I’m no expert, but I can’t think of anyone in the comics pantheon who is more of a Christ figure than Superman, sent to Earth by his wise, noble father to save humanity. Superman Returns certainly doesn’t shy away from religious allusions. Two characters explicitly describe the Kryptonian knight as a savior and argue over whether the world needs such a champion. The confrontation between Superman and Lex Luthor — wielding a dagger of kryptonite, thus rendering the hero powerless — reads like the road to Golgotha: Earth’s savior is viciously beaten and taunted and left to die on a desolate landscape, the sky cracked by lightening. And at the film’s climax, Superman falls to earth with his arms spread wide like a man on a cross, though we know, of course, that he will rise again. Superman Returns is an action movie by way of The Passion of the Christ with a splash of The Da Vinci Code thrown in to muddy the waters.
As the movie begins, Superman returns to earth after a five-year absence spent vainly searching the wreckage of his home planet for fellow survivors. Back in Metropolis, he again assumes the alter-ego of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and discovers that his beloved former colleague, Lois Lane, now has a child and is engaged to editor Perry White’s good-hearted nephew Richard — though photographer Jimmy Olson confides that he thinks Lois still holds a torch for Superman. Meanwhile, the dastardly Lex Luthor has been released from prison (Superman missed the parole hearing) with a diabolical scheme to — what else? — take over the world!
Beautifully filmed with spectacular action sequences, the movie is affecting in its way. As Superman, Brandon Routh is a bit remote, but that doesn’t bother me; I’m not sure how I’m supposed to identify with the character anyway. The clichéd thing to say is that the villain is more interesting than the hero, but frankly, I didn’t find Lex Luthor any more compelling than the man in tights. I don’t blame actor Kevin Spacey. Luthor is a pathological megalomaniac; he’s not very relatable either.
No, the most interesting note of the movie is Lois’ Pulitzer-winning essay, published during Superman’s mysterious absence and bluntly titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Characters refer to the essay on numerous occasions, but no one ever describes its content, which frustrated me. I realized I was most interested in the perspective of people on the ground: the robbery victim Superman saves and perhaps the one around the corner his misses, the woman who doesn’t quite trust in Superman’s goodness anymore and the boy who does so unshakingly, the awestruck young man who watches as Superman catches an enormous metal globe from crashing onto a crowd of people and bends double, like Atlas, under the weight of the world.
Superman Returns glancingly touches on astonishingly weighty ideas. Luthor’s most interesting scene features a monologue about how, in Greek mythology, Prometheus steals the fire of the gods and gives it to humans. The gods, he claims, are not worthy of veneration: “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind.” Later, Lois tells Superman the world doesn’t need a savior, and Superman quietly answers that “every day [he] hear[s] people crying for one.”
I wanted a movie about that, about normal human beings struggling to live in a world with a savior or a world without one or, most painfully, a world in which the savior seems to have disappeared. If only screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris had given Lois (Kate Bosworth) more to do and say, more with which to struggle. The silly love triangle of her, Richard and Superman trivializes the issue and her son only distracts from it.
The story of Superman is powerful not because we identify with him and his endeavors but because we sometimes long for a world in which he exists. Telling that story through Superman’s eyes is misguided. In the end, the story is not about him; it’s about Lois, tentatively starting a new essay, “Why the World Needs Superman,” and staring tearfully at her computer screen, unable to find the words.