07/12/2006 10:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Superman, the New Jesus

The theme of Superman as a Christ figure isn't new, but it has never been stronger or more obvious than it is in Superman Returns. Bryan Singer, the director, had mentioned "the Judeo-Christian allegory" as well as other themes -- Superman as a gay outsider and as an immigrant trying to find his way on earth. Most of this was publicity-seeking fluff. The Moses theme is faint, the gay and immigrant references non-existent, but the Christ theme is nearly as unmissable as it was in ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Superman/Christ is sent to earth by his heavenly father explicitly to be the savior of humanity, or so we were told by the late Marlon Brando in the first Superman movie, dialogue repeated here in Brando's voice. (An asterisk: Wasn't the infant Superman really sent to earth to save his life? Krypton was about to explode.) He spends years in the wilderness (Superman is gone for five years to check out the remains of Krypton). His passion and apparent death are preceded by much of culture turning against him, and the dawning realization of the scope of his mission. In flight high above the earth, Superman strikes Crucifixion-like poses and super-hearing fills his head with the cries of all humanity, like a god hearing the prayers of all. He floats to earth, preceded by a beam of flight.

The Christ parallel contrains the movie in many ways. Superman doesn't hit or physically mistreat the criminals he apprehends, because Jesus figures don't use their strength to abuse people, even criminals (though Superman bounced them around in earlier films, where he was insufficiently Christlike ). Christ imagery also eliminates much of the fun of the earlier movies, presumably because Jesus figures don't go around cracking jokes or playing little tricks on Lois Lane. The world-saving theme is heavily stressed, particularly when Superman catches the huge globe falling from atop the Daily Planet building. At one point we learn that he has appeared in major cities around the world--his mission is to all mankind. This is the context for editor Perry White's comment that Superman stands for "truth, justice and all that stuff." It used to be "truth, justice and the American way" and the absence of this patriotic line has irritated some conservatives. Foreign marketing has something to do with the garbling of the line, but it makes sense dramatically as well. Superman is a savior who belongs to all humanty, not just to the United States.

The Christ theme is everywhere, but it amounts to very little in religious terms. As in many other films, it exists mainly to lend structure, and possibly to get commentators busy overanalyzing the alleged Christian content. For dramatic purposes, the Christ story has two overwhelming advantages: a god who appears to be an ordinary mortal and the death and resurrection theme. You don't get that from Moses, Confucius or Hercules.

The religious theme seems to have bumped many otherwise serious people off their tracks. According to, Superman is a Methodist, whereas the Thing is Jewish and Batman is either a former Episcopalian or a lapsed Catholic. The blind Daredevil is Catholic, but Elektra, the love of his life, was Greek Orthodox.Cypher from "New Mutants" is Mormon. Green Arrow is Buddhist, Justice is Muslim, Zatanna is Wiccan and Mr. Terrific is an atheist. Whatever you believe, some superhero is in your corner.