Back in 1933, while Hitler was ascending into power in Germany and diasporic Jews throughout the world looked on with concern, two high school students created one of the most indelible mythical heroes of the last century. Borrowing from the Nietzschean concept of the Übermensch, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel drew from their immigrant lives to tell the tale of a man from another land who had powers hidden from those who dismissed him as a nebishy, glasses-wearing dork.
Many have focused on the character of Superman as a metaphor for the Jews of America (given Joe Shuster's birth in Toronto, I'm forced to point out the Canadian connection due to the Heritage Minutes act of 1973). According to one website:
"Despite his superhuman powers, Superman shared some characteristic traits with a majority of American Jews in the 1940s. Like them, he had arrived in America from a foreign world. His entire family--in fact his entire race--had been wiped out in a holocaust-like disaster on his home planet, Krypton.
Like German Jewish parents who sent their children on the kindertransports, or the baby Moses set adrift in the bull rushes, Superman's parents launched him to Earth in hopes that he would survive. And while the mild-mannered Clark Kent held a white collar job as a reporter by day, the "real" man behind Kent's meek exterior was a virile, indestructible crusader for justice.
This fantasy must have resonated among American Jews, who felt powerless to help their brethren in the death camps of Europe."
Further, this article argues that "Superman obeys the Talmudic injunction to do good for its own sake and heal the world where he can. Siegel and Shuster had created a mythic character who reflected their own Jewish values."
In my Oy Canada cineruminations about Goon, I talked about one of the core Jewish myths, that of the clever David using his wits to defeat the big brute. My argument is that within contemporary mythmaking there's a desire to turn this onto its head, to not just be the clever ones that find a loophole to defeat the big guy, but to be the big guy with all the physical power. I argued that "for thousands of years Jews have embraced clever over brawn (David over Goliath), so when we get to be Goliath, at least on screen, it provides a certain kind of visceral thrill." The character of Superman of course embodies the ultimate aspirational Goliathism, taking the glasses off the bookish and the astigmatic to find a man of great power and purity of ethical vision.
It's no small irony that if we go back to the Nietzchean roots we find that the notion of the Übermensch was in direct contrast to those that held to promises of "other worldly hopes", ie., Christians. The "overman" was thus the anti-ascetic, embracing the physicality of existence and railing against the notion of future rewards in order to live a just life. We do not live for the sake of what's to come, we do not cleave to truths that are transcendent of our existence, we do not here to Platonic notions of the unattainable ideal.
It is this Superman, then, who has the chutzpah to declare "God is dead", not in the notion that there was a deity that has now ceased to be, but that the entire notion of the deistic underpinnings of our epistemology, metaphysics and ethics is derived from some external force. For Nietzsche, "God is dead" isn't just a fact, it's a goal to strive for mentally, almost a mantra to remind the thinking person to rid oneself of these notions of other-worldly ascriptions of belief.
Now, some eight decades after Siegel and Shuster's creation first came about, we've got yet another incarnation of the character. In Zach Snyder's Man Of Steel, the filmmakers have shifted the mythology to explicitly conform with Christian liturgy. This is no accident or something subtle, it is absolutely part of both the storyline and the marketing angle of the film. As reported this weekend, Warner Brothers "asked a theologian to provide sermon notes for pastors who want to preach about Superman on Sunday. Titled Jesus: The Original Superhero, the notes run nine pages."
The studio has even created a website (ManofSteelResources.com), encouraging "free Pastor screenings" in order to facilitate the transmission of the message. In the sermon notes, Dr. Craig Detweiler, a professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, lays out the argument for SuperJesus. His chapters ("Divine Origins", "A Lofty Calling", "A Costly Choice") speak of the manifest connection with the New Testament story.
Even without this guide, you have to be pretty blind to miss the
connections. Kent is 33 when he must confront the events his Father set in
motion. The film's narrative drive is about sacrifice, about our hero stepping
in to take on the sins of the world. Plus, he's got a beard.
Visually, Snyder does the messianic thing with an equal lack of subtlety. From a confessional sequence with an out-of-focus stained-glass Jesus hovering
over Kent's shoulder, to a casual crucifixion pose when Superman drifts out of
the space ship, it's not to difficult to pick up on this stuff.
In fact, the arms-spread-wide scene is an echo of an earlier shot, seen in the trailer, that has him floating in water, having single-handedly taken on an oil rig. Floating in the murky depths, illuminated from the hellish inferno our hero has managed to subvert, he floats, angelic, at peace, about to be resurrected after a literal baptism of fire. His eyes open, and he rises to the heavens, or, at least, the surface of the ocean.
Notions of identity, of adoption (both parental and in terms of nationality) also of course arise, with a cheeky reference to Palin's notion of the "real America", a casual reference to Kansas as the "heartland" of that Nation.
There are more subtle allusions as well, from the "Holy Ghost" like spirit of Jor-El, to Kent's railing about the position he's being put in, "Did God do this to me!". Even the virgin birth is alluded to, but with a twist - on Krypton, where everyone else is Virgin birthed, Kal-El is unique in that he is conceived "naturally".
The film even hides from the Kent-as-reporter metaphor until the last moments. We see our lead as many things - small town schoolboy, a bearded wanderer, a fisherman, his humble Americana beginnings before he takes on the task that he was born to do. Only after that task has been completed (well, at least the first phase) does he lose himself into the secular world of the newspaperman, donning the disguise that Tarantino in Kill Bill called "Superman's critique on the whole human race".
Of course, most of this stuff remains entirely superficial. I'm guessing that the thinking theologian might want to point out a necessary part of the Jesus story is that he has to die for it to make sense. Naturally, comic books aren't shy about the usual death and miraculous resurrection of their lead characters, but it's hard to tie that to a guy in a cape beating the shit of of a guy by throwing him through office buildings, only to find a way of breaking a neck to save a nuclear family.
Liturgically, of course, the Superman of Man of Steel is just Jesus-y, not Jesus. You can draw out the metaphor as much as you want, but it seems some are simply wanting pastors to preach that Jesus was the "good guy" of his own story, and that in the heroic adventures of Superman somehow are meant to mirror that. Superman, like Jesus, is drawn from a core Jewish myth and has extended into the dominant religion of this continent. It does so without too much offense to those not looking for those signs, but its inclusion will, arguably, sate those who tend to go support films that reemphasise their own world view.
It's one of those great coincidences of film scheduling, then, that an even more overtly New Testament-themed tale is out in theatres, finding its way under the giant marketing onslaught of the superhero franchise. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's film This Is The End is littered with biblical references - hell, it's practically a documentary for what's laid out in the Book of Revelations. And yet, I can't seem to find any free pastor screening invites or sermon documentation about this film that really should be seen by many believers, given the inconvenient truths indicated by such end-of-the-world prophesying in their liturgical book.
Like Goon, a philosophically rich Hockey bruiser film, This Is The End is a delightfully intelligent stoner comedy, completely skewering celebrity culture while overlaying its point against the backdrop of the culmination of existence. Sure, the New Testament doesn't go to as great lengths to illustrate the giant swinging (circumcised) phallus of Satan, but for those that adhere to notions of the Rapture, this film should nicely document what they feel is coming our way.
If the words of the Bible are to be adhered to, the return of Jesus brings with it the times of Revelation. If we take the SuperJesus connection seriously, than the rise of Kal-El might then lead to the events of This Is The End, making for a deliciously apt double bill.
Jesus has returned, wearing a cape and a cowlick, and I guess that means Jonah Hill's going to have to get fucked in the ass by a daemon.
In my interview with Rogen and Evans, they admitted to a subtext that I had picked up on (and brushed off) during my first viewing, namely, that the core of the idea of the film is "What happens to the Jews when the Rapture occurs?"
Evan: People actually think that as Jews, we're going to be stuck here and that's going to happen. We started talking about what would we do if that happened, 'cause they don't say what would happen to all of these people left behind. What happens to all these Jews? It kind of started from like a Jewish thing.
Seth: It started from a Jewish thing and that was the original joke in the movie, it was like what happens to Jews?
Evan: And the answer is you get fucked. We talked about how no one could get mad at us for what we've done here. People who think that's going to happen will be like yeah, that's gonna happen!
Seth: The original draft of the script said "based on the book by God." We didn't send it out like that. We should have.
Does this mean, in their own way, that the studios are claiming that this Superman is in part "based on the the book by God"? Should you, whatever your beliefs or background, be swayed by familiar metaphors into supporting a film? Is speaking to a Christian audience by littering Jesus elements in a Superhero film any more cynical than J.J. throwing Empire Strikes Back references into Star Trek, or Ridley Scott mining his own mythology with his Promethean preboot?
Who's to say. Myself, I'm more bemused by the co-option of the Jesus myth by Man of Steel in the ways that it doesn't fit the source material. Meanwhile, I think that This Is The End is actually quite effective at showing some of the more macabre and preposterous elements of the source material. I personally respond better to the heightened insanity of Goldberg and Rogen's vision, particularly when it comes to taking seriously what at the core are pretty simply admonitions, namely, be nice to people so you won't get fucked by a daemon.
If the goal of any book of religion is to provide real world examples of how to conduct oneself, then frankly This Is The End is a better example of how to live the Neitzschean ideal. In its own cynical way, it shows that maybe treating each other well should be its own reward, whether or not a transporter beam will save you from a band of rampant cannibals.
It's hard to think what one can learn from this iteration of Superman - are we to hope that we'll have someone come and save us from our doom? Or should we instead not look towards the stars for our salvation, but within ourselves. These are the ideas the original notion of the Superman was grappling with. Following its publication, that existential project was subsumed by the same Nazis that helped shame Siegel and Shuster's vision, thinking of the Superman as inherently superior, a notion of purity due to lineage and right of birth.
This modern interpretation of Superman may teach us many things, but at its most twisted it may teach that we need to have been born as the son of a great and powerful leader to fulfill great destiny. It's hardly the stuff of the American dream of being able to rise due to one's own capacities, and we should be careful as to just how far we wish stretch these metaphors.
Until then, I'll take my heavy handed metaphors in the form of using tchotchkes from James Franco's illustrious career to fend of roving hoards, or revel in the real world dilemma of how to split a chocolate bar when it's the last one on Earth. I would suggest looking to the clowns to find deep truths, and look to the Superman to find pleasant, if mindless and patently manipulative, escape.