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Superman Returns resonates with creative Christology
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
Along with Star
and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the
original Superman, with its tale of
mythic good vs. evil and grandly nostalgic fantasy and adventure, helped define
the vibe of Hollywood
in its post-Easy Rider era.
Disaffected critics dismissed
these action-packed films as mere escapist spectacle, but they were infused
with something more. The Force represented an overt appeal to the idea of
religious mystery, of the numinous, of good and evil as more than human
categories. Raiders explicitly wove
Judeo-Christian awe of the sacred into a story in which evil is ultimately
defeated not by rugged action hero Indiana Jones, but by God himself.
and its sequel Superman II, drew on
the implicit Christological resonances of the comic-book tale of a father in
the heavens sending his only son to earth, a godlike being who becomes a kind
Yet it’s been nearly 20 years
since the last Superman movie, and the interim has seen a succession of darker,
grimmer cinematic super heroes: Batman, Wolverine, Daredevil.
This long absence is reflected in the title as well as the plot of Superman Returns, directed by Brian
Singer, whose two X-Men movies helped
resurrect the superhero genre after Joel Schumacher’s Batman sequels killed it.
An opening title reveals that it’s
been five years since Superman (Brandon Routh) was
last seen. The world has had to deal with not knowing when, if ever, he would
be coming back.
In fact, it turns out that, when Lois Lane (Kate
Bosworth) finally won that Pultizer Prize she was
always dreaming of, it was for an article headlined “Why the World Doesn’t Need
Superman,” presumably written to help herself get over the Man of Steel’s
“The world doesn’t need a savior,”
says Lois, who is not only living with her fiancé Richard (James Marsden), but also has a child out of wedlock. “And neither
do I.” In this cynical, jaded world, what place is
there for Superman?
Given the long lapse since the
last Superman film, Singer and his X2 screenwriters Michael Dougherty and
Dan Harris could easily have chosen to jettison the Reeve films and redefine
their subject from scratch, much as Christopher Nolan did in Batman Begins.
Instead, the filmmakers have
audaciously chosen to build upon the foundation of the first two Superman
films, while extending the Superman mythos into the 21st century.
Superman Returns echoes rather than retells the established story of Kal-El’s
Kryptonian origins, the death of his homeworld, his crash-landing on earth and upbringing by the
salt-of-the-earth Kents, his coming into his own at
his North Pole Fortress of Solitude, and his discovery of his destiny vis-a-vis Metropolis, the Daily Planet and Lois Lane.
From the rousing fanfare of the
familiar John Williams score to the comic-book opening credits, it’s clear that
Superman Returns means to be nothing
less than the film that Superman III
could have and should have been, but wasn’t.
actually better than that. Superman Returns
builds on and honors the strengths of its predecessors while gracefully
minimizing their weaknesses. Where the earlier Superman films were pioneering,
somewhat rudimentary efforts, Superman
Returns is a mature, fully realized film as accomplished as the best modern
comic-book films, Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2.
The overt campiness
and silliness of Gene Hackman’s Lex
Luthor is downplayed, though not eliminated, with the
brilliantly cast Kevin Spacey honoring Hackman’s
performance while giving Luthor a nastier,
harder-edged streak. Routh (rhymes with “mouth”), uncannily well-cast as Reeve’s successor
both for his looks and the timbre of his voice, likewise makes Clark a more sympathetically human, less comic figure
than in previous films. He brings a level of conviction to Superman that
is at least the equal of Reeve’s, without the hint of camp that crept into
Luther’s plot is not only even
grander, and much cleverer, than blowing California
into the ocean, but also builds logically on the previous films. It even
explains points that were previously unclear.
Superman Returns likewise takes a serious, intelligent approach to its hero’s established
powers, avoiding the sometimes whimsical, arbitrary stylings
of earlier films.
Superman or no, Kal-El can’t change the laws of physics and, when a Boeing
777 is hurtling from the sky at more than 500 mph, there are certain challenges
involved in stopping it without killing everyone on board, no matter how fast
you can fly or how strong you are.
Needless to say, Superman’s powers
are far more persuasively realized here than in previous films. But it isn’t
just a matter of visual effects. Superman
Returns succeeds in imagining
Superman’s powers in a way that goes beyond the earlier films.
When Superman soars into the upper
atmosphere and hovers there, surveying the world below with his super-senses,
we get a feel for just how far beyond mortal men Superman’s powers elevate him.
“You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior,” he tells Lois, “but every day
I hear them crying for one.” These are only some of the film’s resonances with
of religious themes, which also include redemptive sacrifice,
passion-crucifixion imagery and (as observed by Catholic critic David DiCerto after the screening) an echo of the empty tomb.
It’s impossible not to confront an
ambiguous chapter in Lois and Superman’s history. In Superman II, Clark gives up his powers and consummates his
relationship with Lois — before realizing what a disastrous mistake this is,
not only because Lois’ complicated feelings are as much about the “super” as
about the “man,” but also because the world needs Superman even more than Lois does.
To resolve this, Superman II resorts to two separate
instances of deus ex machina,
allowing Superman to recover his powers and “annul” his union with Lois by
means of an amnesia-inducing kiss.
Superman Returns finds Lois cohabiting with a decent guy with whom she is raising a child
out of wedlock. The film neither condones nor condemns this arrangement, though
it is possible to see the consequences of the choices made in the previous
Does the world need Superman?
Perhaps the best answer lies in the film’s single most haunting sequence, the
terrific rescue of the falling 777, with its unavoidable resonances with United 93. The days and weeks after 9/11
were marked by much talk of heroes and heroism. It is precisely when we are
confronted by the grimmest adversity that we are most acutely aware of the need
for heroism and heroes.
Of course our world needs Superman
— now more than ever.
Content advisory: Intense action sequences and some
strong violence; cohabitation and out-of-wedlock maternity.
Steven D. Greydanus is
editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.