On those rare occasions when I teach students about superhero comics, one question that always comes up is what defines a “hero”. Is, for example, a hero simply an individual who does heroic things? Or an individual who does ordinary things heroically? And what does that mean, anyway “heroically”? Is that a state of mind, or moral orientation? And so on. Fur has been known to fly. (As, of course, have heroes.)
Eventually I bring it down to my, probably oversimplified but serviceable, conception of heroism. I do more or less subscribe to Campbell’s ideas about the hero’s journey, but I’ve also developed a simplified rubric that is helpful in the comics setting. A hero, so goes the thinking, is a person who sacrifices or suffers on behalf of a larger moral purpose. And, just as importantly, the hero must choose to suffer. To illustrate this, I sometimes use the example of chimpanzees who flew in space before the first American astronauts. Some argued that the apes were heroes, just as much as the men. My response is that, yes, the apes suffered (or at least exposed themselves to risk, which is morally close to the same thing), but they didn’t choose that. They didn’t do it with any agency. In as much as they were even aware of what was happening, it was certainly not a situation that was in any way in their control. So, there’s my two aspects of a certain kind of heroism: someone who suffers, and someone who chooses to suffer.
When this sort of thinking is applied to religious stories, with all their culturally embedded hero myths, it makes a book like Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ very apt. That novel famously re-told the story of Christ with an emphasis on his humanity rather than his divinity. The Jesus character is ultimately tempted, on the cross, by the offer to step down and live an ordinary life of an ordinary person with a wife and family and pomegranate pie (1). In the story, Jesus accepts the deal and lives out a full, ordinary life, just as requested, but that brings him no true happiness because it simply isn’t his destiny. Eventually, in this extended dream sequence, he resigns himself to his fate and gets back up on the cross, suffering and choosing to suffer, a hero at last. In my mind, this elevates the character and doesn’t diminish him or his message a single bit (2).
It’s certainly not an original observation to equate Superman with Christ, in a metaphorical way, and part of me wishes I had a better example of this principle using another hero. But frankly, one of the most fascinating aspects of Superman as a character is that he chooses to suffer, when he doesn’t have to. He’s not human. In fact, sometimes humanity isn’t particularly friendly to him. He could easily just take off and fly to a more civilized and advanced planet. But he sticks around anyway (the big Lug..) and fights the proverbial good fight. Which always makes me wonder why. What’s his motivation? And if he really, in his heart of hearts, could be or do anything, what would he choose?
We have a fascinating answer to that question in the 1985 comic “For the Man Who Has Everything,” written by the bearded one himself, Alan Moore, and illustrated by David Gibbons. Here, Moore uses the very Moore-ish device of having Superman attacked by a strange alien plant that seduces its victim into fantasizing about their single fondest wish. They can imagine their ideal world, the one they’ve always wanted, and live in it forever. This is, of course, a trap, as the plant renders the victim vegetative and it is ultimately revealed to be under the control of one of Superman’s enemies, Mongul. The general plot is creative enough, but the story plays out in such a fascinating what that it must rank in the top shelf of literary superhero stories.
The “kicker”, as they say, is that Superman’s fantasy world, the ideal world he imagines for himself, is Krypton. Superman’s fondest wish is to not be Superman, but rather to live out his life as an ordinary person. Krypton never blew up, so Kal-El grew to be a man, with a wife and a family and pomegranate pie (3). The premise, and its execution, is nearly identical to the way Kazantzakis chose to explore similar themes with the Christian passion narrative.
In both cases, the writers establish a believable and resonant fantasy world for their heroes, where initially everything is wonderful (both the Christ and Superman sequences begin with the men giving themselves physically to the women they have always loved) and gradually, elements of the “true” reality leak in poetically. Both stories feature a confrontation between the real world and and the fantasy world by having a figure within the fantasy articulate the issues operating in the real world. And both end with regret and, ultimately, a difficult sacrifice for the hero who rather than remaining with the things that make them truly happy, they must return to the duties they were meant to perform.
In the Last Temptation narrative, Jesus lives a happy, normal life into middle age, when he encounters Saul of Tarsus (played wonderfully in the Scorsese film by the legendary Harry Dean Stanton). Saul is an evangelist, preaching the Word with the enthusiasm of a convert, which in fact, he was. Even though in this narrative he is operating in a world in which Jesus lived, he still tells the story of the death and resurrection as if it really happened, and speaks essentially the basic teachings of who we now know as St Paul. In a powerful scene, the middle aged Jesus is traveling with his family and encounters Paul, who he listens to and then actively chastises. “I’m not the man who think I am!” he yells. Paul is absolutely undeterred. He believes that this man really is Jesus but that doesn’t shake his faith one bit. “I’m glad I met you,” he says, “Because now I can forget you.” Man has become idealized myth, a process which still occurs in our culture (ahem.. Elvis… Lennon… Kennedy…) and it can happen very quickly. What Paul knows, and the Jesus character doesn’t in this scene, is that myth is more important, or at least more useful in the spreading of a great religious message. So, to Paul, it doesn’t matter at all that what he’s saying “didn’t really happen”. It happened in the world of the spirit, and that’s what counts.
Religious fundamentalism and myth making also feature in Superman’s fantasy journey. Since in this reality, Krypton didn’t explode, Superman’s father Jor-El is a bit of a joke. Imagine predicting the end of the world scientifically and then being shown to be spectacularly wrong when nothing happened. Jor-El’s problems in this future history only compounded after that. Lara, his wife and Superman’s birth mother, died of a disease called “the eating sickness”. He was forced to resign from the science council. And his most important invention, the Phantom Zone, which houses criminals, has come under popular attack for being an inhuman punishment. He has become involved with an apocalyptic religious faction (“The Sword of Rao”). In contrast, Superman’s life is fine, although there’s a sense of sniffy moral judgement about the fact that it might the a little “too fine”. He married an actress, Kara, and has a son, Van-El. He’s comfortable and enjoys his life and family but isn’t an important public figure like his father. He’s literally just “anyone”, and the disappointment expressed seems to be that Kal-El/Superman was destined for something else, that he’s somehow being “selfish” for choosing an ordinary life.
In the Christ narrative, there is less of an explicit leakage of the real world into the story, with the exception of the meta-Paul, as discussed above. In Superman’s narrative, the longer the fantasy lasts, the more the world around him seems to crumble. Religious violence increases, and his father becomes a radical. Crusaders against the Phantom Zone spread the blame for the penal system to the entire El family, attacking a wounding Superman’s wife, Kara. This leads Superman to take his family out to Kandor crater (the Krypton equivalent of “the country”) to keep them safe. With the world increasingly in disarray (Kal-El has to drive his car through a riot and demonstrations in the streets on the way to Kandor Crater), Superman is haunted by the nagging feeling that he was meant for something greater and that this world somehow is an illusion.
Meanwhile, back in the “real world” in Moore’s parallel narrative, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman are fighting Mongul. As a slight aside, there are some great moments in this sequence, for example when Mongul contemplates which of the genders he should attack first. It’s Wonder Woman, the strongest of the remaining team, that responds by delivering a real haymaker uppercut to the giant green alien, to which he laughs, but at least it shows him that in this world, the “ladies” take full part in the fighting. As Mongul wreaks havoc on the Fortress of Solitude, and Wonder Woman and Robin are momentarily down for the count, it’s Batman who assigns himself the task of getting the hallucinatory plant monster off of Superman. In a very touching panel, he literally pleads to a catatonic Superman, “Superman? Kal? We’re in serious trouble, old friend. You’ve got to wake up.That’s all, Kal. Just wake up…” That kind of honest emotional moment hits home in this environment. One can easily imagine parallels to someone treating a parent with dementia, or having a loved one in a coma. Moore always seems to be able, like other great writers, to find the emotional truth in fantasy characters.
Every success in the real world weakens the fantasy world, in the Superman narrative. This all leads to the real climax of the story (even though there are pages of violence and action afterwards, the story ends here), where Superman has to tell his own son that he doesn’t think he’s real and has to leave him in the fantasy world, and wakes up.
In Campbell terms, this is a hero finally answering the “call to action”. In terms of the Last Temptation, this is Jesus leaving his loving family and climbing back up on the cross to die. This is the heroic sacrifice that follows the temptation.
The “last temptation” literally is the resistance of the call to action. There’s precedent in the actual gospels: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42, and a similar passage also occurs in Matthew). It’s one of the more powerful passages because it reminds us that Jesus was fully human, as well as (so goes the theology), fully divine. What human would want to die on a cross? It would have to be someone either insane or very brave and very remarkable. An insane person would say, “Bring on the cross, man!” That’s not inspiring: that’s just crazy. But a hero would say, “Look, I don’t want to die any more than anyone else, but if that’s what has to happen… I’ll do it.” Which is essentially what that passage means, at least to me.
A Superman who is Superman from day one, who arrives fully-formed as a hero and never questions his heroism is similarly boring and unrelatable. Which is why so many of the good Superman narratives (this one, the original Donner films, Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright and several other excellent series) focus on his emotional suffering and loneliness. Superman is a remarkably vulnerable emotional figure, as is Batman by the way (and during the battle, he has a turn at the hallucinogenic plant and imagines a world in which his parents lived). But, like Superman, though he doesn’t have the personal stake in the world anymore, he fights anyway, following a higher calling. (It may sound odd to put it in those terms, but it does fit.)
Few stories really hit the proverbial nail of Superman’s true motivations and regrets on the head, in timeless mythic language, like “For the Man Who Has Everything”. The final irony is that this all a celebration of Superman’s birthday, which raises the question of how they’re reckoning it. Is it how many orbits of Earth’s sun he has seen? Or his Kryptonian age? The answer of course is that they are celebrating his birthday here on Earth, his birthday as Superman, not as the “God” he can be. In Christianity, there’s a term for that date as well: Christmas.
(1) That fruit was more common than apples in the middle east. Just trying to keep things from getting too heavy
(2) That view wasn’t shared by the Pope when the book was released in the 1950s, or when it was adapted for the screen by Martin Scorsese in 1988, but luckily we’re free to have an open discussion in this space.
(3) A callback!