I’ve been a fan of both Jesus and Superman for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and one thing I can tell you about both men is that their stories fit the mythic hero archetype. This is why, whether intentional or otherwise, Superman can be seen as an allegory of any one of handfuls of other heroic figures from disparate mythologies. The new film Man of Steel draws the comparison specifically to Christ with varying degrees of subtlety. Of course, the true allegory of any heroic myth is how it relates to you, the Initiate listening to the Exemplar‘s story by the fireside. When we compare the lessons of one heroic figure with another, inroads may be found that lead to a greater understanding of the philosophy presented, and indeed, to the human condition itself. But how can the Initiate possibly benefit when the Exemplar is a god? How can a mortal relate to a god?
I find it highly encouraging that director Zack Snyder has stated that his intent with Man Of Steel was to create a Superman to whom viewers can relate. This has been a perennial complaint of Superman comics’ detractors. They do not grasp the meaning of a superhero who is so powerful that he seems like a god. In the mainstream world of comic book fandom, a superhero isn’t worthwhile unless he is a tragic character with flaws…anything ranging from limited abilities and orphanism to substance abuse and anger issues. I think this begs a deeper question: why must we believe that a god is unrelatable?
Perhaps the most obvious scene which compares Superman with Jesus is the one in which Clark Kent confesses to a Smallville priest that he is the alien who has garnered the attention of General Zod and, subsequently, the entire planet Earth. In it, the shot is framed such that it puts a stained glass window behind Clark which depicts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. It is a literal juxtaposition of two characters in the same frame of film. Fittingly, this is essentially Clark’s “let this cup pass from me” moment. This is his prayer in the garden, at the moment when he is at last confronted with the question of whether he will fulfill his destiny or turn and run; to show the world who he really is or to continue impersonating a mere mortal. Throughout the entire film up to this point, this has been the same question raised by both his biological and adoptive fathers.
What message does this have for the viewer? Part of the mainstream philosophy of Christian true believers (to paraphrase a Stan Lee catch phrase) holds that each person must “bear their own cross,” in other words, that they are destined to endure a measure of suffering during their lifetime. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”1 And yet, through it all, Christians are admonished to love their neighbors as well as their enemies, aid and relieve their fellow man, and judge no one. This makes the Christian the Initiate and Christ the Exemplar. It is an example of the true allegory of heroic myth which I described earlier. Similarly, Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman is the Exemplar of his story, and it has never been more heavily stated than in Man Of Steel. Just as each Christian must bear their own cross, Man Of Steel‘s message is that each one of us must embrace our true identity. Use your powers for good, be all you can be, follow your bliss, come out of the closet, find your special purpose…however you want to put it, we must each be true to our selves. Only then can we be fully actualized human beings. Perhaps that is the meaning of life.
1The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis, 1940