“You know there are only three things that sell newspapers,” Perry White (Frank Langella) practically shouts at reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in director Bryan Singer’s new film about the Man of Steel: “Sex, tragedy, and Superman!”
Superman Returns, while showing no sex (but implies a one night encounter between Superman and Lois before he left five years earlier), delivers intense action and impending human and environmental tragedy, and brings audiences a new iconic image of a gentler Superman/Clark Kent transformed by the power of love.
Why the World Needs Superman
After a long absence Superman (Brandon Routh) returns from a search for his home planet, Krypton, that he found was truly destroyed. He returns to earth in fire. His “mother” Martha (Eva Marie Saint), driving the same old truck, comes to find him in the same field. Clark remembers his childhood when he discovered his super powers, and hears again the words of his father Jor-El (archived footage of Marlon Brando):
“Even though you've been raised as a human being you're not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El; 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.”
Superman’s return is well-timed because Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison since Superman failed to make his court date to testify against him. Luthor gets a rich old woman to sign her fortune over to him on her death bed and with his goons and his moll, Kitty (Parker Posey), he sets out to build a new continent that will displace North America and other countries and land masses. He has melded the crystallized elements of kryptonite stolen from a science exhibition and crystals he stole from the Arctic where Superman used to go to commune with his father. Kryptonite is the only thing that can kill Superman. Luthor’s technological and elemental power-surge, if successful, will kill billions of people.
Clark gets his old job back at The Daily Planet. Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) is thrilled to see him. Clark is startled to learn that Lois has a five year-old son named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). She is living with Richard (James Mardsden), an editor, but won’t marry him. She is to receive a Pulitzer Prize for her article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” and is stymied because White now demands she write one titled, “Why the World Needs Superman”. (“Don’t worry,” he tells her, “no one will notice. Pultizers are like the Academy Awards; after a while no one remembers what you got it for.”) The first day Clark gets back, Lois, and a whole plane full of reporters, must be rescued because of Luthor’s machinations. The rescue is beyond spectacular.
A Theological Reading of Superman Returns
Many believers who have reflected on the 1978 film Superman: The Movie (that starred Christopher Reeve) noticed that it provided imaginative and plausible parallels with the Gospel. It seemed to have been written “with attention to both the theology of the Incarnation and the words of St. John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18) about the relation of the Son to the Father,” according to Lights, Camera… Faith: A Movie Lectionary, CycleA by Peter Malone, MSH and myself. We assign Superman: The Movie to dialogue with the readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas.
Christian fans of The Movie will be happy to see that Superman Returns continues even more clearly to develop those Gospel parallels, moving from the mysticism of St. John’s Prologue into the reality of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus as recounted in John 18-20 (see readings for Good Friday or Easter Sunday). Without stretching the metaphor too far, Superman is a Christ-figure, that is, a character that embodies some aspects of the person and mission of Jesus, but with some flaws or imperfections. (In contrast, a Jesus-figure is an actor who actually plays the role of Jesus in films, such as Robert Powell did in Jesus of Nazareth in 1977 or Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ in 2004.)
Luthor is a parallel to Pontius Pilate or even Caesar, and his guards torture Superman and gamble at cards. He is also diabolical and dark, and everything he touches is ruined, shrouded in thedestructive forces of wind, rain, and fire, and colored with doom. The events in the film do not synchronize perfectly with Jesus’ life, but no matter. Superman, who has saved so many, must in turn be saved, and it is the love of a woman and a child that transform him when he takes the weight of the world on his shoulders. Superman’s side is pierced for humanity and his resurrection is magnificent. The Daily Planet staff, like the evangelists and witnesses of Jesus’ life, writes down everything they have seen and heard.
Three female characters stand out in Superman Returns. Lois is the love interest, and the question of whose son Jason is begins to emerge early on. Lois’ relationship with Superman is very romantic, and the proof of their love is their willingness to make sacrifices for one another. (This aspect of the plot is one Dan Brown would like; Superman’s super hero powers seem to be genetically transferable and he is interested in a lasting relationship.) Kitty, whom Luthor treats as if she were a poodle, lets herself be used at first, but when the moment comes, she, like the faithful women of the Gospels, becomes a hero. Finally, there is Martha, Clark Kent’s foster mother. She always believes in him, loves completely, waits, is steadfast, and never falters. Martha lets Clark be the man he has been called and sent to be.
Jason is the little child who leads the grown-ups on their quest and slowly becomes aware of who he is.
Sister Madonna Janet, FSP who came to the screening with me, said that some images of Superman hovering over the world reminded her of Salvador Dali’s masterpiece “The Christ of St. John”. “When Martha finds her son in the field,” Sr. Madonna also observed, “she holds him as Mary did Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pieta’.” To me, Superman seemed at times like an angel that brings news of salvation and a message of hope for the future, a symbol of God’s nearness to humanity.
Reading the Film
Bryan Singer has directed an engrossing pop culture film with high entertainment – and inspirational – value, sprinkled with light humor. Superman Returns was effectively written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, based on a story they developed with Singer using characters from the original DC Comic Books created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Here, the action is non-stop, the special effects are over the top and Superman’s feats unbelievable - but by the time we realize this, we have suspended belief and entered into the world of Metropolis and the lives of a small group of people we care about. The scene at the baseball stadium makes Spider-Man’s train-stopping heroics look feeble. If there is one glaring flaw in the film, it is the lack of ethnic diversity in the cast. Metropolis is a very white world; most cinematic universes today are populated with a real cross-section of humanity. It is also noteworthy that the familiar "Truth, justice and the American way" has been amended to "Truth, justice ... and whatever..." (or something close to this.)
Brandon Routh succeeds as Superman, mostly because he does not try to be Christopher Reeve, who for many of us was Superman, or even George Reeves of the 1950’s television series that I really liked as a kid. But Routh is almost too geeky as Clark Kent and he has really bad hair (Jason has inexplicably bad hair as well), but as Superman his hair is almost plastic perfect. Clark does not know how to be a regular guy and though his co-workers question his identity, his artificial demeanor never seems to enter their heads.
Superman’s physique is chiseled and his facial features so flawless that I wondered if his face was computer-generated. But you get used to it because his is a kind visage – and very easy on the eyes. Routh never goes beyond the gigantic role he has been given, and flies with humility through the concrete canyons of Metropolis where great men have gone before him. Image-wise, there are several iconic visuals of Superman that are so deliberately crafted that they made me laugh. Others inspired. In the end the movie was so entertaining I just went along for the ride.
For reasons I will not go into here Lois never gets her Pulitzer. As the film concludes she is more than willing to write why the world needs Superman, indeed, a savior. Comic books and science fiction aside, that never changes.