The rumors are true. Superman Returns, which is receiving glowing reviews, is chock full of religious themes and imagery. Because I plan to see the film as soon as possible, I was actually disappointed in reading the following Time magazine review because it did a pretty good job in spoiling the plot and such. But oh well. You fans of Superman have been warned.
For starters, Time's Richard Corliss lays the scene:
Beneath the artifacts of camp and cape, they located a rich lode of myth. Just as important, they resolved to take it seriously. The result is an action adventure that's as thrilling for what it means as for what it shows.
The film is a kind of stepchild to the Superman movies of 1978 and '80. Superman (Brandon Routh) has been away from Metropolis for five years, searching for remains of his home planet, Krypton. He's back on Earth just in time, since his very arch enemy, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), has been sprung from prison and has a plan -- diabolical, of course -- to debilitate Superman using kryptonite crystals and, with the big guy out of the way, make the world miserable and profit from it.
Most early reviews that I've scanned do not highlight the religious angle of the film as heavily as the Time piece. But does the religious element in the film justify this type of attention? I know it's just another recycled comic book franchise, but it'll be interesting if this becomes part of the Hollywood culture wars storyline.
Here's what Time says the movie is all about (A final warning about spoilers: don't read beyond this point if you have any intention of being surprised by the movie):
But we must discuss it, for this is where the movie displays its impressive ambition and cunning. Earlier versions of Superman stressed the hero's humanity: his attachment to his Earth parents, his country-boy clumsiness around Lois. The [director Brian] Singer version emphasizes his divinity. He is not a super man; he is a god (named Kal-El), sent by his heavenly father (Jor-El) to protect Earth. That is a mission that takes more than muscles; it requires sacrifice, perhaps of his own life. So he is no simple comic-book hunk. He is Earth's savior: Jesus Christ Superman.
Using snippets of Marlon Brando's performance as Jor-El from the 1978 Superman movie, in which Brando passes on the wisdom "The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son," Singer establishes his own film's central relationship. It is not romantic, between Lois and Clark. It's familial -- the bond of two sets of fathers and sons: Jor-El and Superman, then Superman and Jason. Each parent tells his child that he must surpass the old man's feats, improve on Dad's legend. Poignantly, this strength, this divinity, isolates Superman from Earth's humans. He can save them but not be one of them. Lois can love him but never understand him.
The movie cogently ransacks elements from all kinds of myths, classic and modern. Superman is the god who fell to Earth, enduring a cycle of death and transfiguration. And since he has sired a boy who is part human, he could be the Jesus of the Gnostic Gospels. And Lois? Mary Magdalene!
So there you have it. I know religious imagery is a significant aspect in comic books, but when has it ever been this thick in a story that made it to film? And when has it had the potential to be this controversial?