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.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on June 29, 2006, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Grumpy Teacher

    Wow, how interesting. I haven’t seen the movie yet. I suppose that I need to.

  2. As I’m sure you gathered from my comments, I would indeed endorse it for your viewing, Grumpy Teacher. I think you’re somebody who would notice and appreciate some of the same kinds of things that I did.

  3. The Matrix also had its share of christ icongraphy, lol

    I enjoyed Superman Returns, sure there were problems, but if you notice not everyone had the same problems with the same things, though some did. The pacing was pretty bad, but you have to admit, the first time Supes appears and that score starts, damn, that’s just awesome.


  4. Thanks for the comment, Thomas. Yes, THE MATRIX had more than its share of Christ symbolism, didn’t it? Not to mention a veritable truckload of other biblical elements as well, plus a whole lot of overtly Buddhist and Hindu-flavored philosophical ideas, along with a goodly smattering of classical mythological references. I absolutely love that movie. It’s combination of truly awesome (not to mention cool beyond belief) martial arts action, a brilliant cyberpunkish and anime-influenced plot, and a spiritual-philosophical depth that not only holds up to extended scrutiny but positively benefits from it, is unlikely to be matched by, well, almost anything. Not even by the two godawful sequels which, if such were possible, almost maimed the memory of the first one.

    As for the scene in SUPERMAN RETURNS where Superman returns, I agree that it’s wonderful. In fact, it probably stands out in my memory more than any other scene in the movie. The shot framing, CG effects, pacing, editing, and musical score are of course expertly accomplished, but what I was most impressed with was the way the filmmakers nailed the emotional tone so perfectly in the aftermath of the jetliner’s crash. Coming on the heels of the roller-coasterish crash scene, the sudden mood of awed, reverential silence in the sports stadium when Superman enters the jet’s cabin, speaks to the passengers, and locks gazes with Lois, is riveting. And of course there’s the gratifying emotional payoff when the scene climaxes with Supes emerging from the jet to be greeted by an explosive cheer from the ecstatic crowd. Even as I was watching it, I realized that director Bryan Singer and everybody else had nailed that scene.

    My oh my, I appear to be in the mood to gush effusive praise this morning.

  5. Cardin, I watched the movie again last night with this blog post in mind, and I saw a couple of other things in the novie that really captured my attention, among them the Empty Tomb scene and Superman’s Great Commission to his son.

  6. Hey, good catches. I’ve been meaning to watch it again myself, and I’ll look for these. Thank you for the heads up.

    Note that if the “Great Commission” is the scene I’m thinking of — the scene that briefly brings back Marlon Brando as Superman’s father Jor-El — then it’s brought forward from the first movie, which came out back in the 1970s and explicitly followed the classic “hero’s journey” pattern — into which Brando’s words to his son Kal-el were spoken.

  7. Well, I was thinking of the part right after the “Empty Tomb,” after Superman has learned that Lois’ son is his son as well, and he goes to the boy’s room and speaks to him while the boy is asleep, saying things like “You will be different, sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast, but you’ll never be alone,” which just screamed “Great Commission” to me. Now that I look it up, it is from the message that Clark’s father sent him. Even so, it definitely caught my attention.

  8. hey great article. i found some more while i was watching

    Superman’s father says “from the son comes the father, and the father the son.” kind of like john 10:38

    He carries off Lux’s island like the burden of sin that Christ had to take at the cross, ironically right after, he died.

    I also think you might of got the ascension out of order. After he “died” he appeared to Lois like Jesus did to Mary. then the last part of the movie is like the ascension

  9. Interesting post – you caught the same things that I did. I thought that the Jesus – Savior stuff was unbelievably blatant to the point of interfering with the movie. It would have been better if it was more subtle.

    Another Biblical moment that was not in Biblical sequence was when Superman talks to his Son, Jason at the end; in this role, Superman is taking the God the Father role and Jason is young Jesus. Note how he leaves his son behind to be raised by a mortal father, the Joseph figure Richard White, and Lois, rather than staying with Jason or taking him away.

    (As a side note, have you ever seen a more perfect, understanding and kind figure than Richard? He remains this way even when he realizes that his forever fiance Lois is either enthralled by or is in love with Superman, and even risks his life to save Superman).


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