Friday, July 21, 2006

Superman: the Second Coming

Superman is not Jesus. The Old Superman is a boy-scout who regarded rescuing sinking ocean liners and saving the earth from asteroid collisions as 'super-chores.' The Very Old Superman was a tough-guy who socked wife-beaters on the jaw and said 'you aren't fighting a woman now, coward.' The Superman of the radio serials and the Fliescher cartoons 'came to Earth as champion of the weak and the oppressed.' Truth, Justice and the American Way came later.

But he isn't Jesus. The names of Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster appear on every comic featuring the Man of Steel – which is greatly to the credit of D.C Comics: Marvel are still reluctant to acknowledge the existence of any creator other than Stan Lee. According to one reckoning, Siegel and Shuster are jointly the 100th most influential Jews in history: Superman being the foundation stone on which the comic-book industry and therefore much of the movie industry was constructed. More people have heard of Superman than have heard of Hamlet. In 1938 it was understandable that a pair of young Jewish artists might have wanted to imagine a champion. A Messiah, even.

So there is no way that Superman can be Jesus. (His adversary is called Luthor, for goodness sake.) Would it be going too far to suggest that there is a racial motive in the incremental appropriation of Jerry and Joey's character as Christian symbol? Christopher Reeve was paralysed in a tragic riding accident; George Reeves, the first TV Superman, committed suicide. And since it is always possible to construct a straight line between two points, some people believe in a Curse of Superman which anyone who dons the red underpants will be touched by. At first, Siegel and Shuster, who sold the rights to Superman for a few a hundred dollars and died in relative penury, were imagined as victims of this jinx. But the latest iteration of the myth has Jerry Siegel, shortly before the release of the 1977 movie, calling down a curse on all those who have made money out of his character. To re-imagine Superman as a Christian saviour, maybe we had to turn his creator into an old, blind, bitter, Shylock, cursing his treasure.

The Very Old Superman leapt tall buildings in a single bound. Christopher Reeve flew. Bryan Singer's re-invention of Superman floats. Not to put to fine a point on it, he Ascends. He looks down on the earth from above, and says that he can hear everything anyone is saying. 'You say that the world doesn't need a Saviour, but I hear people crying out for one.' And sure enough, he ends up carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders: first, lifting the gigantic globe from the top of the Daily Planet building; then carrying Lex Luther's re-created Kryptonian continent into space. (Luther sees himself as Prometheus, and Superman as a selfish god from whom he is going to steal fire.) Having saved the world but exposed himself to Kryptonite, Superman takes on a cruciform pose and falls to earth. At great length. But of course, he's only Mostly Dead, and when the hospital staff go to check on him, they find the place empty where they had laid him.

No one tried to crucify the man of steel in the 1993 'Death of Superman' comic. He was just beaten to death by a big strong alien. He got better.

Mario Puzo's script for the 1978 Superman movie had Marlon Brando drawing fairly explicit parallels between the origin of Superman and the birth of Jesus, even though it is blindingly obvious even in Puzo's own script that the real parallel is with Moses. But the 70s Superman never became Christic other than in the Kryptonian prologue. Considering that he defies his Father's will to turn back time in order to save Lois's life, and subsequently relinquishes his powers in order to fuck her on his fathers shrine, you could argue that there was something Luciferian about him. Bryan Singer references Marlon Brando's speech no less than three times.

'You will carry me inside you all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your own eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father the son....They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.'

In Puzo's script, this lends some cheesy gravitas to the proceedings. Here, it is merely pretentious.

Spider-Man, Frodo Baggins, Neo, Leo DeCaprio, Indiana Jones – Hollywood turns all its heroes into Christian symbols. (All except Aslan, obviously.) But do the symbols actually symbolize anything? It's hard to see how the story of Superman would help Christian viewers understand the story of Jesus; but neither does it seem to be critiquing or commenting on that story. When Bryan Singer has Magneto use the words 'By any means necessary' at the end of the X-Men, he is asking us to look for connections between his mutant fantasy and the civil rights movement. When Superman thrusts out his arms and falls to earth, he is simply borrowing significance from a bigger story: pretending to be far more important than he has any right to be.

Superman is a friendly alien. He was born on a planet with atomic cities, art-deco architecture, and Flash Gordon fashions. He grew up in Anytown and went to the Big City. Oh, all right, Smallville and Metropolis. Lex Luthor is a mad scientist. Luthor has outrageous schemes; Superman cleverly defeats them. His other enemies include a mad scientist with green skin who steals cities and keeps them in bottles; and a mischievous sprite in a derby hat. He started life in Action Comics and on a radio series presented by the makers of Kellogs Pep, (the super-delicious breakfast cereal). Superman may be able to lift whole continents on his shoulders, but he isn't substantial enough to carry such weighty symbolism.

Superman isn't Jesus. He's a comic-book character.


Rachel said...

Why do you think Hollywood tries to turn every hero into a Christ figure except for the ones who are supposed to be?

Phil Masters said...

Borrowed weight, I suspect. The cheapest way to acquire mythic significance is to swipe it from someone else.

Plus, writers who've spent a lot of time studying and talking about archetypal symbols and literary references in great fiction are probably prone to draw the conclusion that it's the symbolism and references which make the fiction great.

Andrew said...

Ever since Don Corleone "sent his only son to save the world" back in 1978, we are, like it or not, stuck with the Christological Superman. You can't ignore the 1978 Superman any more than John Byrne's reboot could. By now, it's simply too fixed in the collective cultural imagination.

Andrew Reeves

Katherine said...

I actually think there's a more interesting, and more relevant, mythological/religious parallel in the text: when Superman catches the globe from the top of the Daily Planet building, I thought "oooh! Atlas!", which also makes sense in the light of Luthor's comparing himself to Prometheus.

Superman-as-Jesus is boring and ersatz; Superman-as-Atlas is worth exploring. As was the whole question of whether the world needs Superman at all, or whether humanity was, in fact, doing fine without him. (What happens when Atlas shrugs? What happens if a Titan decides to support a world that was supporting itself all right to begin with, then he disappears again just as they've learned to depend on him?)

The seeds of these ideas are in the film, but they were passed over in favour of a rather uninspired Luthor-takes-over-the-world-using-Science! plot. That's not really surprising: it would take a lot of artistic courage to try and explore such themes in a summer blockbuster. It is disappointing, though, because it leaves the film with a thematic hole in its heart which they tried to paper over with the Christ-allusions.

Robin Low said...

Superman has awesome powers, but despite this he is still a Good Man who can make choices about the way he lives his life. He's prepared to sacrifice his own happiness to do the right thing. He's prepared to die to save others.

Jesus is the son of God, but despite this he is still a Good Man who can make choices about the way he lives his life. He's prepared to sacrifice his own happiness to do the right thing. He's prepared to die to save others.

Yes, this is simplistic, but it doesn't need to be any more complicated.

The big difference, of course, is that everyone wants to be Superman.

Lars Konzack said...

Jesus did not want to be sacrificed.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Jesus did not want to be sacrificed."

Answers on a post-card, please. Best submission will become archbishop of canterbury, runners up will get a late night spot on Premier Christian Radio.

Charles Filson said...

Katherine had some good points in her first post. I don't think that hollywood is so much borrowing from Christ as they borrow from any and all symbolism available. Which is still answered by Andrews entire post, and Phil Masters comment.

Have any of you ever heard of a guy named Joseph Cambell. ;-) J/k
Let's face it, even those of us who are conservative Christians have to admit that although Jesus is a pretty iconic christ (or Messianic) figure, he was not the first or only one.
The story of a Christ: some uber-strac hero/leader/teacher sacrificing himself for the plebes who are not remotely worthy, is a pretty cool story. The part where the plebes reject him at some point is a nice touch as well, and asks some important questions.

So it's quite natural that hollywood would want to retell this story. (depending on who you believe there are only 2, or 8 or 46 possible basic plots anyway.)

The Matrix did this fairly well. Where Superman goes terribly wrong, is that they skip the whole part where they tell the story and just show us the symbolism in the hopes that we will cross-apply all the right emotions...which I think is what Andrew said in a far less clumsey and halting manner. The same is true for the Atlas and Prometheus reference...they just borrowed bits instead of telling the story.

Though, for my money, I think that the Incredibles did a better job with the Atlas story. And there was only the most humble use of the Atlas symbolism.

Phil Masters said...

Though, for my money, I think that the Incredibles did a better job with the Atlas story.

This, of course, is the problem that any superhero movie has to deal with these days. They've probably been pre-trumped by a bunch of CGI caricatures in a film where text from the earlier drafts kept bleeding through.

Of course, Pixar realised that the great silver-age superhero archetype is all about '50s/'60s motifs and the deeply shaky and fragile charms of the nuclear family; getting all messianic on the audience is missing the point. And they could match the production design to that theme.

The other recent superhero movie that worked quite right on its own terms rather than as a tribute to its pulp-paper sources was about the dark side of the myth - Joe Chill brutally reduces the nuclear family to nothing at an early point, and from then on the point is revenge and the hero's relationship with the great, beautiful, lethal monster-city. (Poor Katie Holmes. How can an actress or a character hope to compete with a perfected blend of New York and Chicago?)

matthew delooze said...

thought this might interest you one way or another..

best wishes

John Wright said...

I am glad someone pointed out the parallel to Moses in the birth story of Superman.

Also, is it just my imagination, or is there something angelic in the name Kal-El?

Superman's closest parallel is Hercules, who was also found as an orphan. He merely dresses like a circus strongman complete with cape and tights.

Another parallel to Hercules is the humiliation of the hero. Hercules is forced to serve his unworthy cousin Eurystheus, and Supes dresses like a mild-mannered reporter from Hicksville USA. The difference between the American and the classical myth, is that every mild-mannered man from Smallville can see himself as a Superman, as making it in the Big City--which I think was Seigel and Shuster's point.