It’s not cool to like Superman anymore.
This is a relatively new development in geek culture, and I’m going to have to pin part of the blame on one of my favorite people, genius auteur and world-famous foot fetishist Quentin Tarantino.
Fanboys latched onto the Superman monologue in Kill Bill like crazy. The eponymous Bill says:
“When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent…Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”
I argue that this understanding of Superman is completely flawed.
Bill, like many Superman detractors, does not understand what makes Superman super.
Which brings us to Jesus.
Superman as a Christ figure is old news. The much maligned Superman Returns and the by turns awesomely campy and unbearably awful Smallville did everything but literally crucify their Superman to drive that point home.
It’s an obvious metaphor (though I wonder if young Jewish-Americans Siegel and Shuster didn’t have Moses in mind when they sent Kal-El down the galactic Nile in a Kryptonian basket of bull rushes). Superman came from the heavens to live as one of us in a lowly, unimportant town, and grew up to be the savior of all humanity.
The part of that simple story that Superman detractors fail to appreciate is the incarnational aspect – the significance of the omnipotent becoming human. Much like Christ, it is through Kal-El’s incarnation as human that he is able to become a savior.
Clark Kent (or alternately, Jesus of Nazareth) is not a misanthropic performance; he is an omnipotent being’s only connection to humanity.
Consider this: there is no reason for Superman to have an alter ego; he could be Superman all the time if he wanted to.
He lives among humans—and as a human—out of deep affection and admiration for the human race.
And this is what makes him superhuman – because of his love for humanity, he lives up to the highest standards of human morality, unwaveringly, despite the greatest temptation any human could ever face: the availability of absolute power.
By setting this example, Superman elevates all of humanity; for there is nothing that makes him “super” that we can’t accomplish ourselves. We don’t need his superhuman, fantastical levels of power; we only need the willingness to use what power we do have in service of those who are not as powerful as we are.
Any time that Superman spends as Clark Kent – catching a movie with Lois or eating Christmas dinner at the Kent farm – is a time when someone somewhere is dying in an accident that Superman has the power to prevent.
And yet I do not believe this constitutes moral negligence.
If Superman stopped being Clark Kent; if he stopped taking the time to connect with individual human beings; if he had no personal relationships with anyone and therefore forgot what it is to love another human; he would soon cease to be Superman.
We’ve seen what rogue Kryptonians usually do when they end up on Earth: they conclude that they are superior to humans and attempt to subjugate us. But because he has lived among humans and as a human, Superman is no Zod.
His morality is intrinsically linked to his sense of humanity. As Superman’s connection to humanity, Clark Kent is as key to his superheroic identity as his ability to squeeze coal into diamonds.
This modern American myth serves as a carnival-mirror reflection of the story of Jesus. In fact, it is perhaps more serviceable than the story of Jesus, which over the past 2,000 years has been robbed of much of its subversive power.
As Christian revolutionary Clarence Jordan said:
“Jesus has been so zealously worshipped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man…By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”
This deification of Jesus makes the Man of Steel feel more human than the Son of Man. But the Gospels paint a much different picture. Jesus, like Superman, is redeemed and made able to redeem by his humanity.
Take the famous story of Lazarus.
Usually this story’s big special-effects moment gets the most attention. Jesus calls into the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!” and the four-days dead man rises to life. But in my opinion, the real emotional peak of the story comes earlier, when Jesus finds out that his friend Lazarus has died.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Jesus began to weep. Because of the death of one man. In the infinite span of time and space, this man’s lifespan is less significant than a single grain of sand on the beach.
And yet Jesus – who, according to the book of John where this story is found, existed from the beginning of time, with God and as God, the nexus of all creation – weeps at the death of one man.
And so the point of the story is not that God raised someone from the dead.
Of course God can raise someone from the dead. God can stop the rotation of the Earth. God can simultaneously occupy the past, present, and future.
God can apparate inside Hogwarts grounds.
The point is that God was moved to raise someone from the dead because God loved him. Lazarus was so much more to Jesus than an insignificant grain of sand. In dwelling in the dirt and messiness and beauty of the human experience, Jesus discovered a deep love for humanity as we are – flawed and weak and constrained by brief lives.
God became more fully God than God ever was before. The miracle isn’t the point.
And so the point of Superman’s story is not that Superman is faster than a speeding bullet.
The point is that Superman is moved to throw himself in the path of those bullets because he loves humanity.
The stories of the Last Son of Krypton and the only son of God teach us the same thing: power is not what makes a hero. It’s love.