Superman Returns
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures
Directed by Bryan Singer
Screenplay by Michael Dougherty
and Dan Harris

The American Civil Liberties Union’s executive officers must be on vacation somewhere off the telecommunications grid.  This supposition occurred to me as I watched Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.  Although the film takes off the wraps and reveals the Man of Steel to be none other than Jesus Christ in tights, the ACLU has not filed a single lawsuit to protect the young from witnessing such a muscular portrayal of saviorhood.  The usually vigilant atheists, I concluded, must be out of touch.

Return makes no bones about its Christ symbolism.  It announces it loudly, repeatedly, and unapologetically throughout its entire two hours and thirty-four minutes.  So much so, I began to wonder if it were a ploy to gain greater audience share.  Could this be Hollywood’s cynical response to Mel Gibson’s passionate lesson?  Even before the opening credits have run their swollen course, we hear Marlon Brando, playing Jor-El, Superman’s biological father, declaiming his son’s salvific mission on Earth in the plummy accent he used 44 years ago as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty.  (Brando appears courtesy of bits remastered from his performance in the 1978 Superman: The Movie.)  His accent may not ring true to the starchy elocution of the Oxbridge elite, but no one can dispute its spot-on rendition of Kryptonian English.  “For this above all,” Brando mumbles hieratically, if confusedly, “their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.”  He adds for good measure, “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son,” a sentiment that will be repeated by his own son in the movie’s closing moments.  Sounds almost Trinitarian to me, although the Spirit seems to have gone missing.

Next, we see Krypton’s favorite son hurtling through the heavens in a ball of flaming crystal.  He has been away from Earth for five years searching for his Kryptonian roots.  Having discovered there’s nothing left of his birth planet, he is on his way back to his foster home and his foster mother in Smallville, Kansas.  After crawling battered and weak from the wreckage of his space capsule, he falls into the arms of Ma Kent, who comforts him in a Pietà pose.  Singer really knows how to soften up his audience.  Not only does his Superman suffer in a Christ-like manner, his mom is Eva Marie Saint, who comforted another Christ figure 52 years ago playing Brando’s girlfriend in On the Waterfront.  It was she who inspired Brando’s Terry Malloy to embark on his own Via Dolorosa as the man willing to sacrifice himself on behalf of his fellow longshoremen.

Superman has come back resigned to live as an alien among his beloved earthlings, including his especially beloved Lois Lane.  Miss Lane, however, is no longer so lovable.  So angry was she with her Kryptonian, she went out and snagged herself a Pulitzer in his absence, writing an article entitled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”  Talk about burning your undies!  Miss Lane has also acquired a son, now four years old, whose paternity is a trifle obscure despite her live-in boyfriend, the dapper Daily Planet editor, and, wouldn’t you know, nephew of the gruff but adorable editor in chief, Perry White.

Attempting a reconciliation of sorts with Lois, Superman in his Clark Kent disguise tries to explain why his alter ego flew away without so much as a farewell cape flap.  Maybe, Clark suggests, the big lug’s feelings were so deep that he did not know how to express them.  Lois frostily dismisses this bespectacled observation, declaring that neither Superman’s absence nor his return concerns her.  This, after Supe has just saved her, along with 30 or so other journalists, from disaster in an airliner nose-diving into Yankee Stadium.  Later, appearing as himself, Superman takes her in his arms for a flight into the heavens, where he gently chastises her for her churlish article.  “You wrote the world doesn’t need a savior, but everyday I hear people crying for one.”  It is an odd explanation for having taken a half-decade powder, but, then, Superman stories have always been gloriously illogical.  What he seems to mean is this: Though I’m in love with you, Honey, there’s a world of hurt to deal with down there, and I’ve got to be taking care of business.  And take care he does in a montage of rescues and crime stopping round the globe that set newscasters wondering if he is traveling faster than the speed of light.  Of course he is: He’s Superman.  This raises a question, however: With such quickness, you would think that he would be able to fit Lois in on the side.  But, no, this Kryptonian is entirely honorable (except, of course, for that five-year disappearing act).  He will not trifle with her affections nor interfere with her new—although, as yet, unhallowed—relationship.  Such heroic selflessness has become preciously rare in commercial films, and I confess to being absurdly touched by it.

Once Supe had finished this installment’s round of adventures and flown off into the starry night, I questioned my initial assumption about the ACLU’s inaction.  Maybe the litigious activists were being crafty.  They may have determined that, should they sue, their case might well be thrown out of court on grounds of frivolous typology.  While Singer has glaringly loaded up on Christian imagery, his film echoes the Nietzschean Übermensch as often as it does the Nazarene Carpenter.  True, the new Supe, Brandon Routh, takes a passionate beating at the hands of an extravagantly evil Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey in manic overdrive), and he strikes a gallery of handsome cruciform poses, but he is also heralded by chords swiped from the Richard Strauss symphonic ode to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, so memorably invoked in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  On his flights into outer space, Routh even witnesses the chiaroscuro majesty of Kubrick’s planets, their luminous crescents glistening portentously in the interplanetary sunlight.  Then, after heaving a particularly noxious chunk of Krypton-laced landscape into the heavens, he drifts helplessly back to earth, arms outstretched, head turned aside as resignedly as any Renaissance Jesus on the cross.  But, as he enters Earth’s atmosphere, he curls into a fetal position to make his final descent, musically laved by a keening chorus recalling the astral Christ-like arias in 2001.  Singer doubtlessly wants his Superman to resemble also Kubrick’s reborn astronaut, the Odyssean David Bowman, floating through the ether at the conclusion of 2001, seemingly on a mission to renew the face of the earth.  So Superman is at once Christian and classical.  The problem is that his two aspects do not really align.

The original Superman story was created as a wish-fulfillment fantasy by two Jewish adolescents, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, in the Midwest in the 1930’s and probably reflects their feelings of ordinary teenage shyness and their special anxiety about discrimination at home and in Europe.  As the gauche Clark Kent, their hero was ignored by entitled WASPs who were blinded to his heroic abilities.  These surfaced only in times of emergency, and then only after a clandestine change of clothes in a phone booth.  Singer has freighted this juvenile fantasy with all the mythos he could purloin from the Hebraic, Hellenic, and Christian traditions.  But even the Man of Steel cannot bear such a burden comfortably.  Shuster and Siegel may or may not have intended the biblical and classical echoes many commentators purport to see in their comic book, but they never took their character with the high symbolic seriousness on display in Return.  Not that I am against such symbolism.  My favorite movies center on Christ figures: The Third Man, Shane, and On the Waterfront, to name but three.  It is just that Superman is paradoxically too close and too far from the story of Christ.

In the canonical narrative, Superman comes to Earth from the heavens and is brought up by foster parents who are simple farmers.  Sometime in his late 20’s, he leaves the farm and moves to the city, where he embarks on a never-ending quest to save people.  You can see some parallels to Christ’s life in this, but they are as rudimentary as the artwork of the early Superman comic books.

On the other hand, the name Superman implies that he is the Übermensch, a higher being who transcends human limitations.  He is, in short, a god, as Lex Luthor correctly notes with considerable asperity in Singer’s movie.  But this kind of deity has nothing to do with Jesus.  The point about the Incarnation is precisely that Jesus was as human as you and I, subject to all the pain and limitation the flesh is heir to.  He was the Suffering Servant Who demonstrated that, as humans, we could stand up to whatever life dished out, including death itself, provided we embrace His exhortation to surrender our self-involvement.  For the faithful, this is what makes human fate bearable.  Our belief in the coming Resurrection is not a reprieve from suffering; it is, rather, a guarantee that our inevitable travail will not be in vain.  Christ did not come to save us from crime and natural disasters, from colliding cars and rheumatoid arthritis.  He came to remind us that we have a covenant with the cosmic source of all meaning.  If we honor our side of the contract, we will participate in the divine purpose of creation.  Superman, by contrast, is a hero who makes emergency rescues.  He cannot be surpassed when it comes to catching falling planes, putting out underground fires, and stopping bullets with his chest, and—in this film—even with his eye.  Nothing to sneeze at certainly, but not exactly on a par with redemption.

Perhaps I am taking matters too seriously myself.  Better to relax and be grateful for a popular entertainment that invokes the notion of a self-sacrificing savior, however confused his portrayal.  Despite its pretensions—sometimes because of them—Singer’s film is eminently worth watching.  Routh was clearly cast because he resembles Christopher Reeve, who wore the tights in the Superman films of the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Routh has something of Reeve’s graceful presence and, perhaps more important, gentleness of mien that made the earlier films work so well.  As Lois Lane, the pretty Kate Bosworth is amusingly fierce and abrupt with the ever-mumbling, stumbling Clark.  While she hasn’t the motor-mouth ditziness that served Margot Kidder so well in the role, she does manage to dive into an arctic sea with uncommon aplomb when called upon to save her beloved Superman, momentarily rendered helpless by Kryptonite.  Frank Langella’s Perry White is appropriately crusty and peremptory and yet melts into childish awe before Superman’s exploits.  The movie really shines when Spacey’s obsessed Lex Luthor takes the stage.  He is a small bald man intent on punishing others for his lack of personal dimension.  To make up for his inadequacies, he fashions himself a new Prometheus stealing, not fire from the gods, but potent alien crystals from Superman’s arctic redoubt.  He means to create a new continent with them, a sort of grand-scale Luthor Disneyland over which he will reign supreme.  Of course, his continent will have global consequences, raising the ocean’s level more catastrophically than Al Gore’s global warming.  When his girlfriend asks him if he really means to kill millions of people, he turns on her, a delighted gleam in his squinty eyes: “Billions and billions,” he corrects her, as if he were Carl Sagan waxing monstrously galactic.  Later, when Lois points out that the world’s nations might have something to say about this, he snarls marvelously, “Bring it on!”  Who said arrogance was minted in the Bush White House?

Singer may take these characters more seriously than he should, but he also contrives to remind us of their comic-book roots.  His lighting technicians and cosmetologists have given the actors a glossy patina—call it Barbie Doll sheen—as if to remind us that, despite their physical suffering and emotional torment, they remain children’s action figures.  Still, I could have done without the scene in which Luthor thrusts a shard of Kryptonite into Superman’s side.  A symbol needn’t be quite so penetrating.