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Last Updated: Friday, 28 July 2006, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Is the new Superman meant to be Jesus?
Warning: This story contains plot spoilers

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine


Is the Superman Returns movie meant to remind us of the Bible? And if so, is it blasphemy?

Well here's the story.

An all-powerful father sends his son to Earth to save mankind by showing them the "light". The son is able to perform miracles. He "dies" and is born again.

Sound familiar? It might do, it's the plot of the new movie Superman Returns. And in the blogs and internet forums there has been a maelstrom of debate on the parallels between Superman and Jesus Christ.

Superman has a long history of Judaeo-Christian symbols, but this time the film's makers have taken it to a new level.

Stabbed in side with Kryptonite - like Jesus stabbed with spear
Empty hospital room - empty tomb of Jesus
Falls to Earth, arms outstretched - Crucifixion-like
Cradled in mother's arms - like Michelangelo's Pieta
Superman says world needs saviour
Superman's five years in space echoes the Ascension
Shown with weight of world/sin on shoulders

• At one point Superman falls towards the Earth in a pose that vaguely echoes the Crucifixion.

• He is stabbed in his side with Kryptonite in an echo of the stabbing of Jesus by a Roman soldier.

• A female nurse rushes into the hospital room to find it empty just as Jesus tomb was found to be empty by female followers.

And there are Christians in the US who believe that the symbolism is now sufficiently obvious that the film can be incorporated into religious teaching.

Stephen Skelton is the author of the Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero and has prepared guidance for pastors wanting to use Superman Returns in their sermons.

Sex and violence

"You would have to be blind to miss what they are doing in terms of the Christ imagery," says Mr Skelton, a Christian with a background in showbusiness, "there is a big foot in the door."

American churches have not generally been well-disposed towards Hollywood, with its laissez-faire attitude towards sex and violence. But the West Coast Babylon has recently offered two films which have been manna to churches, The Passion of the Christ, and the Chronicles of Narnia.

One or two voices have said how can we see Superman as a Christ figure when he is fooling around with Lois Lane when she is committed to another person - that simply comes from pushing the parallel too far
Stephen Skelton
Christian author

Some more traditional churchgoers may be under-whelmed by the use of movies to sell the Gospels, but Mr Skelton is unrepentant.

"That is a modern idea that we are somehow dumbing down the Gospels. This has a huge biblical precedent. In Acts 17:28 Paul quotes from a hymn to Zeus. He is using a pagan deity... the least we can do is take a second glance at Superman.

As well as the imagery, there is plenty in the dialogue. Superman refers to himself as a saviour, while baddie Lex Luthor talks about the man with his pants on the outside as a God.

Average cinemagoer

The film borrows Superman's father's speech from the first movie and gives it a prominent place, with Marlon Brando intoning: "They [mankind] 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."

But as far as the imagery goes, what is "blatant" for those with a background in Christianity, comics, art or criticism, may be a little more opaque for the average cinemagoer.

You wrote that the world doesn't need a saviour, but every day I hear people crying for one
Superman to Lois Lane

Mr Skelton says director Bryan Singer told him the scene where Superman's adoptive mother cradles him in her arms at the start of the film is a deliberate echo of images from the Renaissance of the Virgin Mary and the dying Christ such as Michelangelo's Pieta.

But it is easy to find oneself wondering whether there isn't a note of blasphemy in the film. If Superman is so clearly meant to be Jesus, why is he making goo-goo eyes at Lois Lane, who has found a long-term partner in the hero's five-year absence from the planet.

"One or two voices have said something - how can we see Superman as a Christ figure when he is fooling around with Lois Lane when she is committed to another person. That simply comes from pushing the parallel too far," Mr Skelton explains.

And Mervyn Roberts, a broadcaster and Anglican vicar, says although he has not seen the movie it is unlikely to be blasphemous or be difficult for a Church that has largely shrugged off the Da Vinci Code.

"The truth of the Gospel will come through. Superman is very much a kind of iconic image of the saviour figure that is seen throughout history.

"So the Superman movie, unless it specifically makes references to Jesus Christ in a negative sense, a direct insult to the person of Christ, identified an insult against God, it is just putting through that image."

'Gritty' gospels

But there are going to be plenty of Christians who do not find their hearts warmed by the use of religious imagery in a blockbuster. Superman hardly comes to Earth with an amazing message, and Jesus's purpose was not preventing man-made earthquakes.

Giles Fraser, parish vicar at Putney in London, says it was one thing to use the film to draw children into the Church by glossing over the "incredibly gritty" nature of the Gospels, but quite another to do it with adults.

"Using it as evangelism for adults is completely ridiculous. It is making Christianity into this rather wholesome nicely, nicely affirmation of American values, the morphing of Jesus into the American hero."

Both creators were Jewish
Superman and father's name sound Hebrew
Parable of Moses evoked
Condemned by Nazis
Story of immigration/assimilation

The black and white image of good and evil was not compatible with orthodox Christianity, Mr Fraser says.

And for all the Christian symbolism, it might be the case that there is no one religion that lay claim to the Man of Steel. Rabbi Simcha Weinstein has written a work, Up, Up and Oy Vey about the massive Jewish influence on the comic book industry particularly in its early years.

Many have noted that as well as being created by two Jewish authors, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman and his father's Kryptonian names both end in the Hebrew name for God, Kal-El and Jor-El, and that Superman's departure from Krypton can be taken as an echo of the story of Moses' childhood.

The Nazis went out of their way to condemn Superman, with Goebbels writing a polemic in April 1940 in Das Schwarze Korps, an SS newspaper.

Viewer's discretion

And even the Buddhists are getting in on the act. An article on the Buddhist Channel compares Superman to a Bodhisattva, "a great being who aspires to unconditionally help all beings be free from any suffering".

Danny Fingeroth, author of Clark Kent in Disguise: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero, says there is a certain inevitability to the reading of religious references into superheroes.

Meditates above Earth
Draws on Guanyin Bodhisattva
Has gone on soul-search
Distracted by worldly love

"While they have loaded the Superman movie with Christian imagery and dialogue it is still at the discretion of the viewer to see it that way.

"There is religious imagery because of the very nature of the superhero mythology - somebody with great powers who uses them to do the right thing.

"One of the appealing things is that while they may remind us of certain religious figures or ideas the fact that they are not of any one religion is what has allowed them to be embraced around the world.

"And if you like Superman rather than Batman it is unlikely you will get into an argument with someone and end up dead."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Its interesting that not only are so many people are ridiculing Christians for seeing parallels between Superman and their own faith, but the BBC doesn't feel any compunction about publishing them. Would they be so quick to publish comments ridiculing Islam, or Judaism? I'll wager not. I'm not religious in any way, but I respect the beliefs of others. As far as I'm concerned, you either ridicule every religion, or you don't ridicule any of them. There is no middle ground where you can ridicule some but not others.
Robert Foster, Southam, UK

The difference between Superman and Christ is that Jesus was divine and infallible. Superman makes mistakes...we relate to Superman because his humanity shines through his "divinity". Incorporating the obvious and numerous Christ comparions was the greatest compliment to the original source material that Singer could give. All iconic heroes are based on other iconic heroes.
James Kilpatrick, Greenville, SC, USA

Superman could feasibly be understood in Christian terms - but only in a crass, modern, material sense that does the Church no real favours, despite what they say - Superman was the wishful thinking of an America desiring deliverance from economic menaces by way of a miracle - remember that he was invented during the Great Depression, and arose to protect the order of society and the means of production from chaos. More Roosevelt or John Maynard Keynes than Christ, perhaps. Also, he doesn't perform miracles - he's just inhumanly strong and tough, as Depression-era Americans wished to be.
Roger Davidson, Ottawa, Canada

Following in the footsteps of Kar-El and Jor-El, maybe the next film should feature Superman's estranged long lost brother: Infid-El?
Mark Bohan, Dublin

I've always thought of Superman as a variation on the Foundling Prince, the child who grows up with foster parents, or his mother who has to keep his parentage quiet to keep him safe, goes through various trials & tribulations & then regains his kingdom in triumph. There's lots of examples - Jason, Oedipus [on the dark side], King Arthur, Krishna & of course Jesus. Superman is different because he can't regain his kingdom - it exploded, so does this mean his trials & tribulations go on for ever?
Carol Moores, Hyde, UK

This just shows how desperate religious dudes really are. Wake up people! Superman is NOT REAL. Neither is Jesus. Jesus is just Superman written 2000 years ago. One walks on water, the other flies. One turns water into wine, the other has x-ray vision...Poe-Tay-Toe...Poh-Tah-Toh...let's all live in fairyland, where we can all learn from extraterrestrials, all the while blowing each other up in our happy fairies names...'Jesus made me do it!', 'Superman made me do it!'...'I'm not Krayzee!'
Anon, US

Superman is the ideal American Jesus. He is white, heterosexual, is clean shaven with a sensible haircut, and only gives a damn about America. If the real Jesus was transported into the 21st century American mid west, he would probably be driven out of town on suspicion of being a long haired, beardy foreign terrorist.
Martin White, Birmingham, UK

Interesting. Disappointingly negative message at the end, however, when Superman turns his back on his responsibilites as a father himself, and leaves his son with Lois Lane. He doesn't even offer to pay child support. And how would he? He doesn't have a job. He would have to admit to being Clark Kent, spend less time 'saving the world', and more time saving his son. This a Christian role model?
Anon, UK

Supermans 'crucifixion' scene when he's floating over the earth bears a remarkable resemblance to Salvador Dali's painting 'Christ of St John on the Cross.' While I wouldn't hesitate to use Superman to help explain the Gospel to my friends but I would heed Giles Fraser's warning: Superman is an iconic American superhero, Jesus is not.
Fraser Henderson, Glasgow

All religions from ancient times to the present day are based on the same central mythological elements of good versus evil, life triumphing over death, amazing feats of strength and endurance, the saving of mankind... You might as well believe in Superman as anyone else.
Lorraine, London, UK

I don't believe that Superman/Kal-El has abandoned his son, Jason. He will observe and guide from afar, knowing the power that is growing within him. He knows that he cannot offer himself as a full time father, as this would expose both Lois and Jason to Superman's enemies. He will be a father, but in secret. Clark, on the other hand, could be a father to him, if Richard and Lois split for whatever reason. Probably reading too much into this though.
Daniel Billing, Frome, Somerset

I'm confused by some of the responses here. You don't seem to have read the article. The article basically says that people from many religions have stated that there are similarities between Superman, especially as portayed in this film, and prominent figures in their religions. They all then go on to say that they don't really have a problem with that. The only disagreement is over which religion (if any) the creators had in mind and whether the film would be a useful tool for religious teaching.

The only thing I think this article really highlights is the clear similarities between the moral values of different religions. Something that is sorely overlooked these days.
EM, Sutton Coldfield

Ataru Moroboshi ... I don't know where you get "plagiarism" from (no-one appears to suggest that). But are you seriously suggesting that the biblical story of Jesus is vague and/or ordinary? Ever read it?
Tom Adams, London, UK

It's about time that 'blasphemy' became a thing of the past. If I have freedom of speech then I should be entitled to insult anyone's so-called 'god' with impunity. Who cares if a fictional film echoes the story of Jesus (another work of fiction anyway), what's so terrible about that? It's not like it's portraying forced marriages in an insular community as a bad thing now, is it?
EvoRacer, Southport, UK

"If religious groups dont stop this ridiculous positioning against popular entertainment they will only speed up their demise ... the most unimportant, uninteresting and utterly stupid thing I have every heard." BF, Staffordshire.

You must have read a different article to me. This wasn't against popular entertainment in the least! 2nd, religious faith is on the increase not the decrease as you assume. 3rd, You mustn't watch much 'popular entertainment' if this was the most unimportant or utterly stupid thing you've ever heard.
Peter, Bradford, UK

Tthere are obvious parellels between Jesus and superman. But it is only a fiction film and everyone seems to read too much into it. Besides most people nowadays know nothing about Jesus now. They only know his name not what he did, so of course most people wont see the Christian stuff behind the movie. And since this site is secular and never posts anything that is remotely pro religion, this post probably wont get on there again!
Tristan Law, Nottingham

Why do religious groups always think culture reflects "their story" when it is the other way round? The narrative of a hero on a voyage of self discover is a universal storytelling structure, detectable in everything from fairy tales to great novels. The Bible simply used an acepted literary convention, it did not invent it.
Matt Munro, UK

Christ's story is stolen from Pagan myths anyway! The fact he was born around the time of the Winter Solstice (rebirth of the sun - days get longer)... the Virgin birth, the resurrection in springtime etc.
Danny Bird, Bristol, UK

Superman offers physical salvation from physical problems - not fromproblems of the mind or spirit. A clear difference to my mind!
Marc, Hailsham

"You are forgetting another Christian image. Jesus, like Superman, had a profession, an alter-ego so to speak. Jesus, a carpenter and Clark Kent a journalist. Rach, Belfast"

Oh, wow! It's so clear. Also, they both wear clothes. And, like, Superman and Jesus both had legs AND arms! How could I have missed this? Christian groups in the US leap on anything and find metaphor. They'd find a christian metaphor in a bowl of porridge. Getting your knickers in a twist over christian allegory in a superhero film is the most feebleminded thing I can possibly imagine.
Russell Long, UK

It seems strange that any Christians would get behind the teaching of their religion through Superman, given the fuss over the Da Vinci Code. I'm pretty sure that the main point of contention in Dan Brown's novel is (not wanting to give too much of the plot away) also present in Superman Returns. Lois L could easily be Mary M
Andrew W, Belfast

I noticed some of the religious symbology (not all of it) and passed it off as a part of the American film industries natural arrogance about America. Superman (Jesus style saviour) comes to America and saves Americans from everything (including brakeless cars) and goes abroad when there are huge disasters.

I did come to another conclusion to "fooling around" with Lois. At the end of the film he makes a commitment to his son, but not to Lois. His son will never be alone due to his family. He leaves the family unit in place rather than break it as he realises he could. Then again we may just have to wait til they make the next film as they surely will until we find the outcome of that.
Jay, UK

I am a journalist and a colleague of mine recently had the opportunity to interview Superman. She has also written articles about him in the past, but I don't recall her ever making any religious connection in her work.
Clark Kent, Metropolis, USA

This argument is totally flawed. The notion that Superman was modelled on Jesus Christ is preposterous. The ability of Jesus to fly and project laser beams from his eyes has not been documented in the Bible or any other super-hero journals.
Gary Richardson, Bradford, West Yorkshire

"Up, up and oy vey" - I haven't laughed so much in a long time.
Paul, Farnham

"And if you like Superman rather than Batman it is unlikely you will get into an argument with someone and end up dead." Maybe it should be taught in all flavors of religious classes then and humanity draws finally something from it.
Oliver, Germany

You are forgetting another Christian image. Jesus, like Superman, had a profession, an alter-ego so to speak. Jesus, a carpenter and Clark Kent a journalist.
Rach, Belfast

I agree with anon. Not only does Superman come across as a deadbeat dad but he also makes a move on a woman who is engaged! Lois even lies to her poor husband who is raising another man's child. Even worse, if we all remember the plot of Superman II, Superman sleeps with Lois Lane before kissing her and making her forget all about it.
Andy Collins, Bristol

Jesus spoke in Parables - Stories about himself and Gods plan - so that those both with and without education could accept his word on different levels. It could have been accepted as a basic sunday school story or as an indepth study with many hidden secrets. The principal was the message was for all people from all backgrounds. Perhaps this film could simply be seen as a modern day parable.
Squidge, Swindon, UK

If this is blasphemy then so are The Lord of the Rings and The Lion , the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Kip, Norwich UK

This is a movie, a work of fiction, and should be taken as such. I thought it was a most enjoyable movie and noticed no religious symbolism at all, not that religion bothers much of the population these days! If religious groups dont stop this ridiculous positioning against popular entertainment they will only speed up their demise. This is about the most unimportant, uninteresting and utterly stupid thing I have every heard. Join the 21st century!
BF, Staffordshire

I went to see the movie the night it came out, and I noticed the similarities to the bible from when Superman was suspended in mid space and listening to the voices of people in distress.
Ola, London

Love it when academics read so much into comic book characters and how they come to their conclusions...the mind boggles at what they would make characters like Lobo or The Goon.
Philip, Cardiff

Using religious imagery and applying it to fiction is nothing new. Take a look at Dune for an example of taking elements from Islam and applying them to a fantasy universe. What religious moral guardians seem to miss is that people CAN differentiate between a work of fiction and a work of spirituality... that is to say, a fictional work can contain spiritual elements without suggesting that people should apply them in life, or take elements from religious texts without destroying the message.
Ben Bowen, London

I thought Superman was a gay icon? The director is gay too! C'mon leave him alone - we need him more than you
Rohit Kapoor, London, UK

So the Superman movie has parallels with Christianity does it? Funny how a made-up, fantastical story that could never have happened in real life closely resembles something believed in to sometimes fanatical extremes by billions of people all over planet Earth. No wonder we're all about to blow each other up...
Tim Diggle, London

I once killed someone for misquoting Batman, the one true superhero
Geraint, Penarth

Make a character all-powerful and of course there will be parallels with mankinds earlier stories of all-powerful beings. What do you expect for cryin' out loud?
Sion Hughes, Northampton

Is the new Superman movie blasphemy? I am a active Christian and have seen the film. My conclusion - that was a great film - I think I will buy it on DVD! Claims to blasphemy - that is nonsense and certainly never occurred to me - it is a film about a comic book character that has adventures. Jesus did not have any "secret identities" he did his works in plain view and people knew it was him who did them - no secrets there.
Rick, Birmingham

Many biblical stories are so vague or ordinary to accuse anything similar of plagiarism seems something of a stretch.
Ataru Moroboshi, Newcastle, UK

This is so ridiculous, I loved the film and I never noticed the religous symbolism. US Christians will hijack any thing.
Tracey Glover, Hawick UK

You could say the same about the plot of the film ET and several others. These themes are archetypal.
James Duncan, London UK

For goodness sake. Where have you been all these years? Superman has echoed Christian themes for a long time now (he even "rose from the dead" in the Doomsday series in the early/mid 90s). All that has happened is that the new film has brought these themes to a wider audience.
SWS, Liverpool

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