Editor’s warning: Plot spoilers below.
Outside the Dallas theater where my daughter and I were about to see a screening of the new Superman Returns, there was a stack of glossy tracts, posing the question, ‘Who is the real Superman?’ I think you can probably guess the answer to that. My daughter found the tract a bit silly, especially the ending where the reader is invited to check mark an acceptance of Jesus box and mail it in to receive ‘free stuff.’ Well, after sitting through the 150-minute film, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d just witnessed an extended tract for a Jesus designed to appeal to a certain strain of contemporary culture.
And that’s only one of the many problems with the new Superman film, directed by Bryan Singer of X-Men fame, and starring Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman. The film has grand ambitions, always risky in the comic-book genre, and especially so when the source material does not lend itself as naturally to dark brooding as, say, the Batman myth does (think of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins from last summer). The central problem with the film concerns some ambiguities that, presented with a bit more skill, could have been kept in creative tension, but instead just seem at odds with one another. Is the film striving to be dark and philosophical or reassuring, if a bit campy? Is it a retelling of the Christ story or a post-feminist fantasy about the dreamy guy who leaves without a word, but who, beyond all expectations, returns as the good guy with a legitimate explanation? Once you get past the stirring, iconic S on his uniform, Routh resembles not so much the Man of Steel as a GQ cover boy.
As is obligatory in a summer blockbuster, there are some grand-action scenes, including an early one where Superman executes a mid-air rescue of a plane, which he lands gently on a baseball stadium infield in the midst of a game. However, the film contains no memorable dialogue, and some of the most important characters simply fall flat. Lois Lane has never been more important to a Superman plot, and yet, Kate Bosworth’s Lois never gives us a reason to believe that any successful adult male, let alone Superman, would fall for her. Kevin Spacey, playing Lex Luthor, has his moments (how could he not?). Of course, his diabolical plot is about as well conceived as are the designs of Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, but that is symptomatic of the whole film, which never gives Spacey much of anything to work with.
A lighter version of Superman might have been welcome amid the flood of dark comic-book heroes. That’s not to say there is no trouble in Superman’s world; a darker, teen version of the story has appeared as a well-crafted TV series, Smallville. But, at least in his classic form, Superman is the reassuring alien, not the monstrous Other threatening humans (Aliens, X-Files) or the cuddly alien miniature (E.T.). He is an alien in human form who embodies everything we wish we were. He shares a human sense of truth and justice, but he transcends our limited perspective on goodness.
In other alien films, it is frequently our arrogant confidence in technology and our imperialist ambitions that get us into trouble. Superman comes to save us from this, and he weds technological power to moral responsibility. Although he has come here from elsewhere to alter our history, he acts only for the benefit of human beings — or, at least, that is how things start out. In these respects, Superman seems pretty close to the E.T. tradition of aliens and the romantic overcoming of technology through the ideal of purity of heart. He avoids the gadgets of his nemesis, Lex Luthor, and of other superheroes such as Batman or Spider-Man.
The film has little patience for the Clark Kent side of Superman. It never even bothers to hint at the possibility that Lois might be interested in Clark. In theological terms, the film is more about the divinity of Kal-El, the name given to the Superman character by his original Jewish creators, than his humanity. As if to draw attention to the scriptural echoes in the story, the most memorable line in the film is a flashback, in which Superman’s father, Jor-El, informs his son: “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 them the way. For this reason above al-their capacity for good-I have sent them you, my only son.” The scene is not just a flashback but a direct incorporation of a scene from Richard Donner’s 1978 film in which Marlon Brando played Jor-El. Seeing and hearing the now deceased Brando in the new film give the scene added gravity. As the “Who is the real Superman?” tract notes, the line echoes a scriptural passage that appears regularly in the stands at professional sporting events, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” There’s even a scene where, weakened by kryptonite, Superman is repeatedly beaten and mocked (the passion of the superman?). These are moving scenes, the best of which is a long, lingering shot of Superman falling lifelessly to earth.
The most impressive feature of the film is its symbolic development of Superman as sacrificial hero, but the film reaches for this motif too often. Superman seems dead and then comes back to life, how many times? Once, twice, or thrice? Moreover, it is not clear what exactly we are to make of his relationship with Lois and her son, whom the final frames indicate is Superman’s child. Part of the problem with Lois is that her personality is grating, even whiny. That may well be nothing new. Margot Kidder, after all, will never compete for most alluring Hollywood actress, but she did have spunk and some wit. Beyond that, the Lois in this film is an ethically challenged character, at least in the arena of truthfulness. The man she currently lives with believes the boy is his son; to him, Lois has never even admitted her love for Superman, although he has strong suspicions. And just how are we to understand the offspring-producing love affair between Superman and Lois? And how would that affect the Christ imagery of the film? (Where’s Dan Brown when you need him?)
The question here is not about orthodoxy. Superman is a Christ figure — a common-enough type in our virtue-starved culture — not “The Christ.” But even the imagery of the Christ figure requires a certain degree of dramatic and ethical consistency. It’s not clear by the end of the film whether Superman is really a self-sacrificing hero or a chump for a woman who is best suited to a marriage with a conventional, upwardly mobile male. One might argue that that question had already been raised in the 1978 film, but that doesn’t help clarify anything here. And the accentuation of the divinity of Superman only serves to exacerbate the problem.
Aside from providing a tiresome and predictable means of setting up a sequel, the final plot line commits the film to the post-feminist fantasy about the guy who lures a woman into love and then suddenly just disappears. After he leaves, Lois pens an embittered, but Pulitzer winning, essay, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” In this case, Superman left for a reason, to visit the location of his destroyed planet, Krypton (although it is never clear why the trip took five years). The ending casts Superman, not so much as savior of the human race, much less an inspiring model for young boys, but as the redeemer of the romantic dreams of jaded women in compromised relationships. That might be an odd way to extend the Superman legacy, but, hey, it might just expand his target audience.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing