Continuing our look at superheros, we see how Superman has evolved from his Jewish origins in the 1930s to his most recent onscreen outing being marketed to churches as a Christian allegory.
When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created their iconic comic book hero Superman in 1938, their character wasn’t just a representation of “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” but for many, a metaphor for Jewish immigrants in 1930s America. Created by two young Jewish men, Superman was an allusion to the Jewish faith and history, from his baby Moses-like origins to his golem-esque invincibility, to his outcast status and his ultimate struggle to assimilate in a new land.
In fact, there is a strong argument that superheros emerge as wish fulfillment for Jewish Americans. Not only Superman but also Captain America were devised by young Jewish authors as America weighed up entering WWII, and frequently fought Nazi enemies. As they watched apparently helplessly at the atrocities their coreligionists suffered, there must have been something cathartic about watching a real superman taking on the wannabe Aryan supermen of the Third Reich.
However over time Superman seems to have become progressively more Christian. This culminated into the most recent superman film – Man of Steel – in which Superman becomes an allegory for Jesus:
While there isn’t a miraculous birth per se, Kal-El’s (Henry Cavill) father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) claims that his son is the first “natural” birth in centuries. All children on Krypton are genetically engineered to a pre-determined purpose and thus artificially inseminated. Not Kal-El. Jor-El and his wife Lara had some legitimate baby making going on.There is some Christ-like imagery planted throughout “Man of Steel.” One blaring symbol occurs during a climactic battle: Superman jumps from General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) ship and hovers in the sky with his arms out-stretched like the crucifix. Freeze-frame it and you can have your own Superman prayer card.
Kal-El says he is 33, a not-too-subtle reference to the same age as Jesus Christ when he was crucified.
In fact, the film was explicitly marketed to congregations as a Christian allegory. The marketing firm tasked with selling the film to Christians went as far as writing a model sermon called “Superman: The Original Superhero” that preachers could download.
If we hold Superman’s Jewish roots in mind, Man of Steel is actually quite telling. Our hero faces figurative rather than literal Nazis. The villains are fellow refugees from the planet Krypton led by the megalomaniac General Zod, who intends to eradicate humanity so the earth can be transformed into a new Krypton. The people of Krypton thus go from being Jews to lebensraum seeking genocidal Nazis. And humanity – as the potential victims of a holocaust – is now in role of the Jewish people.
While making Superman Christian might at first glance seem like erasing Jews from American culture, it actually signifies the extent to which Americans have come to accept Jews. Their service in World War II served to remove doubts about their patriotism – as did Soviet oppression of its Jewish minority. The community’s traditional emphasis on education served it well and its members became increasingly prosperous. And with prosperity came suburbanisation and absorption into the American mainstream.
Thus rather than seeing them as sinister outsiders, Americans can embrace a film that requires them to put themselves in the position of Jews in the Third Reich.