Something of a remake of and a sequel to Richard Donner's Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980), Bryan Singer's new take on the iconic hero begins with Superman's return to Earth after five years away inspecting the remains of his home world Krypton. While he's been out of town, crime and terrorism have escalated in Metropolis and around the globe.
Also back in his old secret identity as a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, Clark Kent discovers that Lois Lane has moved on from Superman in a big way. Not only is she engaged to and living with Perry White's nephew, Richard, she has a son named Jason. And she is being awarded the Pulitzer for an editorial titled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman."
Meanwhile, Lex Luthor is out of prison due, in part, to the fact that Superman wasn't available to testify at an appeal hearing. With Kitty Kowalski and several henchmen in tow, Lex breaks into Superman's Fortress of Solitude and hatches a plan to use Kryptonian crystals for a real estate scheme that involves a transcontinental reconfiguration that will kill billions of people. Before long, Lois and Superman must set aside their conflicted feelings for each other to find a way to stop Lex from destroying civilization as we know it.
It's hard to get much more positive than a self-sacrificing hero who fights for "truth, justice and all that stuff," as the Daily Planet's resident old codger/editor Perry White paraphrases Superman's classic mission statement. Indeed, as always, Superman remains almost singularly motivated by doing good for others. Not only does he use his powers to save people from harm in every corner of the globe, he also willingly risks his own life to stop Luthor's plan to obliterate half the world. And, as Lois says, "he never lies."
On the verge of death, Superman remembers the words of his father, Jor-El, that his good actions would inspire others to "moral betterment" as well. In fact, Lois, Richard and young Jason all risk their lives to save Superman and others. Even one of Lex's evil crew boldly defies the evil genius at great personal risk to save others.
Much has been made over the years about the links between the Superman mythology and the story of Jesus. Director Bryan Singer avoids any subtlety in creating those connections afresh. Early in the film, we hear Jor-El telling his son, "Even though you've been raised as a human being you're not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all—their capacity for good—I have sent them you, my only son."
And Singer's story piles on obvious nods to Jesus' story throughout the film. Lois and Superman discuss at length whether she and the world need a savior. He tells her that with his god-like listening powers, he hears people crying out for one every day. The climactic battle with Lex Luthor escalates the connection. In an effort not to give too much away, let's just say Superman is attacked in a manner similar to the account of Jesus' death and then experiences a kind of resurrection. At one point, he even assumes the physical position of Christ on the cross as he sacrifices himself to save humanity.
Singer, who is Jewish, doesn't deny the connections between Superman and Jesus, but his statements make clear that he doesn't intend the film as any kind of explicitly Christian story. (And the story's hints at Superman's sexual indiscretions lend credence to his case.) Still, many Christians will make use of the similarities as a springboard to point people to the good news of Jesus. In his new book called The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero, author Stephen Skelton goes to great lengths to reveal how writers for Superman comics, radio scripts, TV shows and movies have intentionally modeled the Man of Steel after the Man of Sorrows. He points out that the "El" in Jor-El and Kal-El can also be seen as the Hebrew name for God. He references the phenomenon of Superman's death and resurrection in the comic book series in the early '90s. In fact, he says in the intro to his book, "I know who Superman really is," explicitly referencing the greatest hero as a picture of Jesus Christ.
And while there's value utilizing any tool available to help others see their need for a Savior, it's important that we don't lose the message that what we need saving from is our own sinfulness. The Bible teaches that Jesus came to die the death we deserved because of our rebellion against God. In that message, Superman Returns parts company with Scripture. When Jor-El suggests that humans can be a great people if someone will simply show them the way, he stops short of the truth that by nature humans are a self-serving, self-destructive people who deserve eternal death apart from God. We needed a Savior to die that death for us, to give us the opportunity through Him to spend eternity with the God our sin keeps us from.
That's not the message of Superman Returns. And it doesn't need to be. It's a great story all on its own.
Superman Returns limits its sexual quotient to small amounts of mild dialogue and innuendo. An old and dying woman leaving her fortune to new husband Lex Luthor says that he showed her "pleasures she had never known." Lois calls another woman a "hooker." Perry says that one of the three things that sells newspapers is sex (and that Lois "can't write worth a d--n about sex.") Richard mentions an article Lois wrote called "I Spent the Night With Superman," which she claims was a misleading title. In resisting an assignment, she says, "I've done Superman," not meaning it as it comes across to her newsroom.
[Spoiler Warning] It eventually becomes apparent that Superman and Lois do have some kind of sexual history. In this film, however, they share only a romantic late-night flight around the city and a chaste kiss. It's worth noting, again, that Lois and Richard never bothered to get married before "settling down" together as a family. (The story treats their decision to do so as unremarkable.)
Though the obvious body count is kept (unrealistically) low, Superman Returns turns in some pretty intense sequences. Criminals use a high-powered electronically fired Gatling gun (usually mounted on attack helicopters)to shoot up police cars; Superman intervenes with his body and the bullets bounce away. (We get treated to a slow-motion close-up shot of one hunk of lead crumpling against his eyeball.) A speeding car with no brakes careens wildly through the city, threatening crowds of people.
Lois gets tossed hard and repeatedly into the bulkhead of a plummeting jetliner. She is also beaten badly by one of Luthor's large henchmen who obviously intends to kill her. (So as not to give away a heavy plot point, I'll just say that he gets a piano dropped on him for his efforts.) Lois, Richard and Jason are for some time trapped and almost drown in a sinking ship.
Superman is brutally beaten and stabbed. He nearly drowns, and he plummets from space. At one point, the world holds its breath as it contemplates the possibility that he will die. Lex's evil plan results in a kind of earthquake under Metropolis. Buildings are shaken. Window glass, gigantic signs and the huge globe that tops the Daily Planet building all fall from skyscrapers. A gas line erupts, threatening the entire city. Elsewhere, a mass of rock tumbles in a similar earthquake, killing several bad guys.
On opposite ends of the violence spectrum, Krypton is shown blowing up, and Kitty slaps Lex across the face.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is interjected a half-dozen times. The camera cuts away before a man can complete the phrase, "holy s---." "D--n" is uttered a handful of times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Clark Kent and Jimmy Olson drink beers in a bar. Both seem a little tipsy. Lois and Richard drink wine at home. Lex smokes several cigars. Lois' secret smoking habit is revealed—as is Superman's windy efforts to keep her from lighting up.
Other Negative Elements
A pair of abandoned puppies is reduced to one, and we see it chewing on what looks like the remains of the other. Low on food, Lex begins to eye the remaining pooch.
With his X-Men-earned superhero cred in his back pocket and carrying a world of expectations on his shoulders, director Bryan Singer has mostly done it. Superman is back in a huge way, and the big fella in the primary colors again has a bright future ahead of him. Although painstakingly faithful to the spirit of the images so permanently embedded into our culture thanks to actor Christopher Reeve nearly three decades ago, Singer's approach mostly avoids the campy feel of those movies—either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how fondly you remember them.
Newcomer Brandon Routh fills Reeve's shoes solidly (but not superbly), believable for most of the film as both man of virtue and man of steel. In Kate Bosworth's hands, Lois is a little more grounded this time around. And Kevin Spacey makes a fine hammy, evil Lex, though we're given no understanding, really, of how he could so casually, eagerly plan to kill billions of people without a tweak of conscience. He's a little too monstrous to be believed, and none of Gene Hackman's outrageous silliness is present to balance the scales.
The real stars of the film, though, are the effects sequences. Superman's rescue of a plummeting jetliner is executed so stunningly that it really feels like the return of a long-lost hero. Shots of Superman flying are more authentic-looking than ever. In one of the best moments of the film, a young Clark Kent on the farm in Kansas runs through corn fields, making huge leaps with utter joy splashed across his face. Then he discovers he can, not fly exactly, but hover right above the ground. Who doesn't want to be able to do that?
Conversely, one of the hardest scenes to watch is Superman being kicked and maimed and pierced. And that brings me back to the obvious connections between Superman and Jesus. While they give the movie some spiritual resonance, I actually found them distracting, taking me out of the Superman story and into trying to figure out what Singer and his writers were aiming for in the subtext.
Finally, the state of Superman's relationships with Lois, her son and Richard adds a layer both to the Superman myth and to all those supposed spiritual connections that's a bit unsettling. The resulting uneasy, untraditional family grouping risks tarnishing Kal-El's rock-solid goodness, and it gives the finale just a whiff of soap opera. Lots of kids like to think of their dad as secretly being Superman, but I'd like to think of Superman as a guy who's above being someone's secret dad.