A New World of Gods and Superheroes

X-Men: Apocalypse and Batman v Superman both blur the line between gods and superheroes, and we examine how they aren't the first.

This article contains X-Men: Apocalypse spoilers, as well as some for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

There must be something in the water these days, because the spinners of big screen superhero yarns have recently led an exodus in their genre away from the quaint world of caped crusaders and masked marvels. Rather than focus on the ink and lettering that inspires almost every other blockbuster these days, superhero movies increasingly look to read between those printed lines and Ben-Day dots in search of something grander, more spiritual, and ultimately godly. From Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill’s Superman almost meeting his own Lance of Longinus demise at the hands of Pontius “Batman” Pilate, and still nonetheless being martyred on the cross later, to the X-Men for all intents and purposes battling the most cynical reading of the Old Testament God in a film called Apocalypse, superhero movies have gotten biblical—to the point where perhaps James Whale’s own subversion of monotheism in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) got it all wrong.

Indeed, Dr. Pretorius should never have bothered toasting to a new world of gods and monsters, not when the actual 20th and 21st centuries’ American culture would become so wrapped up in one of gods and superheroes. Still, as easy as it is to look at these two recent films (as well as the coming multiplex baptism in LSD spirituality that is Doctor Strange) as something new with their lofty pretensions, in many ways it could be argued that the trend to seek God in a comic book has been inside the superhero’s DNA since the very beginning.

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Beyond the Superman

On the off-chance that you never took a “Philosophy 101” course, it should be noted that the term “Superman” does not come from comic books; rather, it is an arguably poor translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous “Ubermensch” concept. The Ubermensch, which more accurately translates to English as the “Beyond Man,” was introduced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in the first part of the philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which was published in 1883.

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In the most basic and rudimentary sense, the “Superman” was a being and ideal of human perfection, as defined by Niezsche, that all could aspire toward becoming (or birthing) in place of God or religion. Famously, these are also the tomes where Nietzsche endlessly recapped why “God is Dead,” because Nietzsche saw the concept of God as pointless in the modern industrial age of the late 19th century, which had outlived the “Sklavenmoral” (slave mentality) of meek early Christians.

From Nietzsche’s vantage, God was essentially created by humans as a supernatural coping mechanism that could give purpose and meaning to life for those too cowardly to seek self-improvement. This was acocmplished by canonizing virtues of the weak while promising a better world after death. But now, Nietzsche suggested, the concept of God had become antiquated as humanity moved past the Christian need to suggest goodness comes from the other-worldly where those you dislike will be punished in hellfire.

Ergo, with the demise of the God concept, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra decreed that the coming of an Ubermensch could take the place of Christianity by giving man purpose and reason to be moral while avoiding inclinations toward nihilism. Instead of accepting your dissatisfaction with this world—which longing for God’s Heaven after death could be interpreted as—anticipating the Ubermensch would require each individual to work toward the best elements and virtues of our world and humanity’s self-worth.

He’s basically a mythical messiah based on expectation from one’s self, giving a noble goal to realize your potential in all actions, even in marriage since it’s suggested that women should look for husbands that might birth an ubermensch. As an aside, this rather rose-tinted vision of eugenics became a handy-dandy piece of pseudo-intellectualism spread by the Nazis in their quest for Aryan supremacy. However, even before that, it inspired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of the first printed superhero, Superman.

By the early 1930s, the term “Superman” became synonymous with the Ubermensch ideal thanks to Pygmalion playwright George Bernard Shaw, who in 1903 published the play Man and Superman. This translation carried over to the second English language version of Zarathustra by Thomas Common in 1909. Hence, in pop culture circles, Superman had a meaning that was still being debated for its merits and practicality. Perhaps just fancying the name, Jerry Siegel wrote a story entitled “Reign of the Superman” in 1932, five years before National Periodical Publications published Action Comics #1.

In his original visage, which was illustrated by friend Joe Shuster in 1933, “Superman” was a bald megalomaniac more akin to Gene Hackman than Christopher Reeve. Initially just a hobo named Bill Dunn trying to survive the Depression while in the bread line, Dunn is gifted with superhuman perfection by a mad scientist named Ernest Smalley. Enjoying his telepathic powers, Dunn/Superman murders his creator and schemes to use his superpowers to take over the world. However, the superpowers soon fade away, and Dunn is again just another schmuck resigned to have his hand out.

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A bit more of a commentary on the Ubermensch ideal than what what would become Superman in 1938, it could be argued Siegel and Shuster showed contempt for the idea of a super-being, who would in the absence of God consider himself to be worthy of replacing a deity as the benchmark of human existence.

And yet, by creating the archetypal superhero in Clark Kent/Kal-El, they offered what is arguably a new kind of mythology devoid of religion in the 20th century (and now 21st century cinema). For soon, their Superman would be seen as the gold standard of a burgeoning genre where children were asked to aspire to act like beings with godlike powers, all while these deities eschewed the demands of worship and conformity that comes with reading ecumenical texts. But of course, for millions of the most fervent fans, worship followed nonetheless.

A Christmas Story (in Space)

In all honesty, it requires a great deal of reaching to look for specific allegories of an ecclesial bent in Siegel and Shuster’s Superman stories. The sons of Jewish immigrants, at best it could be argued Superman is the immigrant fantasy of coming to America from a faraway home with few (if any) relations, and dominating in the culture by literally flying above them. However, there could be some obvious overlap between the Superman origin and the Hebrew one for Moses found in the Book of Exodus—where to escape a babe’s annihilation, a mother places her child in a basket (or rocket ship) and sends him to a place of opulence and opportunity where he would live with “others” while never being one of them in an Egyptian palace (read: America).

However, anything overtly Jewish in Superman’s backstory was abandoned over the next few decades until we ended up with Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, a biblical epic where God looked like Marlon Brando in a glorious wig, and Jesus was as all American as six feet of blue eyes, a squared jaw, and a nondescript Midwestern accent. Indeed, Superman: The Movie treated its material as earnestly, and bombastically, as how Hollywood recounted other messiah tales in their most grandiose of Biblical Epics of yesteryear, such as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and King of Kings (1961). Opening on leisurely shots of the planet Krypton (or as Brando pronounces it, “Kryptin”), the man who was considered the greatest living actor in the world oozes regal authority even when he is half-asleep on the job. Brando literally takes on godlike attributes by not only sending his only son Kal-El to Earth in an attempt to save him from apocalyptic destruction, but to also inspire and save humanity from itself.

Intones Brando with a majestic monotone, “They could be a great people Kal-El if 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.”

Putting the weight of human enlightenment on Kal-El’s shoulders, Brando’s Jor-El has sent his son to Earth to save us all from our petty weaknesses. While Donner does not go so far as to suggest Superman will die for our sins, he makes the godlike power Superman enjoys, and the mandate he has from his space dad, implicitly supernatural when Kal-El flies into the sky in an attempt to disobey his father’s edicts. Despite being long dead, Jor-El’s face appears in the clouds to order his son toward a more divine purpose.

In many ways, Donner also (unintentionally) turned Superman into Nietzsche’s actual Ubermensch since the superhero was now the pinnacle of human potential, and like God he would teach us to be better and more moral in our increasingly secular world, without offering carrots or sticks about paradise and punishment in an afterlife.

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Both Christian and secular purity in one, this would be taken to wildly more literal interpretations in the coming decades on both the comic page and screen, including in Bryan Singer’s unofficial sequel, Superman Returns. That 2006 film literalizes the Christ metaphor since the human (and very Kevin Spacey) Lex Luthor tries to destroy Jor-El’s only son by stabbing him in the side with a kryptonite shiv—exactly in the spot where Christ’s skin was pierced by the Holy Spear in the New Testament.

While Singer’s Superman didn’t actually die, he was brought low by a human who mocked his ability to no longer fly when he bled water from his side. And even more literal connections between Christ and superheroes in 21st century America would come later…

The God Who Watches and Doesn’t Care

Still, this mingling of deification and superheroism was not explicit in the comic book industry until Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal 1986-1987 series, Watchmen. Later collected as a 12-chapter graphic novel, this iconic work took its name from Roman poet Juvenal’s amusing little insight about the guards that wealthy Roman patricians employed to keep seducers away from their wives: “Who watches the watchmen?”

Moore and Gibbons applied that cheeky bit of cynicism to the American myth of the superhero, marking Watchmen as a deconstruction of the comic industry’s bread and butter. But by extension, it could be applied to all versions of American mythmaking, such as manifest destiny and rugged individualism—as well as governments and the God these institutions supposedly bow down to.

In Watchmen, the only actual superhero in the most literal sense is Doctor Manhattan, a second generation would-be do-gooder who in classic Marvel fashion is exposed to radiation from a science experiment gone wrong. But rather than turning into a green monster or sticking to walls, Doctor Manhattan becomes more divine than even his Kal-El analogue: the now immortal Doctor Manhattan has the ability to view existence from the fifth dimension while simultaneously being able to affect it in any way he chooses since he controls matter at an atomic level… yet, he is also doomed to not influence a single thing since he can see all of time and space at once and is aware of how all events are predestined.

Enjoying superpowers does not allow him to be a model for mankind’s better secular angels in the world, but rather makes him distant and despondent—eventually uninterested in the survival of humanity since man and insect become interchangeable. In the meantime, he transforms into a false idol for world leaders to hide behind as U.S. President Richard Nixon invokes this being’s powers to win the Vietnam War in 1971, which drastically changes the course of world history. Nevertheless, and like the deities that world leaders pray to as they push the red button, Doctor Manhattan is ultimately ambivalent and abandons the U.S. in 1985, leaving its government to scramble since their entire Cold War strategy was based on the belief of divine intervention.

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Thus Doctor Manhattan becomes Moore’s vision of God: a bored and ultimately ineffectual higher power that muses, “In my opinion, the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon.” The Western need to believe in supermen among us is every bit as dangerous as believing in God to Moore, who views both as flawed and untrustworthy sorts, be they caped, draped in an American flag, or a greater power so all-knowing that our actions and choices in His presence are consequently meaningless.

It’s a dense, cynical, and fairly depressing work. Zack Snyder adapted it to film in 2009 as literally, and turgidly, as possible. But its influence on our current superhero movie craze is more explicit in what Snyder did next.

The Passion of Zack Snyder

After slavishly adapting Watchmen into something resembling a film, Zack Snyder got the chance to helm the genesis of the DC Extended Universe, and truly gathered the long history of religion mixing with superheroes to combine all aspects into his first two Superman films: Christ allegories; direct allusions to Nietzsche’s “Superman;” and Alan Moore’s cynical, deconstructionist view of the whole blasted fantasy. Some would argue blending all of this together was a bad idea.

They were right.

Man of Steel, and particularly this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, hit audiences over the head with parallels to biblical and philosophical texts. For Man of Steel, it was more muted as Snyder returned to the Christmas story parallels Donner entertained in his own Superman origin film, albeit with more direct imagery, such as Russell Crowe’s Jor-El telling his only son, “You can save [Lois], Kal. You can save all of them,” before pushing his son into orbit above the Earth, allowing the little messiah to make a Christ-like pose with his arms outstretched. The irony that he fails to save about 20,000 lives in the film’s climax is subsequently and completely lost on the film.

But in Batman v Superman, the need to muddle this with Watchmen influences and the hum of cable news talking heads arguing about whether Superman is God gilded the lily… and then drowned it. This also extends to even Lex Luthor’s motivations since he reveals himself to be such a passionate atheist for whom the mere thought of Superman is an affront to his disdain for a supreme being. Apparently an avowed skeptic after his father beat him (or worse) as a child, Lex came to the conclusion that God is not all-powerful, for He would not let bad things happen if He were, or He is not all-good, for then he is allowing evil to exist. Ergo, Lex hates God, and because Superman is literally treated like God (or Jesus) in Batman v Superman, Lex feels compelled to destroy him!

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He is also not alone since Ben Affleck’s Batman is just as disgusted by Superman’s presence and tries to slaughter the hapless messiah with a literal kryptonite spear, just like any good Roman legionnaire. While he eventually sees the light about Superman, this version of Kal-El still dies to save us from Doomsday, and is only worshipped by the humans who could never understand his benevolence after he is dead. Admittedly, this death is adapted from an equally New Testament-obsessed Superman comic story from the 1990s, but it wasn’t good then and it’s worse now since Superman died after being on the job for less than two years.

And most blurring of all, the movie is not convinced of Superman’s own godlike altruism. The picture treats him like Jesus and Nietzsche’s ideal (he even now comes from a planet built on eugenics, just like many interpretations of the German philosopher’s writings), but this is diametrically opposed to the Christ metaphor since the Ubermensch was created to be a replacement for God and religion.

One could even surmise that Snyder—a proud fan of Ayn Rand who wants to re-adapt The Fountainhead to the big screen—does not even subscribe to the whole “altruism” thing that Superman (or Jesus) is meant to represent. Purportedly, Snyder sneaked a copy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged onto Batman’s bookshelf in the film, and since Batman beats the living snot out of Superman in the film’s climax, it is believable that Snyder would endorse the worldview Batman espouses while delivering the epic smack down: “This world only makes sense if you force it to.”

In that context, superheroism, or godliness, is for suckers just like Moore suggested in Watchmen, albeit for very different reasons. Moore believed God is uncaring; Snyder has simply made a half-baked, underserved, and incomprehensible mismatch of ideas in a stab at supposed depth.

If Superman is a rube for seeking to help others, as Rand would likely argue—as does Ma and Pa Kent in the film since Kevin Costner helpfully explains that when he tried to save his farm from a flood, he accidentally drowned his neighbors’ horses—then his Christ-like sacrifice is pointless.

“An End of All Flesh”

Yet, perhaps the most pointed correlation that we have seen in a superhero movie to date between superpowers and the power of gods was in this summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which looked to turn what is arguably a caricature of the Old Testament God into its titular supervillain.

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Just to be clear, Apocalypse in this film is not a god but rather, if you will, a false prophet who wishes to be deified like one. Hence why he must swap bodies to live through the millennia until he finds a mutant with eternal youth (apparently in 3600 B.C.) and also why he could be defeated by the Phoenix inside Jean Grey—who herself is often described as being a god in the comics (but that is another discussion, which you can read here).

However, just as much based on the Marvel Comics supervillain, the fiend played by Oscar Isaac is constructed to present himself quite literally how ancient Abrahamic deities might. In the very first trailer, Apocalypse introduces himself by saying, “I’ve been called many things over many lifetimes, Ra, Krishna, Yahweh.” While taking credit for being falsely identified as Egyptian and Hindu deities, Isaac’s Apocalypse is most clearly modeled after a rather negative view of “Yahweh,” the earliest name for the Hebrew God.

By refreshingly ignoring the Christ metaphors, which walk hand-in-hand with Superman movies and every other fantasy these days, director Bryan Singer would appear on the surface to be offering a critique of the Christian and Jewish God’s angrier early years.

After all, this is a God who smote Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone for perceived debaucheries and drowned the entire world in the Book of Genesis, killing every man, woman, child, and beast who was not permitted on Noah’s Ark. As reads Genesis 6:13, “And God said unto Noah, ‘The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.’

Later in the Book of Numbers, God would slaughter 14,000 Israelites with plague for griping to Moses about being tired of God taking so many of their loved ones. As reads, Numbers 16:44, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Get away from this assembly, so I can put an end to them at once.’ And they fell facedown.”

The Oscar Isaac Apocalypse has a similar way of dealing with people. When Magneto decides that he wants revenge for the death of his family by killing a room full of men who ratted him out to the local authorities, Apocalypse materializes as if out of thin air and with the flick of his wrist, a dozen men collapse into dust. And like the Old Testament God, Apocalypse is depicted as a vengeful, jealous deity. After all, the First Commandment is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

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Hence when Apocalypse awakens in 1983 to discover the Cold War is in full swing, he is outraged and wants control of both superpowers’ nuclear arsenals—but not to destroy the world. Nay, Apocalypse is infuriated that the people of Earth worship the nuclear power of the United States and the Soviet Union as “superpowers.” So when he takes control of Charles Xavier’s telepathic mind, he chooses to use it to force all international militaries to launch their nuclear weapons toward the heavens and into space, unilaterally creating a world without nuclear weapons… or a superpower.

It is preposterous and honestly, the only truly impressive moment where Isaac is allowed to channel the biblical menace and gravitas one imagines the screenplay is reaching for. Purring with delight as he disarms the 20th century of its false idols, Isaac bellows above Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, “You can fire your arrows from the Tower of Babel, but you can never strike God!”

That pretty much sums up the vanity and malice at the heart of Isaac’s creation, and why he would seek to combine Magneto and Xavier’s powers to destroy all the monuments, cathedrals, and human progress built in the 3,500 years while he slumbered—if it’s not in his own image, it will be dust.

Whether this is an accurate interpretation of the Old Testament God, I’ll leave up to you, fine readers. But it crystallizes a cultural conflict that has been embedded in superhero stories from their genesis: a battle between the ancient world’s idols and our modern ones, with the X-Men’s secular Jean Grey/Phoenix realizing her full potential by melting away the rigid dogma of the past.

I imagine that Nietzsche would approve.