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Superman Returns—bringing lots of God-talk with him

Gads, there’s a gobs of God-talk out there on this one—with the prize for most creative use of God-talk going to the NY Times, which declares that Superman Returns to Save Mankind From Its Sins and peppers its review with God-talk from its opening lines (“Jesus of Nazareth spent 40 days in the desert. By comparison, Superman of Hollywood languished almost 20 years in development hell”) to its closing paragraph (which suggests the film contains “a Superman who fights his foes in a scene that visually echoes the garden betrayal in The Passion of the Christ and even hangs in the air much as Jesus did on the cross”). Ack.

So, how much of the prolific God-talk is deserved and not just a left-over wave from The Passion tides? Quite a bit, according to Hollywood Jesus’ Craig Detweiler (who directs the film, TV, radio program at Biola University and co-authored A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture):

The parallels to the Christ story are striking. Singer and his crack screenwriting partners, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, push the analogies even further with Superman's physical suffering. A slight trace of the song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” becomes a lived reality. Superman carries much more than the Daily Planet on his back. As he summons all his strength to save humanity, Superman falls to earth, arms outstretched, a living sacrifice for us all.

A recent Associated Press article noted the messianic tone of the movie trailer. Yet, several critics have also traced the Superman story to Moses, the ultimate baby in the basket. The Jewish roots of Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, have connected the character’s origins to the legend of Golem, a protector of the Hebrew people. Certainly, as the Superman myth grew before and after World War II, the longing for a Jewish liberator became abundantly clear. The Jewish search for a messiah is still relevant today. . . .

Is Superman so mythic that his story can be co-opted by any religion or people group who want to connect with it? It is a sterling example of common grace, a theological concept that suggests that God can communicate through whomever, whenever and wherever God chooses. So from 1938’s Action Comics #1 to today’s fifth Superman feature, a creative God can spark the imagination of writers, artists, and filmmakers behind the series. The Spirit resides at the very heart of the word, “inspiration.”

While Superman connects with our highest aspirations, it also reveals our ongoing temptations. Lex Luthor justifies his latest takeover plan via the myth of Prometheus. He sees himself as a rebel leader, following Prometheus’ lead in stealing fire from Zeus and bringing gifts to the people. Luthor rages against gods who are selfish, who ‘don’t share their power.’ Yet, Luthor doesn’t share Superman’s secrets with the world. Instead, he hordes the power, confirming the axiom, “The human heart is subject to monstrous deceit.”

How do we escape this troubling truth? Superman is restored and renewed by the sun. But he serves as much more than an advocate for solar power. He wants to illuminate rather than darken people’s understanding. He becomes a light to the world, a beacon of hope. The film plays out on a planetary scale, offering a compelling vision of cosmic redemption.
Ultimately, Detweiler concludes, “Superman Returns combines the best of American, Judeo-Christian, and Hollywood mythology.”

But Christianity Today’s Peter T. Chattaway (who gives the film 2.5 out 4 stars) thinks the God-talk angle—while definitely present—and allegory runs a bit thin:
There is a fair bit of God-talk in this film, not all of it Christian. Luthor, for example, compares his theft of Kryptonian technology to the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Greek gods and gave it to mankind; after he succeeds, Kitty sings, "He's got the whole world in his hands." This line is echoed in a later scene, when the giant globe atop the Daily Planet building falls to the street and Superman catches it, holding the globe on his shoulders in a way that recalls certain depictions of Atlas—another Titan who, like Prometheus, was punished by the Greek gods.

Other scenes invite us to think of Superman as a Christ figure. His father Jor-El (the late Marlon Brando, here portrayed via footage from the first film and sound clips that were originally recorded for Superman II) says he sent his "only son" to Earth to be a "light" that would show us how to be "a great people." Superman floats in the air and listens to the sounds of the city, before deciding where he should intervene. And when Lois, bitter after Superman's absence, tells him that the world doesn't need a "savior," he replies, "Every day I hear people crying for one."

But we shouldn't make too much of this sort of thing. The Superman movies have never shown anyone actually following Superman's inspiring lead; if anything, they have shown people waiting passively for Superman to rescue them. What's more, the Superman of the movies has shown a remarkable tendency to shrug off his responsibilities—first abandoning his powers (and thus the safety of the world) so he could sleep with Lois in Superman II, and now abandoning the world altogether for several years prior to the events of Superman Returns.
In the end, says Chattaway, “whereas the first film had an almost mystical sensibility that lent itself to religious allegory, the new film does not.”

So, there you have it—so far. For more reviews from the Christian media, see this one at Crosswalk. Or read GetReligion’s Daniel Pulliam’s post (which, coincidently, focuses on some of the same articles—really, I did my write up before his, I swear!). For more mainstream media (and not-so-mainstream) reviews, hit Rotten Tomatoes, where the film is currently running at a 78% approval rating. Or you can always GoogleNews the film—yowzers.

(Image: Warner Bros, from CanMag)


DogBlogger said…
You might want to check out The United Methodist Reporter's review, too: