Superman Returns Recalls The Round-Trip Visit Of Another Heroic Son
It’s been almost 20 years since the last time Superman flew across the big screen, but considering the debacle that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, three times that period would not be a just penance. That is, until Superman Returns’ credits begin to roll and John Williams’ instantly recognizable score creeps up on you. It’s then that you realize how much Superman has been missed—and how much he still matters. He isn’t any superhero, he’s the superhero, the one who represents everything human beings idealize. He’s the light all other superheroes look to for guidance, and that feeling is what director Bryan Singer resurrects.
First off, Singer pretends away Superman III and IV altogether—choosing to complete a trilogy started by Richard Donner back in 1978 with Christopher Reeves in the cape. From 40 years of the Man of Steel’s popular-culture history, Donner distilled an unspoken truth about his character—he was a God figure, with inspirational Christ-like similarities. His father, Jor-El, a man with almost omniscient wisdom, sends his only son to Earth in a star-shaped cradle, wrapped in swaddling blankets. Here, Kal-El/Clark Kent draws his power from the sun’s illuminating light and struggles with things like vanity as he serves mankind and suffers from human temptations. Superman II brought this metaphor to a head, as Superman chooses to give up his godhood for earthly satisfaction—only to realize others suffer for his selfishness. The rest of the movies in the series spiraled off into nonsense, but Singer knew a good thing when he saw it. He returns to that moment when Sperman realizes how important he is to humanity.
After disappearing for five years to search out the remains of his home world Krypton, Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh) returns to Earth only to discover that his former love, reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), is now a mommy with a 5-year-old and, according to her, “The world doesn’t need a savior.” She even wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”—really, just the ranting of a woman scorned. Despite Lane’s criticism, Superman points out, “You write that people don’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.”
Of course, that might be because Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, much darker in the role than Gene Hackman) is on the prowl again, this time armed with quasi-magical crystals given by Jor-El to his son; these crystals have world-shaping powers, which is how they built the Fortress of Solitude that Superman liked to go hiding in during the first two movies. Luthor intends to create a new continent—billions will die in the process, of course—in order to rake in the profits off the sale of beachfront property. After five years in prison, he’s become a supergenius with an ex-con’s prison-yard edge.
Liberties have been taken with the Superman mythology—Lane bearing a child with uncertain parentage being the biggest—but installing her in a stable relationship with a child to think of is a creative barrier to her romance with Superman and wonderfully sets up future movies. It also forces Superman to confront his humanity in a very unexpected and, at times, painful manner. Rather than simply present a god, Singer opts to focus on his real kryptonite—his love for Lane. It’s akin to Nikos Kazantzakis’ familiar story re-imagining in The Last Temptation of Christ; making iconic figures more human makes it easier to understand their suffering.
While Singer is relentless with the Christ symbolism, he also manages to introduce a degree of spirituality that has never been a part of the Superman mythos. For every crucifixion pose floating before a radiating sun, there is a line like Jor-El’s “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they only lack the light to show them the way.” For every line like Luthor’s “Gods are selfish little beings who fly around in red capes and don’t share their powers with mankind,” Singer insinuates an unspoken question about the power of God-like heroes to inspire people in their darkest periods.
Hovering throughout the movie is another question: Does the world need Superman after all? For Singer, the answer isn’t so much a “yes” as it is, Yes, people need the kind of hope a Superman figure provides. Curiously, Superman movies historically have coincided with every major American war effort. Whether Singer or any of the past Superman directors were conscious of this fact is irrelevant, though. Wherever he has been for the last 20 years, Singer’s movie offers a reminder of why Superman still matters.