I had an interesting conversation last week about whether or not Superman is an archetypal Christ/Messiah figure. It came up in the context of a discussion of the newest film incarnation of the Superman mythos- Man of Steel.
At that point I hadn’t yet seen the film, and to be honest I had never given the assertion all that much thought. My Superman experience pretty much began and ended with
Christopher Reeve’s (may he RIP) goody-two-shoes portrayal in the 70s and 80s.
Both versions were so incredibly clean cut and American that mythological links to Jesus didn’t really come up.
Over the course of the discussion I came to the rapid decision that yes, of course Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman is Jesus. Perhaps with a little bit of Moses and Azazel thrown in for good measure.
Even his original/alien name features the Northwest Semitic (the language group that includes Hebrew and Arabic) word for ‘deity’. If the method of family naming on Krypton is in any way comparable to that in many places on Earth, this patronym would suggest that Jor-El and Kal-El are in the family line of god.
You’d think someone who spends as much time with myth as I do would have made that connection before. I guess Superman just usually isn’t on my radar.
Then, in a recent Twitter feed, I saw this article referenced.
Here I had just wrapped my brain around the Kal-El-as-Christ motif, now some Christian reviewers are saying that this recent iteration is actually Superman-as-ANTI-Christ (as in ‘against/not Christ’ rather than THE Anti-Christ, I’m presuming from the context).
I actually saw the film last night.
Yep. The Jesus-mythology is there in fullest force.
Okay, in the final showdown (SPOILER ALERT!) Kal does NOT turn the other cheek.
But, if we keep to the whole of the (canonical) mythology, the Nazarene carpenter wasn’t above an act of violence himself. Turning over some tables in the Temple ring any bells?
It’s in all four of the Gospels, but John spices up the incident by also including whips and chains (okay, not chains, but the whip IS there):
“In the Temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” (John 2.13-15)
And then there’s this:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10.34)
Okay, so maybe neither of those outbursts is quite the same as the act to which Kal-El was driven (in order to save humanity). But Jesus doesn’t seem to have been as completely opposed to expedient means for necessary ends, as some might maintain, either.
And he did hang out with Simon. Who was a Zealot (Luke 6.15, Acts 1.13). Zealots WERE violently opposed to Roman rule. They were guerilla soldiers who could give some of the terror-mongers of today a run for their money.
Not that I’m an advocate of guilt by association or anything. Jesus was more about making changes in the religious system that he adhered to than he was concerned with the Roman occupation of Palestine. He may have palled around with some overly-Zealous guys, but he wasn’t necessarily guilty of complicity in seeking to violently oust the foreign rulers from the land.
Still, I tend to take issue with people who ignore the bits of the myths that don’t suit their interpretation/belief.
People who are far more expert than I in the whys and wherefores of Superman mythology will no doubt endlessly debate whether or not Kal killing Zod (I WARNED you that there would be spoilers) and “completely disregarding the safety and welfare of the people around him” actually “blasted a hole in the traditional moral code of the character” (quotations from the article linked above- Michael Parnell and Jeff Weiss, respectively).
IMHO, Kal did what he needed to do. There was certainly collateral damage (or ‘disaster porn’ depending on POV) but the greater good was served. The military dudes (the guy who used to be on Law and Order: SVU and Toby from West Wing) sacrificed themselves in order to play their part in the salvation of the Earth. Should Kal be vilified for doing what only he could do?
That’s not my call to make. Admitted Superman neophyte and Johnny-come-lately here (see above comments re. the Super Friends and Christopher Reeve).
Believe me, I am all too aware of how
uppity grouchy offended people can get when you mess with their interpretations of closely-held and much-beloved myths.
Whether of Superman or Jesus.
The adoration and devotion is often not all that dissimilar.
I also get that people don’t like to have their myths taken lightly. Stories that are invested with sacred meaning are very personally important to those who sincerely believe in a particular interpretation of the myth.
Mythic motifs and characters are reflective of vital cultural values and beliefs. They are recurrent- familiar themes are reintroduced in different forms, and common issues are revisited according to specific time and place. They are also finite in number. The same archetypes show up again and again because they address the same feelings, doubts, questions and anxieties as they always have.
Carl Jung and Prof. Cambell weren’t blowing smoke when they identified the figures (mother, child, trickster, hero…), the events (birth, death, initiation…) and motifs (apocalypse, creation, deluge…) that are the archetypes that we employ to structure our realities.
Myths are tools- for coping with our world and the human condition. While the specifics are illustrated according to contextual elements like history, geography and culture, the underlying ways of presenting our responses to our common concerns remain the same.
As we saw yesterday, one person’s imaginary guy/girl in a lamp is an Allah-created supernatural being to someone else. Humans who subscribe to a particular religious belief system tend to get a bit hinky when their sacred cows (or people, or divinities) are equated with fictional characters ostensibly meant solely for the purposes of entertainment.
Our myths are special stories, imbued with meaning, seriousness and importance, but I think we really need to lighten up some and appreciate that the repetition of the themes and character(istic)s in our stories is something that is going to happen. We have pretty cool brains (when they are actually used to fullest capacity) but, for all their complexity, they remain somewhat limited in the ways in which we name and describe things.
In Man of Steel Kal did his damndest to save humanity using the tools he had to hand and at great risk to himself. If he had seen any other alternative he would have taken it. Cut the dude some slack.
Everything old is new again. There is nothing new under the sun. And whatever other trite, clichéd tautology you might want.
Let’s keep that in mind- along with the fact that our cultural heroes are reflections of us (in the same way that 1st century Palestinian heroes are reflections of the cultural values and behaviours of 1st century Palestinians). If we are going to take issue with their actions, we should probably evaluate why, exactly, we would have them act in that way.
Is Superman the real problem here?
Did I mention I LOVED this movie?
Go see it.