In our increasingly secular society, there are many hidden morsels of religion scattered throughout popular culture and the entertainment industry. Many seemingly secular movies and television series have a hidden religious message that many viewers miss entirely. Perhaps the best example of a hidden message is found in the Superman film franchise. I refer especially to 1978’s Superman: The Movie directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve, as well as 2006’s summer blockbuster Superman Returns directed by Bryan Singer and featuring Brandon Routh as the Man of Steel. Though there are some minor religious moments in the three other Superman films that were made in the 1980s (Superman II, Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), I feel the aforementioned first and most recent installments of the series best display religious themes and motifs.
The character of Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938. Created by two Jewish young men (writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster), the concept of Superman had heavy Judeo-Christian implications from the very start. Superman: The Movie shows baby Kal-El from the planet Krypton being rocketed to Earth by his parents Jor-El and Lara as their sun goes supernova and their doomed home planet is destroyed. Little Kal-El lands on Earth three years later and is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, an elderly couple who own a farm in Smallville, Kansas. They rename him Clark Kent and raise him as their own son, only to discover that he possesses “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.”
As he grows, Clark realizes he is different from other children. Indeed, he was told by his Kryptonian biological father Jor-El, “Though you’ve been raised as a human, you are not one of them.” Jonathan tells Clark that he must use his powers for good, and that he was sent to Earth for a higher purpose. Shortly after this, Jonathan dies of a heart attack. Clark finds a piece of Kryptonian crystal that joined him on his childhood odyssey across the galaxy and he feels that he is called to head toward the North Pole, so he tearfully bids his mother farewell and embarks on his journey. When he reaches the Arctic, he throws the crystal. When the crystal lands in the snow, it builds a giant fortress of ice and crystal. Here, he finds the pre-recorded voice and image of Jor-El. For twelve years, Clark trains and learns from his birth father’s wisdom. When he emerges, he is Superman, the caped defender of “Truth, Justice, and the American way.”
As the creation of two Jewish Americans, Superman is first and foremost a symbol of Judeo-Christian theology. First, let us examine the Jewish viewpoint. Kal-El’s journey resembles that of Moses in almost every way. A Hebrew slave woman placed her baby in a basket and floated him down the Nile in an effort to spare him from a life in bondage. The basket, bearing its precious cargo, found its way to the palace of the Pharaoh, where the princess found the child and raised him as her own, naming him Moses. This idea of a parent sending his or her child away for a chance at a better life is clearly mirrored in the first Superman film. When he reached maturity, Moses learned that he was actually Hebrew and was banished from Pharaoh’s palace. He wandered in the desert before speaking to God in the burning bush. Again, Superman borrows from this concept by having Kal-El travel to the Arctic and learning from his long-dead father’s pre-recorded messages. The parallels continue as Moses returns to Egypt to lead his Hebrew brothers and sisters out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Superman protects and defends all of mankind and strives to lead them to a happier existence, so he can definitely be seen as a modern Moses.
While Christians accept the story of Moses as part of the Bible, it can also be argued that Superman represents Jesus Christ. Just as Christians believe that God the Father sent Jesus Christ, His only son, to be the Savior of all mankind, so did Jor-El send his own firstborn to watch over and protect the people of Earth. Being a part of the Holy Trinity, Jesus was able to glorify God through many works and miracles that no one else could have possibly performed. Similarly, Superman’s powers allow him to perform feats that no human could ever dream of.
At one point in Superman Returns, the Last Son of Krypton is stabbed in the side with a large shard of Kryptonite, a radioactive rock from his home world that could kill him. This quick but powerful moment mirrors the piercing Christ’s side by a Roman centurion at the Crucifixion. Later, after Superman has been rushed to the hospital, a female nurse walks into his room only to find an empty bed, which is strikingly similar to Mary Magdalene discovering Jesus’ empty tomb at Easter.
In Superman III (made in 1983 and directed by Richard Lester), the title character underwent a strange process that physically split him into two people representing the two sides of his personality: an evil Superman and the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. The two beings fought each other in an epic battle, with the good side finally winning and absorbing the evil side to once again form a balanced, whole person. He did not allow evil to dominate him. This can be likened to incidents from the life of Christ. Because he was both divine and human, Jesus was subject to temptation, but always chose to serve his Heavenly Father. When he went into the desert for forty days, Satan tempted him with earthly pleasures. The night before he died, he wept in the garden of Gethsemane and asked that he could be spared the bloody fate that lay ahead of him. In both cases, he chose to do God’s will. Superman can be seen as Christ-like because like Jesus, he came to Earth with unlimited power and chose to use those abilities for good rather than evil.
Believers in Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and to some extent, Jainism could identify with Superman on a more general level because of his strong sense of morality. In Superman II, when a busload of people is in peril, the Metropolis Marvel cries out in agony, pleading with the villains responsible to spare the innocent lives. This would certainly be seen as noble by a person of any religion. A Jainist might be impressed by his concern for life, as that is their primary concern. A Shintoist would also appreciate this because it echoes one of their faith’s ten main precepts: “Do not forget that the world is one great family.” Hindus, embracing many diverse beliefs and spirits, might consider Superman another one of many gods to be praised. The Man of Steel possesses many qualities which make him a model of goodness and morality that many religions and belief systems have in common. He is a symbol of unity.
In another sense, Superman can be seen as a kind of secular Messiah. He is symbolic of what one might call the “American Religion.” Superman is the living embodiment of a patriot. He fights crime and injustice on every level. This can mean saving a cat stuck in a tree (as in Superman: The Movie), ridding the planet of nuclear weapons (as in Sidney J. Furie’s 1987 feature Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), or defending Earth from an alien invasion (as in Superman II, directed by Richard Lester in 1980). He upholds the law almost to a fault. His commitment to his adopted country is undeniable. This is best evidenced near the end of Superman II when Superman places an American flag atop the White House after it has been badly damaged by three super-powered Kryptonian criminals. He apologizes to the U.S. President for having failed his country and promises to better defend her in the future. Even those who do not believe in any deity or subscribe to a particular organized religion can agree that Superman, being virtually indestructible and such a model citizen, is a kind of secular god; the ultimate role model.
Superman is seen by many as nothing more than a comic book character. In truth, he is a symbol of many varied religious beliefs. While the world around us is all but devoid of anything resembling spirituality, the Superman film series is a refreshing beacon of hidden religious meaning. People of all faith backgrounds – and even those of none whatsoever – can agree that Superman is an ideal example of human goodness. On a deeper lever, the stories told in the Superman movies closely parallel those of Moses and Jesus Christ. Both major plot points and minor details resemble moments from the lives of these two major biblical figures. In this sense, the Superman series is a Judeo-Christian allegory like no other. It uses man’s eternal fascination with the fantastic concept of human flight to tell a gripping and wondrous tale of good triumphing over evil. Perhaps Jor-El expressed Superman’s religious significance best when he said, “They can be a great people, Kal-El, 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.”