Before Michael Keaton danced with the devil beneath the pale moonlight, before Tobey Maguire discovered great power, before Hulk smashed the puny god, Christopher Reeves and director Richard Donner paved the way for every superhero film that has come since. Filmed for $55 million dollars, Superman the Movie grossed $300 million, received three Academy Award nominations, and received a Special Achievement Academy Award for Special Effects. But critically or popularly acclaimed, the heart of the film’s success is in its Judeo-Christian tendencies as a father sends his son to Earth, both stranger and savior. Paired perfectly (because they were filmed semi-simultaneously) with its sequel, the films provide an overview of a modern-day Christ figure arriving on Earth.
As the first film opens, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) prepares to send his son, Kal-el (later played by Reeves as an adult) to Earth. Their planet, Krypton, is about to explode into a million shards, a tragedy that Jor-El tried to stop unsuccessfully. In the meantime, the criminal Zod (Terence Stamp, proving that villains really do help define the film) is sent into the Phantom Zone, to “eternal living death” as a result of his crimes against his people. Zod is the anti-Jor-El, and we’ll soon see that Kal-el has the choice to make about whether he will be more like his father or by his fellow Kryptonian.
In the meantime, Kal-el, who crashes near Smallville as a little baby, is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Baxter), who provide more nurture toward a responsible, empathetic adult. But Clark Kent/Kal-El will lose another father figure, doubling up on Peter Parker’s emotional pain, and find himself exploring the world of the city, Metropolis, without a father figure to turn to for advice.
But Jor-El has transmuted “the Word,” carefully allowing for his son to receive his advice and teaching through mysterious elements that were transported via the shuttle that crashed on Earth. Kal-el learns the nuggets of wisdom that seem to transport Brando’s various speeches into words of timeless wisdom, a la Yoda or Morpheus, only earlier. Some are issued prior to Kal-el’s actual departure from Krypton, but all have echoes of Judeo-Christian mythos, transporting the film from mere action blockbuster to deeper territory. [Thank you, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and you, Richard Donner.]
“Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. But always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.”
Luke 3 states, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.‘” John 1 puts it like this: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Either way, this son, this light, this possibility shows the power of Donner’s use of the father and the son (both sets, actually, as Jonathan Kent teaches Clark about his responsibility) to convey the Judeo-Christian truth.
But there’s a definitively trinitarian view of Jor-El and Kal-el here, given the presence of Jor-El’s wife (Susannah York), when Kal-El’s chubby little face is preparing to take off in the rocket from Krypton:”You will travel far, my little Kal-El. But we will never leave you… even in the face of our death. The richness of our lives shall be yours. All that I have, all that I’ve learned, everything I feel… all this, and more, I… I bequeath you, my son. You will carry me inside you, all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father the son. This is all I… all I can send you, Kal-El.”
In John 14, Jesus explains it to Phillip this way: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him… Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”
Clearly, the screenwriters (and there were several of them) worked with Donner to continue the geschichte of the two young Jewish men seeking to depict their Messiah in the early versions of Superman in Action Comics. But the broadening of the vision to include those New Testament understandings of the Trinity.
But the two Superman films are clearly focused on the Christ figure, the one who would willingly sacrifice all for the good of others. And the one who would be tempted immediately following his “baptism” or the journey from Krypton to Earth. But Jesus, as he’s tempted in Luke 4 by the devil in the wilderness, contends with one figure offering him earthly respite, worldly power, and finally, full exploit of his power. Kal-El/Superman receives these temptations from two figures, Zod (recently freed) and Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), Superman’s greatest earthly enemy. Both of them tempt him to join them, to rule, to exploit others by his mighty power. But Superman, the Christian archetype, refuses.
I’ll openly admit that the scenes of Reeves flying aren’t as crisp after watching Avengers: Age of Ultron or the latest J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi flick (there are just so many of them…) But the story still gives me chills. The power of the words, and the presence of mind by Superman to make the decisions he does. Sure, Zach Snyder’s decision-making in Man of Steel is intriguing, but ultimately against character. Donner’s Superman is still best, brightest, and inspiring. It is that needed message of hope, both for us and for the future of the kingdom of God.
Superman here isn’t like us because he’s not us. Sure, he lives with us and experiences our choices, but he chooses to live differently. He choose love, non-violence, and pursues peace. He represents everything we say we want but fall short of so often. He is the role model we hope to follow, but he is also the ideal of something greater, wiser, more grace-filled. Donner’s Superman is Christ-like, not some cheap imitation, but close to the real thing in red and blue spandex.