Superman: the Modern-Day Messiah (Part 1 of 2)

One of the best things about superheroes is that, often, they are un-obligated to perform the tasks that they do. They do it out of the kindness of their hearts, out of their own moral commitments driven by their own desire for the deliverance of justice rather than any requirement forced upon them by the government or the people around them. As Ma Kent tells Clark in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,

Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be...or be none of it. You don't owe this world a thing. You never did.

While the accuracy of this statement in context of the movie is debatable, it is a statement that, in general, is applicable to all superheroes. They have no reason to use their abilities to do good, but they do it out of the kindness of their hearts, not because they desire fame or glory, but because they want to give birth to a better world. A safer world. A world rid of crime.

It is for this reason that Superman, the Man of Steel, is my favorite hero of all time, because he is the epitome of this fairly general conclusion -- and fittingly so, since he was the first mainstream hero to arise in American culture, originating way back in 1938's Action Comics #1. With his motto being "Truth, justice, and the American way," he is an alien from another planet, living on an earth that is not his own, yet still uses his vast array of powers to help people, keep the world safe, and preach a message of hope, the very meaning of the symbol that he bears on his chest. Though he has no obligation to do so, he has taken the weight of the world upon his shoulders, not for a paycheck and not for the glory, but out of his own grace.

A lot like Jesus.

If you couldn't tell by this article's title, this is going to be a very theologically heavy write-up, and though I realize this opens myself up to a bunch of controversy, I felt led to write it, purely because I find the topic so interesting and fascinating. There's a reason our culture is drawn to superheroes so much, and here's my theory: they help you step beyond the realm of reality and help us dream of aspiring to something greater than we are. They give us hope for the future and remind us that even in our lowest of points, there will always be hope. There is always an answer, and in our media-infested world that we live in today, superheroes are that answer. When the world faces some great threat, superheroes are there to save the day. We enjoy their stories because they do something we could only dream of doing. They inspire us. They teach us. They guide us.

It is for this same reason that people turn to religion.

It's no secret that Superman is a very Jesus-like figure, even if he hasn't always been (he was originally created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish men who leaned much more heavily on the story of Moses as inspiration for their soon-to-be famous Man of Steel). Instead, over the many decades since his creation, Superman has had his image molded by our culture so that he has been transformed into the Christ figure that he is today, and I would argue that it is this very parallel and transformation that has allowed Superman to maintain his popularity over the years so that, even as I write this -- nearly 80 years after his genesis -- Superman is still the epitome of what it is to be a superhero. Other than this simple fact, his popularity would be difficult to describe: he is way overpowered, his disguise is kind of silly, and given his alien origins, he is fairly un-relatable. The only justification for his prominence is that people want a savior to look to, a seeming god who has come to earth to protect the people.

And that's why I love the Superman presented to us in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Say what you want about those movies -- even I would join in on some criticisms of the choices they made in both plot and character development -- and say what you want about the characterization of Superman in those movies -- given his infancy in the whole world-saving thing, he definitely isn't the Superman we know and love from the comics -- but there is no denying that when he made Superman, Zack Snyder had Jesus in mind. Sure, other movies have dealt with this imagery before -- even Bryan Singer, the director of 2006's Superman Returns, stated that his movie was "about what happens when messiahs come back" -- but Snyder drove the idea home in both of his outings with the Man of Steel, as I will discuss in greater detail throughout the remainder of this article. Sure, it might not be the colorful, optimistic Superman we got from Christopher Reeve, but that didn't stop Snyder from imbuing Henry Cavill's Superman/Clark Kent with heavy Christ-like imagery.

[Warning: Spoilers for both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will be found beyond this point. Read at your own risk.]

Man of Steel opens up with a special birth, the first of its kind in a long, long time. Kal-El (whose name literally means "Voice of God" when translated from Hebrew) is born as the first natural birth in centuries, a direct contrast to the birth of Christ, whose birth was the first unnatural birth in centuries (prior to Jesus' infamous virgin birth, the only one we know of would be Adam and Eve, who had no earthly parents whatsoever). After a nearly a 20-minute exposition about their planet's impending doom, Kal's father, Jor-El (which some people translate as "God will uplift"), decides to send his son to earth. "He'll be a god to them," Jor-El reassures his wife, who is afraid their son will be treated as an outcast.

In other words, El ("God") sends his only son into the world to save the world.

This is where the Moses imagery comes in, because Superman's spaceship is kind of like a basket...but some could argue that it's also like a manger, which brings us back to Jesus. To further this point, his ship is like the star that led the wise men to Jesus, and where does it land? Kansas, where he is raised on a farm, surrounded by animals (Jesus was born in a cave/stable, where the animals were kept, hence the manger). The two farmers who raise Superman? Their names are Jonathan and Martha Kent...and in the comics, Martha's original name was Mary before it was changed later on. So yes, Superman is raised by a woman whose name was Mary -- and whose husband's name stars with a "J" -- despite the fact that the two of them had no direct influence on his birth.

But I'm getting sidetrack. Moving back to the plot of Man of Steel, we find Clark Kent in his adulthood (aged 33, as we will learn later on in the movie) and what is he doing? He's in a boat with a bunch of fishermen (*cough cough, Jesus associated himself with quite a few fishermen in his day, in case you didn't know*), and not too long afterwards, he saves a bunch of people on an oil rig, a scene which ends with him submerged in water. At this instant, many people realize that there is something special about this man, though they don't quite realize who he is ("He was in the world and the world was made through him, and the world did not know him" [John 1:10]...make that second statement "and the world was made safe through him," and there you have Superman).

After Clark's metaphorical baptism into the waters of the Arctic ocean, he proceeds to escape to the Arctic wilderness, where he is tempted (the man at the bar who throws the beer into his face) but ultimately gets the last laugh (the crucified eighteen-wheel that the man walks out to upon leaving the bar). He also goes into the wilderness in search of his real father, whom he talks to and learns of his true origins. By the time he comes out of the wilderness, he has embraced his destiny and bears the symbol of hope proudly on his chest.

... after Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River, he travels into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan yet ultimately gets the last laugh (though there was nothing funny about the crucifixion, it would ultimately pay the price for our sins, therefore defeating Satan's hold on those of us who put our faith in him), and he also spends time talking with his heavenly Father. By the time Jesus comes out of the wilderness, his official ministry has begun, and he goes throughout Israel preaching of hope.

Let's talk about that scene where Clark meets the hologram of his father in the Kryptonian spaceship. There, Jor-El explains to his son how things came to be: "Eventually, or military leader, General Zod, attempted a coup," Jor-El explains. This goes way back to what we'd seen at the beginning of the film: Zod, with a group of rebels, tried to overthrow the Kryptonian council, only to be sent away to a prison, where they would be kept eternally (that was the hope, anyways). Let's think about that... a former good guy in the heavens gets cocky, tries to overthrow the person sitting on the throne, and, as a result of his loss and insurrection, is banished, along with his fellow rebels, to an eternal prison in another realm. Sound familiar? Yeah, Zod is the devil. He even vows to find and kill Jor-El's son, a very Satan-like thing to do. (If this still doesn't have you convinced, notice how throughout the entire film, Zod and his henchmen wear nothing but black...darkness.) Moving on.

During Clark's tutoring sessions with Jor-El, the father says something that sounds awfully Biblical...

You will give the people of earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. the sun. the Son.

Check out Philippians 3:10-14. Or John 14:1-4. Or go a few verses further and read John 14:12, for that matter. That's all I'm going to say about that.

There's plenty more to analyze, but I'll fast forward a bit, because this article is getting a bit lengthy (I've decided by now that the Batman v Superman imagery will have to come in a future post). Glazing over the fact that there's a person named Peter (Pete Ross) who the god-figure (Clark) converts to his cause after some sort of miracle that involved water and a sinking mode of transportation (a school bus) and would go on to become his best friend (in the comics, at least; also, go read Luke 5:1-11)...let's fast forward to the big moment where Zod makes his big, worldwide telecast:

For some time, your world has sheltered one of my citizens. I request that you return this individual to my custody. For reasons unknown, he has chosen to keep his existence a secret from you. He will have made efforts to blend in. He will look like you, but he is not one of you. To those of you who know of his current location: the fate of your planet rests in your hands. To Kal-El, I say this: surrender within 24 hours, or watch this world suffer the consequences.

To sum things up, 33-year old Jesus -- I mean Superman -- is being asked to sacrifice himself in place of the rest of this world, so that the whole world may live thanks to his sacrifice.

Now this is a hard decision. For all 33 years of his life on earth, Clark has been an outcast, a reject. Sure, when he was younger, people thought he was a gift from God (Pete Ross' parents when talking to the Kents at their home in one of the flashbacks; Luke 2:41-52), but otherwise, all of his good has been repaid with evil. What does he owe this world? If they all died, he would just go on living. He's done his part, hasn't he? He's done more than enough. Clark faces a serious dilemma. So where does he go?

To the church, obviously.

Given, it would have been too blatant for Clark to go into a garden, fall on his knees, and pray to God, sweating blood and all, so instead they have him go to the local church, where he talks to a priest, asking for advice.

... but you can bet your muddy, Kansas-ridden boots that there will be a stained-glass imaged of Christ in the garden, praying to his Father, as he does so.

It is during this church scene that we have a pretty monumental flashback. Young Clark is bullied by some classmates, and it is only once they walk off that Pete Ross (yep, best friend Peter) comes over and helps him up. As he does so, we see that the metal poll that Clark had been gripping has a dent in it, reflecting his power: despite the fact that he could have pulverized those who mocked him, Clark had restrained himself and allowed himself to be abused. It is very similar to Christ, who, after praying in the garden, would subject himself to abuse and mockery, despite the fact that all he would have to do is say a word and it would all end. Both Jesus and Clark exhibit willing restraint, holding their powers back and allowing themselves to be tortured because of it.

Back to the present: as he is talking to the priest, Clark is explaining his problem:

But this General Zod... even if I surrender, there's no guarantee he will keep his word, but if there's a chance that I can save earth by turning myself in, shouldn't I take it?

Clark then goes on to say that not only is he unsure of Zod's trustworthiness, but also of the trustworthiness of the human race as a whole. This is very similar to the struggle God faces throughout the entirety of the Bible: ever since the creation of man, He has given us a free will to choose what we want to do with our lives. He continually tries and tries again to welcome us back to Him, yet we constantly betray His trust, doing the will of the one who betrayed Him in the beginning (in this case, the people turning Superman over to Zod). Nevertheless, God decided to take a chance and come down in human form to pay the price for our sins, even though there was "no guarantee that [we] will keep [our] word" and trust in Him. He did it all off of the chance that some of us would. See? Clark's logic and Jesus' logic are one in the same. He didn't necessarily want to do it (Matt. 26:39, Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42), but if there was even the slightest chance that it would redeem at least one person, he was willing to do it. He was totally innocent throughout all of it, yet he took the downfall.

Okay, now let's discuss the main reason Zod wants Kal-El. The truth is, Zod could care less about Clark; in reality, he wants the Codex, which he believes Clark has in his possession. If you remember from the beginning of the movie, the Codex is the source of all life on Krypton, and guess where it is? Yep, it's found in the blood of Superman. Life is found through the blood of the god-like figure. One doesn't have to be a Biblical scholar to see the parallels there.

At this point, Superman willingly submits himself to the U.S. government, allowing himself to be bound (handcuffs) and marched off to be interviewed (his respective "trials"). Only later does he prove to them that he was in control the entire time, a fact which he displays by easily breaking the cuffs and walking over to speak to the officials, whom he can see through the one-sided glass. There is a very similar with Jesus, who allows himself to be bound and taken off to be tried shortly before his crucifixion, but beforehand proves his power by knocking some of the guards back by simply speaking (John 18:6).

The interview scene between Lois Lane, General Swanwick, Emil Hamilton, and Superman should also strike a chord in the fact that it is all about identity. Superman admits that he wants to keep the people safe, he reveals that the "S" stands for "hope," and it is also here that he reveals that he is 33 years of age. But, Swanwick pushes the imagery even further when he says, "Now you revealed your identity to Miss Lane over there; when will you do the same with us?" This echoes the passage of Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high council), which culminates in the high priest yelling at him, "I command you under oath, are you the Messiah, the Son of the Living God?" (Matt. 26:63, Mark 14:61). Both questions are about the legitimacy of the person's claims, and both are about their identity. And both of men respond with fairly straightforward statements that demonstrate their power: Superman stands up and breaks the chains that bind him, and Jesus says "I am" (the original word: YHWH, the name for the Hebrew God; his answer is very clear).

Now we can skip ahead to the scene with Lois and Clark on Zod's ship -- or rather, when Lois is plummeting to earth in a Kryptonian capsule while Superman stands there, talking with his father. As he looks down on earth, Superman sees the ship crashing down, entering the atmosphere. He looks back at his father, who looks at him and begins to speak:

You can save her, Kal. You can save all of them.

While Superman looks at his father with knowing acceptance and new-found determination, he floats into space, his arms spread wide and feet together, looking pain stricken by the burden just placed on his shoulders.

Yep. You know where this is going.

"Not my will, but Yours be done."

"Not my will, but Yours be done."

Then comes the final fight, which culminates in, you know, the good guy defeating the bad guy and thus saving as many people as he can. Zod dies (Satan is defeated), Superman wins (Jesus overcomes death), and the people of the world can now look up to their new Savior, who will become increasing popular over time.

But wait, there's more!

There's one final scene that shows Superman embracing his full secret identity, entering into the Daily Planet with glasses on and becoming one of their newest employees. But one must ask: how does this secret identity fool anyone? He throws on the glasses and all of a sudden boom, nobody recognizes him? It's that easy?

And I would say that yes, that is exactly how it works and yes, it is that easy. Furthermore, I believe that Superman's secret identity can be an allusion to Jesus as well. Why do I say that, you ask? Because think about it: Jesus never bothered to hide his true identity from the public. He was God and he was man, simple as that. The thing is this: people refuse to believe that a god is among them, so when Jesus, the one true God was before them, they had him killed. So yeah, have a super-powered alien throw on some glasses and act like he's a journalist, nobody will give him a second glance. To us moviegoers, we can see through the disguise, but if it were reality? Sometimes we don't realize what is before us until it is too late.

(to be continued...)