or “The Passion of the Superman”

“They can be a great people, Kal-El–they wish to be. 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.” –Jor-El (Marlon Brando)

It’s a story old as creation itself: the Father sent the Son to be a blessing to the world. To inspire us to join in His mission. To stand for Truth and Justice. The Son, after being about his ministry for a few years, goes away for a time, returning to His home in the heavens, but expects us to carry on and be faithful in his absence.

Which brings us to Superman.

The first Superman movie (1978) made us believe that a man could fly. However, we live in a post-Matrix cinematic world. Brandon Routh’s casting as Superman is more of a compromise between not being able to re-cast a young Christopher Reeve and not wanting to cast Tom Welling from the Smallville series. Superman Returns picks up after a five year absence of our hero, on sabbatical to the remains of his doomed home planet of Krypton to see the graveyard for himself. During this time, many gave up hope of his return. Even Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has moved on, engaged to a new man, Richard White (James Marsden, joining his former X-Men director and maybe explaining why his character, Cyclops, was killed off screen during X-Men: Last Stand). She also happens to totes around a five year old son, Jason White (Tristan Lake Leabu, whose performance was disturbingly reminiscent of The Omen’s Damien). As with the Spider-Man movies, we have such a well known hero and cast of characters that casting doesn’t seem to matter as much as long as the players don’t screw things up. What you end up with, however, are people playing cutouts with the movie counting on the sheer power of myth to carry it through. Which it does, this go around.

Superman Returns takes into account the mythology of Smallville as well as the first two (Richard Donner) Superman movies. Though written with a certain amount of messianic expectation, the movie doesn’t skimp on iconic images to build the myth, such as Superman catching the symbol of the Daily Planet, a giant globe, letting us know that he has the whole world in his hands. Superman is a cosmic guardian angel, omnipresent like the Holy Spirit, with shots of him hovering in the heavens, hearing it all, empowered by the sun’s (son’s) light. [And his rescue of the airplane certainly beat Michael Jordan sending a fax to let everyone know “I’m back.”] Though the special effects were spectacular, on more than one occasion Superman appeared to be too digitalized, practically a beatifically filmed action figure.

“Gods are selfish beings who fly around in red tights and don’t share their gifts with mankind.” –Lex Luthor

Lex Luthor sees himself as a modern day Prometheus, stealing the technology of the gods and delivering it to man. For a cut of the profits. He’s not the super genius of the comic books, nor bumbling villainous businessman. His scheme involves using stolen Kryptonian technology to create a new land mass that he will own, no matter that billions would die in the process of him creating it. In other words, he is little more than a grand scheming petty thug. However, Kevin Spacey imbues him with a charm and a gravitas that the script lacks, giving a delightfully sadistic, scenery chewing performance, just this side of Gene Hackman’s classic hamming.

“The world doesn’t need a Savior. And neither do I.” –Lois Lane

Apparently once absent, people do what they do best and try to topple their heroes. They forget about Superman and what he stood for, re-characterize him and de-construct who he was. Lois herself wins a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial entitled “Why the world doesn’t need Superman.” Yet, there is a void that Superman filled, not just for her, but for all who turned to him.

Superman finds himself on a journey, tested more emotionally and spiritually, but eventually physically. A crisis of love as his life becomes a struggle between the alien and the human sides of himself. He tries to balance his calling versus the possibilities of him having a life outside of his mission. The true heart of the movie revolves around this love triangle between Superman/Lois/Richard (a triangle complicated and expanded by both Clark and Jason). For a while we wonder if he was more man than Superman, as he uses his X-ray vision and super hearing to keep tabs on Lois (becoming, in fact, Super-Stalker). For that matter, Clark Kent, the man of Superman, essentially disappears during huge chunks of the movie and no one, certainly no Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, seems to particularly notice.

“There are questions to be asked, here in this fortress of solitude. And we should look for the answers together.” –Jor-El

Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, from where Luthor steals the Kryptonian technology, was a place where Superman could go to express his Garden of Gethsemane moments where he doubts his mission and purpose. A place where he could learning in community by talking to his father when times got dark. Such a time including what could only be described as the passion of Superman.

Beginning with a beating that stopped short of a scourging at the hands of Luthor’s henchmen, it included a (kryptonite) spear to the side. By the time he took care of the Kryptonian island threat, we see Superman’s arms spread out as if on a cross, sacrificing himself for humanity, then laying as if dead for days. Not coincidentally, it was a woman, a nurse, who was the first to notice that he had risen. The movie concludes with Superman a chat with his son (and if we’re not taking the Christ analogy too far by pointing out the The Da Vinci Code-like twist to the story).

Why does the movie dwell so much on the messianic comparisons to Superman? Because, in response to Lois’ comments about not needing a savior, Superman comes back with the response that “everyday I hear people crying out for one.”

“It’s like a seed and all it needs is water.” –Lex Luther

The movie centers around love, faith, and hope – the three fruits of our lives’ work and what we should be about. Lex Luthor wanted to re-create the world through one simple act (Kryptonian crystal) while Christ wanted to do so through one simple teaching (love).

Also on the plus side, Superman Returns is filled with insider geek tidbits. Posing with the car over his head to re-create the cover of Action Comics #1, Superman’s first appearance. The Daily Planet headlines (“Superman is Dead” and “Superman Lives”) book-ending the “Death of Superman” comic book storyline. The movie crams a lot of action into the story, allowing Superman a chance to showcase all of his powers (X-ray vision, speed, strength, flight, cold breath, heat vision, invulnerability, super-hearing … all without giving him new ones like flying around the planet to turn back time).

Superman Returns basically updates Richard Donner’s movies, being little more than a love letter to them and Christopher Reeves. However, Bryan Singer stages an amazing relaunch of the franchise. We can only hope that with the next go around, he infuses more of a re-imagining into our hero.

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