For 75 years, Superman has been a symbol, an icon. He’s been a source of inspiration and hope. He has thrilled fans not only with his amazing exploits, but also with his enduring goodness and his unshakeable belief in truth, justice, and…well, you know the rest. He was the first, great superhero. For his 75th birthday, Superman is returning to the big screen, hoping to once again capture the imaginations of audiences to inspire them to believe that good can still be counted on to win the day, and that the world doesn’t have to be viewed in shades of gray. Even in the early trailers for Man of Steel, it’s been clear that the film would stick close to one of the central conceits that’s been a part of the character from the very beginning; mainly that Superman is a modern-day Christ archetype. However, while there are many parallels and similarities, there is one very important reason to remember why Superman isn’t Jesus, or vice versa.
Now, I know that seems like an obvious statement to make, but I still think it’s an important one; Superman can’t be a substitute for Jesus any more than John the Baptist could be can. If anything, Superman is nothing more than a 21st century herald whom, as John did, is there to point us in the right direction. Still, Superman is so often looked to as a Christ-like figure that we sometimes forget there’s one very key area that set the two apart. I think I noticed it most clearly, when I was watching the excellent animated movie Superman vs. The Elite. The movie is based on just one issue Action Comics published way back on 2001 that was called “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” It tackles some big questions about what the right way to solve today’s problems may be if one has the power to truly make changes, and most interestingly of all, whether or not Superman’s boy scout, goodie-two-shoes act is still relevant in the harsher reality of today’s world. Is there still room for an inspirational figure of good, or do we need to be more pragmatic? That’s always been one of the challenges of bringing Superman to life on the big screen; there’s some who feel he’s so good and virtuous that he’s bland and uninteresting. In short, real good guys are boring, and more conflicted, brooding anti-heroes are the truly compelling characters; which in my mind is akin to saying good itself is boring. That’s a scary thought that deserves some exploration all its own, so perhaps another time.
So what is that sets apart Superman from Jesus? Well Early in Superman vs. The Elite, Superman makes an interesting statement. He talks about how he believes in humanity, how he believes that deep down people are all basically good and what they need is an example to inspire them to reach for that goodness within and use it to accomplish great things. It’s an aspect of the character that looks like it will be explored in Man of Steel as well. In the trailers, we hear Jor-El talk about the example Kal-El will set, how he will be an inspiration for the people of earth, how he “will give the people of earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble, they will fall, but in time, they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders.” That right there is where Superman is separated from Jesus in a very big way. Superman believes in the inherent goodness of humanity, that all they need is an example, an ideal, a figure of inspiration to show them the way, and if they’re given that, the true goodness of their nature will eventually conquer and they will indeed accomplish wonders for the good and benefit of all. Unfortunately, Superman is very wrong about that.
Although it may sound a bit harsh, Jesus didn’t have any such notion about humanity being good because he knew that just wasn’t true. It’s not something we really like to hear, but the Bible is very clear on this point. Psalm 14:3 clearly states, “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” This is further emphasized and repeated in Romans 3 as Paul states quite clearly “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). So, Jesus never thought that people were “basically good.” Jesus didn’t come to help unearth the goodness that lay within each of us. He came to perform a transplant, taking out our sin nature, and replacing it with his own nature. Then, and only then, can we aspire to anything, which might truly be called good. This leads to the next point that separates Jesus from Superman; Jesus didn’t come to inspire, he came to change.
So many times I hear people talk about what an inspiring teacher Jesus was and what a great moral example he was. If that was all he was, then sure, he’s actually a lot like Superman. Superman wants to inspire goodness in others by setting the example, by showing people what it looks like to be “better.” Jesus didn’t come here for any such thing. He knew that inspiration wouldn’t be enough because the fact is the nature of humanity isn’t good, it’s sinful. In order for people to truly be better, to be good, they didn’t need inspiration; they needed a change of nature. Jesus came as God in the flesh, died on the cross to take care of sin since we couldn’t solve that problem on our own, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to be with us. All of this makes true change possible, allows us to truly experience goodness and righteousness, and allows us to truly be “better” in a way that mere inspiration could never provide. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 states so well, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” That’s something that even Superman just isn’t capable of. The Man of Steel can save a body from a moment of immediate peril, but only Jesus can save a soul and save it for eternity. Which isn’t to say that Superman isn’t a good Christ-like figure, he is. However, that one aspect, that belief that people are good and can attain goodness and righteousness on their own is a pretty big difference that keeps Superman from being anything more than a mere shadow of the Truth.
However, there’s still the question of whether or not a figure like Superman is still relevant at all; is he still pertinent as a role model? I was talking about this with someone the other day and they said that although the idea of an inspiring figure like Superman is a great idea, but the reality is he just isn’t viable. Well, I’d have to agree with that… to a certain extent. Superman as a role model isn’t viable because the fact of the matter is we just can’t live up to his example. That was the whole point Jesus came to illustrate. No one can ever be good enough, it just isn’t in us. Yet, with the right help, we can live up to the example of the Man of Tomorrow, so in that sense, I think he’s a very viable and relevant hero. No, we can’t do it on our own, but through Jesus, we can achieve those ideals that Superman represents. As a model for what’s possible character-wise for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, Superman is a very viable role model and one we shouldn’t give up on or want to see changed in order to be more “gritty, dark and relevant.” One of my least favorite trends is that of the morally ambiguous, dark “anti-hero;” something that all sounds like a big oxymoron to me. We need good examples, we need true heroes, but more than anything, we need Jesus’ help if we ever hope to see any sort of true goodness. It’s far too easy to give in to the whole “might makes right,” type of thinking, and frankly, to be focused on our own narrow self-interests. Concepts such as nobility, honor, and chivalry may be are and perhaps unpopular, but they aren’t unattainable. Superman inspires us to reach for them, and Jesus helps us actually attain them and live them out.
Superman is not Jesus, or vice versa. While there are plenty of parallels, the few things that set them apart really set them apart. The difference between the need for inspiration and the need for change is the difference of eternity. Nevertheless, films Superman vs. The Elite and hopefully Man of Steel do a great job showing Superman, as he should be even as they raise the question of whether or not we even need a Superman, or a Savior for that matter. The answer is; yes, we do. In fact, on the last point, we can’t be emphatic enough. It’s nice to have a Superman, but it’s essential to have a Savior, and there’s only one Hero who can fill that role, and he came on the scene long before Superman or anyone else ever donned a cape.
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