Friday, July 21, 2006

Where have all the good men gone? Thoughts on Superman Returns

We went to see the new Superman film last night so don’t read on if you want to avoid any plot spoilers.

Superman Returns is a thoroughly enjoyable example of comic-book cinema with more than a little subtlety and style. As well as being a good two-and-a-half hours of effects-packed fun (some of the aerial shots were breath-taking) Superman Returns is also laden with nods to the gospel story of Jesus Christ and knows it. The basic portrayal of Superman is as an only Son sent by his Father to bring salvation to earth, but people on earth don’t think they need a saviour and so on – there’s even something of a cross/resurrection parallel.

However, that’s not the most interesting thing the film made me think about. What struck me was the rather muddied morality of the main characters - even Superman himself (here would be a good point to turn away if you don’t want the plot spoiled, really!).

One of the central themes (surprise surprise) is Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane; she has apparently moved on with her life during his five-year absence and is living with her long-term fiancée with whom she is raising a child. Superman is slow to recognise this fact and makes moves to re-ignite the passion between himself and Lois. That said, they both stop short of an act of betrayal, although this is mainly due to Lois, not Superman. In this respect the film should be highly commended for bucking the all too common cinematic trend to justify almost anything in the pursuit of ‘true love’.

However, what this does mean is that the modern Superman is no longer the purer-than-pure hero-figure of yesteryear but has an emotional/personal life that reflects something of the murky complexity of modern relationships. This is a complexity in which Superman himself is culpable - he is at least emotionally prepared to mess around with someone else’s girlfriend. Superman's complex relational life is further developed when it emerges that Superman is the father of Lois’ child – something he only discovers towards the close of the film. Lois and Superman evidently had some sort of sexual relationship – despite which Superman left for his five-year sabbatical without saying goodbye to her, unaware she was pregnant with his child.

To an extent all of these are things that Superman learns from during the course of the film – all part of his adjusting to being an alien living on earth, never able to fully participate in domestic normality. Consequently there is a sense in which Superman himself has grown emotionally by the time the credits role.

However, in public, Superman is perceived by the citizens of Metropolis as thoroughly good - at one point it is even claimed he never lies. In addition, the film portrays him as someone whose goodness can inspire humanity and thus bring to fruition our inherent capacity for goodness. The salvation he can bring to earth is more than rescue from natural disasters and evil masterminds – it is the transformative power of a good example. This is in sharp contrast with the bible’s understanding of the human predicament and the salvation we need. Biblically speaking, in our hearts we are God-haters and addicted to sin - this in turn manifests itself in our broken relationships, irresponsible behaviour and willingness to hurt others in pursuit of our own desires. These are facts that no mere example can overcome, however noble. It is ironic then that Superman Returns pictures a saviour for humankind who himself seems tainted by the same problems of ‘human’ nature from which the bible says we need saving.

The Flaming Lips once sang;

‘Tell everybody waitin’ for a superman
that they should try to hold on best they can.
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything…
It’s just too heavy for a superman to lift’

It seems the Superman of Superman Returns is similarly ill-equipped for the task of saving humanity from the weight of sin-sickness. And that’s ultimately because the bible has a fundamentally different understanding of the human condition to our culture at large, not to mention Hollywood. We need a Saviour who really is thoroughly good in a way in which we are not, even in the details of his relationships, not just to be our example, but to be our substitute and representative before a thoroughly good and just God.

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