Film Review: Superman Returns (2006)

DC Comics is clearly intent on milking the Man of Steel for all he's worth. The "Death of Superman" stunt in the mid-1990s was the biggest money-making scheme in comic book history. But it also was the beginning of the end of the comic book industry: Long-time fans saw their beloved stories becoming mass fodder while many new readers of comics (following the stunt) were quickly and permanently turned off to comics when they realized DC Comics had no intention of actually killing off their greatest superhero. So over 10 years later, with the title "Superman Returns," one is bound to wonder: What is he returning from? Is he different than he was before? Is this just another stunt?

For the hardened cynics, Superman Returns will only confirm their fears. For the average moviegoer, it will be an average film. And for the most ardent of fans, Superman's return can only be a joyous event—however mixed the film itself may be.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: The film is, of course, visually impressive. We already knew that. There are the usual breathtaking shots, including a bullet that is crushed upon hitting Superman's open eye and the so-realistic-you-can't-even-tell-there's-a-greenscreen flying. But these no longer guarantee a good movie. When Independence Day came out, no one had really seen FX like that before, so the cheesy dialogue and poor script mattered very little. Nowadays, however, those kinds of errors are more pronounced.

Bryan Singer is a great pop-film director. He makes action-hero flicks better than anyone else in the business, save maybe for Sam Raimi. And this film shows off his talents well. He is adept at interweaving breathtaking action sequences with emotionally complex character development. But he made a fatal error in this film which is hard to forgive: He gave us his most incredible, eye-popping, heart-stopping action sequence in the first half-hour, and everything else just could not compete. Singer should have known better. The opening night audience was an accurate indicator of how good the film is. After Superman rescues a plane plummeting to certain death, the audience erupted in applause and cheers. By the end of the film, however, people were walking out. The film lost their attention when they realized that an even more eye-popping, heart-stopping sequence was not going to happen. The climax was ... anti-climactic.

What is much more interesting about this film—as with all good superhero movies—is the subtext, the real subject-matter of the story. With X-Men, it is social prejudices and racism; with Batman it is economic class conflict; with Spiderman it is the struggle of transitioning into adulthood. But with Superman, the subtext is something much more foundational: salvation. But unlike other superhero films, Superman Returns wears its subtext on its sleeve.

I propose the following thesis: Superman is the American Jesus—the savior Americans wish Jesus had been and would like to think he is. I would have never come to such a strong conclusion had Singer not made it so clear. Of course, the mythology behind the figure of Superman makes my thesis tenable already, but it is in this film that Superman is explicitly portrayed as a quasi-divine savior, the Son of the Father (in heaven) who is sent to earth because humans are too messed up (re: sinful) to figure out how to do things rightly. Superman is the messiah or savior which the Jews during the time of Jesus wanted and which people today want as well: the one who offers immediate physical salvation, who rescues us from our present-day problems in the here-and-now. Superman is the messiah who fixes our lives right now.

From the beginning, the film overtly alludes to the Christian narrative. Many reviewers found it to be overkill. The intimate relation between the Son (Kal-El) and the Father (Jor-El) is made clear from the start, with an opening voice-over by Jor-El talking cryptically about the Father and the Son, and the Son and the Father. The language of father and son is then repeated at the end of the film (there is a major plot development and set-up for a sequel which I cannot give away, though it would be relevant here). Also, Superman flies above the clouds and is able to hear all the problems occuring in the world; in other words, he is omniauditual—he has aural omnipercipience. The most telling scene, however, is when Superman takes Lois Lane up above the clouds in their first intimate encounter. During Superman's absence—lamely excused at the start of the film by the hypothesis that astronomers found Krypton, which caused Superman to leave earth to find his home planet—Lane had published the Pulitzer Prize-winning essay, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Superman wants to show her otherwise, so he takes her up above the city and asks her, "What do you hear?" She replies, "Nothing." He then says, "Well, I hear everything. You say the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear them crying out for one."

It's the pivotal moment in the film; everything hinges on that line. After that moment, Lois Lane is convinced that the world does indeed need a savior, and so is the audience. And, most importantly, Superman is that savior. But if that is true, what kind of savior do we need? Well, apparently the kind that rescues helpless humans from bad accidents and evil people. The kind of savior who keeps us from falling, who helps us to stand back up again and walk more carefully. In other words, Superman is only necessary because humans screw things up. As long as we cannot control this world on our own, we need someone like Superman to fix what we cannot—like falling airplanes, dangerous debris, natural disasters, and ruthless criminals. Superman is the savior who takes care of our needs right now. He helps those who are about to fall and destroys those who make others fall.

We might say that Superman represents an immanentized Christ, which we can see in the following ways: his "incarnation" by way of earth landing, his life of miraculous "healings," his passion-death-resurrection climax, his "ascension" to find Krypton (prior to the film's narrative), his "second coming" to the world, and even his "last judgment" upon evildoers. By immanentization, I mean that everything Superman is and does finds its meaning within the time-space parameters of this world. There is no transcendent telos in the mythic world of Superman. We see this most tellingly in two areas:

(1) The "judgment" upon evildoers is complete with the annihilation of these evildoers; their death is the end of their existence. In other words, there is no eschatological movement in Superman's act and being, no sense of grace because Superman cannot accomplish anything that extends beyond this temporal cosmos.

(2) More importantly, the focal point of salvation is moved, analogously, from the cross to the miraculous healings. The point of Christ's mission on earth was to suffer and die for the sake of the world, and the miracles were just signs to point people to the Father and to indicate Jesus' true identity. The point of Superman's mission on earth is to do miracles that include saving people from physical disasters and imminent dangers, and his death-and-resurrection is a marginal event to indicate Superman's vulnerability. Christ's passion is salvific; Superman's passion is superfluous. Christ's passion is part of a divine drama of salvation; Superman's passion simply adds dramatic tension.

Superman is the American messiah. He wears red and blue and is a white male with dashing good looks. He offers a salvation that is entirely this-worldly. Furthermore, Superman as savior has no need of a theodicy for two reasons: (1) He actively works against suffering in a way that requires no faith in a providential Creator, and (2) Superman is part of a Manichean myth in which Good and Evil are dialectically opposed equals (though Good always wins), something that pervades all heroic stories including great ones like The Lord of the Rings.

In conclusion, it is worth comparing Superman with other superheroes. In the stories of X-Men, Batman, Spiderman, Hulk, Fantastic Four, etc., the audience is supposed to identify with the heroes. They are people just like us who have encountered or experienced something unusual—radioactive usually—and have been turned into a crime-fighting machine. Superman is completely different. He was born on a planet in a distant galaxy and came to earth to escape disaster on his home planet. In other words, he is an alien—who happens to look like a handsome young human male. He is not like us, but he took on our appearance in his clothes and mannerisms. Bill from Tarantino's Kill Bill (at the end of Vol. 2) made the most astute comment: In every other superhero story, the main character is an ordinary person who disguises him- or herself as a masked hero; but in Superman, the main character is by nature a hero who disguises himself as an ordinary human. The point is that we do not identify with Superman; in fact, we cannot. In the Superman stories, we identify with those who want a savior. We are the ones who need to be saved, and Superman presents the kind of savior that we, deep down, actually want.

What is the primary difference between Superman and Jesus Christ? Superman rescues us when we mess up so that we can do better the next time (and not need him). Jesus rescues us from ourselves so that we can enter on a journey of discipleship (where we need him every step of the way). Superman promises to save our lives on earth; Jesus promises to give us new life for eternity. Superman tells us to be good; Jesus tells us to die to ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.


Interesting. My father saw it and said it was a very unconventional action film, being slow at parts, perhaps due to the subtext you describe. Maybe he was feeling the wane post-climax.
Thanks for the review, and for always finding ways to connect us to our cultural extensions with sound theological reflection.
Anonymous said…
I always thought one of the more interesting subtexts found in comics was the one that ran through Daredevil (too bad the movie was so aweful).

That said, I would be curious to hear your thoughts on what the subtext might be that runs through the Silver Surfer -- perhaps the only Superhero that could easily defeat Superman. Actually, I can't think of a superhero that would be able to defeat the Silver Surfer.

I think you mean, "awful." :)

And unfortunately, I do not know enough about Silver Surfer to make any definitive comments. Do you have any thoughts on him or any other superhero?
Anonymous said…
Er...This is picky, I know, but I should note that good and evil aren't dialectically opposed equals in The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion makes this much clearer, but there are references to it in LotR as well. Sauron is a Maia, an underling of Morgoth the Vala, who himself is clearly less powerful than Iluvatar, the creator.

Other than that, though, I thought your review was spot-on.
Point well take, Mike. I am aware of that, being the fellow Tolkien nut that I am. But I still think LotR is too dualistic to be representative of symbolic of the Christian narrative. But it sure makes for damn good storytelling -- which is Tolkien's primary intention, anyway. Evangelical Christians make the mistake of thinking LotR perfectly captures the Christian story, and I have heard at least three sermons now use LotR as a sermon illustration of spiritual warfare and the struggle of the Christian life against satan. This is a grave mistake in my opinion, and I am not sure how much the nuances of the Silmarillion would help here.