October 14, 2019

Jewish roots of the ‘Man of Steel’

Seventy-five years after bursting into the world of comic books, something still feels Jewish about Superman.

That’s not just because he was created by two Jewish teens from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, who debuted comic books’ first costumed superhero in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics No. 1.

From his Kryptonian name to biblical similarities, Superman and his story — which will be mined again for box office gold in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” opening June 14 — offered plenty to discuss during a June 2 panel discussion at the Skirball Cultural Center, “Superman at 75: A Jewish Hero for All Time”

The event featured Richard Donner, director of the beloved 1978 original film starring Christopher Reeves; actor Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen of TV’s “Adventures of Superman” (1952-1958); and Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Comics. Larry Tye, author of the 2012 book “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” moderated.

“Our program was just what I’d hoped,” Tye told the Journal a week later. “Having three of Superman’s most eloquent and passionate defenders, from three different generations, explain why they love him, and why the world does.”

The discussion came just as Warner Bros., parent company of DC Comics, the publisher of Superman comics, prepared to unspool yet another incarnation of that familiar tale about the Man of Steel. It’s the story of a humanoid alien — survivor of the dying planet Krypton — who arrives on Earth, where he gains superpowers from the sun, assumes the secret identity of journalist Clark Kent and engages in a love triangle with fellow reporter Lois Lane and, well, himself.

[Related: Six reasons Superman is Jesus in “Man of Steel”]

At one point during the Skirball event, Tye — fresh off a lecture tour that included Temple Beth El in San Pedro and Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills — asked the audience what religion Superman is. He answered that all faiths read their own interpretation of him.  

In his later conversation with the Journal, the Boston-based Tye discussed the Judaism encoded in the Superman mythos.

“The evidence of Superman’s ethnic origin starts with Kal-El, his Kryptonian name,” Tye said. “ ‘El’ means God. ‘Kal’ is similar to the Hebrew words for voice and vessel. Together, they suggest that the alien superbaby was not just a Jew, but a very special one; like Moses.”

Tye also sees parallels between the Torah and Siegel and Shuster’s groundbreaking creation, originally drawn on a breadboard the latter’s mother rolled her challah dough on for Shabbat. For example, he compares the superhero’s rocketship escape as an infant from Krypton to the story of baby Moses floating down the Nile in a basket in Exodus.

Larry Tye. Photo by Elisabeth Frusztajer

Even Superman’s “American” ideals are very Jewish.

“The three legs of the Superman myth — truth, justice and the American way — are straight out of the Mishnah,” Tye said. “ ‘The world,’ it reads, ‘endures on three things: justice, truth and peace.’ ”

“Man of Steel,” the cinematic version of the superhero’s story that flies into multiplexes this weekend, is already tracking to deliver a $100 million opening weekend, with Snyder’s interpretation of Krypton’s last son appearing to embrace the Siegel and Shuster era’s sci-fi roots.

But back in the ’70s, Donner said he initially balked at the script that arrived at his home with a Superman costume.

“I was brought up with Superman, and this was a parody of a parody of a parody,” he told the Skirball audience.

One scene, he said, involved Superman seeking the bald villain Lex Luthor, but the person he finds turns around revealing himself to be Telly Savalas, offering him a lollipop and quipping his trademark, “Who loves ya, baby?” 

Donner said his reaction was: “God! What are they doing? They’re destroying Superman!”

He insisted on rewriting the script, but his writing partner, Tom Mankiewicz, hung up on him the first time Donner told him the “perfect project.” After much convincing, Mankiewicz came to Donner’s house to discuss the project.

“In those days, I had a little bit of weed in the ash tray,” Donner recalled. “It was Sunday after all. I lit up and put on the costume.” 

He greeted Mankiewicz while wearing the outfit.

“I had to pull him out of his car, he wouldn’t get out!” Donner said, laughing.

After Mankiewicz agreed to the project, they knew what they had to do.

“This was sacrilegious,” Donner said. “You don’t mess with Superman.”

“Verisimilitude” became Donner’s buzz word: “It had to have a sense of reality,” he said regarding the secret to pulling off the movie’s mix of comic book action and humanity. “You could laugh with it but not at it.”

Johns said that the movie changed his life.

“I don’t think there would be any superhero movies [without ‘Superman’],” he said. “Everyone cites it as the birth of the modern superhero movie. It’s actually still the best.”

Tye said he is optimistic about the chances of this year’s reboot to outperform 2007’s lackluster “Superman Returns,” “even if [the star, Henry] Cavill, is a Brit playing an all-American hero, and even if Superman has, heaven forbid, stopped wearing his underpants on top of his tights.”

As for Superman’s late creators, they were famously cut out of the billions their creation raked in for Warner Bros. via comics, movies and merchandise, and spent their lives fighting in the courts, trying to right the lopsided work-for-hire contract they had signed. Last October, a federal district judge ruled that Shuster’s heirs had signed away their rights to Superman in 1992. Three months later, a U.S. appellate panel said Siegel’s heirs must adhere to the agreement they made with Warner Bros. in 2001, which made them give up claims to the character.

Tye believes he knows why Superman, as his book’s title suggests, continues to entertain and inspire.

“He is neither cynical like Batman nor fraught like Spider-Man,” Tye explained. “For the religious, he can reinforce whatever faith they profess; for nonbelievers, he is a secular messiah. The more jaded the era, the more we have been suckered back to his clunky familiarity. So what if the upshot of his adventures is as predictable as with Sherlock Holmes? The good guy never loses. That’s reassuring.