man of steel
Striking poses in a church is not Superman’s usual schtick, but here he is in his own comic (4 June 2004) startling a priest by turning up for…a sort of confession. He is still wearing the classic costume, which was later redesigned for the “New 52″ and the spectacular MAN OF STEEL, recently released. But why is it that Hollywood–and DC itself–keeps going back to the origins of Superman and reinventing him every few years? There is something archetypal here. Superman was the invention of two New York Jews. An answer to Nietzsche, some say; or an answer to the refugee’s experience of being an outsider in American society. The new movie makes much of Superman as a “saviour” for mankind, sent by his father to “save them all.”

Superman is the most consistently “moral” hero in the DC universe. The contrast with Batman is often made. The Man of Steel never lies, never kills the innocent–nor even the guilty, except super-villains in the defence of Earth. He is not a vigilante, or a soldier; more a policeman. He is always willing to sacrifice himself for others. He is just as heroic when stripped of his superpowers, as happens from time to time. In the comic series he has died and been reborn (it’s complicated). In the frame below the words in the little yellow boxes read “Superman–save me.” Superman is rushing across the universe to answer a plea for help that turns out to come from another DC hero, Green Lantern. The director of the new film, Zack Snyder, was reluctant to modify this “saviour” aspect of the Man of Steel. “I think as soon as you start to work on him it’s going to be muddy and weird. There’s a pure thing inside of the Superman character.”

man of steelIn the 2013 Man of Steel movie, Henry Cavill does a wonderful job of representing this purity and goodness in the person of Clark Kent/ Kal-El. He even stops by a church seeking the advice of a priest. He hands himself over to General Zod in hope of saving mankind. But there is more. His father has imprinted the genetic “codex” of his entire people into the cells of his body, so in a sense Kal is an Adam figure–a “universal man”. By serving as a hero on earth, he is redeeming Krypton. And we learn that Krypton was destroyed through some kind of sin against natural law: its “core was destabilized” after it had turned to artificial reproduction. Kal was the first natural birth for centuries, a symbol of the ancient and natural way of doing things. Instead of being programmed, his father believed that he should be free to make his own destiny.

The salvation Superman offers is, of course, nothing like that offered by Jesus. Superman can only rescue us from physical danger, or from some evil dictator. We are all going to die eventually: the question is what happens then. Jesus died on the Cross so that by joining ourselves to him we could journey through our own deaths to resurrection in him. And that resurrection is not simply a spiritual state but a new body, a body similar to the one he showed the Apostles, capable of appearing anywhere, impervious to harm, no longer subject even to the law of gravity, a body akin, in some ways, to that of Superman himself. Superman’s job is to remind us of what we can become.

Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstorePublished here by the gracious permission of the author, this post originally appeared in (Beauty in Education or The Economy Project, etc depending on the source).

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6 replies to this post
  1. A delightful topic (comics), though I must say I was never much of a Superman fan. In fact, I was never a DC fan. I love detective stories, so DC let me down as they weren’t exactly producing Raymond Chandler level stories. Truth be told, I always found Marvel Comics superior. Superman was too super, not enough man. The premise promised boredom and predictability as far as I was concerned.

    My favorite superheroes (beyond Bob Budyansky and Simon Furman’s renditions of the Transformers) were always the dual personalities of David Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk as portrayee by the late great Bill Bixby and the still laudable Lou Ferigno.

    Everything about that show was perfect, including the solemn soundtrack.

    Finally, I still believe that Doug Murray’s the ‘Nam is one of the finest comic portrayals of the Vietnam war to date.

    I guess my tastes are decidely “Human, all to human”

    • “Superman was too super, not enough man.”

      Man of Steel actually deals with this. It seems to me that the makers of this movie pull out much of the drama that is inherent in the premises, but never explored in the comics or previous movies.

  2. Man of Steel is a great movie. The parallels to Christ are more than the author notes. Basically, they can’t help themselves. They know man needs a Saviour….and funny enough, when man comes up with one, he looks more and more like Jesus.

    • Exactly! Not all heroes are like Jesus (ex. Batman, still my favorite) but yes, many “saviour’s” are Christ like for a reason. And i don’t think all heroes should be interpreted as Jesus. But in this case, in this movie, Man of Steel is totally a Jesus parallel.

  3. Thank you for an interesting commentary. Though I was of the generation “raised” on the 1978 Superman, I’ll give the new movie a try. Actually I was raised on the 1950s George Reeves version, in TV re-runs in the early 70s. I think it spoiled me. Antiheroes and ambivalent heroes never appealed to me as a youngster. In middle age I can appreciate some of the nuances more, but I think Prof. Caldecott is right to point out the importance of Superman’s “purity.”

  4. I think you are reading to much into this. Superman is the most moral of the D.C. heros because the story line demands he be. Even though Batman is known to carry a small amount of Kryptonite in his utility belt “just in case’, Superman is, for all intents and purposes, unstopable. Should he develop a Dark Side (as Batman did in “The Dark Knight”) he will rapidly become an all powerful dictator. (This story line has been delt with on occasion in the D.C. Universe).

    The powers given to Superman over the years make him invulnerable, unrestrainable, and unprosecutable. No court, military force, or law on Earth could stop him. He has absolute power. Should he start to use that power for himself, you will have Lord Acton writing the script, and nobody wants to see THAT movie.

    So, in order to keep Superman a hero, he HAS to be a straight arrow Boy Scout type. Logic demands it. The storyline demands it.

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