The Superhero’s Mythic Journey:
Death and the Heroic Cycle in Superman

By Mark D. Stucky


1. Dir. Bryan Singer. Warner Brothers, 2006.

2. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

3. Dir. Richard Donner. Warner Brothers, 1978.

4. This paper is an analysis of the movie in terms of Campbell’s view of mythology. For an analysis of Superman as a Christ figure, see Anton Karl Kozlovic, “Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah,” Journal of Religion and Film Vol. 6, No. 1, April 2002, 6 Aug. 2005. He details a very large number of Bible-film parallels in this article and two later related articles. See “The Unholy Biblical Subtexts and Other Religious Elements Built into Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1981)” Journal of Religion and Film Vol. 7, No. 1, April 2003, 6 Aug. 2005. See also “The Holy, Non-Christic Biblical Subtexts in Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1981)” Journal of Religion and Film Vol. 6, No. 2, October 2002, 6 Aug. 2005.

5. The cinematography of the film also has distinct stages, from the ponderous scenes of blinding whites and inky blacks of Krypton and space, to the bucolic Norman Rockwell earth tones of Smallville, to the fast pacing and comic-strip primary colors of Superman’s suit in Metropolis.

6. This parallels Jesus’s words “I and the Father are one” in John 10:30. The film’s Creative Consultant, Tom Mankiewicz, said in an interview in the documentary Taking Flight: The Development of Superman, “On Krypton, I was intending it to be almost semi-Biblical . . . . The metaphor was clearly there when Jor-El sends Superman to Earth of God sending Christ to save humanity.” (Dir. Michael Thau. Warner Home Video, 2001.)

7. Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythic Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films (Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1999).

8. In Superman Returns, after astronomers discover the remains of Krypton, Superman does return there. His mission, taking five long years, is unsuccessful, however, since he finds only what he describes as a graveyard.

9. Campbell 326.

10. Cf. the discussion of servanthood versus domination in “The Piano and the Gospel of Mark,” David Rhoads and Sandra Roberts, Explorations in Theology and Film, eds. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) 47-58.

11. For water baptism as symbolic of death and resurrection, see Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:3-4.

12. This seems to conflict with his other admonition to “to serve its collective humanity.” Any service to humanity is inherently interference with human history, but perhaps it is meant as a prohibition to change time and reverse events that have already occurred.

13. In contrast, the most recent continuing incarnation of the Superman myth is the current television series “Smallville,” a much darker, more complex retelling of Superman’s origin. In one episode, Jor-El’s sinister message is that Kal-El was sent to conquer the Earth, not to serve it. In various episodes, teenage Clark rejects both his Kryptonian and Earthly fathers (but always reconciles with Jonathan Kent eventually).

14. Cf. Jesus raising Lazarus in John 11:38-44.

15. Cf. Campbell’s discussion (p. 319) of the problem of interpreting herohood as “predestined” (and with great powers) versus “achieved” (by hard but human work). Superman was “predestined” for his role on Earth, and his powers could never be “achieved” by other mortals. Yet, his character can be emulated.

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