Superman turns 74 this month, so it’s not a bad time to assess the place of the Man of Steel in our collective consciousness. My own affection for him stems from the 1952 television series “Adventures of Superman,” starring George Reeves, which I watched as after-school reruns even before I went to school.
In my mind the hero is inextricably linked to the Sears Wish Book. That aptly named digest of dreams arrived every October, allowing plenty of time before Christmas to peruse its promised delights. Therein my 5-year-old self saw, and immediately had to have, the Superman costume that is still being marketed.
Why did I have to have it? Was it simply that I had grown tired of running around the neighborhood with my friends, each of us with a towel tied around his neck? Not at all. It involves an early theological error on my part.
I knew that Superman’s cape made the wearer impervious to bullets because, like the rest of his costume, it had been sewn by Ma Kent from the swaddling clothes in which the baby Kal-el had arrived, packed in the space-capsule sent from the planet Krypton. The costume offered invulnerability to whoever would wear it.
My error lay in thinking that the cape allowed one to fly. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of Superman knows that his flying ability comes, like his other superpowers, from his being in the lighter gravitational field of Earth’s yellow sun. He was born under the much heavier red sun of Krypton.
Silly me! I thought: Get the costume, get the powers. Several months of delighted daydreaming passed before that memorable Christmas Eve when I tore open the package, ran to the bedroom my brother and I shared to put it on and announced that I had to go outside. My parents vetoed that; it was cold. I didn’t explain that I planned to jump off our roof because I wanted to see for myself the cape’s abilities before displaying such marvelous power in front of the entire family. Several leaps into the air on my own had not yet produced the desired effect. I had to settle for jumping repeatedly off my bed, wondering if Sears had sent a defective costume.
I had put such hope in Superman. But then, our visitor had come from Krypton for that very reason, to instill hope.
Several individuals can claim credit for the creation of Superman. Frederick Nietzsche first used the term in 1883, when he wrote, in German of course, “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman, a rope over an abyss.” DC (Detective Comics) had recently changed its name from National Comics, when one of its contributors in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel, a young man fascinated by science fiction, convinced an artist friend, Joe Shuster, to draw the Man of Steel. His first incarnation appeared in a 1933 prose story with illustrations, “The Reign of the Superman.”
It is no coincidence that Superman, and the Messianic hope that he instilled, appeared when America needed him most, in the midst of the Great Depression, with war looming abroad. Superman would go on to become a great battler of Nazis. Both Siegel and Shuster were children of Jewish immigrants, as were many DC editors.
If Superman can be seen as a messianic figure, his claim to that title, from a Jewish perspective, is stronger than that of Jesus. Jesus was executed, but Superman triumphs as the mighty one who fights constantly for a reign of peace and justice, and “the American way.” He is, after all, an American Messiah. And his origins are replete with Mosaic pedigree. Like Moses, Superman was sent off alone by his mother to save him from destruction. Moses sailed away through the bulrushes in a basket, Superman in a rocket from the doomed planet Krypton.
I am embarrassed to admit that, in praying and pondering my way into the priesthood, I associated that vocation with superhero Messianism—as when Superman rises above earthly passions, even his love for Lois Lane.
A theologian would want to point out that Superman’s Christological aspect comes from the dramatic tension created by his ability to suffer on our behalf. He is vulnerable to Kryptonite, pieces of his doomed planet that made their way to earth.
Yet we tend to see only the human persona that Superman assumes in Clark Kent. Even as a child I never understood how simply putting on glasses made it impossible for Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen to recognize Superman. Yet our own inability to discern Christ among us is shown with poignancy by this analogy: Lois Lane falls for the Man of Steel even as she continues to rebuff the “mild mannered” Clark Kent. We are all Lois Lanes when it comes to Christ. We want the hero; we eschew the humility and the humanity.
Our attraction to superheroes has other manifestations. Posters of Barack Obama dressed as Superman appeared during the 2008 presidential campaign. Caroline Kennedy explained her endorsement of the president by saying, “Over the years, I’ve been deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president. This sense is even more profound today.” Has President Obama disappointed more than the left wing of the Democratic Party? Or is disappointment a predictable human response to any messiah? We seem to repudiate anyone who does not immediately usher in the kingdom on our terms.
Perhaps that’s a subtle danger of any Superman/messiah figure, that being of nondivine origin, he can turn into a deluded warrior who simply smashes whatever he mistakenly and arrogantly judges to be evil and recklessly champions whatever he thinks is “truth, justice, and the American way.”
It is still a question whether George Reeves, the actor whom I first associated with Superman, committed suicide or was murdered. Messianism is a millstone.
The late Christopher Reeve, who portrayed Superman in three blockbuster movies during the 1970s and ’80s, offers a better incarnation of the Man of Steel. Reeve became a quadriplegic after a tragic fall from a horse, but he went on to show the world what grace in the face of suffering can accomplish. His was a fall, not from Krypton to Earth, but from the heights of Hollywood into our own suffering humanity.
Did we follow his wheelchair-bound odyssey with the devotion that we lavish on the Man of Steel? No. A man of suffering garners no glow. And there is the Christological rub. In our hearts, we remain Lois Lanes, blind to the love revealed in our midst.
Childhood disappointments usually dissipate quickly. The disappointment I felt over my inability to fly vanished when I wore the Superman costume to kindergarten and became the envy of every boy there. Mrs. Baughman even suggested that we put on a Superman play, since we already had the costume. You can guess who got to play the Man of Steel. It was, after all, my Wish Book costume.