Sunday, July 07, 2013

Why Superman is a Better Jewish Messiah than a Christian Messiah: A Mythic Movie Review of Man of Steel

I got to see Man of Steel just before vacation (I stood atop a Mayan pyramid - about as close to a ziggurat as I'm  gonna get, being a Jew, so that was awesome) and now I am ready to comment on it.

Much has been made about the christological spin given the Superman mythology in this movie, and I found much of it quite moving, if somewhat heavy-handed (I'm thinking of the "surrender yourself" come-to-Jesus moment with the priest, where a picture of Jesus is hovering right over his shoulder). It certainly shows how a really, really good myth can be the bearer of many vectors of meaning. The screenwriter(s) foregrounded some nice elements of the Superman mythos that resonate with the Christ story. Good christ-figures fill popular culture, from Klaatu to Gandalf, and only a first-class whinger would complain about bringing together two great western mythic tales ("Chocolate!" "Peanut Butter!" "Wait, they taste great together!").

I must observe, however, that the Man of Steel as the Prince of Peace is, IMHO, an awkward fit. The narrative proves Kal El = Christ to be something of a case of Procrustean bedding (Sorry to throw in a third mythic tradition here). And here's why I think this is so:

For while the plot contrives that Kent must surrender himself for the good of humanity, he neither has to suffer death at the hands of the people he has come to save, nor does he die, crucified or otherwise, by anybody, not even General Zod (Yea, Michael Shannon!), the Prince of Darkness. Indeed, he actively works to escape his fate, and does so successfully. The only two people who willing and successfully sacrifice their lives are his father (the Joseph stand-in) - who does so for the ethically questionable principle that it is better for others to die than for his son to prematurely reveal his true nature - and the Air Force colonel who does, in fact, destroy himself for the sake of saving humanity, but in a way that is more Torpedo Squadron 8 (look it up) than Jesus of Nazareth.

Look, there is no question that the master myth undergirding Superman is a kind of messianism: the particular religious brand of utopianism that centers of the special individual, gifted with unique powers, an individual who can and will transform our reality for the better and advance all that is divine, just, true, and right, improving the human condition. The messianic myth, writ small, is arguable at the very root of the superhero as a genre. Fair enough, but how, then is Superman more Jewish than Christian? While the messiah is the special invention of the Jews, messianism is also at the very heart of the Christian myth. Even so, it is useful to recognize Christian and Jewish forms of messianism as  categorically quite distinct. The uniquely Christian vision of the messiah is the supernal empowered “chosen one” who surrenders and sacrifices himself and dies for the good of humanity, his death bringing salvation in a way his life could not. The Jewish messiah, by contrast, is the empowered “chosen one” who strives and struggles, who to the very end lives for the good of humanity, ultimately to triumph over adversity and evil, but without losing himself. And so too, is Superman. While Christ-motifs will eventually appear in the long story arc of the Superman comic run (seven decades and counting), in their earliest form, and in their overarching mythologies, all comic book heroes conquer evil by defeating its minions, not by transcending it through their own death.  Leading, fighting for, and living for humanity is an archly Jewish myth; the master motif of Superman. This Jewish myth is actually the foundational premise of all the early superhero mythologies. 

There is a second way in which Jewish messianism is different. In Christian thought, there is and can be only one messiah. All other contenders are anti-christ. In Judaism, a messiah is a role and a high office, a role not bound to one person, one time in (or even the end of) history. In point of fact, every king and high priest of Israel was a messiah in their own time. Thus, the appearance of multiple superheroes in a single “universe” - the Justice League of America, for example - has a more Jewish than Christian resonance to it.

There is, finally, a dark side to the Jewish Messianic/Superman myth that I take to be a curious kind of "proof" of Superman's essential Jewishness, and this is the Christian tradition of the anti-christ. It doesn't take much reading of Christian commentaries to realize that the anti-christ, as envisioned in the Revelations of John and then elaborated on by Christian tradition, is at its heart fundamentally a critique/polemic against the competing Jewish vision of the eschatological messiah. Cast as descendant of the tribe of Dan (and therefore a Jew), who triumphs and governs in this world, abet as a viceroy of Satan rather than God, the anti-christ is essentially a dig at the "carnality" of Jewish eschatological expectations.

Why am I reviewing this tangential matter? Because of a revealing conversation I had with a campus minister back in the 1970s, in which he declared Superman to be a cunning pop culture avatar of the anti-christ, a pulp-fiction blasphemy meant to mentally prepare mankind for the coming to the real satanic savior, the ubermensch bearing the the "mark of the beast." This preacher, immersed in Christian myth, intuitively detected this "Jewish" cast to Superman, and then deconstructed him through his the prism of his Christian len and, whola, he is revealed to be anti-christ. Or, Superman = Jewish Messiah = anti-christ. My experience of 40 years ago is hardly isolated; see this Washington Post article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/superman-jesus-figure-or-anti-christ/2013/06/27/3093f5be-df64-11e2-8cf3-35c1113cfcc5_story.html

So while I enjoyed Man of Steel, his ret-con (look it up) as a Christ figure is ultimately a triumph of marketing over innate narrative affinity. Superman is, and remains, more like Menachem ben David, "Comforter, son of David" rather than Christ,
"...eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end." 

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon.http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books


Blogger Maggid said...

I am ALWAYS Happy to find one of your posts. Thank you for this - you've given me a lot to consider.

(I use you book a lot - wish i could take classes from you - THRILLED you write a blog . . )


5:32 PM  
Blogger Donald Michael Kraig said...

Perhaps not Jesus, but more like Moses. Superman was created by two Jewish men, Jerry Siegel (1914-1996) and Joe Shuster (1914-1992). The parallels with the story of Moses, as well as with the Jews of Germany of the 1930s, are striking:
1) He had come to the U.S. from a foreign world.
2) His family (and his entire people) had been wiped out. A description of the burgeoning Jewish Holocaust?
3) Moses was placed in a small craft and allowed to go to a distant place in the hopes he would live. Superman's parents send him to Earth in a small ship in hopes that he would survive.
4) Moses cares for the common people. Superman grows up among the common people.
5) Moses is an Egyptian prince who discovers a secret identity as leader of the Jews. Superman appears to be a simple newspaper reporter but has a secret identity as the Mensch of Steel.

So was Superman actually Jewish? Nobody really talks about it, but it is interesting to point out that he follows the Talmudic tradition that we should do good for good's sake. Superman doesn't get paid or get power from saving the world again and again.

1:20 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Dear Donald,

No doubt about it. You neatly summarize the Moses narrative that is the basis of Superman's origin story. But I'll split hairs in this: The story of Moses is, and has been now for some 1500 years, a Western hero. He is shared, along with his story, by both Jews and Christians (and indirectly, Muslims). It's the messianic dimension, the (Jewish) messiah typos embedded in and extending past the Moses narrative that,in my opinion, that shows his truly, distinctly, Jewish nature.

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Thorsten said...

This is great!

8:44 PM  

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