For a pre-finals field trip, I took a couple of my students to catch a matinee of Superman Returns. Verdict? It’s a Brian Singer film; well-written story, excellent cast, beautiful direction, but, well, the action was about as exciting as betting on whether or not gnats can stop trucks. Superman is invincible. Plausible action sequences are entirely dependent on whether or not the citizens of Metropolis survive, since we know Supes will just be a little dusty none-for-worse after demolishing the biggest, flaminingest threat.
No, what made the movie interesting for me was the contrast between a godly Superman and the mortal Batman. Brian Singer weaves a plethora of Christian themes into the film, beginning with the quotation that the Father is the Son, and the Son the Father. A myriad of shots of Supes in space show him going from a Christlike pose to an almost fetal nativity pose, capturing the transition of Clark Kent the mortal-ish into the son of Jor-El, an alien of godlike power. At one point, Superman is stabbed through the lower ribcage by a spearhead of Kryptonite, and is at the mercy of a luciferously-garbed Lex Luthor who draws inspiration from the Roman Empire’s technological superiority. Later, his resurrection is conceived only when his son kisses his forehead, bringing the cycle to close.
Compare that to Batman Begins, where Bruce Wayne is a contemporary Adam who gains both enemies and the power to defeat his enemies through the double-edged pursuit of knowledge. Where Supes is “born” in the movie to a sole mother (with a visage outside the hospital highly reminiscent of Mary Magdalene’s face at the end of Passion of Christ), having only a ghostly message for his real father, Batman is born into a paradisical fortune of Eden, which he leaves to face daily danger. Superman is divine, Batman is fallen.
But there is another thread that I realized while watching the movie. I realized why people, especially Americans, love the Superman mythology. Forget the Christian themes in this (and only this) movie. Superman is an immigrant who has fallen in love with the American way, and lends his extraordinary powers to keep that patriotic flame alive. He wears our colors, but as Bill points out in Kill Bill, unlike all other superheroes, that isn’t his alter ego. That *is* him. Americans want to believe our Clark Kent exteriors are alter egos, and our origins are where are true powers lie, and that people will love us for them. Superman is and is reinforcing the American spirit simultaneously. Superman is not escapism, he is the real deal.
So was the movie any good? Well despite boring art direction and a total cop-out where the last fight happens not in Metropolis but some FX-lite island, it wasn’t bad, I mean technically it was executed flawlessly. The movie itself was very much emulating the Man of Steel- far too perfect, far too predictable. It’s a movie we’ll admire, but trust me, in the end, mortality is much more interesting. Batman will always better drama, so long as he isn’t impervious to bullets.