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The passion of Superman

“Superman Returns,” opening today, is one of the most clearly Christological allegorical movies ever made. It is so clear that it even has a discussion about the world’s need for a savior.

When Superman disappears, Lois Lane has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper article stating that the world doesn’t need Superman. When Superman returns after trying to find the remains of his home planet, he takes Lois above Metropolis to ask her whether the world needs a savior. When she says it doesn’t, he asks her why, then, are so many people praying and asking for a savior.

Later in the movie, Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, equates Superman with ancient mythological gods and condemns him for being too selfish to share his power. The movie also contains a passion sequence where Lex Luthor stabs Superman in the side, just as Christ was stabbed by the Roman spear. Thus, the story of “Superman Returns” involves Superman coming back to find a world that needs him, but a world where people have moved on and lost faith in him, as Lois Lane contends.

Lois now lives with her son and Richard White, whom she has not married. Clearly, she loves Superman, but she’s angry that he disappeared without telling her. She is reunited with him when the test flight of a new airliner carrying a commercial version of the shuttle goes awry, and Superman has to save her and the other reporters. The reason the flight has gone awry is that Lex Luthor, released from prison, has found Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, stolen the Krypton crystals and is experimenting with growing Krypton crystals so he can grow his own continent. When the crystal first starts growing, it shuts down the power grid throughout the eastern United States.

Lex Luthor integrates kryptonite into the structure of his emerging continent. This sets up a final confrontation with Superman that involves his passion and perhaps his resurrection.

“Superman Returns” is a big-budget, entertaining, special-effects movie. Like many such movies, the hero is only as good as the villain, and Kevin Spacey’s performance as Lex Luthor is terrific. Spacey adds a touch of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that makes his character more interesting. No matter how mean-spirited his jokes are, they are funny.

The new Superman is not Christopher Reeve. He seems a little uncomfortable in places, which can be rationalized because Clark Kent is supposed to be uncomfortable. This reviewer’s biggest complaint is that he looks a little bit like Groucho Marx when he puts on his glasses, but he is well-built and has a degree of innocence.

People will still want to know if Superman is still true blue, honest, trustworthy, etc. For the most part he is, except for the dark cloud of his relationship with Lois Lane and her son. The filmmaker fails to remind us that Superman gave up his powers in “Superman II” so he could spend the night with Lois, before he realized that the consequences of becoming a mere mortal. When he realizes in “Superman II” that he has put the world and Lois in jeopardy, he causes Lois to forget the night of bliss. Strangely, in “Superman Returns,” Superman seems to have forgotten, too.

Even if the major plot device can be explained from a former Superman movie, “Superman Returns” is set in a more contemporary world where Lois Lane is living with a man without the benefit of marriage. Another reviewer said this gives the wrong impression to kids about marriage. Furthermore, Superman gets discouraged and goes to a bar with Jimmy to drink away his pining for Lois.

Also, there are a few lightweight obscenities in the movie and one light profanity. One of Lex Luthor’s twin puppies evidently eats the other in an act of cannibalism. One of Luthor’s henchmen is referenced as being part of a group of clown child abusers. So, when the henchman starts playing the piano next to Lois Lane’s son, there’s a sense of jeopardy. Clearly, things are a little bit more muddled than they were in the 1980s when the earlier Superman movies were made.

Even so, Superman is clearly a person who sacrifices himself for others. His father has sent his only begotten son to save this crazy, mixed-up world. With honor, valor, loyalty, and honesty, he does just that.

“Superman Returns,” rated PG-13, delivers the kind of jeopardy, danger and excitement required for a big-budget action movie. The premise is clear, and the special effects are beautifully executed. The director sometimes avoids showing the action sequence to concentrate on the dramatic relationships, so some people may miss the action of the first Superman movies. Overall, “Superman Returns” is a good entertainment value that will cause a lot of theological discussions, but MOVIEGUIDE? urges caution for children 12 and under.