I imagine that when people say “I’m going to watch Superman tonight!” they are never referring to Superman Returns (I also doubt they are referring to Superman III, but that isn’t what this review is about). Honestly, from the first time I remember watching Superman Returns, I didn’t hate it– heck, I didn’t even dislike it. Maybe I am not as harsh on superhero films as I should be or maybe I just don’t get what makes a Superman film great (this could be true since I agree with Rick Lee James when he said that The Iron Giant is the best Superman film we’ve ever gotten). There is just very little you can do to convince me that this film is egregiously worse– or better– than many other Superman movies.
Here is where we can likely agree, however. Something never really sat right with me about Brandon Routh as Superman/Clark Kent. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I saw him reappear as
Iron Man The Atom in the CW’s Arrow. That’s what it was– Routh is a ‘CW superhero’: cheesy smile, corny delivery, and no real gravitas without a trumped up script full of melodrama. Now that I say that, I realize I may have outted my opinions on the CW’s handling of a perfectly fine concept for a DC Universe TV show… whoops. Outside of Routh, Kate Bosworth does nothing for me as Lois Lane and, despite my general love for Kevin Spacey, he seems to be doing not much more than an impersonation of what he’s told Lex Luthor would be like (possibly heavily influenced by Gene Hackman’s performance).
What else didn’t I like? Well, (and this is where I pick a fight with many of you) I think this film is basically Man of Steel without Zack Snyder on board to turn everything up to 11. There, I said it. It’s not a real secret that I don’t care for Man of Steel (and this review isn’t about Man of Steel, I promise), but it certainly felt like the same strengths and weaknesses flowed through each of these films. Superman Returns draws you in by giving you a world without Superman, only to dramatically introduce him into that same world that is in more need of saving than it realizes. We then move to a deeply personal struggle in Superman/Clark that is probably the weightiest struggle in the film right before it is brushed aside to make room for a world-destroying plot device– what?! Can we back up? Nope. Movie is over.
I can guess that the Man of Steel lovers reading this won’t concede the parallel, so I digress…
Anyway, why the build up? Why the preamble? Why the comparison? Well, I am admittedly not an incredibly huge Superman fan, but I know what intrigues me about the character. In almost every case, it’s the internal struggle of being an alien in a strange land with the power to be the greatest good– or the greatest evil. A god of sorts. I don’t need that to play out via lengthy action scenes or cinematic showdowns with an egocentric villain. And I especially don’t need some silly world-ending plot device to draw me in (sorry Kryptonite Island). Instead, let’s have more conversations about a world without Superman. Let’s have more conversations about how life moves on and being the hero doesn’t mean you always win. But, we can’t always get what we want and movie audiences rarely pay big bucks to see their superheroes sit around be introspective. I think that is unfortunate– especially in Superman’s case.
I get the fact that he’s Superman. He’s one of the most overpowered heroes ever created. He’s got so many powers that most other superheroes can only do one of the things he can and it’d be a waste to have a movie that doesn’t show those powers off at least a little. But (and I doubt this is a shock), Superman is also one of the most obvious Christ figures we have in modern fiction; he came down from another world, set apart from the people he was with, was elevated to savior, then he often gave himself for a world that rejected him. A good Superman film will explore that and the tension around it. Superman Returns does this. Explicitly. And with that, maybe I have finally come to my point and the reason I think this movie is a perfectly fine Superman film.
Superman: “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one…”
When we enter Superman Returns, Superman has been gone for years on a search for the remains of his home, Krypton. By leaving, he has left the world in a place where they could no longer look to their savior. They had to make a choice; do we realize what we lost– or do we pretend he wasn’t necessary at all? Lois Lane has decided that the world didn’t need Superman. In fact, she won a Pulitzer Prize for letting everyone know why. Sadly, we never really explore her reasons, but we assume they were good ones if she was awarded journalisms’ highest honor for her reasoning.
Isn’t that how humans are though? Isn’t that how we are? Fickle. Prone to wander. How easy is it to trust that we can do it on our own? Apparently all it takes is for the savior to be out of sight for a little while. Ok, in this case, a few years. But are you telling me you’v never felt like God was distant for a few years? Remember, Superman is the Christ metaphor here. Despite the people of Metropolis seeming to be ready to agree with Lois’ declaration that the world doesn’t need a savior, all it takes is one moment of stillness for Superman to hear the desperation and cries of the entire planet calling out for something outside themselves for help.
I hope I didn’t just describe the habits of most of our prayer lives… Guilty as charged.
But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” – Matthew 4:4
I think the most incredible thing is understanding that people need to be saved from more than burning houses, falling newspaper buildings, or jagged, green, plot-device islands. If all there was to this world was the physical, then Superman would be enough (sort of). But we are not just flesh and bone, we have souls and those souls need a savior as well. Obviously, this is where our Christ-like comparison ends– but continues to point in a helpful direction. What can truly save us? Can we? How could we? We can oftentimes not even save our physical bodies, how could we care for something outside that realm? I know I’ve asked a lot of rhetorical questions– but I promise that they are the same questions I asked myself for years.
Superman [to his son Jason]: “You will be different, sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast, but you’ll never be alone. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son.”
This is the kind of line that brings it all home. It’s the next step in the Superman metaphor and it wholly applies to Christians. As children of the Most High, we will be different, we’ll feel like outcasts in a world that is not our home, but we’ll never truly be alone. We will make Christ’s strength our own. We will see creation through His eyes and creation will see Him through us. As we work out our salvation, we will become more and more Christ-like and what the Father has imparted to His children will be seen by the world. And that will point to the true savior. And no disrespect to Superman, but it will not be a savior in blue and red spandex, but a savior in rags, who gave His life to save the entire world from much more than Earth-shattering plot devices.