Warning: critical analysis ahead!

moved from old site

Be aware, this post contains a detailed discussion of some key "surprise" plot elements in the new Superman movie. Consider this your "spoiler warning."

So, a friend and I were talking about Superman Returns the other day.

She's disappointed with some of the things they did in the new film, mostly with the implication that Supe and Lois have become less-than morally upstanding. She said something about how it negates a whole bunch of Superman's best qualities, like responsibility and faithfulness. Initially, I dismissed her comments as an obsession with antiquated ideas of cultural sexual norms and a sign that “she's not really the person that the film was made for, anyway. The real world is better able to cope with presentations of the realities of human relationships.”

When I heard myself saying that (okay, when I realized that I was thinking it) it felt like a ton of bricks had hit me in the chest. Since when have I become a moral relativist, anyway? I don't remember renouncing my ethical standards when I signed up for literary theory classes...

Okay, maybe my friend is right. Maybe Brian Singer's Superman is even a bit of a jerk.

Now, I've heard a lot of people say that this film presents a strong pro-salvation message, which is the same thing as saying that "Superman represents the Christ that we need because our world is a fallen, broken, messed-up place."

I'm going to disagree with that interpretation of Superman entirely, and maybe even re-cast the idea of Christ as saviour. In fact, once I had thought about the film from a different point of view, Lois' live-in would-be-husband really started seeming like more of a Christ figure than Superman did.

Superman can save the world from bad guys who want to grow islands of crystal that will destabilize the real estate market, sure. Superman can stand up to the bully with the minigun who wants to take your money out of the bank, too. And Superman can protect baseball fans from being squished while keeping NASA's reputation intact. All that, and he's got stylish red underpants outside his tights. (Being a guy, my understanding of style is limited, so that last point is an assumption based on logical induction: If the red underpants on the outside aren't stylish, why would he wear them like that...?)

Superman is not Christ for any of these reasons. Christ constantly refers to his relationship with the church in familial terms, especially favoring the role of husband: Superman is a terrible husband. First, why is he sleeping with Lois? She's exciting, spunky, intelligent and talented, and so on. The ideal human female, the girl any guy would kill to be with. Superman gets a kick out of being the centre of her attention, of using his otherworldly power to sweep her off her feet: as Clark Kent, all he can do is have brief conversations with Lois and snoop through her desk like a creepy stalker. If Clark is Superman's projection of his understanding of humanity (thank you Quentin Tarantino), then he's not really interested in a one-on-one relationship with Lois at all. Clark's relationship with Lois is Superman's way of saying “this is why I get to be with Lois and the rest of you don't: because you're all shrimpy dorks. Lois is better than the rest of you, and she deserves to be with someone who's more powerful than you, like Superman.”

Superman's relationship with Lois is totally unstable. As Clark, he sees her as an unattainable object of desire, the thing he can't have. As Superman, Lois is the woman who makes him feel most powerful; Lois is the benchmark for Kal-El's sense of pride. He can save Lois, he can seduce Lois, he can make Lois stop smoking, whatever he wants. And when Superman realizes that he should leave Earth for a while to go look for the remains of Krypton, he doesn't even say goodbye. Superman's justifications for leaving in the first place are evidence enough that he's not really a husband: essentially, he said to Lois that Krypton is more important than she is. That's not something a husband could say to his wife. If there were a moral conundrum, a divine obligation, then the tragedy of the situation could be played out for five minutes of weepy kissing and hugging as she tells him that she understand his reasons for going; instead we get Superman's wanderlust/curiosity/self-importance overpowering his commitment to the relationship and he flies away.

Richard, from what we can see in the film, is actually a really good husband. First of all, he's there. Not wandering around the universe looking for glowing rocks, but there, in Lois' life, trying to support her as best he can. He works with her, so he appreciates her calling in a fair and measured way: Richard knows that Lois is intelligent, but he doesn't worship her because of it. The relationship is based on a mutual commitment, where each can contribute to the other's life. Richard is in an executive position at the Globe (presumably because he's good at it) and that allows him to help Lois, who is in a position to make the Globe a better paper and to give Richard an insight into the personalities that contribute to the paper as an entity. Clark doesn't contribute to Lois' professional life because he's too busy trying to keep track of being Superman to actually do his job.

Richard is infinitely more Christlike than Superman in this simple attribute: Richard is committed to his relationship with Lois in spite of all. Lois is unsure about marriage, Lois is still obsessed with/bitter because of Superman, Lois is lying about a smoking habit. Richard loves her and stays with her anyway: that's a husband. That's Christ.

Not to say that either of the relationships are especially paradigmatic; we can't really use the story as an allegory of Christ's love. I'm simply pointing out which of the two guys is being more Christlike in their messed-up situation.

Christ is not interested in having a fling with the Church. Christ is not willing to have a halfway relationship with us, to be the knight in shining armour who rides in to rescue us from the monotony of earthly life and satisfy our wildest desires. He is not here to save us at the last second from the chaotic forces that control the world, either. Christ is the one who lives with us in our 24-hour world of pain and depression and boring jobs and squished dreams. “In him we live and move and have our being”--not once in a while for kicks, but all the time. Christ will be there when we don't know what's going on, but he won't give us the easy way out. Christ shows us how to lead by serving, how to teach by thinking like a child, and how to fight our enemies by loving them.

The most telling difference between the two comes, I think, in their relationships with the kid, Jason.

Richard wants to be Jason's father because that's what Richard is, a father. He's there for his son, he's doing his human best to make a stable home that the boy can grow up in, to be the model of masculine devotion and strength. What's Superman to Jason? The guy with the shiny tights that flies into his room once in a while to check up on him (and maybe show him neat tricks in the future) is not his father.

Was Superman interested in taking care of Jason when he first met him? Of course not. Superman just had a thing for Lois, and didn't care for the boy and more or less than any other child on the planet. Jason was only extra baggage in Lois' life that he had to 'deal with' until he found out about the paternity crisis. Richard, on the other hand, has always been and will always be Jason's father regardless of genetic paternity. Richard would only stop being the father if Lois were stupid enough not to marry him and took Jason away to live on-again-off-again with Mr. Superiority complex. (How do you think the kid would turn out then?)

Christ does have a Superman-like quality about him that we shouldn't ignore; we should never get to the point that we would look down on him as just the boring old God that we've always known. But it's all too easy to focus on the flash and flair of the phenominal cosmic power and ignore the real attributes of love that he has set as an example for us all.

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