Superman Returns — as a Christ figure
Last night I spent an enjoyable two-and-a-half hours watching Superman Returns at a nearby movie theatre. I’ve seen some fellow filmgoers complaining at online message boards about the uneven pacing that mars the movie, its lackluster portrayal of Lois Lane, and a few other perceived weaknesses. I happen to agree with most if not all of these criticisms, but that doesn’t change the fact that on the whole I found the movie to be a fun and worthy continuation of or successor to the original series with Christopher Reeve, on which I was weaned.
But what’s most interesting to me, aside from the movie’s success as a crowd-pleaser, is that Superman Returns is chock full of Christ symbolism. And it’s not subtle, either. During at least one scene, I was struck with a sudden, distinct feeling that a more accurate title for the picture might have been The Passion of the Superman.
[Warning: plot spoilers follow!]
A simple list of the Christ elements, in the order in which they show up, includes the following:
- Operation 3:16 — In one of the many instances where the voice of Superman’s father speaks in his memory to offer wise counsel, it says the human race can “be a great people. 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.” Um, John 3:16 anybody? “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son. . . .”
- The call to ministry — When Superman and Lois are reunited for the first time in five years, she tells him, “The world doesn’t need a savior.” She has also recently written an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” for which she has been awarded the Pulitzer. So he flies her up to show her a God’s-eye-view of the city and region below, and tells her, “I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior. But every day I hear people crying out for one.”
- The scourging — Lex Luthor manages to create a dark, spiny, gothic-looking island laced with kryptonite. Superman lands on the island and of course loses his strength and invulnerability, at which point the movie turns into The Passion of the Superman. Lex’s henchmen beat, kick, and abuse Superman horribly as he writhes and cries out and crawls through brackish water. It’s a blatantly Christ-like scourging.
- Blood and water — After this, Lex stabs Superman in the side with a blade made of kryptonite.
- The ascension — Lois finds Superman and pulls the broken-off blade out of him. Before returning to take care of Lex and Co., Superman flies up above the cloud cover to absorb the healing rays of earth’s yellow sun, and the mythic iconography of his ascent into the heavens is a clear echo of Christian ideas about Jesus’ final ascension. (Oddly, this scene comes before Superman’s death.)
- The crucifixion — Superman carries Lex’s deadly island out of the atmosphere and hurls it into space. He then faints from injury and exhaustion and begins a slow fall back to earth, during which his pose is quite revealing: his head tilts back, his arms unfurl, and his legs and feet curve gracefully in tandem. It’s such a distinctly classical crucifixion pose that if you removed his cape and combed back that trademark curl, he would look appropriate hanging on the wall of a Catholic cathedral.
- Death and resurrection — He flatlines after being rushed to a hospital and then returns to life a few days later.
There are probably more of these to notice, such as the fact that Superman’s return might well be considered a Second Coming (although it occurs at the beginning of the movie). Oh, and also the fact that early in the movie somebody tells Lex Luthor that he (Lex) wants to be a god, and he denies it and says, “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind.” This type of thing just fascinates me, and I was glad to see it worked rather gracefully into the new Superman movie (“blatant” doesn’t necessarily entail “ungraceful”)
Finally, a few non-Christ-related things that interested me were the various changes of language and behavior that were obvious “updates” to make the movie fit into, and perhaps appeal to, 21st century Western culture. For example, Lois smokes in secret because her boyfriend/fiancee doesn’t approve of it. Who ever heard of somebody disapproving of smoking in the original Superman mythos, other than Clark’s mild chiding of Lois for her habit in one of the previous movies? The anti-smoking bias in the present movie carries the scent of contemporary puritanical political correctness.
When Perry White, the venerable editor-in-chief of The Daily Planet, holds a staff meeting to talk about the paper’s coverage of Superman’s return, he tells his reporters to find out “if Superman still stands for truth, justice — all that stuff.” The word on the street is that the filmmakers cut out “the American way,” which has always been the third item in that venerable list, in order to appeal to the international market. Or maybe it was to avoid alienating that market, which in the current political climate might amount to the same thing.
The language of the film is a little freer with mild profanity than anything that appeared in previous outings, and I think this represents a cultural sea change. Jimmy Olsen uses the term “pissed off.” Somebody says “Shit!” (although they only get out the “Sh–” before being interrupted). Lois drops her purse and bellows out an angry, euphemistic, “Freak!” And so on. Even this kind of thing would have been anathema in the past, in both the comics and the movies, not to mention the cartoons and television series. Today, language that was formerly considered taboo for use in general circles, at least in American culture, has edged into acceptance, largely under the influence of popular media culture and its boundary-pushing attitude that has held held firm since it first emerged in the 1960s. I’m not necessarily disapproving, by the way. I’m just observing.
So all in all, I found Superman Returns to be both an enjoyable superhero ride and an interesting cultural document. I hope it achieves the kind of financial success that will pave the way for a sequel, and I can’t often say that about a movie.