Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Superman: Man of God?

Firstly a warning; there are some slight spoilers for the latest Superman Man of Steel movie in this piece. There’s very little beyond what the trailers will tell you but if you’re careful about those things (like I am) then read no more till you've seen the film (or read the comic adaptation). I also won’t be censoring any comments that divulge plot points so they might give away more. 

Secondly another disclaimer; for this piece I watched a movie, flicked through the Bible, read some old comics, and surfed the net. That’s all. I haven’t conducted any research into relevant ancient Greek myths for example. I am not a Superman expert and there are many versions of his tale out there. I've seen most of them but I bow (respectfully) before greater geeks than me on the topic. I say this, not to deflect criticism, but to invite your own playful thoughts on the Superman legend.

Zack Snyder's Superman movie, Superman: Man of Steel has generated some fun discussion. I have enjoyed disagreeing with the common description of Superman as an analogy to Jesus. It’s a point made on The Movie Show by David Stratton and a common parallel to be drawn.

To be fair, this latest film strengthens - maybe even labors - this association. The scene in which the Man of Steel visits a chapel is reminiscent of the Garden of Gethsemane. Superman then allows himself to be bound and delivered as a sacrifice. Although he could free himself at any time he goes meekly into his captors’ hands. It’s very Jesus-like. In fact, rather than saying that audiences of Zack Snyder’s film who relate Superman to Jesus got the film’s metaphor wrong, I’d say the film got Superman wrong by making him so Jesus-like.

It’s inevitable given the vast cultural space that Jesus occupies that any modern Messiah is presumed to be, even compelled to become, Jesus in another form. Whether the character is Neo in the Matrix, or Batman, or Superman, they are going to be seen as a variant Jesus. This is partly because we have forgotten that the Jesus story is itself informed by an older messianic myth, one which continues to inspire storytelling in its own right.

That myth is Moses. This is the archetypal liberator of the Judaic tradition. This is, in my opinion, the better fit for who Superman is supposed to represent. Like Superman, Moses’ parents place him in a reed basket and send him down river. It’s an ancient version of a single child sized spaceship sent into space. When found, Moses is raised in an Egyptian household as an adopted son. Superman’s biological mother, just like Moses’, sends him off to relative safety. On the other hand Jesus - unlike Superman - is never separated from his biological mother.

It’s not accidental that this key difference in the mothering of Jesus and Superman is overlooked. The position of the mothers in both Jesus’ and Superman’s story suffers from patriarchal diminishment. The way we emphasis Jesus’ divinity, it is as if Jesus is Mary’s adopted child as well as Joseph’s. Despite her constant involvement in his life Jesus is often only seen as passively parented by her – all his insight come from his divine lineage, not from his mum.

Meanwhile Superman on screen struggles to reunite with his absent father rather than his absent mother. In Zack Snyder’s film this goes so far as to give his dead Kryptonian father a reasonable role in the film. Even his dead human dad has more screen time through flashbacks than Martha Kent.

Commander Zod, the enemy of the piece comes across as another father figure to me, just an abusive one. Perhaps in this Jesusian version of Superman, Zod is supposed to be the Devil tempting Superman with the whole world. Fortunately the holy ghost of Kryptonian Dad protects our messiah. This really is a film about whose male vision for Superman, including his own and the U.S. military's will triumph.

(By comparison the Terminator series has a very active and involved "Mother Mary" in Sarah O’Conner, raising the Jesus figure of John Conner with the absent Kyle Reese of the future representing God the Father. But that’s another blog post.)

Zack Snyder's Lois Lane and Martha Kent are excellently cast and acted but they play support roles only. Lois Lane even abandons the biggest story of the world for Supermans’ privacies sake. The hard-boiled crack reporter and daredevil of the comics would never have made that choice.

The riskier, driven Lois is not the only feminist difference between the Superman comics and the films.They don’t go as far as the Moses story where there aren’t any men involved at all in the send off, rescue and raising of Moses. However the comics also don’t have any of the oppressively heavy daddy issues of the films either. While Martha Kent in the comics isn’t quite as strong a maternal figure as Aunt May (Spiderman’s adopted mum) she isn’t overshadowed by ghosts either. The film’s focus on patriarchal conflicts is a choice to take the Superman myth in a different direction – probably a misread Christian one.

Supporting the claim of a connection between the original Superman and Moses isn’t hard. The character was created by two Jewish authors Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Kal-El, Superman’s Kryptonian name is Hebrew for the vessel of God. The fact that Superman’s creators play down this connection and cite inspiration from a range of science fiction sources as being far more relevant is best ignored for the sake of a good story. Let us say no more about it.

Then there are differences of course between Moses and Superman. Moses’ biological mother actually raises him as a wet-nurse in secret, at least to a certain age. Superman’s biological mother and her people are destroyed on Krypton. Moses’ people are very much alive. He grows up to lead them. Oh and Moses can’t fly.

In some particular differences between Moses and Superman we have a fascinating development of the myth of liberator. By looking directly at these differences we can see a picture of immigrant Jewish identity in the context of 1970’s North America. Moses leads his people to freedom from servitude, drowning his adopted people’s army. Superman instead embraces a dual identity – both as Kansas Farm boy and the last Kryptonian. There’s something counter–Zionist in this both all-American and diaspora identity reconciled. Superman is at home in America as his creators. In fact they flourish there. Whether as character or character creators they are their new home’s greatest champions - yet still aliens.

Superman’s adopted family, the Kents,are idyllic. They represent a small town ethical purity that grounds (no pun intended) Superman in his future use of power. European Jews like Jerry Siegal, the youngest of six children in a family that emigrated from Lithuania, would have appreciated that. In 1941 Nazi Germany conquered Lithuania which had previously been under the repressive Stalinist regime anyway. The idea of an American Way, embodied by “ordinary Americans” more than their government, has older roots than Superman but it’s definitely appealed to here. It is what the migrant hero must defend.

Superman’s power to fly on earth originally came from the fact that his home planet of Krypton had a much heavier gravity than earth’s. This speaks to the ease with which migrants like Siegal and Shuster (the son of a migrant) can view their new countries relative to the tyrannies they flee. The comics also associated Superman’s powers with Earth’s young yellow sun instead of Krypton’s dying one. Superman’s power is a way of expressing the writers’ own flourishing in the young and vital ex-colony of the United States of America. With that flourishing comes responsibility: Siegal and Shuster had Superman fighting Nazis across Europe well before the U.S. entered the war.

A lot of these migrant themes of Superman are sadly confused or lost when Zack Snyder lays Christian weights onto the Superman myth. They can also be missed if we make too much of Superman as Moses for that matter. Ultimately Superman makes the most sense of all as Superman – a local homespun hero and the refugee of a dying world.

It’s questionable whether this exact liberator fantasy continues to hold relevance for how migrants can understand themselves today. The United States of America on the eve of World War Two was an empire in ascendancy. It was a land of a youthful sun for many of its European migrants who flourished following its American Way. As the U.S. economy contracts or as other threats like ecological collapses (which featured in Snyder’s film) loom larger than European Fascism and Communism, Superman, at least as an American Superhero, will have to change to make sense. 

And then there's the question of what a U.S. hero with super-hearing and super-sight means in an era post Edward Snowden's revelations. The differences between the practices of government in Stalinist Lithuania and the Prism project may seem small to modern audiences. The comics have recently had Superman renounce his American citizenship. Zack Snyder made a nod to this concern when Superman destroys a U.S. drone that is following him.

If that is what this latest film tried to do; make such changes as to bring Superman up to date I think it didn't really get there. I particularly hope Lois Lane's character is strengthened in the inevitable sequels and the story never revisits the emphasis on fathers in this film. Worst of all it just felt like a failure of imagination to create yet another cultural analogy for Jesus out of this character. Superman has their own complicated legendary story.

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