Thursday, June 29, 2006

Jesus Christ SUPERstar

Here it goes. I've seen Superman Returns twice. I thoroughly enjoyed it. While it didn't blow me away the same way Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings reduced me to blubbering mess, I thought it was a completely wonderful film worthy of seeing more than once. One of my friends mentioned that she would've wanted to see more action, and not just Superman fighting a big mass of land. Spoiled by the new generation of action and fantasy movies, she might have a point. Superman Returns wasn't as action-packed as, say, X-Men or Spider-Man (the teaser's out, by the way). There weren't any spectacular fisticuffs, meaningless bullet-time kung fu scenes, or flashy Class 5 power displays. But that's what makes Superman Returns a super-hero movie in a class all its own. The closest super-hero film in recent years that comes close to it is Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, which treated the source material with equal reverence. Superman Returns isn't your regular super-hero movie. It couldn't be. It had to be more than that. It was, in Perry White's words when he chided Jimmy Olsen for losing out to a boy with a camera phone, "iconic".

Had Superman Returns, the first film about the Man of Steel since 1987's much-maligned Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, been an ordinary super-hero film with flashy displays of power and a menagerie of villains, it might not have been as powerful. I actually saw that awful film at a sold-out (for real, this time) SRO (standing room only) Harrison Plaza cinema back when I was a freshman in high school. I digress. The point is, Superman Returns is a powerful piece of film. It was meant to be. The whole fact that there were no other super-beings in the film (with the exception of one -- you guys will have to watch to find out what I mean) served to emphasize the fact that Superman is one-of-a-kind. There's noone like him. Or is there? I'll explain further in a while.

Here's where Superman Returns takes a turn for the theological. For me, I love Superman Returns because it's a very powerful Christian allegory. Whether Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris (the two screenwriters appear in a cameo during the museum break-in, a variation on the Hitchcock-ian theme of filmmakers - or in this case, scriptwriters - appearing in their movies) intended for it to be such a theological piece is debatable. Personally, however, it's what drew me to the film, and ultimately, it's what made Superman Returns a movie that rises above others on many levels.

Superman symbolizes Jesus Christ. This is basic, overt, and relatively easy to discern. A god among men sent to Earth as a savior, with the resonating words of the digitally-reborn Marlon Brando, "I have sent them you, my only son," echoes Jesus' repeated reference to having been sent by His Father (e.g. John 6:38 "For I have come down from Heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent me"). There will be arguments from Jewish camps, and with much merit, that Superman, who was created by two Jewish boys Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is a representation of Moses (a son spared from certain doom in order to save a people when he becomes an adult), not Jesus. Bryan Singer himself is Jewish, and draws parallels between Superman's exile from Krypton on a rocket ship and Moses' trip of survival down the Nile in a basket. This is perfectly fine. There's no argument to be made here, only reinforcements to the idea that Superman draws from classic story motifs which also happen to be in place in the Bible.

That said, there are many elements in Superman Returns that reinforce the Christian allegory. Visually, there is the scene after Superman essentially "saves humanity" (in that aforementioned "battle" with a mass of land) and falls to Earth in a pose reminiscent of Jesus on the cross. Thematically, that Superman took that pose after he had saved the day, giving his all - sacrificing himself, essentially - is strong Christian symbolism. semi-spoilers (highlight to read)
Lex Luthor, using a shard of Kryptonite, pierces Superman's right side, which echoes Longinus' piercing Jesus' right side with a spear to make sure he was dead. Superman, several scenes after the aforementioned symbolic crucifixion pose, also flatlines, dying for short while, only to live again, or resurrect, just as Jesus did. While these may be interpretational stretches, the allusions are very easy to identify.

However, what ultimately spells Superman Returns as a truly meaningful Christian allegory for me isn't Superman himself but Richard White, Perry's nephew and Lois' beau, who is quite possibly my favorite character in the film. Denied a meaningful role by the insufferably inept Brett Ratner in X-Men 3, James Marsden gets a remarkably beautiful part in Bryan Singer's (who directed the first two X-Men films in which Marsden played Cyclops, incidentally my favorite X-Man) Superman Returns as the heroic (in every humanly possible way) Richard White. He is the subtle lynchpin which raises the Jesus Christ-Superman allegory to the next level. Allow me to explain.

While I may get some protestations for saying this, in my opinion Christ's dying on the cross wasn't how or when He saved us. Certainly it represented, on a deep spiritual and universal level, His immeasurable love for humanity, but it wasn't the summation of Jesus' salvific act or nature. This is how Jesus saved us: Jesus paved the road for our salvation when He became a man and showed us the way. Ultimately, Christ's message of salvation is to follow in His footsteps, to become Christ-like. We are saved when we become like Christ. He came to Earth and showed us the template of how to live and die, showing us that a life of compassion is attainable even by creatures like us. This is where the character of Richard White represents the fulfillment of the Christian allegory: he was as Superman-like as can possibly be. The presence of a super-powerless (but far from powerless)
human who was every bit as heroic as the God-like Superman in the movie was a brilliant storytelling element that cements what is, in my view, the Christian allegory. We have it in each of us to become a Richard White, a Superman, a Jesus Christ. Jor-El emphasizes it when he tells Kal-El how humans "are a great people," and that "they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way." The disembodied voice continues how human beings' "capacity for good" is the reason why Superman was sent to Earth. That "capacity for good" is fully realized in Richard White, who embodies every remarkable thing about humanity. On the flip side, Jor-El later in the film also says how humans are also capable of being remarkably base and twisted. Lex Luthor represents everything despicable about humanity. That chiaroscuro, that polarity in human nature, is represented by Richard and Lex. They are the two extremes which humans can ultimately pursue. Superman symbolizes the example, the template, the Jesus Christ which we can all aspire to be or turn away from.

It is in this way that I love Superman Returns. It is no mere Super-hero movie, it is THE Super-hero movie. There is one scene in the film where a son comes up to his father's big shoes, which one could interpret to mean "following in the father's footsteps" or having "big shoes to fill". In a way, it says that following in Superman's (or following my allegorical bent, Christ's) footsteps or trying to fill his shoes is a really tall order -- but it's achievable. You'll understand what I mean when you see the movie. I will be seeing Superman Returns again, probably two or three times during its run in the cinemas. There are many other reasons, this time fanboy ones, why I love Superman Returns. It is a great movie but ultimately, what makes it dear to my heart is that it's a strong contemporary statement representing humanity's potential for heroism (or being Christ-like). And that's super.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

even if i'm one of the people who would've loved seeing superman kick someone's ass instead of a big mass of land, i loved reading this review. it made me see the movie in a whole new light. thanks!

8:45 PM  

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