'Man of Steel' Countdown: How Ancient Mythology Shaped Superman

'Man of Steel' Countdown: How Ancient Mythology Shaped Superman

Mar 26, 2013

Ancient myths from all over the world have shaped the modern way we tell stories, regardless of the presentation. What began as oral traditions turned into theatrical performances in ancient Greece, writing after the invention of paper, film and, of course, comic books. Joseph Campbell studied these traditions to form an objective framework that humanity has already followed throughout recorded history and explained how the “hero” shared so many similarities regardless of geography or time.

In the case of Superman, the hero is godlike or demigodlike. He was the first character of a new mythology that the world soon latched onto as "the superhero."

“Storytelling hasn’t changed that much since we were gathered around the fire at night. No matter what we do as people, there are challenges that are beyond us, beyond our knowledge, beyond our imagination. And that becomes the source of mythology, the source of religion, and the source and much of story.” –Paul Levitz (former president of DC Comics)

 

Creation

Superheroes are incredibly similar to the gods of ancient mythology. They have great strength and intellect, and are tasked with impossible feats with unlikely odds so that we can see them struggle and ultimately win. They even evolve for their audiences just as much as the storyteller’s decisions. In a few cases, like Thor or Wonder Woman, these gods are plucked almost directly out of old stories. Even Hercules appears in both the pages of Marvel and DC Comics. Superman can be compared to Achilles as a powerhouse leader to be reckoned with in battle, while Batman is more akin to Odysseus, who has no unearthly power, but uses his mind to get him out of even the most impossible situations. To learn about a culture, one needs only to look at the heroes it celebrates.

Heroes walk among us like the gods of myth, and for the most powerful ones like Superman, Wonder Woman or Thor, they strive to be like us, and even don second identities much like Zeus would, albeit for more altruistic reasons. Clark Kent serves many purposes, but for this argument, he is the connection that a human reader maintains with the demigod, grounding his or her understanding of him in mortal terms. For those who say Superman is unrelatable merely because he is so powerful and his weaknesses few, they need only look at the frail Clark Kent. Of course we know Kent is just as bulletproof as Superman, but that’s not the way the world he inhabits sees him.

Even the creation of Superman is akin to a modern myth of success in a post-Depression era United States. Two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, become successful by creating the single most popular and longest regular-running character worldwide in modern fiction. Yet even that success is a myth given that neither died rich and most people who love the character don’t even know their names.

The most obvious parallel to Superman’s creation is the biblical Moses story. The hero had just been born and was about to die, but was saved by biological parents who sent him down river in a basket of reeds, or from a dying planet, and arrived to be raised in a completely different world, only to learn of his true origins later in life after the new world and upbringing has already shaped his ideals. His history comes back to him when the world needs him and he becomes the hero of the downtrodden, just as Superman’s early tagline suggested: “champion of the weak and oppressed.”

Young Clark’s surrogate parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, became his mentors until he was ready to face the world as a whole. A common theme that Joseph Campbell presents is that the hero is called to an adventure, but before embarking, he must first refuse the call. Consider Luke Skywalker first telling Obi-Wan Kenobi that he can't go to Alderaan because his family needs him. The hero rarely begins wishing to be a hero, although that can work under some circumstances. This is something that was missing from earlier Superman stories because it was irrelevant. It was even glossed over in the first Superman movie in 1978 with Christopher Reeve. Clark discovered the green crystal that sent him out into the world, first by heading north to create the Fortress of Solitude and begin his hero training. The refusal to the call to adventure is purposefully out of order here because without the trigger of his mentor’s death with Jonathan Kent’s fatal heart attack, he would have had no reason to leave. Therefore when the call to adventure came, he had no reason to refuse. This is why one or both of his adoptive parents are usually dead by the time Superman dons his uniform, but that too depends on the continuity.

 

Interpretation

Even in modern religious parlance, no two denominations that celebrate the same holy book can completely agree on an interpretation. For example, when Catholics and members of the Westboro Baptist Church read the same Bible with the same words, they will decide for themselves what the words mean. Take that a step further and you have devout Catholics who disagree with doctrine, and it comes down to individual interpretation.

Rather than physical power, it is Superman’s moral superiority that makes his core so flexible for interpretation. It is just as easy for a political liberal to assume that Superman would be on his side as it is for a conservative. The same goes for how people interpret Superman from a mythological standpoint. After his death in Superman (vol. 2) #75 (January 1993) Jonathan Kent suffered a massive heart attack and briefly died in Adventures of Superman #500 (June 1993). He arrived in the afterlife where he met the soul of his son and convinced him to return to the land of the living. After several months, he was revived. Many readers conclude that this was Superman living the story of Jesus by way of death and resurrection.

Death and resurrection are common themes of the hero story, which is why it’s so silly to claim that Superman is the reason so many characters die and return to life in comics is because Superman did it first. By sacrificing himself in order to save others, he earned the right to return. This was true of Jesus, as well as Adonis, Osiris, Mithras and many others. It is an important part of the hero's journey, even though the death is sometimes metaphorical rather than literal. It still occurs constantly in modern storytelling. Look at Neo in the first Matrix who dies saving his mentor, but then immediately returns with much more power. There’s Harry Potter at the end of his story who earns a resurrection by allowing his necessary death. In the film version of Thor, the title character has to die in order to earn back his strength and weapon. This could go on and on.

Therefore, the interpretation that Superman’s story mirror’s the Jesus story is correct to a degree because it’s a common archetype. The interpretation is still left up to the individual, and both interpretations, despite being different, are inherently correct.  I asked writer Jerry Ordway about this during an interview last year. He wrote part of the death story, as well as Adventures #500.  He explained how there was never any intention on his part to turn Superman into a Christ figure, but that the interpretation is still valid regardless of a writer’s intention. These are common themes in storytelling’s history and opens itself up to many interpretations, all (or most) of which can be considered correct, even when they oppose each other.

Superman rarely talks about his religious beliefs, but in the '50s-'80s, he often exclaimed “Great Rao” when shocked by something. Rao was essentially the god of Krypton. Later in Adventures of Superman #494 (September 1992), he encountered a powerful being named Kismet who provided him moral guidance. Superman explained to Kismet that he “was taught the tenets of religion.”  Even though we can assume, based on his upbringing in Middle America, that he is describing Christianity, it simply isn’t stated because it doesn’t matter. Since Superman is all-encompassing and loved the world over, there’s no reason to pigeonhole him as having one distinct set of beliefs, especially when another writer can come along and say something different. It then hands that interpretation over the reader and allows him or her to decide in whichever way is most comfortable.

Obstacles

If a hero is only as heroic as his (or her) struggles make him, his antagonists must complement his strengths in order to create powerful opposition. For instance, Spider-Man’s powers are based on a spider, so many of his classic villains also took on animal traits: the Chameleon, the Lizard, Dr. Octopus, the Scorpion, etc. Batman as a psychological character needs psychological villains: the Joker, Two-Face, the Riddler, Scarecrow, etc. The Flash, who has only one power, fights mostly villains with one ability: Captain Cold, Heatwave, Weather Wizard, the Top, etc. Therefore Superman’s villains need to be able to take on what is essentially a god.

The arch nemesis is even trickier, and the ongoing nature of comic books means that of the myriad villains created, the biggest baddie of them all is often chosen by readers rather than created with the intention, but it usually turns out to be the most opposite or inverse to the hero. When the Green Goblin or Venom were introduced to Spider-Man, there was no telling that they would ascend to arch-villain statuses, but they complemented the hero and his struggles in such a way that readers latched on to them, making them more popular. The Joker is a vibrant anarchist to Batman’s dark and orderly world. Lex Luthor is an ordinary mortal with the intelligence to oppose even the godlike powers of Superman. He is smart enough to find ways to level the playing field, either by removing Superman’s powers with Kryptonite, or building himself up to a godlike level with inventions, robots and armored suits.  By the 1980s he became a millionaire who was more easily able to force others to do his dirty work for him and he relied on the rule of law.

General Zod is equal in power to Superman, but with an opposite morality. Superman values life and wants to help people while Zod is willing to “step on a few ants” in order to reach his personal goals. The hero will face even harder odds in Man of Steel where Zod will have ships, robots and at least one other equally powerful Kryptonian in Faora to keep Superman struggling. The hero has to reach a few specific stepping stones to finally win, but it’s the journey toward victory that becomes the story.

Civilizations revere their heroes because they wish to be more like them. Every bullied child wishes for the power to overcome oppressors. For fans of Superman, much like celebrators of Hercules, Harry Potter or Jesus, the desire for power exists, but they also serve to teach us why that power should not be abused. In some ways, it can give us insight to a story’s corrupted villain who uses power to enslave and trample on our ideals of society. The hero inspires us to be better than we are. That is the message of myth, and the basis of the hero story. 

How do you think the hero structure of human mythology will affect the story in Man of Steel?

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