The other night I sat down to watch the latest Superhero movie, Superman Returns. I grew up dazzled by the man of steel’s heroic exploits. The second movie with General Zod and his cronies was my favorite. I generally don’t acknowledge the last two films in the series – for obvious reasons. The people who developed the latest incarnation of the man of steel apparently do not regard them either. Superman Returns takes place after the events of Superman 2, or so I’m informed.
The main thrust of this post is not a review of the film itself but about some concerns I have with its content. Mainly, I’m talking about the ramifications of purposely portraying Superman as a Christ figure. Wikipedia explains the term like this:
A Christ figure is a literary technique that authors use to draw allusions between their characters and the biblical Jesus Christ. More loosely, the Christ Figure is a spiritual or prophetic character who parallels Jesus, or other spiritual or prophetic figures.
If you doubt my assertion that Superman is presented as a Christ figure, just consider the following:
- At one point Superman is floating in space beholding the earth when the voice of his Father echoes out from the past in his mind with these words: “They can be a great people, 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.”
- Superman dies (or very nearly) in order to save the world from the Lex Luther (the devil). He falls to earth in a spread arm crucifixion pose.
- In an exchange between Lois Lane and Superman Lois boldly claims, “The world doesn’t need a savior. And neither do I.” Superman replies with, “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior. But everyday I hear people crying for one.”
Director Bryan Singer uses the Superman character to draw unmistakable parallels to Jesus Christ. The movie suggests mankind is crying out for someone to save them and that Superman is that savior. He was sent by his ‘heavenly father’ to be the light of the world as an example of virtue and purity. He does, in fact, save the world from the wiles of the wicked one and then perishes. He is resurrected and victoriously assumes his position as savior and protector over all the earth.
I imagine many people, including a major portion of the evangelical crowd, would applaud Singer’s allegorical Christ. Honestly, a couple of years ago I would have given my approval as well. I’m actually very biased toward the Christ figure approach to fictional characters. My favorite movie of all time, The Shawshank Redemption, features the Christ figure in the person of Andy Dufresne. Aslan, the magical lion from the Narnia chronicles gives his life as a substitutionary sacrifice for another’s sins.
Despite my prior impressions, I walked away from Superman Returns troubled in spirit. I’ve pondered and meditated on it for several days now and I have reached a conclusion. One that is not easy for me to address.
I believe portraying fictional characters as a type of Christ is spiritually damaging and may ultimately lead people into a form of idolatry.
Please bear with me a moment. Idols are tangible substitutes for the invisible Lord Jehovah. They lead people astray from worshiping the one true God. They are molded to conform to every whim and wish of man’s dark heart. They are gods to serve us, not the God we must serve.
In Exodus, God gave Moses the ten commandments. The second commandment gave clear instructions to the Israelites concerning graven images.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: (Exo 20:4)
The word likeness translates to ’embodiment’ or ‘manifestation’. This verse speaks of creating images of God himself (anything that is in heaven above) and any of the creatures wrought by his word (that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth).
Did you get that? Man is not to make any manifestations or embodiments of Almighty God. An image or embodiment will become the object of worship and not the thing it represents. Renowned 16th century theologian John Calvin noted, “Human Beings are idol making factories.” It is man’s natural inclination to use his vain imaginings to create false gods and false representations of the living God. The Lord’s solution was to prohibit the concept of idols altogether.
If that is not reason enough to raise the warning flags in molding Superman after the likeness of Christ, consider the following:
Superman is portrayed as a savior of mankind by his example of kindness and virtue. (Never mind that he has violated the ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ commandment by having a child out of wedlock).
As a Christ figure, this is poor theology. It assumes, much as Superman’s father stated, that man is basically good, only needing a shining example to motivate and stir them to good works. This is a good illustration of liberal Christian theology run amuck. Their doctrine teaches Christ died on the cross, not as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world, but only as an example of the sacrificial love we should offer to God. This assumes man’s moral ability to love and serve God in his own strength, which the bible emphatically denies. (Read my series on Radical Corruption).
In the movie, Superman is portrayed as a morally superior example figure needed to inspire men to greatness. This is not the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Superman only offers a temporal salvation by his deeds and his example. It is a cross-less message of self-help hope. Superman inspires us to greatness to help uncover that ‘champion within’. We all have an “S” on our chest. We just need to rip off the restraining clothes of despair and low self esteem and let the superhero in us burst forth. Pastor Joel Osteen would have been perfect in the role of the man of steel.
If Superman is intended to reflect Christ, this is an extremely poor example. Superman falls way short in glorifying Christ’s saving power. People watching the movie, especially impressionable little kids who are very prone to look up to others, will only glory in Superman’s power to save and not identify with Christ. Whether audiences cognitively identify Superman with Jesus or not doesn’t matter. Superman’s exploits and virtue are what is remembered. Kids across America will be emulating his great feats of strength and virtue by donning capes and pretending to have superhuman strength and x-ray eyes. I sincerely doubt most will meditate on the parallels between his deeds and those of Christ.
Superman becomes a substitute Christ. He is no messiah at all but rather an ‘anti-christ’ of sorts. One of the meanings of the term is ‘substitute christ.’ Idolatry is not a practice of the distant past. It is alive and well in the world today. Many other religions regularly bow down to idols made from wood, metal or stone. In the more sophisticated western world, idolatry has not disappeared. Human nature is not changed by technology or better education. Our idolatry has simply become more sophisticated. We may not bow down to carved images and chiseled faces but we do worship (that is, set our affections) upon idols of ink and paint, flesh and blood, pixels and polygons. Comic book characters, movie and sports stars and video game characters capture our imagination every day, blitzing us with images and sound bites so we might set our affections upon them and their mighty deeds.
Superman, or any other empowered character that exalts itself against the revealed knowledge and word of God, is an idol, a graven image of sorts that has stepped outside of mere imagination and manifested itself in a very real and tangible way.
Anything, I repeat, anything that draws our devotion and affection away from the glory of God, whatever distracts us from meditating on His wonderful works, is an idol. This goes for things that may not be traditionally thought of as an idol. We can worship sports, cars, and other hobbies if it captures our affections to the detriment of spiritual growth. Superman’s great exploits only obscures and takes the place of God’s wonderful works. At no point in this or any other superhero flick I’ve ever seen does the hero give God even a passing nod to the Glory of God.
Idol worship, I believe is such a widespread practice because it offers a false sense of security. An idol can be seen and touched. This fits in perfectly for man who by nature lives by sight and not by faith. Superheroes and the like provide the same security. Since few if any proclaim an unfailing trust and submissive faith to the God of the bible, they probably should be shunned.
Trust me, this is not an easy thing for me to write. I’m not into superhero stuff all that much but I did grow up a Superman fan and must admit an affinity for the Spiderman movies. We all, as weak and fragile creatures, desire to look up to the strong and mighty for assurance, confidence and motivation. What we fail to realize is that these role model icons steal our affections. They capture our imaginations. They heap unto themselves our devotion. But they are not real. They cannot see. They cannot talk. They cannot hear. They ultimately cannot help. Not even by example. It is a supreme waste to idolize and look up to things which have no substance or strength of their own. We must realize God alone is our help. He alone is our strength. When we are weak and beyond hope our God will show himself strong. He is the pillar of strength man must lean against to overcome the world, the devil and hell itself. We don’t need a graven image or physical representation in order to know Him, love Him and worship Him. All we need is His holy word and the abiding presence of His Holy Spirit. Everything else only obscures and diminishes the majestic Glory of God Almighty. Amen.