Superman, Jews, Jesus, and Dispelling Despair

“It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s … Jesus?” This was the opening line to a Fox news article on the premier of the new Superman film. A number of articles have made the “Jesus Connection.” This is from The Daily Mail:

“Marketers for the newest Hollywood Superman movie, ‘Man of Steel,’ are heavily targeting Christians by offering church leaders free screenings of the film as well as sermon notes emphasizing its religious themes.

“The notes, titled ‘Jesus: The Original Superhero,’ run nine pages long and suggest that pastors show the ‘Man of Steel’ trailer during their Sunday morning sermon, CNN reported Friday.

“’How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?’ the sermon notes ask.”

Hollywood will do most anything for a buck, even embrace Jesus.

The odd thing in the Jesus’ comparison is that the creators of Superman were Jewish. The Superman character was conceived by Jerry Siegel in 1933. Along with his friend Joe Schuster, the two seventeen-year-olds from Cleveland, Ohio, developed the character in comic strip form. Siegel and Schuster were sons of Jewish immigrants living in New York.superman-comic-book-1938

Many early comic book artists and publishers were Jewish. For example, Robert Kahn, creator of Batman, changed his name to Bob Kane and Jacob Kurtzberg worked as Jack Kirby on Marvel’s The Fantastic Four, X-Men, and the Hulk. Stan Lee, who makes a cameo appearance in all the Marvel films, is also Jewish. He was born Stanley Martin Lieber.

The Superman storyline is said to be an amalgamation of Voltaire’s 1752 tale Micromegas, about a visitor from another world, elements of comic hero Doc Savage, Philip Wylie’s 1930 Gladiator novel, the biblical story of Moses being placed in a basket to be saved from sure destruction, and the Jewish legend of the “Golem of Prague, the medieval superhero of Jewish folklore who was conjured from clay by a rabbi to defend his community when it was under threat.”

The opening scene in the first X-Men film shows a young Max Eisenhardt, who later becomes the metal-manipulating Magneto, as “the Golem myth incarnate.” Also, Ben Grimm (The Thing) of The Fantastic Four is written as being Jewish.

Even so, even with all this Jewish background and Jewish writers, Superman comes off as a messianic figure closer to Jesus. This shouldn’t surprise us since Jesus was Jewish and the fulfillment of innumerable prophecies from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament in Christian theology. His Hebrew name is Joshua (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ) — “Yahweh is salvation.”

In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Hebrew Yehoshua is always rendered as the Greek Ἰησοῦς (Iēsoūs = Jesus).

Kal-El, the only son of Jor-El, is sent to a world in need of salvation. El is the Hebrew word for “God.” That would make Kal-El the son of Jor-El, the son of El or the son of God. Siegel described Superman as “a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one.”1

Here’s how the Fox article makes the parallel comparisons:

  • There is some Christ-like imagery planted throughout “Man of Steel.” One blaring symbol occurs during a climactic battle: Superman jumps from General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) ship and hovers in the sky with his arms out-stretched like the crucifix. Freeze-frame it and you can have your own Superman prayer card.
  • Kal-El says he is 33, a not-too-subtle reference to the same age as Jesus Christ when he was crucified.
  • The Passion of Superman. Kal-El is more than willing to sacrifice himself to save the people of Earth. Originally reluctant to reveal his identity and powers to the world, Supes decides to turn himself over to Zod to save humanity from annihilation.
Omega Man Crucifixion_03
Charlton Heston in “Omega Man” (1971). Notice the bottle of blood on the fountain’s ledge.

None of this should surprise us. Messianic images are found in many films where the hero gives his life for others. In Omega Man (1971)2, Charlton Heston passes his life-saving blood to the survivors of a world-wide virus who need his blood’s anti-bodies to reverse the effects of the disease. He’s shown in a crucifixion position as he lies dying in a pool of water.

Will Smith uses his life-saving blood to find a cure for the virus that has infected what’s left of the world in the film I Am Legend (2007). earlier in the film he is rescued by a pair of immune humans, a woman named Anna and a boy named Ethan. Near the end of the film, about to be overtaken by the mutants, Neville screams at the Darkseekers, “I can save you.  . . . I can save everybody!,” but to no avail. His only alternative is to pass the vile of the lifesaving serum to Anna just before he kills himself and the attacking Darkseekers in an explosion. To view an alternative ending, go to http://www.movieweb.com/movie/i-am-legend/alternate-ending

Anna believes God had sent her to him. Anna and Ethan escape to a survivors’ camp in Bethel, Vermont. Bethel means “House of God.” The two films diverge from Richard Matheson’s novel’s pessimistic ending with its depiction of an optimistic Christian theme.

Secularists can’t avoid the savior theme if they want to appeal to audiences. They need it in order to dispel the demon of nihilism, what theologian R.C. Sproul regards as “the darkest continent of the darkened mind — the ultimate paradise of the fool.”3.

There are only so many films of despair that people can watch without becoming despondent themselves.

  1. Quoted in James Steranko, History of Comics, 2 vols. (Reading, PA: Supergraphics, 1970), 1:38–39. Siegel and Schuster had a difficult time selling their comic strip. It languished for nearly six years until it was finally published in comic book form in the first issue of Action Comics in June 1938. Here’s the kicker. Siegel and Schuster were paid $130 for all the rights to the comic and character. For years, they sued DC (Detective Comics) to participate in the financial windfall of their beloved character, but with no success. It wasn’t until the first Superman movie came out that Siegel and Schuster were able to strike a deal with DC. They took their plight to the press. It was bad publicity that forced DC to sit down with the co-creators of Superman, who were by this time nearly 60 years old, to reach a financial settlement. []
  2. The film was a remake of the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth that starred Vincent Price and based on the novel by Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend []
  3. R. C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts That Shaped Our World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), 171. []