very much attached to our lives and livelihoods and stuff. We hurt. We suffer. We cry out for help.

While that help sometimes comes — once in a while through actual miracles, at times in the quiet restoration of our perseverance — often it does not:

There are times we shout for a Savior at the top of our lungs. We plead for help. And in the midst of our hurt and grief, it can feel as though no one came.

I don’t think, when we feel like that, it’s because (as sometimes happens with Superman) God’s too busy saving other people to tend to us at the moment. I certainly don’t think it’s because we’re calling on someone who’s not even there.

I believe that He’s there and He hears us. He loves us dearly. But at the same time, He understands—and wants us to understand—that in the deepest of ways, we don’t need saving: We’ve already been saved. It’s not that He’s not coming for us. It’s that He already has.

For still more pointed critiques of the Superman-as-Christ metaphor, see Alicia Cohn’s post at Her.meneutics (“Christ represents a very specific hope and an eternal promise much better than just a longer lifespan. Next to that kind of power, sacrifice, and deliverance for all, Superman seems downright puny”) and Joe Carter’s at The Gospel Coalition (“Superman doesn’t remind of Jesus; he reminds us of our dad”). And, as this Forbes (!) post on the Christian marketing campaign noted, South Park satirized the Jesus-as-superhero idea years ago.

3 thoughts on “Superman and Salvation

  1. As a Christian geek, I have no doubt that many superheroes and more ordinary heroes and even fantastical beings answer a desire in us for saving — from the scary place that the world can be and from even the more ordinary stresses of day-to-day life. A friend of mine has pointed out that many girls fantasize about Edward Cullen from Twilight — an nonhuman boyfriend who watches over Bella while she sleeps. What they are longing for, of course, is God. As a Whovian, I’ve been waiting for someone to come out with “The Gospel According to the Doctor,” because while the Doctor is fallible, he has set himself up as Earth’s protector — and isn’t that a comforting thought when everything seems out of control? Many Whovians also dream of the Doctor showing up on their doorstep, asking them to leave their ordinary lives and join him on his adventures, when the adventure of a lifetime awaits us in following Jesus.

    Even when we aren’t looking for a hero to save us, we dream of being saved. Apparently, many people have a hospital fantasy (Katrina Alcorn, “Do You Have a Hospital Fantasy?” 8/16/11, Huffington Post), which involves getting to spend a few days in a hospital so one can get a rest. I don’t fantasize about being hospitalized, but when I am stressed or sick, I long for someone to swoop in and take care of me for a while.

    Which leads me to this: I think Asay could be somewhat correct in saying that when we yearn to be saved, God may not show up because he wants us to know that we are already saved. But I also think that maybe God doesn’t save us, because we are supposed to watch out for each other. All too often, we get to busy to look out for the exhausted new mom or the lonely shut-in or just our spouse who is run-down and has a cold and would appreciate hearing, “Why don’t you put your feet up for a few days, and I’ll take care of what needs to be done?” I know I’ve failed in this area, and I’ve been failed in this area. We are, indeed, saved, but being human, as Asay points out, we still suffer. Sometimes when God apparently doesn’t show up, it’s because he’s created a world where we are often called to serve as his hands and feet, and at times we fail in that area.

    1. Thanks, Kate! In light of your last paragraph, Cohn’s response to Superman is interesting: “Superman represents different things to different people; to me, he’s the ultimate volunteer, using his unique talents for others out of a Midwestern sense of ‘pitching in’ on a large scale.”

  2. While I was decluttering last night, I came across the May/June 2007 issue of the Wittenburg Door. It includes an “interview” with Superman in honor of the movie Superman Returns, which you mentioned briefly above, and which was also referred to by Alicia Cohn. It includes this tidbit:
    “Door: In the pre-release hype leading up to Superman Returns, Bryan Singer referred to you as ‘the Jesus Christ of super-heroes.’ After the movie’s release, evangelical news outlets referred to your film as ‘the gospel according to Superman.’ What’s your response to that?”
    Superman: We were so pleased by the positive response of the Christian community, and particularly that they caught on to all the religious symbolism of the movie. I love that trailer where my Dad says, ‘You are my son, my only son” … And then, of course, there was that whole dying and coming back to life bit. I don’t know if you noticed, but when I was dying I held my hands out sort of like I was on the cross. …”
    And later:
    “Door: Some of your critics have implied that the ‘Jesus angle’ was purely an advertising gimmick.”
    Superman: And boy did it work! It’s nice when Christians want to sell your movie so badly. …”

    If you’d like this issue of the Door, I’m happy to give it to you. Otherwise, it’s going into the free magazine box at the Mounds View library sometime soon. The articles include “Jesus Was a Homeless Bum,” an interview with Ron Hall and Denver Moore, “Solving America’s Quaker Joke Shortage,” an interview with Jimmy Dorrell, an interview with Shane Claiborne and “Pythons to Fund Grail Search.” Let me know.

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