American, Alien, or God?
Superman is the most American of heroes – and the most foreign. As the archetypal comic book character, Superman sets the standard for everyone else – the classic “white hat” who stands for “truth, justice, and the American Way.” While complicated “dark” heroes like Batman or outright antiheroes like the Punisher can be endlessly reinterpreted or deconstructed, there’s only so much one can do with the Man of Steel before changing the character entirely. To change Superman’s background and beliefs (as in Red Son) or create a thinly veiled “evil” Superman (as in Irredeemable) is to simply use the unchangeable core of the character as a launching pad for meditations on the ideas of identity, heroism, and culture. Superman is the American hero, and if he indeed ceases to be American, it is a powerful indicator that America itself has ceased to exist as a meaningful cultural identity. While that is happening, we’re not quite there.
At the same time, Superman is an alien – literally and figuratively. A creation of Jews, a foe of the Nazis who threatens the Führer with a “strictly non-Aryan sock on the jaw,” Superman is both an assimilationist and supremacist fantasy. On the one hand, Superman is raised in Middle America by patriotic, plain speaking rural folk with clean morals. The result is the flag waving “big blue Boy Scout” who in most canon stories voluntarily serves as a tool of the American government.
On the other hand, Superman is from an alien planet, living among, but not as one of the Americans. His strength and virtue are valued only insofar as they serve the ends of the American elite, as interpreted by the moral commissars of the Lower East Side. More moral, more enlightened, more powerful, and (often quite literally) above the goyim, Superman as Jew is such an obvious metaphor that the National Socialists were pointing it out 70 years before comic books became the basis of college courses.
In Snyder’s Watchmen, a character is quoted as having said, “The Superman exists – and he is American.” Later, the character corrects that what he said was “God exists – and he is American.” In Man of Steel, Snyder gives exists a Superman/God who becomes American.
Krypton is an “Aryan” planet in appearance (no non-white Kryptonians) organized along caste lines. The planet is quite literally collapsing, as the core has been hollowed out in the quest for resources. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is a scientist who alone has seen the catastrophe awaiting his people, and more importantly, has seen its root cause. The Kryptonians were a space-faring, expansionist people until they tried to take direct control over their reproduction. The result was a complete halt of all natural births, the end of expansion and space colonization, and cultural stagnation and death. Jor-El and his wife, as a final sign of hopeful defiance, give a natural birth to Kal-El, and send him to Earth to escape the death of their planet.
Man of Steel is predictably egalitarian in most ways. The villain is General Zod and his small team of military followers. Zod is utterly devoted to preserving the physical existence of his race. He launches a coup against Krypton’s failed leadership and plans to extinguish their bloodlines. He respects Jor-El but kills him for stealing the key to the “codex,” the genetic record of the entire people. Finally, when he is reawakened after his coup, he travels to all of the space colonies, looking for any sign of survival.
In contrast, Superman (Kal-El) seems eerily indifferent to the survival of his people. When he finds out who he is, where he comes from, and what is at stake, he seems oddly troubled at the prospect of racial renewal, prompting his adoptive Earth mother to blurt out, “Isn’t that [racial survival] a good thing?” After all, as his real father Jor-El notes, it is his position as an alien among the Earthlings that makes him a “god to them.” To become just another Kryptonian is in some sense to strip Superman of his destiny – to make him not a Superman at all.
As a young man, we see “Clark” reading Plato’s Republic. The Republic famously posits a caste system of specific classes trained to rule, with the enterprise overseen by a group of philosopher-kings. Each class is “bred” for its specific purpose and given an explanatory myth, fitting into an organic whole that is the “just” community.
Zod is the self-aware product of this kind of a system, with every action he has ever taken in his entire life justified on the grounds of the protection of his people. When Superman destroys his efforts, he destroys his very soul. Nietzsche wrote, “That which is falling should also be pushed.” It could be argued that Zod is simply trying to shock life back into a dead system. If we can still use the term “human” to refer to Kryptonians, it could even be argued that Zod isn’t human, but the product of a failed breeding scheme.
In contrast, Superman is given the power of choice, even defined by it. As the first natural born Kryptonian in centuries, Kal-El is not assigned a particular mission. His father outlines one for him – telling him that he will set an example for the people of earth to follow. They may stumble or fall – but he will pull them behind him. He can be a savior for them. Jor-El rejects his own people in favor of a messianic mission for another – “You can save them all,” he tells his son from beyond the grave. While Jor-El theoretically believes in choice, he dooms his son to a heavy responsibility, essentially demanding he accept his responsibility as a god.
However, “Clark” also has an Earth father, Jonathan Kent, who tells him that he doesn’t owe anyone anything, even basic morality. “You’re going to have to decide what kind of man you want to be,” he tells his adoptive son. Jonathan Kent knows he can’t physically discipline his son – he can only give the best moral teaching he can and force Clark to confront the awful responsibility of choice. When Clark uses his powers to save a school bus full of drowning children (including a boy who earlier bullied him), Jonathan Kent questions whether he did the right thing. When Clark indignantly asks if he should have let them die, Jonathon responds, “Maybe.” Lest he be accused of cruelty, Jonathan later sacrifices his own life to protect his son’s secret, allowing himself to be sucked into a tornado and with his last action silently commanding Clark not to reveal himself.
One key problem with the “Superman as Jew” analysis is that if Superman is an alien, he is defined by his rejection of his alien roots and his embrace of his folksy American upbringing. Religiously, it’s canon that Superman was raised as a Methodist, and in Man of Steel Kal-El turns to a Christian church for comfort and guidance in his moment of crisis. It is a minister who gives the advice he will ultimately follow, a “leap of faith” to trust humanity. General ZOG, er, Zod’s plan consists of pushing out the native inhabitants of a place in order to make it safe for colonization by a new people who feel it is their right and destiny to do so. Zod even explicitly rejects offers of human/Kryptonian coexistence, which would be a sacrifice on the part of the humans, not the Kryptonians. If Superman is a “Jew,” he is one who turns against his own kind, fighting to destroy the new program of interstellar Zionism.
Clearly, Man of Steel is not some deep anti-Zionist propaganda – Zod is an obvious stand-in for nationalism, hierarchy, militarism, and duty, all evil things that need to be destroyed by our modern democratic world. Superman stands with the weak, the victims, and the would-be dispossessed. Still, the overtly anti-white, anti-Traditionalism message should not disqualify Snyder’s attempt to create his own unique take on the Superman character – that of the White Christ, the Aryan warrior-god who commands compassion through fear, self-sacrifice through the selfish display of power. More than that, it is a god who insists upon the power of choice, who asks that we follow him along the path to godlike behavior. But what kind of behavior does this savior ask of us?
The White Christ
Jesus “meek and mild” is not the God of the European peoples. Nor is it the mysterious rabbi whose esoteric teachings were rooted in various obscure schools of Jewish mysticism. As chronicled in James Russell’s The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, Jesus was “sold” to the Germanic peoples as a warrior god, the dragon slayer, a more reliable guarantor of victory in battle than the treacherous Odin, who has his own agenda. After all, Loki charges the All-Father in the Lokasenna that he “oft has thou given to those whom thou oughtest not — victory to cowards,” and Odin doesn’t really deny it.
Christ as the Bringer of Victory in this world was the Savior figure of the Christianity that created the “Christendom” that launched the Crusades. It is the breakdown of this world-accepting, “pagan” Christianity that is leading to the deracinated, emasculated late American Christianity of today. In many ways, the egalitarian, anti-racist, world-denying, self-despising “faith” of liberal Christians and certain evangelicals is more faithful to the Jewish communitarian cult that was Christianity before its “Germanic” transformation.
It’s fairly obvious that Zack Snyder is deliberately giving us a portrayal of Superman as Christ – he admits as much. Superman is “literally Biblical,” in his view. However, Snyder’s Superman echoes the earlier, heroic Christianity – the all-powerful being still capable of suffering, the god intervening to save the fallen, the man slowly coming to terms with his divine nature. Henry Cavill’s Superman is almost comically Aryan – all chiseled features and overwhelming amounts of muscle. This is the literal portrayal of Christ as warrior that early Germanic portrayals favored and which survives in the paintings and murals of a White Christ that survive in churches to this day.
Like the young Christ, Cavill’s Clark Kent is aware of his awesome power (though a more physical kind of strength rather than debating Jewish law) but he restrains it. In one scene, he is being taunted but silently endures it – when he is finally left alone, he has crushed a steel bar with his hand as he struggles to hold himself back.
The mystery of Christianity (and the cause of much schism and bloodshed within the faith) is the idea God and Man are one in the person of Christ Jesus. In Nicean Christianity, He is in “being of one substance with the Father.” Obviously, if Jesus was God, he could have come down from the cross – He was even challenged to do so by the Jewish priests. However, Jesus had to suffer and die – and more importantly, freely choose this sacrifice – in order to the pay the blood atonement and absorb the wrath of God for man’s sins. The nature of this sacrifice was that mankind did not “earn” it – it was freely given of God to an undeserving people. Christ could only accomplish His mission through His destruction – and resurrection.
Snyder’s Superman also meets his destiny with a sacrifice. When General Zod arrives on Earth and tells the planet to produce Kal-El, only Lois Lane and his parents know who he is. Kal-El could have flown away or remained silent. Instead, he presents himself to the world, even allowing the military to go through the farce of handcuffing him “if it makes them feel more secure.” He then allows himself to be delivered to Zod and makes his choice to fight him. When his ghostly father (his consciousness preserved through technology) tells him that he can save Earth, Superman flies out of a spacecraft into position above the planet, his arms stretched outward as Snyder consciously replicates the pose of crucifixion.
However, Superman’s adaptation of his position as “savior” doesn’t come through passive sacrifice, but through combat. He brutally battles the Kryptonians in the streets of Metropolis, utterly annihilating the city in the process. When he disables Zod’s device to destroy the Earth, it requires him to use all of his power. More importantly, as Superman is fighting Kryptonians, he is essentially fighting his equals. There is no supernatural power that his sacrifice “unleashes” – he must achieve victory in this world, though physical force, and he can be defeated and killed despite his best efforts.
In the same way, those who fulfill Jor-El’s hope of “following” Superman do so not through dedication, but through physical acts of courage and self-sacrifice. A military officer originally skeptical of Superman later sacrifices himself to save the city, his dying words an echo of a Kryptonian’s earlier taunt – “A good death is its own reward.” Perry White “follows” Superman in his own way by working to rescue one of his reporters even though such an effort will most likely lead to his own death. The path to the divine this new Superman has for us (as laid out by Jor-El) is to sacrifice everything for the people around us, and so redeem ourselves.
The problem, of course, is that Superman can do extraordinary things precisely because he is Superman. The rest of us can’t fly, don’t have heat vision, and can’t shrug off bullets. The efforts of White and of the American military in the film would have been pointless and futile were it not for Superman’s godlike powers. Self-sacrifice is a noble creed – when the only things that can kill you are your fellow gods. Now that the Kryptonians have been defeated, what can possibly stand against Superman (besides, of course, other baddies from outer space)?
Furthermore, while Superman represents a creed of everyone sacrificing for everyone else, he’s not willing to live by the same rules as the rest of us. Understandably concerned about the godlike being flying around wherever he wants, the government uses a satellite to track his movements. Superman takes down the satellite, destroying millions of dollars worth of government property. He informs a military officer that he will help America but only on “my terms,” and that after all, he can be trusted because he was raised in Kansas. It’s a good thing no one ever raised in Kansas grew up to despise the country and inflict horrible consequences on everyone else.
Ultimately, how will Superman serve an example to the rest of the people? Through service to be sure, but service mixed with intimidation and feats designed to inspire awe. Superman’s moral code is to be followed because he is Superman and at a level of power and strength so far above us that he can compel it. What makes him a hero is that he also chooses to impose this responsibility on himself, despite his impulses. After all, if he did otherwise, he would simply destroy cities occasionally out of resentment of the ungrateful creatures he saves (as The Plutonian in fact does to Singapore during Irredeemable). But the threat is always there.
Just like the Christian God, Superman gives us the promise of salvation, but backed by the threat of force if we do not follow his suicidal code. It’s pretty clear what Superman would do if the American government did something that violated his sense of right and wrong – after all, the Superman never kills rule went out the window when he snapped General Zod’s neck.
Snyder’s Superman is a warrior-god, someone to intimidate us into following “the better angels of our nature.” More than that, just as in Christianity, Superman imposes (and shares) with us the terrible responsibility of choice, and the consequences that follow from making the wrong one. The idea of fate, of unchosen loyalties, or inherent natures are rejected – even Jor-El says he cannot go with his son because he is as much a part of the failed system as General Zod or Krypton’s incompetent leaders. The only exception of course is Superman himself – the god who has an entire race encoded in his DNA, who has power because of who he is rather than anything he did, and the only actor whose choice actually means anything, because he can compel everyone else.
Our people followed the White Christ because they understood the idea of fealty to a greater power, loyalty to the ultimate Lord who could promise victory in this world as in the next. Unfortunately, submerged beneath the warlike aesthetics and organizational power of the Church was the poisonous egalitarian universalist creed, which ultimately eroded the faith from within in a drama that is playing out all around us. This terrible contradiction set our people against themselves, and since the French Revolution (and arguably before) we’ve been tearing ourselves apart.
Snyder’s Superman is a White Christ who shares our struggles, understands our hatreds, and gives us victory in this world. However, ultimately, by serving as a superhuman enforcer of an egalitarian creed, he is not pulling humanity along, but holding it down.
Heidegger wrote that “Only a god can save us.” He may be right. But it won’t be this god – or the creed he asks us to follow.