Revisiting Superman Returns: Does the World Need Superman?

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Why retread a Superman movie made seven years ago that audiences and the film industry dismissed as a massive let-down and underwhelming? What is it about Superman, the most fundamental of all Superheroes, the big daddy of Superheroes? As I browsed the internet, fans praised and admired Superman’s human-like qualities, compassion, stalwart morality, humble upbringing on a farm. Superman is loaded with super-everything: x-ray vision, flight, super strength, heat vision, super hearing. Everyone knows that Superman will kick the villains butt, but it is the psychological and moral battles of defeating the foe in an ethical way. Superman is the ultimate goody-two shoes, and he’s not afraid to show it. Unlike other Superheroes, he is the bastion of goodness, justice, and right, he is pure in the sense that he doesn’t have the same shortcomings and moral failures like other Superheroes. With a name like “Kal-el,” which could mean “voice of God,” in Hebrew, Superman has many Christocentric and God-like qualities.

The prologue kicks off continuing with the events of Superman II. Superman returns to earth after a five-year exploration of the remains of the planet Krypton searching for survivors. His disappearance has been duly noted as the planet earth is racked with war, crime, and revolution. Superman’s long-term romantic interest Louis Lane has seemingly moved on from Superman, winning a Pulitzer for the book Does the World Need Superman? The film revolves around the question, and it is akin to the stagnant faith and the rise of secularism around the world. Lois Lane blurts out, “The world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I.” Superman shows Louis the city from afar telling her, “Every day I hear people crying out for one.”

The film is directed by Bryan Singer, and penned by Daniel Harris, Michael Dougherty, all responsible for X2: Ex-Men United.  If we have learned anything from Singer’s movies is that he cares about character development, and the slick and snappy dialogue really shines in the script. All the characters play their signature roles, Kevin Spacey is the perfect diabolical, heartless villain who is bent on creating a new continent in spite of killing billions of people. He stands as a perfect antithesis of Superman, with his sly comebacks and his off-handedness. James Marsden plays Richard White a minor role as the long-time boyfriend of Lois Lane, a pilot and a shadow and imitation of Superman, who can fly and is more morally grounded refusing to use his x-ray vision for carnal desires. Brandon Routh plays Superman and Clark Kent perfectly, in his simple, innocent, politeness and mannerisms, while being awkward in the presence of Lois Lane. Even though Superman can leap off of tall buildings, and save hundreds of people from a crashing plane, his alter-ego can’t get an apartment in Metropolis. There’s some irony here, which makes Superman work. Clark Kent humanizes Superman because he struggles with the same concerns as we all do.

Daniel Harris and Michael Dougherty do a masterful job creating conflict by the domino effect of Lex Luther’s lust of power and domination. The kryptonite crystals in the fortress of solitude wreck havoc on the city of Metropolis.  There is no clear marker or threat, until it is fully realized in the last hour of the film. Singer understands why audiences care about heart-pumping actions scenes and destruction, when he makes us care about the characters involved and the reaction on the people’s faces as Superman scrambles to save the people despite goliath-like circumstances and natural disasters. A major critique is that there is far too much dialogue is less actions, but the film never drags for me because of the interesting character developments and the clashing of personalities of the cast.

Allegory sticks out the most as Jor-El, or Superman’s father, says “the Son inherited the same characteristics as the Father.” Like any good story he faces his humanity as he lands on an island of kryptonite and is beaten and shamed, in the same way Christ is humiliated. Superman carries the island out into space, and literally faces death as he plummets back into earth’s atmosphere. Subsequently his empty white hospital bed is similar to the empty tomb account. Self-sacrifice is a theme of all Superhero movies, and Superman must face life and death itself. The newspaper headline “Superman is Dead,” is a title we all would never see. Superman can’t die, he’s Superman. Singer’s movie breaks new ground as Superman truly faces pain and suffering, groveling on the ground being beaten by Lex Luther’s cronies.

Is “Superman Returns” the movie that we had expected or even wanted? No, it isn’t. But it was what we certainly deserved, because it gave proper homage to Superman’s series at least more than III and IV. Much like the complicated and artful “Hulk” film by Stan Lee, it has been vastly underrated and misunderstood by audiences desiring mere pop-corn entertainment, and transformer-like explosions.

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