Superman is a Christ-Figure. On this, most fans of Kal-EL agree. But Superman also has distinct (although less investigated) roots in the Mosaic tradition as well.
We make much of the Christocentric Superman allusions and imagery that the DCEU has offered us so far – and we are right to do so- but I also believe there is much food for discussion in the Hebraic roots of the Superman mythos. The creators of the Superman character (Jerry Siegel and Jon Shuster) were both Jewish and drew heavily from Mosaic imagery to create the mythos of the character.
It has become an article of faith (that Article Asylum remains stubbornly apostate from) in some corners of the nerd community that Superman is not a hopeful and optimistic character; and the serious and somber tone that the DCEU has taken him precludes such things from the outset. No better example of this is seen than the reaction to the portion of the latest Justice League trailer in which Batman states, “Superman was a beacon to the world. He didn’t just save people, he made them see the best parts of themselves.” Some commentators have been extremely reticent to accept this. They say at best it is a retconning of BvS and MoS, or at worst, a deliberate falsehood. I think both perspectives are mistaken; and I think a story told 1,000 years before the common era illustrates why.
The Snakes and the people of God
The Jewish Bible contains a remarkable story about magic, healing, death and beacons. Here’s a precis of the story, remarkably brief but full of meaning for our investigation today.
A long time ago, the people of God were in the wilderness and by their boorishness angered the Almighty. To punish them for their ingratitude, a plague of snakes was sent into their encampment. The Israelites quickly came to their senses (a plague of snakes focuses the mind wonderfully) and they asked for clemency. The prophet Moses interceded for them and God replied, giving him an odd command: “make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole and tell the people to look at it and they will be healed.” Moses did as he was commanded and every Israelite that looked at the serpent ended up okay. That’s an odd story to bring up about Superman right? What do snakes have to do with the Man of Steel? I’ll examine the story closer. The remedy for divine punishment was fairly simple, look up at the symbol and you will be healed. There is mysticism and power that issues from the Serpent – but if you don’t look, you can’t receive it. The serpent wasn’t paraded through the camp, slid under tent flaps, or attended by a town crier. Those were not the instructions. The Bronze snake was simply exalted and the decision was stark: look up or be destroyed. Simple, stark but incredibly weighty and useful for our discussion. Only two things were required to fulfill the divine requirement for healing: A recognition that you were in trouble, and the decision to look at the snake.
Both of these are necessary. If you refused to acknowledge that you were bit there would be no reason to look at the snake. If you thought the idea unnecessarily punitive or outright silly – snakes don’t heal people; and even if they did, why should I go to it and not the other way ‘round?!!- you’d simply continue on your way, searching for other remedies until you died. Faith, realisation and belief are combined inextricably here and I think understanding this marriage is massively important to understanding how Superman ends up inspiring hope in the DCEU. .
I want to hone in on the word choice that Batman made. Forgive the silliness, but beacons are not magnets. They illustrate, they do not arrest or inexorably attract. A beacon will show you the way in from a stormy sea but it will not make you steer toward it. A beacon is passive and – you must not miss this – you must know the beacon exists plus value it to be saved. A beacon is unalterably passive. In the DCEU if you are amoral, nihilistic and irrevocably broken, Superman cannot inspire you. Superman will awaken what is dormant in you – he does not create something new in you. Superman cannot change your character without your full participation. This is not by accident, we are supposed to infer something significant from this.
Bent v. Broken
I lack the space to go into much detail here, but writer and professor C.S. Lewis makes a helpful distinction between bent and broken people. Bent people are those whose desires and values have been simply been warped and corrupted with the passage of time. A lifetime of small compromises against our moral idealism cannot help but take a toll. The graph of human goodness shows the cluster of humanity here. If morality and conscience are like a straight-line highway connecting points a and b, bent people are those whose passage between a and b resembles a crazy straw. Broken people are those who have dynamited the highway between a and b, fortified and mined the portions of and b closest to each other, and assigned armed guards to patrol the former route to make sure nothing gets through. Bent people are people pursuing good things for bad reasons or by bad means. Broken people fully embrace and luxuriate in their evil. Luthor is exultant in the birth of Doomsday; Zod relishes the thought of genocide and murder. At some point both of these characters confirm to the audience that they have perfectly accepted the reality of the evil they wish to inflict. They are broken.
Broken people ignore, disdain and curse the beacons. Bent people have the ability to become inspired because they still retain the capacity and desire to be.
If you have stamped out every vestige of conscience and morality, you will be forever immune to Superman’s moral idealism. This is the reason why “Martha” shakes a nearly broken Batman out of his immorality and literally saving Luthor from the “fist of an abomination” inspires no sympathy from Lex. This bears repeating: Superman will not give you the ability to become inspired. Instead (if you have the capacity and the interest) he will rekindle something you knew to be true – but buried with age. This is the significance of the Ben Affleck monologue in BvS, He begins with high ideals, only to compromise and doubt them because of trauma; but eventually rededicates himself to these “diamond absolutes” because he sees in Superman their ultimate expression.
Are you beginning to see the parallels between a 3,000 year old story and the Superman of the DCEU?
In the story of the Bronze Serpent faith, realisation and effort are brought together to bring salvation. This marriage is the mechanism by which Superman gives hope to the world. A world that longs for heroism and appreciates how its own compromises has necessitated them, is a world that can look at the Man of Steel and be inspired. Superman’s light and optimism have not been hidden under some bushel, it is not a secret that he is good. Instead, those who look at Superman and analyze them appreciate his works of good character are rewarded with inspiration. That’s the thing though, in the DCEU world you have to look at Superman and let his good deeds harmonize with the idealism that we’ve all abandoned somewhat since childhood.
Brief aside: There is a hiddenness with Superman in the DCEU that is purposeful and skillful. Of course Snyder and co. could’ve created a world in which Superpowered heroism was simply taken for granted. But by creating a world that resembles our own, the Snyders were able to ask searching questions of both their characters, and their audiences. A gift has been given to the audience. While the world of the DCEU is in the middle of this grand discussion about Superman – who he is, what he wants, and can he be trusted, we have the ability to see the totality of Superman’s motivations and character – even when nobody is watching. We of all people have no excuse to not be inspired. The ambiguity is meant to allow freedom of choice, it recapitulates the struggles real world Supes has in inspiring affections.
Those who have the ability and desire to be inspired or do great things will admire and emulate Superman. Those who do not are truly lost. Superman will not force inspiration upon you, he is like a water faucet – an endless flow of refreshment dependent on only one thing: someone turning the tap. How odd would it be for someone to die of thirst beside a water fountain that works? Thankfully, in the DCEU this does not happen. In the DCEU it appears that millions, fresh off the death of The Superman, have begun to follow the same course that I’ve outlined above. They have begun to approach Superman with fresh eyes and appreciate his prior works in light of his sacrifice. When Superman is lifted up by his death, those that are willing look to him and are inspired.
At no point does Superman evangelize or proselytize for himself or his character (except a brief interrogation scene in Man of Steel), he seems content to simply do good works and be a symbol. This is a remarkably trusting, optimistic and humanistic approach to heroism that is fairly unique in on screen depictions of the superpowered. Superman seems quite confident that his laconic heroism will resonate not just with the American citizens he has grown up with but humanity as a whole, all across the globe. Every culture has some version of the saying that true character is not often found beneath a profusion of pious words and this Superman embodies that notion. I get the feeling that a Superman born in post-modern times is a bit wary of the efficacy of a white, American male offering grand speeches about his own moral character and I admire that realistic touch. Superman is content to simply offer up his service and let those who are willing become inspired by his light.
Superman is a not an evangelist of any sort of gospel. He is a prophet of deeds.
I’d encourage fans of the DCEU and heroes in general to look towards the symbol of Superman and become inspired. Join Pete Ross, Bruce Wayne, Lois Lane, General Swanwick, Colonel Hardy and the multiplied millions populating Earth-One. Superman will not overpower you or force your affection but he will draw that out of you that which you have forgotten or compromised over time. Superman and his truth – that flawed and broken humanity is worth the greatest of sacrifices by the greatest of beings – is beautiful.
Look and Look Well