This article first appeared in the 5 November 2011 issue of “On Fire” magazine, one of the Salvation Army’s publications.
Every writer dreams that they will create a character that will capture their reader’s imagination, and endure. But when, in 1932, two young Jewish-American comic book writers came up with an idea for a new superhero, they could not have imagined that it would not only outlive them, but become a permanent fixture of culture itself.
Almost eighty years on, Superman is still going strong, having survived not only interstellar threats and mad scientists within the pages of his comics, but everything that has been thrown at him outside of them. From ill-advised makeovers to terrible movies, from the renunciation of his American citizenship to reboot after reboot, the Man of Steel has risen above it all—truly invincible as he inspires generation after generation. As we prepare for yet another movie reboot, with the buzz around Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel reaching a fever pitch, it’s worth looking back and reflecting on what makes Superman such an iconic character, and what we can learn from him.
Though never a true comic book fan, I discovered Superman as a child through novelisations and movies and was immediately hooked. I devoured everything I could find. I’ve watched all the movies (yes, even Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), the animated series, and I wrote most of this article sporting my Superman pyjamas. Years later, after coming to faith, I began to see that there are many elements of the Superman mythos which are of value to my Christian journey.
You don’t need x-ray vision to see the parallels between Superman and Jesus: sent to Earth by his father, raised by an adoptive, human father and growing to become a ‘saviour’ to all. One iconic story, The Death and Life of Superman even had Supes’ resurrected from the grave. But it’s Superman’s actions and character, and the moral lessons we can take from them, which are most readily applicable to our Christian walk.
If you have timeless values, they will sometimes be out of step with the values of the world.
One of the criticisms levelled at Superman is that he is a bit old-fashioned. Many of his values seem to come from another time, and he is often referred to (not always fondly) as the Big Blue Boy Scout. As comics moved with the times they, like the world, began to represent moral choices not in black and white, but in shades of grey. It was at this time anti-heroes rose to popularity—superheroes who were just as likely to kill or maim villains and criminals as they were to arrest them. A character like Superman, who upheld values like truth and justice and adhered to a strict code of behaviour, seemed quaint in comparison, and decidedly uncool.
The parallels to Christianity’s narrative are obvious. It used to be that western society drew its values from the church, but this is no longer the case. For a lot of people, the things the Church upholds as important no longer matter. Relics of the past. Some churches try to keep pace with this ever-changing world, trading in truths that don’t match with the majority view for fresher, ‘more relevant’ perspectives, but I believe this is a mistake.
Yes, we must try to be relevant in the way we interact with the world around us, but if we believe that the truths that we adhere to are timeless then we have to accept that they will remain true even as the world around us changes. This means that we will be out of step with popular culture, that we will be mocked as old fashioned and that passing fashions will gain more applause. But, just like Superman has managed to weather almost eighty years in the volatile comics industry, if we remain faithful to the core, timeless truths we hold dear we will endure and the Church will continue to outlive and outlast things built on weaker foundations.
There is a right and wrong in the universe and it’s not that hard to tell the difference.
One of my favourite Superman writers is Elliot S. Maggin, who not only wrote storylines for comics, but also produced a number of classic Superman novels. A recurring theme running through his stories is that there is a right and wrong in the universe and it really isn’t that hard to tell the difference between the two.
As much as we argue about different cultures and relative-versus-objective truth, it is plain to me from the conversations I have with people that we all have a basic understanding of right and wrong. So many times I hear the same comment, that ‘I don’t really hold with that church stuff, but I am a good person, I believe in God, I wouldn’t kill anyone or steal stuff, or …’, and everything else they consider a yardstick of what is good.
Most people look at the world and can see what the right thing to do in a given situation is, even children. Anyone who watched a toddler’s wicked smile as they commit an act they know is wrong can attest to this!
In the comics, Superman is faced with moral choices of vast significance, but even in the most complex of situations, it is plain to him what the right answer is. When confronted with something that doesn’t have a simple answer, we are easily tempted to compromise or talk about ends justifying means as a way of abdicating our responsibility to make the right choice. Superman looks past the peripheral issues and sees the heart of the matter, refusing to make excuses or compromise what is right.
Doing the right thing is not easy.
One of my favourites Superman stories is the animated feature Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. It features Billy Batson, a young orphan living in poverty, who always tries to do right by others even when it puts him in danger. He gets beaten up by bullies after stopping them hassling a homeless man and asks the understandable question ‘Why does doing the right thing never seem to be rewarded?’ A reporter, Clark Kent, who is writing an article on street kids, tries to reassure Billy that doing right is its own reward, but Billy is not convinced.
Without giving away too much, Billy is granted magical powers and is able to transform into the superhero Captain Marvel, teaming with Superman to battle the evil Black Adam. After much destruction and witnessing Superman apparently killed, Captain Marvel finally has Black Adam at his mercy and is tempted to claim revenge by finishing him once and for all. But in a wonderful speech, a not-so-dead Superman reminds him that, ‘Doing the right thing is not easy,’ and if it were, everyone would simply do it.
This really spoke to me, because it mirrors so completely what I see not only in the world around me, but in my own life. Figuring out the right thing to do isn’t hard, but behaving accordingly can be another thing entirely. It seems to me that the easiest option, the path of least resistance, is usually the wrong thing to do, which hardly seems fair. Every day I find myself in situations where it would be so much easier to not do something I should, or to do something I shouldn’t, despite knowing better.
All around, we see people not just getting away with doing the wrong thing, but prospering as a result. And those who do try to do the right thing seem to find little reward. Like Billy, we can’t help but ask why we should bother. But, just as Superman tells Captain Marvel, God tells us that we don’t do the right thing because it is easy or for what we receive in return, or even for a reward in Heaven, but because he has declared it is the right thing to do, and therefore worth doing.
It is easy for us to sneer at comics, and treat them as if they are something childish with little to teach us about life. But many are full of truths that can speak to us all, whatever our age. We need heroes, characters who speak to the best parts of us and make us dream of doing great, courageous, sacrificial things. They inspire us to believe in something bigger than ourselves, and make us want to be better.
Superman was not designed to be a Christian hero, nor were his creators Christians. But, despite that, in choosing to create a hero who embodies all that is good, they were able to reveal something of the God from whom all good things spring. When I became a Christian I was amazed to discover that many of the qualities held up as virtues in God’s word were ones I was already familiar with through Superman. I remain grateful to those two men that one of my childhood heroes, and a hero to millions of others, is someone who reflects so many of the qualities that God cherishes.