by Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation
Writer Stephen Skelton, author of “The Gospel According To The World’s Greatest Superhero,” sees many similarities between Christ and the famous visitor from the planet Krypton. In fact, once Skelton kicks into gear in his enthusiasm, it is difficult to disagree with him. Skelton began our interview by speaking of the effect that the 1978 “Superman” movie had on him.
“More people today, when you ask them to picture Superman, will picture Christopher Reeve than even a comic book drawing. He owned that role, although I think Brandon Routh certainly has laid a claim to it.”
Skelton was just six years old during the Christmas season of 1978 when he viewed “Superman” for the first time. It had an immediate effect on him. Skelton, a TV producer and writer, having worked for Dick Clark Productions, and having produced Bible studies based on TV series such as “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” as well as the “Adventures of Superman” TV series, was drawn to the parallels between Superman and Christ, and it led to the writing of his book.
“It was very surprising to me to find out, from what people were saying to me, that there are parallels between Jesus Christ and Superman, and it was actually the Superman storytellers themselves that were saying it most loudly. It was the guys who had done some of the comic book stuff, and the television shows, the movies, even all the way up to the guys behind the new movie ‘Superman Returns.’ And what they were saying, to kind of paraphrase them all, is ‘Yes, we have based the Superman story on the gospel story on purpose, and we have fashioned Superman after the Christ figure intentionally.’”
Skelton believes that several factors prove the parallels between Christ and Superman exist and are intentional. “You have the Superman story, and you already have the endorsement of the authors. The Superman story line really goes something like this: From above a heavenly father (Jor El) sends his only son down to earth. When he gets here originally his earthly parents had the names Mary and Joseph. Mary was the first name of the mother and Joseph was the middle name of the father. Today we know them as Jonathan and Martha Kent. The boy will come of age and he will travel into the arctic wilderness. Superman will create the fortress of solitude, just as Christ went into the desert wilderness. And in both places there is a communing with the father.”
“Then at thirty,” Skelton continued, “Superman will emerge for his public mission. This is the same age in which Christ emerged for his public ministry– age thirty, because thirty was a significant age in the Jewish culture, the age of manhood. So within this new mission Superman will fight for truth and justice and these are two big biblical principles to base your actions on. He will, at a certain point in that mission, die, be buried and be resurrected. This happened in the 1992 comic book story line, ‘The Death of Superman.’”
Skelton went on to say that this particular comic book sold over six million comics, which not only made it the best selling comic ever, but in fact a best selling book. He went on to explain what happened when Lois found Superman’s tomb. “Guess what? The tomb is found empty. And her exact words are three sentences. She says, ‘Oh Lord. It’s empty. His tomb is empty.’” Skelton said he jokes with crowds at various speaking engagements that, “Obviously Lois had just come from her small group Bible study!”
He explained how “Superman Returns” fit into the allegory. “He will ascend into the heavens. And now he will come again. Bear in mind that the director of ‘Superman Returns’ has said, ‘Superman Returns’ is ‘about what happens when messiahs come back.’” Skelton had just interviewed the director, Bryan Singer, a few days before and, “He basically walked through the film step by step citing the Christic influences, the Christ story influences, in the new movie.”
Skelton gave a subtle example of this which takes place in the new film. “There’s one that happens at the very beginning when Superman crash-lands back to earth and stumbles out of the ship and falls into his mother’s arms and they collapse onto the ground. When I was looking at that image of the mother cradling the body of the son in her arms, and bear in mind you’ve got these spires from the ship—the ship has these kind of star-like points—there are three spires in the background that tower over this image of a mother that has fallen on the ground and is cradling the head of her son who has fallen on the ground. And when I saw that I said, ‘That’s the Pieta, the renaissance image of Mary holding the body of Christ,’ (A Michelangelo sculpture) and Singer said, ‘Yes it was.’”
Skelton said the screenwriter (Mario Puzo) for Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film has said, “When Jor El, the father, sends Superman to earth, that is clearly a metaphor for God sending Christ to save humanity.” Skelton further reflected, “Bear in mind this is not a Christian evangelical talking, but this is a Hollywood guy.”
“For the ‘Smallville’ television show, the director of the very first episode (David Nutter), said, ‘There are many parallels between Clark and Jesus actually, and I tried to throw in as many as I could.’” Skelton said he doesn’t know whether the people who make these comments are necessarily attempting to promote Christianity, but he believes, “They’re looking to tell the best Superman story, and so they’re drawing from the greatest story ever told.”
He continued to elaborate on the fascinating parallels which are found in the nearly seventy-year history of Superman, including an example from the 1978 Superman movie. “He gains the power to raise the dead to life. When Lois dies in the earthquake, what does Superman do? He flies up into the heavens and he flies around the world backwards, fast enough that it turns the spin of the earth backwards and that turns time backwards—it’s a movie, you’ll just have to go with it!—and then of course he sets the world right again and by the time he lands, Lois has been resurrected to life.”
He continued to speak of the chronological line of the Superman/Christ parallel by referring to the time following the 1978 movie, specifically the 1992 comic which dealt with the death, burial and resurrection of Superman, and then the new “Superman Returns” film, in which “you’ve got the ascension into heaven and then the second coming.” He elaborated on this theme as he referred to the “Smallville” TV series pilot.
“By the end of the episode they have put Superman on a cross. It’s an incredible little story line. It’s actually a replaying of the passion story—it’s really quite remarkable.” In the episode some bullies take the young Kent to a cornfield and tie him to a cross used for scarecrows, and they remove his shirt and paint the letter “S” on his chest, which refers to Smallville, but in this sense is symbolic of Superman.
When we asked Skelton about the response of readers of the comics and viewers of the various TV series and films to this parallel of Superman/Christ, he replied, “The response has been, by and large, great, in terms of people seeing this as an equipping tool where they can a have meaningful conversation with seekers and non-believers. It’s as easy as starting a conversation with, ‘Hey, hey, do you like Superman? Did you know the director of the movie said he based it on Jesus?’ It’s as simple as that. People are going to go, ‘Did you say the director said that?’ And there is the foot in the door. There is the start of the conversation that begins with Superman, but ends with a Super Man, Jesus Christ.”
He said that “those who just don’t see the comparisons don’t know the gospel story. They don’t understand why it’s significant that Superman comes from above—a heavenly father sends his only son down to earth. They don’t understand why in the new movie as well as in the 1978 movie that you hear the father (Marlon Brando) say, ‘They can be a great people. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. The reason above all, for their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.’ You and I would hear that and go, ‘That’s John 3:16.’ If other people don’t understand why that’s significant and the connection to the gospel story, then they won’t understand how Superman has been fashioned into a Christ figure.”
Skelton went on to say that he has a very good friend who, when he learned the Christ story was purposely included in the telling of Superman said, “That– right there– is more compelling than everything else you said before. I could dismiss everything else as your Christian perception. But you’re telling me the directors and the writers did it on purpose. Now, I can’t shake it. Now I have to go back and look at what they did again.” Skelton said, “What ‘Superman Returns’ did was it presented the image of Christ through symbolism. Symbolism often times speaks to the heart before it gets to the head.”
Skelton’s examples of symbolism seem inexhaustible, as he mentions the star shaped space ship which brought Superman to the earth in the 1978 film, and that it was a star which heralded the birth of Christ some two thousand years ago. He elaborated on the fact that both Clark Kent and Christ lived in rural settings and that Christ was a carpenter, and as a help to his farmer-foster parent, Clark Kent would certainly have carpenter-like skills.
Interestingly enough, Skelton also stated that Lex Luthor, the name of the villain, seems to be representative of “Lucifer,” and as Lucifer wanted to possess the world so does Lex Luthor in his schemes for land.
In conclusion, Stephen Skelton commented on how happy he was that he was put in contact with the “Superman Returns” director, Bryan Singer, only to learn that Singer was amazed how much Skelton’s book was headed in the same direction as the “Superman Returns” movie, long before the film was complete. In chapter fourteen of the book Skelton speculated on the film before it premiered, and he said, “We make that clear in the book. We say twice in that chapter—not once but twice that this is based on speculation. If you haven’t seen the movie and you don’t want the plot potentially spoiled for you, then go see ‘Superman Returns’ first and then come back and read this chapter. But at any rate, apparently—because I’ve seen the movie now—we did get it probably about ninety percent right.”
He said that it was announced at the recent San Diego Comic Convention that there is a strong possibility of another “Superman” film released by summer 2009. In fact, Skelton said Singer had three stories in mind, a “Superman” trilogy of sorts. Skelton no doubt will be found somewhere speculating about possible plot scenarios. In the meantime, he has his own website, www.EntMin.com where his book can be ordered, in addition to the Video Bible Studies based on former television shows. As a deeply committed Christian who also works as a writer and television producer, Skelton comes across as a bit of a super man himself. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that both his first and last names start with the letter ‘S.’