Superman… What an Angel!
July 26, 2013 by dursinms
“Kneel before Zod!”
That’s General Zod’s timeless line from 1980’s Superman II, the one line that escaped the film and, like a criminal from the Phantom Zone, has invaded the pop-culture lexicon. What makes the line work (other than Terrence Stamp’s total ownership of the role) is this play on “Zod”/ “God.” Superman, of course, will never kneel before Zod… because he answers to a Higher Power.
Now, we all know Supe doesn’t belong to any specific church or order. He wears a big “S,”, not a crucifix or a Star of David. He’s a secular hero, not a sacred one. On the other hand… well, consider the following:
In 1988, back when Superman was a spry fifty-year-old (as opposed to the just-as-spry seventy-five-year-old he is today), writer Gary Engle published a piece entitled, “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Nifty title, for an equally nifty essay, chock full of intriguing insights– about the significance of flight, about Clark Kent’s “American heartland” values, about Superman’s status as an intergalactic immigrant.
But Engle’s most fascinating point (for me, anyway) is his observation that Superman, ultimately, is more than a bird, more than a plane, even more than America’s-greatest-hero-bordering-on-patron-saint. Superman is, in fact, an angel.
Engle uses a little etymology to make his case. As any Fan of Steel knows, Superman’s name on his home planet of Krypton is Kal-El. What’s not as well known is that his name was originally Kal-L, but writer George Lowther modified the name in 1942, in his novel The Adventures of Superman, the first novelization of a comic book. (Lowther also changed the names of Superman’s birth parents, from Jor-L and Lora, to the now-canonized Jor-El and Lara.)
Why is this simple change, from “L” to “El,” significant? As Gary Engle points out in his “So Darned American” essay, the suffix “-el” in Hebrew means “-of God.” He mentions many Old Testament names that end with “-el,” including Ishmael, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Samuel.
Engle then points out that many angels also have names that end in “-el,” including Raphael, Uriel, Gabriel and Michael, (My obsession with Paradise Lost really came in handy when I read that, as Milton includes all of those angels and more: Abdiel, for example, is the angel who initially joined the rebel angels but then re-joined the good guys. What’s interesting to me is the name “Lucifer,” Satan’s name before he fell from grace; just the fact that Lucifer does not have a name ending in “el” suggests that, even when he was in heaven, he is somehow different from the rest of the angels.)
A quick Wikipedia search confirms Engle’s assertion about the many members of the heavenly host who have names ending in “-el,” from Ariel to Zadkiel. Even Azrael was the name of a wicked angel long before he was Gargamel’s cat in The Smurfs. (Noticing that the the word “angel” itself ends in “-el,” I did some sleuthing; it turns out the word derives from the Greek “angelos,” meaning “messenger, one who announces.”)
But it’s not just his Kryptonian name, sayeth Engle, that reinforces this idea that Superman is an angel; his uniform also contributes to the whole seraphic package, especially his cape. Engle notes that Superman’s cape doesn’t have a clasp of any kind but is almost a part of him; the cape “hangs, when he stands at ease, in a line that doesn’t so much drape his shoulders as stand apart from them and echo their curve, like an angel’s wings.”
Initially, I didn’t necessarily buy this aspect of Engle’s argument. The “Kal-El” thing was convincing, but the “cape as angel’s wings” thing? Less so. But then I stumbled upon the following painting:
It’s Italian painter Guido Reni’s “Erzengel Michael” and it was painted in 1636, approximately 300 years before the birth of Superman. But check out what Michael is wearing: a skin-tight blue tunic with some sort of red capey-thing behind him. Look familiar? Here’s another painting
It’s Luca Giordano’s “Archangel Michael Overthrows the Rebel Angels,” painted in 1660. Once again, Michael is wearing a red-and-blue costume reminiscent of the earlier picture and in anticipation of Superman’s costume. (For what it’s worth: although Engle doesn’t say anything about these paintings in his “So Darned American” essay, he does call the archangel Michael “the one perhaps most like Superman.”)
Were the creators of Superman, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, fans of Italian art or otherwise influenced by these paintings when conjuring up their hero? Probably not. But the similarities in the costumes does make you wonder.
Superman can be compared to other religious icons. For example, some say Superman is like Moses. (Baby Supe’s escape from Krypton just before it explodes parallels the story of the infant Moses, whose mother placed him in a basket and sent floating in a river to escape the slaughter of the children.) Others compare Superman to Jesus Himself. (Both come from the heavens by their fathers to help save the world.) Me, I like the idea of Superman as a guardian angel, one who fights for justice, who looks out for the oppressed, and who never, ever kneels before Zod.