The irony of Superman in the age of Postmodernism is that our world has no need for saviors.
Often I find myself in the middle of arguments where I defend Superman to my peers as a legitimate hero. Why, I am not certain. The topic of conversation always seems to revolve around the role of Batman in the DCU and how like an intercity child he possesses favorable merit as a comic book protagonist by nature that he had to study for years under the tutelage of various branches of the abysmal underworld, and has risen above circumstance to become a positive force in society.
Yeah, I know. They call those kinds of people “toofers,” which is 30 Rock lingo for a diversity hire.
There is something threatening about Superman implicitly. He’s perfect and idealized. Grant Morrison likens him to the Olympian Gods, but even that doesn’t do justice to the ending of All-Star Superman. People don’t believe in perfect anymore. That’s why Superman threatens them. He is something more.
As a Christian I can say that Superman is a savior figure and appreciate all the nuances and implications of the concept. The narrative lens of such a saying is multifaceted and not limited to any incarnation of the character. But on a personal, spiritual level I discovered who Jesus was through comics; namely, through Superman.
Superman is an outsider. He is born of a simple family, working among farmers and tradesmen. After preparing and living a solitary life with his adopted family, he went into the city to begin his ministry. Through his revolutionary actions Clark Kent revealed himself as the “Super Man,” what Mankind was meant to be. And, like Jesus’ own followers, the people misunderstood Superman’s Gospel as simply a means of attaining moral perfection. Superman is perfect for Man, that Man should not need to be perfect. Clark Kent’s sacrifice, the shedding of his humanity, is what saves the world time and time again.
Lex Luthor is proof of this. He is everything Man should be. He is powerful, a master of the material reality. He is a scholar of the fine arts, a true Renaissance man. Yet in his search for utopian modernism he is constantly thwarted by Superman. As long as Lex Luthor lives in the shadow of the Man of Steel he is merely a parody of a man. Man and Man of Steel cannot share the same space in time. Grant Morrison says it best in All-Star Superman, in the final encounter between Lex and Kal-El. Here the embittered tycoon says, “I saw how to save the world! I could have made everyone see. I could have saved the world if it wasn’t for you!”
Saviors are threatening to us mere mortals. They are proofs that we are not enough, that Mankind does not have the answers or ingenuity to persevere into the future. What makes Superman so threatening is not that he is too bland, or doesn’t have an array of gadgets at his call, but that he knows what being truly human is really like. He undresses us down to our core as God become a Man, condescending to our finite reality and living with us as an unmatchable example. When the sideline call goes out, “It’s a bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!” it causes our heads to tilt toward the heavens and wonder if he’s really there, watching us, hoping for us.
When I was in High School I wrote a speech entitled, “Why the World Needs Superman.” I took it all the way to regional finals in the Rotary 4-Way Test Speech Competition, until I was bested by some rich asshole from a prep school, whose money had garnered her favor and a plethora of speech coaches. I meant what I said then. Today, now that I am Christian, I still mean it, only my vision of who Superman is has changed.
The world needs Superman. Comic books need Superman. Without him everything falls apart. What is there to strive toward when morality is fluid and mutable? Not much. Like Lex Luthor we can try to simply be the best, and advance on our own time the human race, but it will never satisfy the perfection that is embodied in the Man of Steel. I love Jesus, and I’m proud to say it, but it was Superman that showed me why I love Jesus and why Saviors are so important.