Superman and Faith

June 17th, 2013
Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

“Look! Up in the Sky!”

One of this summer’s most anticipated movies is Man of Steel, the latest silver screen adventure of Superman. According to director Zack Snyder, however, Man of Steel is “a movie that finally goes with the approach that there’s been no other Superman movies.” Convinced that Superman has become, for the general public, “this kind of big, blue Boy Scout up on a throne, that nobody can really touch,” Snyder wants to make him “more accessible.” Henry Cavill, the actor now donning Superman’s cape, told a convention hall of long-time comic readers the new film is “for everyone else out there. . . . Hopefully it can bring a modern version [of Superman] which everyone can associate with.”

Is Superman relevant? That question is, as journalist Larry Tye writes in his recently published history of the character, a question “fans and pundits are asking as Superman approaches the ripe age of seventy-five, just as they did at his first birthday and his tenth, and at his silver and golden jubilees. He has belied every prediction of his demise and defied the life expectancy for cultural icons and literary properties.” In a fast-paced, constantly changing pop cultural landscape, why has this character—Kal-El, the extraordinary “last son of Krypton,” who lives among mere mortals disguised as ordinary newspaper reporter Clark Kent—proved popular for three quarters of a century?

“Making Daydreams Come True”

Even people who’ve never watched an episode of the 1950’s Adventures of Superman TV series can likely recite its opening narration: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” This litany of Superman’s “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men” abides in the public consciousness because it deftly captures a large part of his appeal: He embodies escapist fantasy and wish fulfillment. “My name is Superman,” he said in one of his early newspaper comic strips, “and my hobby is making daydreams come true.”

Certainly, he manifested his creators’ dreams and wishes. Superman debuted in the premiere issue of Action Comics in the spring of 1938, when writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were both just 23 years old, not far removed from, by most accounts, their awkward adolescent years. “They both wore eyeglasses,” notes author Tom De Haven, “and neither played ball. They didn’t date much. They didn’t date, period.” Siegel in particular tapped into the frustrations and fantasies of youth to craft a character who, in Tye’s words, “would have everything Jerry wanted for himself”—not only super powers but also a pretty girl’s affectionate attentions. One of Siegel’s unrequited crushes was a girl named Lois. Perhaps she unknowingly bequeathed her name to Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane, who admires Superman even as she disdains his meek, bespectacled alter ego, Clark Kent.

In one memorable sequence from Superman: The Movie (1978), a teenaged Clark punts a football into the stratosphere and effortlessly runs alongside a fast-moving passenger train. His super-powered showing off earns him his adoptive father’s gentle reprimand, but many audiences cheer young Clark on. Superman does things we can only dream of doing. His exploits have enchanted us for 75 years, in part, because they invite us to imagine revealing ourselves as mighty men and women ready to soar skyward to save the day as an awestruck world looks on.

“Somebody Save Me”

Superman may also fulfill a deeper wish. Jerry Siegel’s father died of a heart attack shortly after robbers stole a suit from the clothing shop he owned. Jerry was just under 18 at the time. According to Tye, this tragic loss sparked Jerry’s first version of “a bulletproof avenger who beat back bullies. . . In the only artwork that survives from that first imagining, [he] soars to the rescue of a middle-aged man being held up by a robber.”

From his earliest days, then, Superman has been a savior figure. In Action Comics #1, he is introduced as the “champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who has sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” He has been helping them ever since. Even the hit TV series Smallville (2001–11), which deliberately kept an adolescent Clark Kent out of the famous red-and-blue costume until the final moments of its final episode, showed him saving innocents from danger each week and took as its musical theme a rock song entitled “Save Me.”

Given his role as a rescuer, it’s not surprising that many people see parallels between Superman and other saviors, including religious ones. Author Gabriel McKee calls him “the most recognizable messiah figure in modern popular culture.”

Superman shares with Moses the experience of having been saved from danger as an infant: He was launched in a rocket into space by his father, Jor-El, that he might escape the dying planet Krypton, much as Moses was launched in a basket into the Nile by his mother that he might escape Pharaoh’s genocidal edict (Exodus 2:1-3; Hebrews 11:23). As Moses grew to become a leader and liberator, so did Kal-El of Krypton.

As portrayed in Superman: The Movie, Superman shares with Jesus the experience of having been sent into our world on a mission of salvation from his father. Jor-El tells his son (speaking with overtones of both John 1:5 and 3:16) that human beings “can be a great people, Kal-El. . . . They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, . . . I have sent them you, my only son.”

In Superman’s last major motion picture, Superman Returns (2006), he at one point tells Lois Lane, who has penned a Pulitzer-winning anti- Superman op-ed, “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior. But every day, I hear millions crying out for one.” Maybe we’ve “cried out” for Superman for 75 years because we recognize, on some level, that we need to be saved. Certainly, Christian faith affirms this truth. But we need to be saved from sin, evil, and death in all their forms. That doesn’t look like a job for Superman or any other fictional hero.

The Never-Ending Battle

Superman can’t save real people. He can, however, inspire plenty of them; and that fact may well be the secret of his 75 years of success.

Fans of morally ambiguous superheroes like Batman or Wolverine often belittle him for it, but Superman sticks to the clear code of right and wrong with which Pa and Ma Kent raised him. In Action Comics #775 (2001), for instance, he proves his moral vision is even sharper than his X-ray eyesight when he declares, “Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. . . . Until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share—I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.”

Superman’s dream of how the world can be sounds a lot like how God intended this world to be, and the way God will one day re-create this world to be. God dreams of a world where, as ancient Israel’s prophets preached, “justice roll[s] down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24); a world that Jesus announced had come near in his own proclamation, through word and action, of good news to the poor, release to prisoners, and liberation to the oppressed (Luke 4:16- 21); a world that will finally descend to us from heaven, in which God will make all things new (Revelation 21:1-5).

The God we know in Jesus Christ alone can save us. That same God, however, claims and calls us to live as agents of salvation. Ephesians 2:10 tells us, “We are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” As the Reverend Dr. Rachael Keefe, a United Church of Christ pastor, writes, “Jesus works through us in ways that could potentially make any one of us into a superhero for someone else.”

Prolific comic book writer Mark Waid, with several Superman scripts to his credit, sums up the character this way: “Here is a guy with the power of a god, . . . [but] when presented with the opportunity, he takes action to make things better—and that’s a power that lies within us all.” Empowered to act for truth and justice by the Holy Spirit, all Christians can say “amen” to that.

Or, perhaps, “Up, up, and away!”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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