Should We Illustrate Jesus with Superheroes? Pt. 1

Last year Marvel released their Captain America sequel in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When I reviewed the film I noted that the self-sacrificial nature of Captain America to fight Hydra and destroy the Project: Insight helicarriers pictures Jesus’ own death for humanity to, as 1 John 3:8 (NIV) says, “to destroy the devil’s work.” A friend of mine reviewed the movie and cautioned moviegoers to downplay the connection (I don’t think he paid attention to the film because he says Cap only died for “America” when Hydra made it pretty clear they were after the world).

When Superman Returns debuted in 2006 people noted the strong references to Christ’s death and resurrection—inspired by the Christ-imagery found in the 1978 film Superman: The Movie. In 2013 Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel followed this example and picture Superman as Jesus. Many Christians have embraced the imagery found in Superman: The Movie and Superman Returns while there was a vocal opposition to the imagery in Man of Steel.

My friend who was mentioned earlier is a huge fan of Batman. He noted the obvious parallels Christopher Nolan used in his The Dark Knight Rises—Batman descends down the pit and is resurrected when he climbs out of it. He noted the parallels to Jesus and his cosmic battle against evil in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman: End Game (from Batman #35–40 [2011–])—which I found to be much more of a stretch but that’s okay.

His caution with Captain America: The Winter Soldier stuck with me as I’ve read and watched more and more superhero stories—including End Game. I was forced to ask the question if these characters are the best way to teach us Jesus, who he was and what he has done. These stories certainly appropriate the “Jesus Myth” to turn their titular heroes into, well, heroes. After pondering stories featuring the Flash, Green Arrow, Superman, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America (both Steve Rogers and now Sam Wilson) and many more I can’t say that I thinks it’s appropriate, and that there is a better way.

Let me start with a character whose parallel to Jesus is the easiest to see and the best case to make for the comparison: Superman. When his home planet was to self-destruct, leading scientist Jor-El placed his only child in a rocket ship aimed at Earth. His hope is that his son, Kal-El (a play on the Hebrew that means “Voice of God”), can lead humanity down a path that won’t result in its destruction like Krypton. God has sent his Son to earth to save humanity from its sin. And in Superman Returns and the hugely popular comic book arc Superman: Doomsday we see Superman sacrifice himself to defeat the great monster that threatens earth. But death does not hold him and Superman returns to life to continue his mission to guide humanity.

I’m not arguing that certain Superman stories don’t draw upon “Jesus Myth”. The Superman films seem to go out of their way, more than the creators ever intended in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His origin has as much to do with Moses’ birth as it does Christ in a manger.

There is one key facet to Superman that I think moves him in a more preferable direction. His superpowers, his god-like abilities, are derived from his Kryptonian physiology absorbing the radiation of the sun. He is the sun god Apollo of Greece or Egypt’s Ra (even the Kryptonian chief god in the comics is called Rao). Ra was Egypt’s chief deity and omni-present creator. Apollo was the patron of truth and prophecy (truth being a key theme to Superman’s mission). He was the god of both plague and healing. In Homer’s The Iliad Apollo plagued the Greek armies for not returning a girl when a proper ransom was offered. When the ransom was accepted the plague ended. Apollo pictured defending Greek concepts of justice.

The point is that Superman is best suited, if he is to be deity at all, as a modern American sun god. This idea was solidified for me reading End Game. In Batman #35 Scott Snyder talks about the Greek play Orestes as the origin of the dues ex machina (Latin for “god out of the machine”). Apollo descended from the heavens to save the day; iconography very important to the Superman mythos. At the end of the comic we see Superman (infected by Joker’s new toxin) descend from the sky to do battle with Batman.

In Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come #1 end with this very image of Superman descending from the sky to restore order to a world that dove into chaos by his absence. In fact Kingdom Come is a book that borrows imagery from the book of Revelation to discuss these characters as gods. And in this story, Superman is far from any positive comparisons to Jesus.

Starting in June 2015 DC launched the arc “Truth” in the four Superman books. Lois Lane has revealed Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same to the world and his powers have disappeared. Bruce Wayne is dead and James Gordon has become the new Batman (see Batman #40–41 [2011–]). In Batman/Superman #21 (2013–) Superman goes to Gotham in search for help from Bruce Wayne only to find an empty Batcave. Alfred advises Superman to let Bruce be because he was the shadow that allowed Superman to shine. And Superman agreed; he’d been living in the shadows once the truth was revealed. Now it was time to return to the sun because that’s where Superman belongs.

And this brings me to Batman. I understand he is self-sacrificial in his quest to defend Gotham from the criminal element. He sacrificed himself to stop Joker in End Game. I understand the resurrection metaphor that Nolan used in The Dark Knight Rises. Yet in The Winter Soldier Captain America sacrificed himself to stop Hydra from using SHIELD and Project: Insight to conquer the world—a key that I think my friend missed in his cautioning. This willingness to die for others, this selflessness, doesn’t qualify a superhero to be a Christ parallel.

Batman is a character who says that he finds happiness in being Batman (Batman #34 [2011–]). He fights crime through fear. In fact in Kingdom Come #1, 2 we see that Bruce has turned Gotham into a fascist state through an army of Batbots. He forces and compels justice from the shadows. At the end of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #2 Bruce Wayne smiles with genuine joy for the first time in the book, happy that he’s become the Batman again and initiated the much-needed change Gotham had come to need.

In the Christopher Nolan The Dark Knight trilogy, Bruce Wayne is a man who has an identity crisis—correctly gleamed from the comics. He thinks he is Bruce Wayne masquerading around as Batman. At the end of Batman Begins Rachel Dawes tells Bruce that he is really Batman masquerading around as Bruce Wayne. The Dark Knight Rises opens with Batman hiding in his mansion, waiting around for another wave of evil to assault Gotham City. At the end of this film Batman dies and Bruce is reborn, able to move past his parents death. The point is that Batman is not able to cope with life apart from being a vigilante.

This is a character that my friend has compared to Jesus. He argues in those two posts that we can learn who Jesus is and what he did on the cross by watching Batman. I just don’t see this as helpful anymore. The same is true with Superman; the same with my favorite hero, Captain America (Bucky Barnes is my favorite iteration of Cap and Bucky’s not helpful either). I think there is a better way to look at these heroes as Christians.

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~ by hankimler on June 13, 2015.

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