I wish to discuss the supposed Christian themes of the Superman mythos. The main reason I want to discuss this is because certain comic writers, filmmakers and theologians have argued that Superman is an allegory for Jesus. Director Zac Snyder claimed this when interviewed about his Superman film, and Stephen Skelton claimed the same thing in his book ‘’The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero’’. Because of this (and likely for other reasons), these creators have incorporated strong religious themes in their portrayals of the character. They sometimes even make fundamental changes in the characters mythos. The character has also been used by some to discuss the New Testament.
My main question in this essay is whether the Jesus parallels of the Superman stories might be exaggerated. I have two reasons for choosing this subject and question:
1. Many people argue that these Jesus parallels are not only allowed, but also expected. Some creators also try to highlight Jesus parallels in ways that sideline the unique traits of the character or make the story too preachy for non-Christian audiences.
2. I also chose Superman as subject because he’s a very well-known and popular character.
3. The use of Superman to discuss Christian ideas is an example of Religious institutions using pop culture to spread their teachings in new ways.
I want to answer the question by asking several smaller questions:
1. Did Superman’s creators intend for him to be a Jesus allegory, or even a way to promote Christian concepts?
2. How have later writers and filmmakers interpreted and handled the (supposed) religious undertones?
3. Why has the character and the works that he appeared in been used to discuss or promote religious ideas?
To answer these questions, I will first discuss the creation of Superman, and the intentions of the creators. I will then discuss four of the Superman movies which have notable Christian elements (at least according to critics). I will then discuss why certain people are so concerned with drawing parallels between Superman and Jesus.
The original creation of Superman:
Superman was in no way intended to be a Jesus allegory by his creators; Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both men were children of Jewish immigrants and came up with the character in high school. They came up with the character in 1933 and finished the final design in 1938. They sold the rights to Superman to DC comics that year and Superman debuted in Action Comics #1. Superman was frequently revised during the creation process (he started out as a psychic supervillain), and he and his stories were inspired by many stories, genres and actual people. The character also seemed to have served as a form of wish fulfillment for the shy, unpopular high school students who created him, as well as for other American Jews during World War 2.
While there were mythical elements that inspired Superman, nothing indicates that these were New Testament related. Jerry Siegel claimed that he conceived of a character like Samson, Hercules and other mythical strongmen . While Superman’s origin story (being sent to earth as a baby to escape the destruction of his home planet Krypton) is often seen as influenced by the story of Moses, the story of a hero being saved from a terrible fate as a baby and being put under the protection of foster parents had actually been told many times before, with figures like Hercules and Karna . Due to Siegel and Shuster’s Jewish identities, Moses was probably the most likely influence among all these archetypes. Seeing how they were Jewish immigrants, this origin story may also have served to make Superman an immigrant himself, who had to deal with having to fit in as a foreigner in a different culture just like many Jewish immigrants during that time period. Superman’s birth-name is also Kal-El, and the suffix ‘’el’’ is Hebrew for ‘’God’’.
Jesus symbolism in the original superman films:
‘’Superman the Movie’’ was released in 1978 and directed by Richard Donner, while the sequel ‘’Superman II’’ was released in 1980 and directed by both Richard Donner and Richard Lester. Christian themes and analogies were intended by the filmmakers, particularly Tom Mankiewicz, the creative consultant for the two movies, who deliberately made Superman and his father Jor-El resemble Jesus and God respectively (although Donner was somewhat skeptical of these actions) . Many references were found by critics and bible scholars, some confirmed, others unconfirmed. I shall partly discuss the comparisons made by Sarah R. Kozloff, professor of film at Vassar College. Many of her analogies seem convincing.
The first movie starts on the planet Krypton, which unlike the comic version at that time is entirely covered in crystals. Kozloff claims that this resembles New Jerusalem as described in Revelations chapter 21. On Krypton, the wise, grey haired scientist Jor-El has convinced the council to banish General Zod and two of his followers for their attempts to take over Krypton. They are sentenced to ‘’eternal living death’’ in another dimension called the Phantom Zone, while Zod swears that he will make Jor-El and his heirs kneel before him. Kozloff defends this as an allegory for Satan and his fallen angels being cast out of paradise for their rebellion and being forced to spend eternity in hell. In Superman II, they manage to escape and Zod vows to rule humanity and make the son of Jor-El, Superman, kneel before him, which Kozloff compares to how Satan wanted to rule humanity and make Jesus bow down before him (Matthews 4:9) . This version is somewhat different from his comic version at the time, who was only sentenced for 40 years after trying to take over Krypton and was actually freed by Superman when his sentence was done . Zod resembling Satan is therefore a change made by the filmmakers.
Since Krypton is about to be destroyed by its dying red sun, Jor-El tries to save his only son Kal-El by putting him into an escape pod that will take him to earth. Before this, he mentions how he will always be with him (through an A.I. duplicate he sends with him) and that ‘’the son becomes the father and the father the son’’ (possibly referencing the Holy Trinity). When Superman finally interacts with this A.I. duplicate as an adult, this version of Jor-El claims that Superman was specifically send to earth to ‘’serve its collective humanity’’. He also makes this speech, which makes the analogy of God sending his only son Jesus to earth to help humanity even stronger:
"Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and power are needed. But always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, and 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."
This escape pod, with its crystalized appearance, doesn’t resemble a normal spaceship as much as a shooting star. On earth, a young, childless couple called Martha and Jonathan Kent see the flying space-ship, which leads them to the crash site with the baby Kal-El (much like how the wise men were guided by the star of Bethlehem). They adopt and raise Superman, which obviously results in certain people regarding them as analogies for Mary and Joseph, especially since Jonathan mentions in the film that Superman ‘’was sent here for a reason’’. While they’re characters in the comics, Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 didn’t include them. Instead, the comic claimed that he was raised in an orphanage. Siegel and Shuster introduced them in 1939 . I find it unlikely that Siegel and Shuster intended for them to be analogies for Mary and Joseph, due to them being jewish and the earlier mentioned Jewish undertones in the early Superman comics. Mary and Joseph aren’t the first characters in fiction who serve as foster parents for a uniquely powerful and important person. Earlier examples include Adhiratha and Radha in Hindu literature, who were the foster parents of the demigod Karna.
Kozloff describes Superman’s love interest Louis Lane as resembling Mary Magdalen, since she is his favored and most devoted (and only female) disciple. However, Kozloff also uses later interpretations of Magdalen (like the one from Jesus Christ Superstar) to support this comparison, and it seems like she’s drawing unneeded parallels only based on her idea that Superman is supposed to resemble Jesus, and therefore characters around him must resemble Biblical characters.
Another sequel called Superman Returns was released in 2006 (although its connections with the first two movies are debatable) and directed by Bryan Singer. In his book ‘’The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero’’, Christian author Stephen Skelton heavily defended this movie as an allegory for Jesus. At some point in the movie, Superman is seemingly killed by Lex Luthor (the main villain of the movie) with a kryptonite spear (similarly to Jesus being stabbed by a Roman soldier), but he is revived later. He then apparently sacrifices himself to stop Luthor’s plan (and even strikes a crucifixion pose when he falls back to earth). When a female nurse later rushes into his hospital room, she finds it empty (just like the tomb of Jesus was found empty by female followers) . Other people noted a scene in which Superman listens to all the calls of help around the world with his super hearing, which is supposed to resemble God listening to everyone’s prayers. Superman then tells Lois "I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.".
Jesus symbolism in Man of Steel:
Man of Steel is a reboot of the superman movies released in 2013, directed by Zac Snyder and written by David S. Goyer. Warner Bros heavily marketed this movie to a Christian demographic by inviting faith-based groups to early screenings and creating trailers highlighting the film’s religious themes. They even hired Pepperdine University Professor Craig Detweiler to create a Superman-centric sermon outline to be used by pastors titled ‘’Jesus: The Original Superhero.’’ Snyder claimed that the parallels have always been there and that he didn’t add them, and that it would be ‘’snarky’’ to pretend that they aren’t there .
This movie is in many ways similar to the original movies. General Zod is once again the villain, although they don’t do much more with him in terms of religious allegories. Elements like Superman being send to earth to survive Kryptons destruction and him being raised by foster parents are also still there. The first big thing that the movie does different is establishing that Kryptonians are no longer born naturally, but genetically engineered. Superman, on the other hand, was born naturally by leaving his mother’s womb. He’s therefore conceived in an unusual way, much like Jesus and many other mythological characters before him. Clark Kent also spends most of his life, until he becomes Superman, as a manual laborer, which Zac Snyder claimed was there to be a parallel to Jesus being a carpenter. Clark in this movie becomes Superman at the age of 33, the age at which Jesus was crucified12. There are also more obvious moments, like Superman making a crucifixion pose a few times in the movie, as well as Clark going to a priest for advice, allowing for a shot of his face right next to a Jesus painting. There even seems to be an anti-evolution moment in the movie where Faora, one of Zods followers, tells Superman that because they don’t have any morals, they have an evolutionary advantage, and that ‘’evolution always wins’’. This was possibly done to make the movie more appealing to creationists.
The answer to my second question is that the filmmakers have tried to incorporate Christ parallels in the Superman movies, or simply put in obvious imagery like crucifixion poses. However, some parallels that people have noticed in the movies were likely not intended.
The problems with comparing Superman to Jesus:
One problem I have with trying to make Superman an allegory for Jesus is that there are plenty of ways in which they differ. Most notably, Superman solves most problems with violence, not through pacifism, and he inspires people more by setting an example rather than delivering long speeches. While Jesus constantly brought up that he was the son of God and that everything was possible for him, the Superman stories constantly emphasize that Superman’s powers are limited, and he can’t solve every problem. As pastor Jeff Strite pointed out in one sermon, Superman was not sent to earth to die for peoples sins. He had to stay alive to accomplish his missions . A. D. R. Hayes pointed out how superheroes (including Superman) tend to act like super powerful sheriffs and emergency workers, while Jesus had a much more radical purpose. He also criticizes people who try to present Jesus as an ancient superhero, since it risks idolatry by presenting him differently than the Gospels present him .
Even the stories that try to present Superman as a Christ figure still show him acting in un-Christian ways. In Superman II, he gives up his powers just to be with Lois, thereby putting himself before the people he could save with his powers. In Superman Returns, he stalks Lois despite her now being married to someone else and had a bastard son with her. Even Man of Steel shows Superman destroying someone’s truck for being a jerk to him, and he eventually breaks General Zod’s neck. Rather than following Jesus’s teachings about turning the other cheek, these movies are stronger examples of Walter Wink’s myth of redemptive violence, the belief that order conquers chaos through violence .
Another problem I have with trying to make Superman(or any fictional character for that matter) an allegory for Jesus is that it often reduces him to just that: an allegory for Jesus. Some attempts to increase similarities between him and Jesus reduce Superman to a tool for evangelization, rather than a unique character with his own identity. If you’re going to adapt a popular, established character, you should try to stick to that characters own mythos.
Why try to make Superman into Jesus?:
The question remains why many people still see Superman as a Christ figure and use his stories to discuss Christian ideas and the character of Jesus . Some simply try to show how their stories are similar, while others try to show how they are similar in their teachings (although many of these teachings aren’t uniquely theistic in nature). Admittedly, Superman is not the only fictional character (nor the only superhero) who has been used as a Christ figure. In my opinion, there are two big reasons why people like to make fictional characters resemble Jesus:
1) Because Jesus is by many considered the greatest man to have ever lived, creating parallels with him is an easy way to make the fictional character look more heroic and important. Creating the impression that a story endorses Christianity also makes it easier to market this story to Christians (who are a large, profitable demographic). This can explain why film-makers try to turn certain characters into Christ-figures.
2) By creating parallels between Jesus and a popular character, writers can make Jesus look more relevant, topical and ‘’hip’’, as well as reach a new audience. This can explain why some theologians and preachers refer to popular characters in their sermons and other theological works.
But why is Superman in particular promoted as a Christ-figure, to a much greater degree than other (and possibly more) popular characters? Aside from the reasons I mentioned so far, I think there are two big reasons. For one, something that makes Superman different from many other superheroes (especially the anti-heroes) is that he’s presented as unquestionably and uncompromisingly good, the person everyone should strive to be. He tries to inspire hope in people, unlike characters like Batman who focus more on intimidation. This makes him a similar archetype as Jesus, who is also presented this way. It therefor makes sense that they invoke similar emotional reactions in people.
Another reason might be that Superman is also an American icon on the same level as Uncle Sam and Santa Claus. After all, he stands for ‘’truth, justice and the American way’’, and was widely used in American war propaganda. Because he’s such a popular part of American culture, the Jesus parallels might be an attempt to add a more Christian dimension to such an icon, which contributes to making Christianity look like an even more important and omnipresent part of American culture. You can look at this as a reversal of Americans (especially the Christian right) trying to make Jesus look more American.
All the historical evidence shows that Superman was not (at least not directly) based on Jesus, but instead found his roots partly in Jewish characters and culture.
However, this hasn’t stopped people from observing Christian undertones in his stories, and using these Christian undertones (combined with the popularity of Superman) to promote Christian ideas. This has also led to some writers and filmmakers trying to reinterpret the character in a way that emphasizes these Christian undertones, either for evangelical reasons or because they tried to profit from a Christian demographic.
Some people who try to prove that there are Christian themes in Superman stories, even when the original creators didn’t intent this, seem to confuse similarities (which are shared with many characters who existed long before both Jesus and Superman) with intentional attempt to mimic the New Testament. They act like all the story-elements that the New Testament and the Superman stories have in common didn’t exist until the New Testament was written.
Coogan, Peter. ‘’Reconstructing the Superhero in All-Star Superman’’. Critical Approaches to Comics. Ed. Matthew J. Smith, Ed. Randy Duncan. New York: Routledge, 2012. 203.
Hayes, A.D.R., ‘’Jesus as a superhero?’’. Theology. Vol 117(2) (2014)
Kozloff, Sarah R. ‘’ Superman as Saviour: Christian Allegory in the Superman Movies.’’ Journal of Popular Film and Television 9,2.78 (1981):
Lederman, Marie Jean. ‘’Superman, Oedipus and the Myth of the Birth of the Hero’’ Journal of Popular Film and Television 7,3.235 (1979)
Ricca, Brad J. ‘’Discovering the Story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.’’ Critical Approaches to Comics. Ed. Matthew J. Smith, Ed. Randy Duncan. New York: Routledge, 2012. 194-198.
Strite, Jeff. ‘’The Day Superman Died’’, in The Man Of Steel, ed. Jeff Strite, Christian/Church of Christ, July 2013.
Wink, Walter. ‘’The myth of redemptive violence’’ in The Bible in Transmission (1999)