Superman Isn’t Jesus, He’s Your Dad

There’s a scene in the new summer blockbuster Man of Steel when Clark Kent (aka Superman) is sitting in a church during a crisis of faith. In order to save humanity he has to give up his freedom, and possibly his life. As he asks the minister what he should do, we see over his shoulder a stained-glass image of Christ kneeling in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. The message is so heavy-handed that we almost expect the pastor to say, “You know who you remind me of . . . ?”

In a recent interview with the U.K.’s Metro, director Zach Snyder explained, “I think the relationship between Jesus and Superman is not a thing we invented in this film, it is a thing that has been talked about since the creation of Superman.” Snyder certainly didn’t invent the “Superman as Christ-figure” cliche, but he handles it with a unique brand of clumsiness.

Never one for subtlety, Snyder has Clark Kent/Kal-El state he is 33 years old (the age of Jesus when he was crucified!), has him give himself up in a crucifix pose (just like Jesus!), and—in a scene from the trailer—has his adopted earthly father Joseph, er, Jonathan Kent tell him he’ll always be his son even if his real father came from the heavens above. There is even a unique twist on the virgin birth. On a planet where everyone has been born by immaculate conception, Kal-El is the first naturally born child in centuries. (On Krypton everyone is conceived through a sterile (immaculate?) process that doesn’t involve sexual reproduction. In other words, every birth is akin to a “virgin” (pure; unsullied; undefiled) birth. For Superman to birthed by a woman who is not a virgin is the twist).

Of all the Man of Steel flaws—and they are legion—the most significant is that it misunderstands the reason why the character has endured in the popular imagination since 1938. Superman doesn’t remind of Jesus; he reminds us of our dad.

Before superheroes became a phenomenon that appealed to all ages and demographics, they were written primarily for young boys and male teens. For us, Spider-Man represented the angsty, smart-mouthed hero we could be in the present—all we needed was a radioactive spider bite. Batman represented the brooding, brilliant hero we could be in the future—all we needed was training and a few billion dollars. But Superman was different. He didn’t represent us so much as a hero from our past, the first superhero we ever admired—our fathers.

First Superhero

My own dad was a superman before I had ever heard of Superman. He was faster than The Flash (no matter how far my head start, he could always beat me in a foot race), stronger than Thor (he could open the lid of any pickle jar with ease), and more powerful than the Incredible Hulk (he could crush soda cans with a single smash of his fist). From the age of 2 to 7 I saw my dad as more amazing that any creation in the DC or Marvel universes.

But then it all changed. I don’t know when exactly it happened, but I began to see my father as no longer Amazing, Incredible, or Super. He was just a man, a dad much like everyone else’s dad. Like many other young boys before me, I found a perfect substitute in the pages of comic books. The unassuming Clark Kent could enter a phone booth wearing a suit and glasses and exit as the most powerful man on the planet. Unlike my own father, Superman never grew tired or frustrated. He always kept his word and always saved the day. Reading about Superman in the pages of the comic books was my first experience of nostalgia, longing for a time that had never really existed, when my dad could do anything.

Perhaps it’s because I no longer need a father substitute or a Jesus in a cape that the movie left me unmoved. Man of Steel is passable popcorn-fare and easily the best of the film versions of Superman, if only because the previous incarnations have been atrocious. The score by Hans Zimmer is rousing, and the costume design is stunning (especially the uniforms of General Zod and his female commander). But the soon-to-be-dated CGI and the never-ending fight scenes between indestructible aliens left me bored and restless long before the interminable (two-and-a-half-hour!) running time was over.

Earthly Father

Superb acting by the supporting characters, particularly Superman’s two dads, nearly saves the movie. His birth father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), is a bold and manly Kryptonian scientist, while his adopted dad, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), is a protective and quiet Kansas farmer. Both men provide a model of fatherly love, but Costner steals the movie with only a few minutes of screen time. In one scene Pa Kent left me with a lump in my throat and the only genuine emotional response of the entire movie—all with a single gesture of his hand.

We may appreciate Superman because he represents what our fathers could never be, but Pa Kent shows us what we really need from our father: unconditional, self-sacrificial love. Superman may be the man of steel, but his earthbound father shows us what it really means to be Christ-figure.

  • danny

    Good points, but one thing I have not heard a lot about is the “Messianic Secret” element. Superman doing wonderful things while trying to “hold off” until the right time to reveal himself, but the people he helps tell the story anyway. Lois as a Lukan character going around and putting together the oral histories of the savior.

  • Wesley

    This post gives me a lump in my throat – makes me think of my dad. Thanks for your wisdom and sensitivity in writing this.
    God’s peace –
    the Ox.

  • Jaskologist

    “On a planet where everyone has been born by immaculate conception, Kal-El is the first naturally born child in centuries.”

    I do believe you just mixed up the concepts of “immaculate conception” and “virgin birth,” unless you’re trying to say that Superman is the only Kryptonian born *with* original sin.

    • Joe Carter

      That was intended to be a pun on the theological term. On Krypton everyone conceived through a sterile (immaculate) process that doesn’t involve sexual reproduction. In other words, every birth is akin to a “virgin” (pure; unsullied; undefiled) birth. For Superman to birthed by a woman who is *not* a virgin is the twist.

      Perhaps, though, I should stay away from verbal wordplay. ; )

  • Dean P

    Yeah Danny I really liked that touch. The funny thing is a lot of the critics really disliked Jonathan Kent as a character for this reason, but saw it as him wanting Clark to “hide his light in a bushel” and not to ever let anyone know who he is and what he could do. But in reality I think they missed the point that for Jonathan it was about Clark revealing himself within the fullness of time. The scene at the end with Jonathan seeing Clark with the red cape on was sort of a prophetic vision that he has that gives him insight into what Clark would become when the time is right.

  • KC McGinnis

    Joe, I literally laughed out loud at this line:

    “The message is so heavy-handed that we almost expect the pastor to say, ‘You know who you remind me of . . . ?’ ”

    My thoughts exactly. Heavy-handed is the exact word for this movie. Just curious, did you read my review? (I used the word ‘heavy-handed’ a few times).

  • Jonathan Haefs

    Interesting take Joe! I actually wrestled with the Superman/Jesus comparison in my blog yesterday. I went a bit of a different direction that you may find interesting. You can see it here:

    I also wrote a blog before father’s day and before the movie’s release comparing the man of steel to fathers:

    Thank you for sharing your insights!

  • Johnny A

    I’ll wait for this turkey to hit NetFlix – Christ-parallels or not, there’s just not enough interest for me. I’m still having a hard time bridging this message from Zach Snyder with his other film ‘300’ and the disturbing religious jabs in that film, such as the depiction of perverted priests and the heroic bearded Spartan guy appealing to “reason!” Give me a break…

    • Ceddy

      Johnny what’s so wrong with a director depicting the corruption of a specific ancient religious culture, specifically that which focused on Greek gods, and a hero he is a religious skeptic and appeals to something else aside from the mythical gods? Why is that something that causes you to reply, “Give me a break.”?

  • Nick C

    Having grown up watching the cartoon Superman and having a few not so great step-dads, I think I had a completely different take than you on the film.

    I loved this movie. In a sea of superhero movies it was a refreshing take on a superhero, who to me, has always seemed too powerful and a little boring. I think the use of some of the parallel events in Jesus’ life highlighted for me what a powerful message the gospel message really is.

    I do agree that it was nice to see such selflessness and love from Clark’s fathers. They were the source of much of the movie’s numerous positive messages.

    Sure the fight scenes dragged on a bit longer than they should have, but to me they do not detract from the overwhelming positive experience I had watching this movie. I highly recommend watching!

  • Remo

    Why can’t we just appreciate the movie for entertainment? Is there any point in trying to link or unlink Superman to Christ… Lets not reach people.

    • danny


      This isn’t a reach at all, it is a well established fact, and has been for decades, that Siegel and Shuster put all of the Christ references into the character on purpose, and Snyder in directing this film as well as Singer in Superman Returns went out of their way to confirm that they were very intentional about putting these Christ themes in the films in order to stay faithful to the character.

      In terms of watching it “for entertainment”, movies are cultural pieces meant to be digested and discussed. If we never discussed them and only watched them for “entertainment” than people would say the opposite of what you’re saying. They’d say “Why do we allow ourselves to be so entertained by something that we put no thought to?”

      I also think it’s interesting that your assuming that those of us who discuss films in this way aren’t being “entertained.” This is a bit of a misnomer, I feel that discussing it actually allows the entertainment to go much farther. I think Man of Steel was ok, but not great by any means. If we weren’t discussing it like this my money wouldn’t go as far because I would have forgotten about that film 10 minutes after I walked out.

      • Remo

        I’m not saying that those who digest and discuss films aren’t also entertained in some way by them. I just think tryng to find Christ references in fictional superhero characters serves no point. Outside of the Bible, why look for Christ references in films unless they have a clear Biblical objective. You can’t tell me Superman was originated with the purpose of pointing people to Christ. Narnia, even though I’m not the biggest fan of, I can see because C.S. Lewis was clearly a Christian and there are clear references to Christianity in his fictional stories. I also think there are many forms of entertainment that we don’t put thought into other than the pleasure they bring for the brief moment in time.

        • Josh

          The point is to compare Christ to the connotation of a superhero, in this case Superman, who is the epitome of superherodom. It is only natural to take something great and compare it to the greatest. Think about Lebron and Jordan comparisons right now… it is only natural. Out of that we see the flaws in superman or Lebron and realize the chasm that separates their magnanimity or athleticism.

          Op’s article only serves to further the reason why Christ’s glory even defies what fantasy our minds try to conjure up of what greatness is. Counter-intuitive as it is, it was the sacrificial act of a relatively feeble step-father that relates more to Christ than an all-powerful wishy-washy demi-god.

          In conclusion to my post, there is a point; to extrapolate more of the love of Christ and the glory and praise He deserves.

        • Geoff

          “Outside of the Bible, why look for Christ references in films unless they have a clear Biblical objective. You can’t tell me Superman was originated with the purpose of pointing people to Christ.”

          A few things.

          Apprehending that people respond positively to shadows and types of Jesus fills my heart with joy. It shows me that we are made in the image of our Creator and are made to find our ultimate enjoyment in Him. Is that a valid enough objective?

      • Christian Vagabond

        Siegel and Shuster were Jewish, so it’s highly unlikely that they even thought of Christ when they created the character. The creators themselves said that Samson and Hercules were their biggest influences.r. .In fact, Siegel’s original design was to make him the evil personification of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (hence the name Superman). There are a lot of good articles floating around online about how the early depictions of Superman made him less virtuous that the character we’re familiar iwth now.

  • Seth

    I don’t see that it’s such a big deal. Many, many films and novels depict Christ figures. Cool Hand Luke comes to mind immediately. As well as Narnia. I don’t see this as a big issue. Given, I haven’t seen the movie and don’t know the fullness of this depiction.

    And by the way, Superman was obviously based around Jesus by Siegel and Shuster in his original run. Pretty sure the Kents were even originally named Mary and Joseph. I don’t think that the purpose is at all similar to the allegory of Narnia, but I don’t see the big deal unless it was using this characterization to defame the person of Jesus.

    As far as superheroes reminding us of our fathers: that’s a fair point, but I don’t think it is necessarily the point that was at the forefront of Siegel and Shuster’s minds when they were writing the character.

    Interesting read, though. I really enjoyed it.

  • Joseph

    The doctrine of immaculate conception is not equivalent to the virgin birth. The immaculate conception is the doctrine that Mary was without original sin.

  • Abhi

    I don’t understand the fuss: So what if the movie compares Superman to Christ. Superman does not exist, Christ did and does. I think what stands out is man’s innate desire for a transcendent God, who identifies with human suffering and yet, humbly and powerfully rescues mankind. The fact that superman is contrived out of thin air makes the reality of Christ’s life, death and resurrection for our sake all the more grand and appealing.

  • Nathan

    I think sometimes people feel like they need more of a one-to-one correlation between movies/stories/cultural phenomema and Jesus than is actually needed to make fair and helpful connections to Christ. To use biblical language, “shadows” are never one-to-one correlation to the “realities” they point to. Moses didn’t look and act EXACTLY like Jesus, yet the former clearly points to and resembles the latter, biblically. Same goes for the sacrificial system, festivals, laws, psalms, and other characters that give us a hint of (but aren’t carbon copies of) Jesus. So, I say let shadows be shadows. See the Christ in all things. And don’t be afraid to “read him in” to everything under the sun. Everything in due time bends the knee to his majesty, his gospel, and his grace.

    • Creth

      well said

  • Simul Iustus et Peccator

    Thank you for the outstanding review.

    I too was bored with the long fight scene where aliens smashed each other into buildings. Yawn! After 20 seconds or so, I felt much empathy for the buildings and none for the characters.

    You are surely right that Crowe and Costner steal second. And third.

    I do think they did a good job portraying the challenge of using talent for the good of others.

    The Greek ideal, the herculean body, and young Clark reading Plato when the football toughs roughed him up, all tapped into mythology, as did General Zod who says something like: “I was born (i.e., designed for and assigned to a warrior role in a Platonic sense) to do anything to protect my people.”

    Zod sounds almost right, almost moral. He’s not evil. Just doing his job to protect. If 7 billion folks get in the way, he’s not to blame, right?

    Clark has a subtler dilemma. He’s higher in the platonic hierarchy and is a blend of Warrior and Ruler. He says something like sorry to his tribe, “you had your chance” and kills off the hope of repopulating, evidently buying into both “dads” vision for the future: alien power restrained and focused on justice and practical service, rightly blended with human qualities. He is to show the human race how to harness technology and power, not preserve one’s tribe at any cost, but to serve the commonweal.

    Pretty good summertime popcorn and worth the matinee price in my view.

  • Linda

    Of course, Superman has always been a Christ figure! What was missing in this version of Superman was lovable, awkward, fumbling, Clark Kent providing us with the human side of our ‘god’, and thus showing us we can identify with him in his weakness. And, so we eagerly await Man of Steel II when Superman puts on his heavy black rimmed glasses and goes to work for the Daily Planet.

  • corazon stoltenberg

    Sorry to spoil the christlike parallels and imagery but no. Jerry Seigel, created a man that all the world would love, especially the ladies, because he himself was the exact opposite in real life. And the comics/ graphic novel industry always wants something that can market to more than one type of audience.

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  • Dean P

    Corazon is right about Siegal he has been quoted as saying something along these lines and with both men being Jewish I think Moses was more what they had in mind rather than Jesus.

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  • Lou G.

    Sorry, I’m not a big superhero follower or comic book geek. I’m just a movie goer who likes a quality film. I loved this film and thought that many of the details and twists really brought a brand new look at a tale that’s been told hundreds of times before. I appreciated the way they approached telling the story and showing us the younger years. I’m not even a big special effects person, so I wasn’t taken in by the accoutrements. Sorry so many of you felt let down. I can’t wait for the next one!

  • James Arnold


    “Pa Kent shows us what we really need from our father: unconditional, self-sacrificial love. Superman may be the man of steel, but his earthbound father shows us what it really means to be Christ-figure.”

    My frustration with Pa Kent comes sooner than his death. It’s when Clark saves the bus full of children, and his father is scolding him. When Clark asks if he should have just let them die (rather than jeopardize his own identity), Jonathan responds with a heavy “Maybe.” It’s difficult for me to put the “Christ-figure” label on someone who says “Yeah, maybe we should have let all those kids die.” After all, we’re dealing with Christ-on-earth, preacher to all, healer, etc. Is there reconciliation here (between Jonathan Kent as a guy who might let kids die and as a Christ-figure), or is he just a bad Christ-figure at that moment?

    I did write a bit about it over at Evangelical Outpost, your old stomping grounds:

    • Joe Carter

      I read and reflected on your post at EO before I wrote this piece. I agree that if the “maybe” scene is meant to give us pause about Jonathan Kent’s morality. But I think the latter scene puts it into perspective.

      ***Minor spoiler alert***: I’m not going to describe the scene but if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stop reading.

      I think the tornado scene shows that what drove the “maybe” was simply the protectiveness of a father. Essentially, Pa Kent loved his son so much that he thinks maybe other should perish if it would allow his son to grow up and serve the mission that he was put on earth to do. His sacrificial act show that he truly believed that to be true. There’s still a sense of utilitarian ethic there that is incompatible with Christianity. But I think the “maybe” wasn’t a philosophical statement so much as something an overprotective dad shouldn’t have said.

  • Sean Carlson

    All in all a pleasant 2 1/2 hrs at the local multi-plex. Immediate impressions: Up til the long extended action sequences, the movie was pretty good. There will not be a stimulus bill large enough to restore Metropolis. Amy Adams maybe miscast. The Superman suit is really cool.

  • Robbie

    “Man of Steel is passable popcorn-fare and easily the best of the film versions of Superman, if only because the previous incarnations have been atrocious. The score by Hans Zimmer is rousing,… ”

    Joe, I appreciate this post and your insight into “Man of Steel.” One thing though, I think you ought to go back and watch “Superman: The Movie” from 1978. A large portion of filmmakers who make comic book movies site that film as the one they strive to emulate (I confess that I spend a little too much time watching DVD special features). I still consider the 1978 incarnation to be the best film version of Superman, and among my top five comic book films of all time. I only say this because you labeled it, among the other films (II, III, IV and Superman Returns), as “atrocious.” Then you poured salt on my “wounds” by immediately praising the latest film (“Man of Steel”) for Hans Zimmer’s score (which I also loved). I only say this because “Superman (1978)” had John Williams’ iconic score that remains a masterpiece and will forever be the theme that Superman is associated with. In the same way, Christopher Reeve is a brilliant and iconic as Clark Kent/Superman, and Marlon Brando wasn’t too shabby either as Jor-El (even if the sequels didn’t stand up to the first one). I realize I’m missing the point of your post, but I think “Superman (1978)” is one of the greats, and I am as protective of it as I am of Ringo Star as a drummer. Nevertheless, I did like “Man of Steel” and Hans Zimmer’s score as well.

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  • Caleb Boone

    Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

    Superman is not Jesus.

    Superman is not like Jesus and cannot be compared to Jesus.

    Superman does not have his origins in Christianity.

    Superman derives from the German Uber-Mensch or Zarathustra:

    Zarathustra derives from Zoroaster:

    Those who compare Superman to Jesus have either forgotten or have chosen to ignore the well-known historical, philosophical, literary and religious origins of Superman.

    Sincerely yours,
    Caleb Boone.

    • John

      Dude… *facepalm*

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  • Justin Martin

    Great post, and an interesting perspective. Here’s a recent post I did on the Christian parallels in the film:

  • Ellery

    Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ was – gasp – ‘atrocious’!?!?!?!

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  • Chris

    In my mind, much like any film or well know story, religion, myths and legends tend to borrow basic elements to construct a story.

    Superheroes are essentially a modern version of ancient mythology and while Superman does borrow ideas from the Bible, it also has similar motifs to Hercules,King Arthur etc

    In some respects, Superman is Jesus and Jor-El is God while Jonathan Kent could be compared to Joseph.

    In the comic-books, Jonathan has a far more profound impact on Clark and Superman’s story is more about alienation and the inability to fit into the world around him.

    Unlike Jesus, he has to remain hidden and is unable to take credit for his actions, but as with most superheroes, that isn’t a problem as its more about helping people than vanity.

    Superman is an American icon based upon Christian beliefs.

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