The Theology of Superman: Hope for the Empire

By now, many will have already seen this article or others like it describing the Warner Bros. campaign to get pastors to talk about Man of Steel this past Sunday, which was Fathers’ Day, using a guide developed by Pepperdine theologian Craig Detweiler. The main thrust of the sermon is centered around this question: “How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?”

The CNN story goes on to set up the “debate” surrounding this marketing tactic on the part of Warner Bros. as between Christians who think this is a good way to show the world that we can get behind something in pop culture and those who think films are “pumped out from Hollywood’s sewers.”

What is fascinating to me about this set up is that it simply takes the messianic parallels as given and obvious. The film is just obviously about Jesus and a parallel to his story–so now the only question is whether or not Christians are willing to trust Hollywood to speak the story of Jesus to them through a “worldly” medium like film. As Detweiler himself is quoted in the article, “All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like `Man of Steel,’ this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service.”

My concern is that “faith, sacrifice, and service,” while all wonderful attributes to have, do not sum up the story of Jesus. In fact, by making that the distillation of Jesus’ life and ministry, the sermon notes seem to direct us away from what should be the most troubling divergences between the story of Superman and the story of Jesus by focusing on the archetypal parallels.

No one should be surprised that Man of Steel, or the mythology of Superman more generally, has strong parallels to the Jesus narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a story archetype in Western literature that cannot be traced back to the biblical narrative. With regard to superhero archetypes especially, the parallels to the story of Christ and the messianic archetype (which does not originate with Jesus) are more than obvious. So what, then, could these sermon notes be other than a reminder, saying, “Hey! Stories like Man of Steel are retellings of your religion’s story of salvation. But with way more explosions. Let’s look at this clip!” Superman is a story of hope. Kal-El is a character (like Spock, like Gandalf, like a lot of characters in the world of science fiction and fantasy) who deviates from his origin, his true nature, choosing to become more human and embracing those characteristics (usually emotion, empathy, etc.) which are made to be the epitome of humanness, and suffering some consequences for it.

The problem is that to say the story of Jesus can be encapsulated in a single statement about the hope of salvation makes that story completely one-dimensional and misses the what of salvation entirely. And by the way, this one-dimensional view of salvation is probably how many Christians view their own faith: Jesus has punched my ticket into Heaven–now that’s something I can put my hope in! That’s why we love stories like this–or any other myriad versions of the story of hope in salvation from… something.

It’s that something that makes up the really vital difference between Superman and Jesus. Man of Steel is an origin story, establishing the basic relationships between Superman and everyone else so that a few more films can be made before another reboot. One of those relationships is between Superman and the US government–that is, Superman and the empire. Some (especially Evangelicals) will find that comparison offensive, but it’s certainly true. You don’t earn the title of “World Superpower” without being an empire. So Superman goes “on call” for the empire at the end of the film. He’s not its soldier, like the Marvel parallel Captain America. He still maintains some independence, but he also has no interest in subverting the empire in any way. Now, I don’t mean a coup d’etat like his friend General Zod stages on Krypton. But the US perpetrates plenty of injustice worldwide on a daily basis. What would be really Christlike is if in the second film, we see Superman staging nonviolent protests against drone strikes on innocent people, or helping to shut down Gitmo, choosing not to use his immense power when he very easily could–we could go on and on like this. Instead, Superman becomes a symbol of hope for the empire itself. The film may portray Superman’s struggle with his identity, and I think it does a good job of that, but at the end of the day, Superman is not just a human–he’s an American.

Admittedly, the nonviolent Superman probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting film. Superman’s power is not in his ability to speak radically in a way that moves an agenda of radical subversion against an oppressive empire. He punches stuff. And flies. And cuts stuff with his heat vision. All of that is fantastic–I really enjoyed the film. But none of it represents the mission of Jesus. There’s no account of Jesus fighting Tiberius through the streets of Rome (the Colosseum didn’t exist yet) which, I must admit, would’ve been badass.

The hope that Jesus brings is salvation from the oppressive force brought upon the poor, the weak, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick by the powers of the world–the Roman empire and all those in service to it. And he does this through a radically nonviolent means of subversion to the point of his death. This is the fuller, deeper meaning of the hope of salvation. The moment we begin to compare Superman and Jesus in this respect, the parallel falls apart.

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6 thoughts on “The Theology of Superman: Hope for the Empire

  1. Pingback: #ManOfSteel #MOS: Superman Liberates Us From Empire! | Unsettled Christianity

  2. Joel,

    This was a great post. I completely agree that while there are Christlike parallels in Superman in general (I mean he was created by a couple of Jewish guys who still await the arrival of a messiah), but that Superman is not Christ, that is, his mission or and how he accomplishes it, is different.

    I say all of these laudatory comments both because I mean them and because I have a rather pedantic or perhaps simply naive set of questions: How does Gandalf reject his background to become more human? Also, wouldn’t it be more true to say of Spock and Superman that rather than simply rejecting their backgrounds they synthesise them with their humanity? Finally, are you trying to imply that a strongly kenotic Christology where Christ gave up some aspects of what it means to be God in order to be fully human?

    Yours,
    David

    • David,

      Great questions. Perhaps lumping those characters together without exploring the nuanced differences is a mistake, but what I was going for was to say that there is general sense in which the idea of contemporary characters drawing upon Christian or, even more generally, “religious” archetypes is not new–then some examples. With Gandalf, what I had in mind was maybe more his heart for “the world of men” and especially for the hobbits, both of which are weaker than he is rather than any explicit departure from his “previous nature” since we don’t get a good sense of that unless we read the Simarillion. There are important differences in the stories (i.e. Gandalf is not the only “one of his kind” sent to Middle Earth) and it would be interesting to work out those differences–or maybe, more importantly, to see if they bear any fruit at all.

      Yes, I definitely agree that both Spock and Superman don’t reject their backgrounds (I believe I said they ‘deviate’) and that they become a synthesis of sorts.

      Given all that, I should clarify that my aim in bringing up those parallels is to show that there are a number of characters that, to varying degrees could be read as drawing on the archetype of Christ. I am fully against reading these parallels strongly, however. That is, just because both Spock and Gandalf, seem to “incarnate,” die in acts of sacrifice and come back to life, etc., doesn’t mean that they should be read as necessarily participating in a Christ archetype. But one could make that case. That is the inherent danger in drawing the strong parallel I see being made in these sermon notes between Superman and Christ. At a certain point, all of these not only fall apart but maybe become theologically uninteresting as well.

      But your question about kenosis maybe makes them interesting again! I had to think about that for a while. I suppose by saying that Christ refrains from using “his divine power” or something like that over against Superman who, even though he wrestles with when and how to use it, definitely uses it maximally, one could take that as kenosis in the sense of the Word giving up particular divine attributes pre-birth. But if I were to go toward a kenotic understanding of how Christ’s insistance on non-violence works out, I think I’d rather think of it more as the denial of will in order to be enjoined to the will of God. That is truly a paradox (if we accept the orthodox view that Christ had two wills.) But I think that maybe makes Jesus’ “restriction of divine power,” or however we want to phrase it, stronger in the sense that while here he DID have all the power of God but emptied his [human] will to be joined to the will of the Father. That’s obviously a very weak explanation, but it’s a start! Curious to hear your thoughts.

      • Joel,

        That certainly makes more sense, though I still think I could debate the Gandalf topic for a while, but will refrain.

        I think, however, that dying and raising, especially in a sacrificial manner is an inherent Christ typology. It isn’t the whole of Christ’s mission, since very rarely does the person’s mere existence, let alone their conquering circumstances, leads to all other persons being raised up in a participatory manner to God. However, this is primarily because in most Christ typologies, we are not dealing with Incarnation, we are not dealing an ontological gap being bridged by the one from whom all being comes. This does not, however, mean we should not see these as typologies, but, as with all analogies we must recognise that they will and where they do fall short.

        I asked my kenosis question thinking you were going for a strong kenotic Christology, not a view I tend to favour. I like the direction you would take it, though I would add that the kenosis is primarily his becoming human. That is, Christ does not cease to be God or do the activities of God when human since when lesser cleaves to greater it does not make the greater lesser but the lesser greater, following Augustine, but becoming human is an emptying. Perhaps a parallel, though again an imperfect one, would be in Clark Kent. That is, as Clark Kent he does not cease to be Kryptonian and all that that entails on Earth, but that by allowing himself to (in his case) appear (or in Christ’s case become) human he does empty himself. That is, perhaps the direction I would take it, alongside your notion about submitting the human will to the divine.

        Yours,
        David

  3. I usually think of a Christ figure not so much in terms of someone on a higher “plane” or planet coming to earth to help out but rather a victim of collective violence such as Casey in “Grapes of Wrath.” It’s worth noting that the author of Hebrews refutes an “angel” Christology, so the notion of a superior (but not supreme being) like Gandalf coming to Middle Earth is a shaky analogy. I haven’t seen this Superman movie & don’t expect to. From what I’ve heard, & what I expect from what I know about the Superman mythos is that Superman wins by superior strength. This is quite contrary the victory won by Jesus as the crucified & risen Lamb of God. If Superman, in this movie, is seriously a victim through renouncing power as in Phil. 2, then there is more of a Christ analogy.

    • Andrew, thanks for the comment. Not quite sure though if you’re agreeing with me or offering a critique. I am not affirming Superman as a properly adequate parallel to Christ. On the contrary, I certainly agree with you that Gandalf, Superman, etc. miss the mark as metaphors for Christ in a number of important ways. My point in mentioning characters like Gandalf, Spock, etc., was more that these characters and/or readings of them tend to draw on the basic structure of Jesus’ story simply as a matter of course in the Western literary tradition, and in the case of those I mention, especially in their incarnational aspects. (To be accurate, though, Superman was originally created as a metaphor for the Jewish messiah, not Jesus.) That they don’t get Jesus’ story quite right (or offer us an adequate christology) is exactly the point here. This sermon series seems to just take for granted that Superman is a great parallel for Jesus in that the lives of both embody “faith, service, and sacrifice” as the article I cite says. My broader point in the post is to say that the focus on that parallel ignores Jesus’ nonviolence as well as his subversion of the empire under which he lived. To me, those are the most vital aspects of the Christ narrative, and they are regularly overlooked–this Superman sermon series demonstrates that quite clearly.

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