How Superman Became a Christ-Like Figure in American Culture
Roy Schwartz on the Judeo-Christian Underpinnings of America’s Favorite Superhero
From America to Angola to Australia, almost everyone knows who Superman is. He’s the first superhero, the mold from which all other superheroes are cast, where they get their “super” from. Along with Jesus on the cross, Superman is among the most recognizable figures in the world.
He’s famous not just as a pulpy adventure character but as a symbol of America, embodying its idealized self-image. But somewhere along the way, he’s also come to be associated in the public conception with Jesus Christ. How this happened, and whether or not it was inevitable, is an interesting story in its own right.
Debuting in June 1938’s Action Comics #1, Superman was the brainchild of two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both were born to families that fled persecution in Eastern Europe and settled in Glenville, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. Neither was particularly observant, though both attended Hebrew school. When they created their hero, they borrowed different elements from their cultural orbit, including Jewish tradition and culture.
They gave him the birth name Kal-El, “El” meaning God in Hebrew. It may have been purely coincidental—first came his father’s name Jor-L, an anagram for Jerome Siegel—but for them to name their character “El,” a ubiquitous term in Judaism, and never realize it, is unlikely.
They also gave him the origin story of Moses; a baby saved from certain doom in a small vessel sent adrift from his home planet of Krypton to an unknown fate, found and raised by people not his own, who in adulthood reclaims his heritage and becomes a great savior.
Other influences, which Siegel discussed in his unpublished memoir, include Samson, the super-strong hero from the Book of Judges, and the Golem of Prague, an indestructible, indefatigable defender of the oppressed.
Despite this, and that Siegel and Shuster never mentioned Jesus in any interview or writing, Superman is widely perceived as a Christ metaphor. The parallels would seem obvious, but in truth these were added years after Superman’s creation.Superman was not envisioned as a Jesus figure by Siegel and Shuster, two Jewish teens in the 1930s. But he gradually became one.
The first seeds were sowed with the development of his childhood years, largely by other writers. The one undeniably evocative motif that was there from the beginning is of a child sent down from the heavens by his father. But originally, he wasn’t found by the Kents and raised in Smallville. In his first appearance, baby Superman is found by a “passing motorist” and turned over to a city orphanage, where he grows up. When the origin is revised a year later he’s still raised in an urban environment, but this time he’s found and adopted by Mary—same as Jesus’s mother—and her unnamed husband. By 1951 Mary had changed to Martha, her husband named Jonathan and the hometown became Smallville.
With all the pieces in place, Clark’s upbringing resembled Jesus’s; both were born far beyond and raised in small towns. Both had surrogate fathers who were humble laborers, Jonathan a farmer and Joseph a carpenter. Both are celestial by nature and human by nurture, and it’s the years of living as normal people that allowed them to experience, understand and cherish humanity.
With the onset of WWII the patriotic Superman quickly became an infallible American icon, and in the patriarchal, sanitized, comics-censuring 1950s he grew to resemble Christ in his saintly perfection. Though he hasn’t been that way since at least the mid-1970s, it’s a public image he still contends with.
But where Superman really first became a Christ figure is 1978’s Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve. His father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is a white-haired man dressed in luminous white, reminiscent of God in Medieval and Renaissance art. In dialog evocative of New Testament passages, he tells his child, “The son becomes the father, and the father, the son” and “They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They 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.”
It marks a fundamental shift in Superman’s mythology, from a baby sent to Earth by desperate parents so he can be saved to a son sent to Earth by a benevolent father to become its savior. It recast the Last Son of Krypton as a reimagined Son of God, which became a central theme in later films and shows—though not the comics, which have largely stayed true to the original narrative.
The movie is otherwise suffused with Christian allusions, like Kal-El’s spacecraft resembling a Star of Bethlehem/Christmas tree topper and Superman saving mankind from its own sin in the form of Lex Luthor’s greed, to the point that director Richard Donner received death threats over the sacrilege.
These themes were further expanded in 1980’s Superman II, in which the villain, General Zod (Terence Stamp), is given a tweaked origin story; the leader of Krypton’s army, he attempts a coup but fails, and is cast by Jor-El to the Phantom Zone, a prison dimension of “eternal living death.” He escapes, seeking to destroy the son of his jailer and place himself ruler of mankind.
It’s the story of Lucifer Morningstar in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Zod is even remodeled from his comic book look with slicked-back hair and a widow’s peak, sharply manicured beard, and a black and crimson outfit, resembling the popular image of the devil since Goethe’s Faust. Superman, accordingly, is cast in the role of Jesus.
In the comics, the first real Christ allegory wasn’t until the 1992–1993 storyline “The Death and Return of Superman.” A yearlong opus spanning multiple series, it begins with Superman battling the monster Doomsday. Superman endures a Passion to stop him, stigmatically cut by Doomsday’s spikes in lieu of thorns and nails, ultimately sacrificing himself to save Metropolis and the world. The issue of his death, Superman Vol. 2 #75, ends with Lois cradling his body like Michelangelo’s Pietà.
When a vigil is held at his monument, people carry signs reading “Savior” and “He died for you,” and shortly after, his sepulcher is found empty. Four Supermen then appear, false messiahs claiming his name or mantle (just as Jesus warns in Matthew & Mark). One of them, Cyborg Superman, is revealed to be a genocidal villain, and the real Parousia occurs in the nick of time for Superman to save mankind from the great deceiver, completing the scriptural arc.
His death isn’t explained away as a mistake or a trick; he’s brought back to life (through contrived Kryptonian science, but still), and when he returns it’s essentially via birth, flushed out in liquid from between the legs of a giant Kryptonian war suit—a savior manifest corporeally from both another world and the other world. Essentially, Superman died a Jew and was reborn a Christian.
Three years later, he became even more of a messiah in the uncanonical miniseries Kingdom Come, likely the most blatantly Christian work in mainstream comics. An eschatological narrative rife with quotes and omens from the Book of Revelation, it equates the Second Coming of Jesus with Superman’s, who returns from exile to save, guide and pass judgement. Though it’s not an explicitly evangelizing text, it borrows from Christian dogma as a cultural blueprint, it can nonetheless be read as a critique of secularism and the absence of a god figure to serve as social compass.
The TV show Smallville followed in 2001, featuring an adolescent Clark Kent. Post-9/11, in a new century defined by a religious act, religion in popular culture moved from backstage to centerstage, and Smallville drew clear and constant parallels between Superman and Jesus. In the pilot episode, a shirtless Clark is hoisted on a cross, which was also the promotional image of the show. And in the ninth season finale, titled “Salvation,” he faces Zod, who exclaims “better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven!” quoting Satan in Paradise Lost. To save humanity, Clark allows himself to be impaled in the side by Zod’s Kryptonite dagger, a stand-in for the Holy Lance, then falls in a crucifixion pose.
Back in the comics, the 2004–2005 storyline “For Tomorrow” entirely centered on Superman’s Christology, making the point that the comparison is both unavoidable and impossible, since Superman is all-powerful but has human failings. Jesus references are found throughout, from the media “crucifying” him to another Pietà pose to a villain named Pilate to Zod’s helmet featuring giant red horns.
Only a few months later, the uncanonical 12-issue series All-Star Superman portrayed a Superman Christlike in moral perfection and wisdom, who performs miracles like healing the incurably sick and eventually sacrifices himself to save humanity, followed by the promise of his return.
What’s noteworthy is that, as meaningful as these stories are, there’s only a handful of them in Superman’s 85-year career, spanning thousands of comic books. By and large, his transformation into a Christ figure has taken place on screen.By and large, [Superman’s] transformation into a Christ figure has taken place on screen.
This took another step further in 2006’s Superman Returns, which, along with copious messianic imagery, ends with Superman suffering another Passion as Lex Luthor and his henchmen viciously beat him (there’s Kryptonite), then stab him in the waist. He (nearly) sacrifices his life to thwart Luthor and save the world, plummeting from the sky in a crucifixion pose, Christ manifest in a cape.
2013’s Man of Steel is as much a sci-fi adaptation of the gospels as a Superman story—deliberately; director Zack Snyder ensured those themes were “woven through” and Warner Bros. aggressively marketed the movie to Christian audiences, even launching a Ministry Resource site with Superman-based sermons—and is likewise rich in Christly metaphor and iconography. At the film’s climax, Jor-El’s hologram tells his son, “You can save all of them,” as Superman floats above the Earth in a crucifixion pose.
The sequels, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2017’s Justice League, build on these themes. Superman sacrifices himself, falling atop a hill in another crucifix pose with metal debris forming three large crosses in the background, recreating the Descent from the Cross, Jesus on Golgotha. His inevitable resurrection involves a baptismal submersion under a shining light and a battle for the fate of humanity against Steppenwolf, a horned adversary from an otherworldly fiery domain, and his legion of “Parademons.”
Superman’s Jesus parallel began with Superman: The Movie, but it was Man of Steel and its sequels that gave him a true messiah complex. What started as a fairly subtle metaphor increasingly became blunter, until it all but overtook the story. Aside from potentially alienating global audiences (less than a third of the world is Christian), they’ve also undercut their own allegory by being saturated in violence (Batman v Superman even has an R-rated “Ultimate Edition”). Superman is an action hero, not a martyred Lamb of God, which is the inherent paradox in making him a Christ figure.
Superman was not envisioned as a Jesus figure by Siegel and Shuster, two Jewish teens in the 1930s. But he gradually became one, mainly thanks to his movies, which is where most people know him from. Whatever the metaphor at play, he is, and was always meant to be, a symbol of goodwill and brotherly love. A helpless baby saved by the generosity of heartland Americans who grows to be a campion of Americans ideals—truth, justice and a better tomorrow.