We knew Superman Returns contained some pretty heavy religious imagery, the Christian and Jewish type to be specific, but the film is now drawing positive comparisons with Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. On top of that, the film contains some un-Christlike imagery -- unless you believe the researchers behind Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code -- that has drawn some fascinating speculation from movie reviewers. Here's Manohla Dargis of The New York Times:
Near the end of the second film, Superman, realizing that he and Lois have no future, wipes away their boudoir encounter with an amnesia-producing kiss. Mr. Singer expends much more time and many more resources to do pretty much the same, erasing part of the past to create what is essentially a new and considerably more sober sequel to the first two films, one that shakes the earthiness off Superman and returns him to the status of a savior. There's always been a hint of Jesus (and Moses) to the character, from the omnipotence of his father to a costume that, with its swaths of red and blue, evokes the colors worn by the Virgin Mary in numerous Renaissance paintings. It's a hint that proves impossible not to take.
Intentionally or not, the Jesus angle also helps deflect speculation about just how straight this Superman flies. Given how securely Lois remains out of the romantic picture in "Superman Returns," now saddled with both a kid and a fiancÃ© (James Marsden), it's no surprise that some have speculated that Superman is gay. The speculation speaks more to our social panic than anything in the film, which, much like the overwhelming majority of American action movies produced since the 1980's, mostly involves what academics call homosocial relations. In other words, when it comes to Hollywood, boys will be boys and play with their toys, whether they're sleeping with one another or not, leaving women to weep, worry and wait to be rescued.
Every era gets the superhero it deserves, or at least the one filmmakers think we want. For Mr. Singer that means 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. It's hard to see what the point is beyond the usual grandiosity that comes whenever B-movie material is pumped up with ambition and money. As he proved with his first two installments of "The X-Men" franchise, Mr. Singer likes to make important pop entertainments that trumpet their seriousness as loudly as they deploy their bangs. It's hard not to think that Superman isn't the only one here with a savior complex.
So the Superman (Savior of the World) theme could be an interference measure in an attempt to dissuade talk of the big guy's sexual orientation? That's a conversation starter if I ever saw one. I'm pretty certain that the film's producers didn't purposefully consider that in including the religious themes, but then again, this is a summer blockbuster, intended to keep the movie studios happy with box-office receipts.
Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News gives us additional perspective:
That's almost straight out of the Gospel of John, said Reg Grant, a professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. But there's a vital difference from the message of Christianity: The caped, comic book "savior" is not sent to save people from their own evil. "He comes to help us find our potential," Dr. Grant said.
In fact, the new movie, despite its Christ imagery, could hardly be less theological. There's nothing of prayer or heaven. Superman offers salvation only from the perils of this world.
To hammer that point, Luthor steals a quote from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Or, though he doesn't say so, from divinity.
Mark Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel draws similiar conclusions in an article posted Monday, but also expounds on the theory that Superman may be more like the Old Testament's Moses.
Perhaps the film's Christian themes are just an attempt to draw in the red state types, which the Times seems to suggest in its lead:
Jesus of Nazareth spent 40 days in the desert. By comparison, Superman of Hollywood languished almost 20 years in development hell. Those years apparently raised the bar fearsomely high. Last seen larking about on the big screen in the 1987 dud "Superman IV," the Man of Steel has been resurrected in a leaden new film not only to fight for truth, justice and the American way, but also to give Mel Gibson's passion a run for his box-office money. Where once the superhero flew up, up and away, he now flies down, down, down, sent from above to save mankind from its sins and what looked like another bummer summer.
Peter Chattaway, who blogs here and whose review of the film just came up on Christianity Today's movie site, first suggested in a comment on my previous post on this subject that Superman Returns could be compared with The Da Vinci Code.
While there seems to be plenty of surface material for Christians to appreciate about this film, beneath the surface there is the potential for the movie to attract a Da Vinci-ish controversy. But since this is a comic book-based movie, no one will really care. Or will they?