The misunderstanding of Superman as a religious metaphor
It is not hard to understand why Superman, DC Comics’ man of steel, is so often associated with Christian imagery. The character -- a strong-chested and even stronger-willed superhero created in 1938 -- has in recent years been shoehorned into obvious Christian iconography. Superman died and was resurrected in a massive storyline during the ‘90s that came complete with a trip to Kryptonian heaven. Bryan Singer cast Clark Kent as a messiah figure in Superman Returns -- denied personal pleasures and a family due to his commitment to humanity at large. In the wonderful comic book series KINGDOM COME by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, the DC Universe was taken on a trip through the Bible’s Book of Revelations, as narrated by a minister who only regains his faith after Superman ditches his retired life as a carpenter and returns to lead the disciples that have sprung up in his absence. Even in the CW teen-centric television show Smallville, Clark Kent was introduced to audiences hanging on a crucifix as part of a high school prank.
Despite the many instances of Superman as a Christ figure, the origins of the comic book hero are much more firmly rooted in Judaism. As Larry Tye recounts in his book SUPERMAN: THE HIGH-FLYING HISTORY OF AMERICA'S MOST ENDURING HERO, Superman (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two Jewish men whose dreams of telling stories brought them together to work on a fanzine while growing up in Cleveland) shows his ethnic heritage in his name itself.
Kal-El, Superman’s Kryptonian name, features the suffix El, Hebrew for God. The prefix Kal is very similar to the Hebrew words for “voice” or “vessel.” The Samson-like Superman is one of a long line of powerful warriors of Hebrew legend. In fact, while many modern writers have seen Superman’s journey from Krypton as a parallel to God sending his only son to Earth, Kal-El’s journey (cast adrift in a rocket ship from a society on the brink of disaster) has much more in common with the story of Moses, the prophet who as a baby was floated down the river in a reed basket to escape the death warrant of a mad Pharaoh.
“Truth, Justice and the American Way”: this is the motto of Superman, but it also closely resembles a line from the Mishnah, a collection of oral traditions from Jewish culture that says “the world endures on three things: justice, truth, and peace.” Even the Nazis spotted the obvious ties between Superman and Judaism -- Das Schwarze Krorps, the newspaper for the S.S., published a tirade against Superman and his Jewish creators -- calling the comic a poison that sows “hate, suspicion, evil, laziness and criminality” in the hearts of American youth.
To be fair, Shuster and Siegel denied explicitly creating Superman as a Jewish hero -- though they have admitted they were inspired by the anti-Semitism present at the time of the hero’s creation. Shuster and Siegel would go on to create an explicitly Jewish superhero: Funnyman. A comedian turned crimefighter modeled after Danny Kaye, Funnyman was an attempt by Shuster and Siegel to stage a comeback after being left practically penniless following the retroactively ridiculously low sum they received for the rights to Superman.
Almost every religion has attempted to co-opt some aspect of the Man of Steel at one point or another. It’s not hard to figure out why, either. Superman, with his limitless strength and unflinching sense of right and wrong, is more god than man. One of the best Superman stories ever told is the 1979 novel THE KRYPTONITE KID by Joseph Torchia. The book is an epistolary novel told through the letters of a young boy who yearns to worship Superman.
Set during the late ‘50s, the book’s protagonist Jerry Chariot writes regular letters to Superman, believing him to be a real-life figure. Jerry, raised in a strict Catholic family, writes letters that are near prayers with some correspondences even attempting to trick Superman into revealing he’s really another aspect of God. One letter even begs Superman to use his super-breath powers to extinguish the flames of hell after Jerry is told he is headed to damnation by a nun who discovers a poem about how much better Superman is than Jesus.
As the novel progresses, Jerry’s letters become more and more desperate and the book becomes a heartbreaking portrait of a boy struggling with his faith, his sexuality, and his future -- with Jerry leaning all the while on the belief that one day Superman will fly down from the heavens and save him.
Jerry’s painful pleas to Superman to reward his faith and rescue him from his abusive father perfectly capture the divine context that Superman has adopted during his ascension to pop culture icon. More so than any other instantly recognizable fictional characters, there is something unique about Superman that dissolves the line between entertainment and religion.
Superman, for many children, is an early symbol of an always-caring, perpetually selfless hero. Spider-Man struggles with his purpose and Batman, in his quest to avenge his parents, becomes as totalitarian as a real-life parental figure to a young child. But Superman is sacrifice, strength and salvation rolled into one. He’s a hero who will always be willing to lay down his own life no matter what the cause -- be it an asteroid headed to earth or a cat stuck in a tree. He has a sense of humor and a zest for life. He’s comfortable in his skin and unwavering in his beliefs. Superman, an alien from another planet who has been converted to the ways and customs of his new home, is the ultimate missionary for humanity. Can you blame religion for wanting a piece of that pie?
But, in the end, let’s remember that Superman was created by two awkward Jewish youth living in poverty. The character is taken from his home and thrust into a strange new land only to make it good -- sharing his specialized skill-set and being recognized for his talents. He’s first and foremost an immigrant and as such is a reminder that regardless of what background you have or religion you claim, you have a place in America as we strive to live up to the ideals espoused by Superman.
This article was originally written for Birth. Movies. Death.