Sunday, July 16, 2006


The Gospel of Kal-El

This was originally going to be called, "The Passion of the Super-Christ," when the idea came to me as I was finishing up my review of Superman Returns. Unfortunately, in the interim a few NRO writers mentioned at least some aspects of the movie's religious imagery.

Actually, director Bryan Singer has made a far more subversive film in its use of Biblical themes than he is being give credit for. (By the way, my praise for what Singer seems to be doing here in no ways mitigates my feelings toward the movie's logical flaws, though it does cause me to rethink my objections to at least one of the creative decisions Singer made).

Furthermore, it puts the entire controversy about the jettisoning of the "...and the American Way" line in a completely different light. Whether one should find this interpretation ultimately inspirational -- or sacriligeous --- is a determination that will have to be made on an individual basis.

Jonah Goldberg puts the ejecting of the traditional "American" phrase in the context of the moviemakers
making a cultural-financial determination:

In the new film Superman Returns, the Man of Steel no longer stands for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Now he’s dedicated to, according to the movie’s promotional materials, “truth, justice, and all that is good.” Though, in the movie, the phrase gets edited down by Daily Planet editor Perry White to “truth, justice, and all that stuff.” Typical editorial arrogance, if you ask me.

Although conservative talk radio has surely gone overboard in bashing the film, the movie does represent something of a retreat from Superman’s traditional patriotism. “The world has changed. The world is a different place,” the movie’s co-writer, Dan Harris, told the Hollywood Reporter. “The truth is he’s an alien. He was sent from another planet . . . and he is here for everybody. He’s an international superhero.” And in the movie, Superman’s traditional backdrop of the American flag is replaced by the whole world.

Of course, it’s good business to make Superman much less American because moviegoers are so much less American too. A pushy, all-powerful, self-proclaimed superhero who stands for the “American” way might turn off, say, Pakistani audiences.

Jonah's colleague Iain Murray is somewhat tongue-in-cheek in noting the film's religious element, . while John Hood is completely dismissive, assuming the religious/spiritual stuff is just thrown in as a trendy gimmick to appeal to the Chronicles of Narnia crowd.

On the contrary, though not often commented on, Superman's connection to the Bible has been there from the beginning -- even before "the American Way" sensibility was grafted on (explicitly in the 1950s TV show, thought it was implicit very early in the comics).

While this author touched upon the
Jewish origins of super-heroes in a review of the first Spider-Man movie, Mad magazine writer Arie Kaplan went even more in-depth in three issues of Reform Judaism (later reprinted in the comic fanzine Comic Book Marketplace).
In Part I, he discussed some of the
cultural inspiration of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster:
The Superman narrative is also rich in Jewish symbolism. He is a child survivor named Kal-El (in Hebrew, "All that is God") from the planet Krypton, whose population, a race of brilliant scientists, is decimated. His parents send him to Earth in a tiny rocket ship, reminiscent of how baby Moses survived Pharaoh's decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons. In the context of the 1930s, the story also reflects the saga of the Kindertransports--the evacuation to safety of hundreds of Jewish children, without their parents, from Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain.
Thus, the Superman Returns writers and director Bryan Singer have slyly referenced that Hebrew beginning by replacing "...and the American Way" with "...and all that is good."

But they go much farther. Superficially, the movie plays on imagery of Superman as Christ -- beaten by Lex Luthor and his men, stabbed in the side with a shard of Kryptonite, falling into a death-like coma after saving Earth -- and then suddenly being revived (how many days later?). For that matter, Lois's Pulitzer-Prize winning op-ed piece, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" could be considered something of a stand-in for, "Why the World Doesn't Need God."

However, Singer and company are doing something else.

As I wrote in my review of Superman Returns, it bothered me that the hero of the movie is not the emotional center of the story. The viewer is never really made to feel for the hero -- even when he's being beaten up. Superman -- even when he is sacrificing himself -- never seems to have an emotional connection to what he is doing. The conversation between he and Lois is always on a very polite and distant level.

Conversely, the truly emotional figure -- the truly passionate individual -- is Perry White's nephew Richard who loves Lois, despite her unresolved longing for another, and loves the boy, Jason -- who calls him "Daddy."
It is quite obvious early on that Richard is not Jason's biological father, yet he is quite content to act as a surrogate father for Jason.

It is also interesting that, in a traditional comic-book setting, Richard would be relegated to the background as an after-thought. But that's not what happens. On the contrary, Richard is the one to first arrive to "save" Lois and Jason -- before Superman gets there. Richard is the one who -- at Lois's pleading -- turns around the plane he's piloting so he and Lois can save Superman. Finally, when Superman is laying in a coma near death, Richard tells Lois that she can be more useful somewhere else. He takes Lois and Jason to the hospital. As they get out of the car, he tells Lois that he will always be there for her.

One could say, "What sort of wimp is this that he's essentially surrendering the woman he loves to this being from another planet -- and allowing the child he has treated as his own to go to someone who has been away for five years."

But, it makes a whole lot more sense, if one considers someone else who acted as a faithful protector of a woman carrying a child that was not his. This other person raised him as his own, even though he knew different. He was a good, solid individual comfortable with who he was and recognizing that he was playing an important role -- but ultimately secondary in the great scheme of things.

There is much talk in Superman Returns about whether Earth needs a "super-savior." The question is -- who's the savior? While on level, the movie is a "Passion" manque, with the Man of Steel standing in for an end-of-his-life Christ, there is a dual messsage being imparted: In the other reading, the movie is also a post-Nativity allegory for the Holy Family. Thus, Lois and Jason are meant to represent Mary and Jesus -- and Richard White becomes modeled after Jesus' stepfather,

While Lois is hardly the "Virgin Mary," the fact is that the movie portrays the live-in relationship between Lois and Richard about as chastely as possible (and not, I believe, just because this is a PG-13) movie. Indeed, just the idea of Lois Lane shacking up with some guy and becoming a single mother was, for me, rather shocking when I first heard about it -- particularly in light of what has been discussed before of comic books'
quaint traditionalism when it comes to marriage and divorce.

However, it makes a whole lot more sense in this context. Richard/Joseph is thus considered a hero in his own right -- and as essential in the development and protection of the "divine offspring" as the actual non-terrestrial parent is.

And all that's up for consumption -- without even noting the similarity between the names Jesus and Jason.

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