Is Superman Returns the next Passion or Da Vinci Code?

superman returns3We knew Superman Returns contained some pretty heavy religious imagery, the Christian and Jewish type to be specific, but the film is now drawing positive comparisons with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. On top of that, the film contains some un-Christlike imagery — unless you believe the researchers behind Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code — that has drawn some fascinating speculation from movie reviewers.

Here’s Manohla Dargis of The New York Times:

Near the end of the second film, Superman, realizing that he and Lois have no future, wipes away their boudoir encounter with an amnesia-producing kiss. Mr. Singer expends much more time and many more resources to do pretty much the same, erasing part of the past to create what is essentially a new and considerably more sober sequel to the first two films, one that shakes the earthiness off Superman and returns him to the status of a savior. There’s always been a hint of Jesus (and Moses) to the character, from the omnipotence of his father to a costume that, with its swaths of red and blue, evokes the colors worn by the Virgin Mary in numerous Renaissance paintings. It’s a hint that proves impossible not to take.

Intentionally or not, the Jesus angle also helps deflect speculation about just how straight this Superman flies. Given how securely Lois remains out of the romantic picture in “Superman Returns,” now saddled with both a kid and a fiancé (James Marsden), it’s no surprise that some have speculated that Superman is gay. The speculation speaks more to our social panic than anything in the film, which, much like the overwhelming majority of American action movies produced since the 1980′s, mostly involves what academics call homosocial relations. In other words, when it comes to Hollywood, boys will be boys and play with their toys, whether they’re sleeping with one another or not, leaving women to weep, worry and wait to be rescued.

Every era gets the superhero it deserves, or at least the one filmmakers think we want. For Mr. Singer that means a Superman who fights his foes in a scene that visually echoes the garden betrayal in “The Passion of the Christ” and even hangs in the air much as Jesus did on the cross. It’s hard to see what the point is beyond the usual grandiosity that comes whenever B-movie material is pumped up with ambition and money. As he proved with his first two installments of “The X-Men” franchise, Mr. Singer likes to make important pop entertainments that trumpet their seriousness as loudly as they deploy their bangs. It’s hard not to think that Superman isn’t the only one here with a savior complex.

So the Superman (Savior of the World) theme could be an interference measure in an attempt to dissuade talk of the big guy’s sexual orientation? That’s a conversation starter if I ever saw one. I’m pretty certain that the film’s producers didn’t purposefully consider that in including the religious themes, but then again, this is a summer blockbuster, intended to keep the movie studios happy with box-office receipts.

Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News gives us additional perspective:

That’s almost straight out of the Gospel of John, said Reg Grant, a professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. But there’s a vital difference from the message of Christianity: The caped, comic book “savior” is not sent to save people from their own evil. “He comes to help us find our potential,” Dr. Grant said.

In fact, the new movie, despite its Christ imagery, could hardly be less theological. There’s nothing of prayer or heaven. Superman offers salvation only from the perils of this world.

To hammer that point, Luthor steals a quote from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Or, though he doesn’t say so, from divinity.

Mark Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel draws similiar conclusions in an article posted Monday, but also expounds on the theory that Superman may be more like the Old Testament’s Moses.

Perhaps the film’s Christian themes are just an attempt to draw in the red state types, which the Times seems to suggest in its lead:

Jesus of Nazareth spent 40 days in the desert. By comparison, Superman of Hollywood languished almost 20 years in development hell. Those years apparently raised the bar fearsomely high. Last seen larking about on the big screen in the 1987 dud “Superman IV,” the Man of Steel has been resurrected in a leaden new film not only to fight for truth, justice and the American way, but also to give Mel Gibson’s passion a run for his box-office money. Where once the superhero flew up, up and away, he now flies down, down, down, sent from above to save mankind from its sins and what looked like another bummer summer.

Peter Chattaway, who blogs here and whose review of the film just came up on Christianity Today‘s movie site, first suggested in a comment on my previous post on this subject that Superman Returns could be compared with The Da Vinci Code.

While there seems to be plenty of surface material for Christians to appreciate about this film, beneath the surface there is the potential for the movie to attract a Da Vinci-ish controversy. But since this is a comic book-based movie, no one will really care. Or will they?

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Religious themes in Superman (spoiler alert)

religious superman The rumors are true. Superman Returns, which is receiving glowing reviews, is chock full of religious themes and imagery.

Because I plan to see the film as soon as possible, I was actually disappointed in reading the following Time magazine review because it did a pretty good job in spoiling the plot and such. But oh well. You fans of Superman have been warned.

For starters, Time‘s Richard Corliss lays the scene:

Beneath the artifacts of camp and cape, they located a rich lode of myth. Just as important, they resolved to take it seriously. The result is an action adventure that’s as thrilling for what it means as for what it shows.

The film is a kind of stepchild to the Superman movies of 1978 and ’80. Superman (Brandon Routh) has been away from Metropolis for five years, searching for remains of his home planet, Krypton. He’s back on Earth just in time, since his very arch enemy, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), has been sprung from prison and has a plan — diabolical, of course — to debilitate Superman using kryptonite crystals and, with the big guy out of the way, make the world miserable and profit from it.

Most early reviews that I’ve scanned do not highlight the religious angle of the film as heavily as the Time piece. But does the religious element in the film justify this type of attention? I know it’s just another recycled comic book franchise, but it’ll be interesting if this becomes part of the Hollywood culture wars storyline.

Here’s what Time says the movie is all about (A final warning about spoilers: don’t read beyond this point if you have any intention of being surprised by the movie):

But we must discuss it, for this is where the movie displays its impressive ambition and cunning. Earlier versions of Superman stressed the hero’s humanity: his attachment to his Earth parents, his country-boy clumsiness around Lois. The [director Brian] Singer version emphasizes his divinity. He is not a super man; he is a god (named Kal-El), sent by his heavenly father (Jor-El) to protect Earth. That is a mission that takes more than muscles; it requires sacrifice, perhaps of his own life. So he is no simple comic-book hunk. He is Earth’s savior: Jesus Christ Superman.

Using snippets of Marlon Brando’s performance as Jor-El from the 1978 Superman movie, in which Brando passes on the wisdom “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son,” Singer establishes his own film’s central relationship. It is not romantic, between Lois and Clark. It’s familial — the bond of two sets of fathers and sons: Jor-El and Superman, then Superman and Jason. Each parent tells his child that he must surpass the old man’s feats, improve on Dad’s legend. Poignantly, this strength, this divinity, isolates Superman from Earth’s humans. He can save them but not be one of them. Lois can love him but never understand him.

The movie cogently ransacks elements from all kinds of myths, classic and modern. Superman is the god who fell to Earth, enduring a cycle of death and transfiguration. And since he has sired a boy who is part human, he could be the Jesus of the Gnostic Gospels. And Lois? Mary Magdalene!

So there you have it. I know religious imagery is a significant aspect in comic books, but when has it ever been this thick in a story that made it to film? And when has it had the potential to be this controversial?

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Does the G in PG stand for God?

ftgmovieposterfinaltweakTwo weeks ago, I wrote a little column for Scripps Howard about a little movie called Facing the Giants that seems to have started a little controversy. I have given up trying to predict when people are going to react to a column. You know?

Anyway, I’ve been on a radio show or two and done interviews with Variety and the Los Angeles Times (more on that in a moment). I don’t want to replay the whole mini-drama, but the news hook is that the Motion Picture Association of America has given this ultra-low-budget film — which comes from a Southern Baptist congregation in Albany, Ga. — a PG rating because it contains “thematic elements” that might trouble some parents.

Ah, but what are the troubling thematic elements? Here is what I wrote:

“What the MPAA said is that the movie contained strong ‘thematic elements’ that might disturb some parents,” said Kris Fuhr, vice president for marketing at Provident Films, which is owned by Sony BMG. Provident plans to open the film next fall in 380 theaters nationwide with the help of Samuel Goldwyn Films, which has worked with indie movies like “The Squid and the Whale.”

Which “thematic elements” earned this squeaky-clean movie its PG?

“Facing the Giants” is too evangelistic.

The MPAA, noted Fuhr, tends to offer cryptic explanations for its ratings. In this case, she was told that it “decided that the movie was heavily laden with messages from one religion and that this might offend people from other religions. It’s important that they used the word ‘proselytizing’ when they talked about giving this movie a PG. … It is kind of interesting that faith has joined that list of deadly sins that the MPAA board wants to warn parents to worry about.”

Now, according to a story by Jim Puzzanghera of the Times, the MPAA has been swamped in emails — 15,000 or so — protesting this rating. That’s 10 times the previous record and, sure enough, this mini-revolt has even spread to Capitol Hill, where there are people who know a good fundraising letter headline when they see one.

… (The) third-ranking House Republican has written to MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman demanding answers.

“This incident raises the disquieting possibility that MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence,” said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

The MPAA rarely discusses its decisions about ratings, electing to work in a cloud of mystery. This is, I think, a strange way of doing business in the age of the Internet and all of its helpful niche reference materials. However, Puzzanghera did get a response.

Joan Graves, chairwoman of the MPAA’s rating board, said Tuesday that the decision had nothing to do with Christianity but was based on football violence as well as the inclusion of mature topics such as depression and infertility. In a rare interview granted in an attempt to defuse what she calls a controversy born of miscommunication, Graves said that although infertility and depression are involved in the coach’s “crisis of faith,” the religious story line itself did not raise a red flag.

“If we see somebody on the screen practicing their faith and indicating they have a faith, that’s not something we PG,” Graves said. …

“We think our rating is correct,” she said of “Facing the Giants.” “I think it gives parents an alert that there may be something in the film they’d want to know about.”

cast granttaylorFrankly, I think the PG rating is fine, if the MPAA is going to be consistent. If the goal is to warn parents about movies that contain scenes that may offend a sizable number of modern Americans, then Facing the Giants should get a PG rating. There are tons of secular and liberal people out there who, if they wandered into a theater without a warning, would be very offended by this movie’s in-your-face evangelistic content.

So when Puzzanghera and others have asked me what I think of this application of the PG rating, I have tried to give them a three-part answer. (1) I think the rating is appropriate. (2) I agree that there are legions of parents, some of them with lawyers, who would be offended by the pro-Jesus material in the film. However, I also think that (3) the MPAA now faces the challenge — if it wants to be consistent — of applying this standard to other films.

But that is a big “if.” Will other world religions be considered equally offensive? Vague environmental pantheism, perhaps? How about political viewpoints that would offend many parents? If the MPAA is worried about offending blue-zip-code parents, will it also strive to protect the children of red-zip-code parents?

I think that’s an interesting story and, you know, I may just have to write that one myself. So far, other journalists have not been very interested in that angle. Maybe my three-part answer is too nuanced for a headline or a sound bite. You think? It doesn’t work on religious talk radio and it also flopped with the Los Angeles Times. I’ll let you know what Variety ends up running.

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Daaaaaaaaa-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum. (continue)

PassionLastSupperWell folks, I really don’t know what to say about this news except: Cue the theme from Jaws. Let’s go straight to the Hollywood Reporter story by Paul Bond, which I am amazed has not inspired more coverage. Where is Frank Rich?

The bottom line — literally — is that Sony Pictures is attempting to appeal to the evangelical slice of the mainstream audience that flocked to The Passion of the Christ by making a sequel about the events after the resurrection.

Who are the key players? Wait for it:

Using the Bible for its source material, “Resurrection” will tell the story of Jesus Christ beginning the day he died on the cross and ending about 40 days later with his ascension into heaven. According to insiders, Sony’s mid-budget Screen Gems division commissioned a script several months ago from Lionel Chetwynd, the veteran screenwriter, producer and director whose credits include the feature “The Hanoi Hilton” and the Emmy-nominated TV movie “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.”

Set to produce is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series of books. A popular minister and frequent TV news pundit, “Resurrection” will mark LaHaye’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking.

Now, we know that the words “Mel Gibson” freaked out a lot of folks on the left coast. However, his name also thrilled a lot of people who were excited that a heavyweight, A-list talent was going to make a serious film about Holy Week. Gibson is a love-him or hate-him kind of man, but no one doubted his talent and his commitment to quality. He had that Braveheart thing going for him, after all.

But Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye? His involvement will excite many on the Christian right, but it will also — needless to say — raise questions about artistic merits of the project. I mean, is this a direct-to-video project?

It is possible that this movie will not cause controversy. It is also possible that it will. Bond’s short report noted:

The film will focus on these dramatic encounters and their implications for the Roman garrison in Judea and the broader Roman Empire, insiders said.

“This is not a fanciful rendering. It’s a serious attempt to understand the Roman world in which Christ moved and the Christian era was born,” a person familiar with the project said.

Does “the broader Roman Empire” include the complex and divided world of the Jewish authorities of that day? It goes without saying that LaHaye’s beliefs may also raise concerns among Jewish groups, especially on the cultural left.

Meanwhile, it is clear that The Passion raised issues in Hollywood that are not going away anytime soon.

After all, the crew at Entertainment Weeklywhich is known (cough, cough) for its mainstream views on religion — has just named Gibson’s bloody epic as the single most controversial film of all time.

That’s right, hotter than The Message by Moustapha Akkad, which offered a take on the origins of Islam that lead to riots and terrorism. Hotter than the epic racism of The Birth of a Nation. Hotter than JFK, Deep Throat, Fahrenheit 9/11, A Clockwork Orange and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. And EW thought that Gibson’s film was way, way more controversial than that historic film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl that helped build the legend of a secular messianic figure of some importance — Adolf Hitler.

It’s safe to say that anything hailed as Passion 2 will cause a bit of heat among the powers that be in the world of entertainment.

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Religion in comic books

supermanYou have to give makers of comic books credit. They have been able to effectively turn their craft into a big screen wonder lately. With hit after hit, Hollywood box offices are smiling.

I haven’t seen much buzz on the new Superman film, due to hit the screens just before the long Fourth of July weekend, other than it’s supposed to be quite good, but this small item in Newsweek‘s excellent Beliefwatch section made me think that something’s in the making:

Is the Man of Steel a man of faith? The upcoming “Superman” movie has sent fans picking over primary sources. Jews have often claimed the archetypal superhero as their own. Superman sprang from the imaginations of two Jewish cartoonists, and scholars have compared him to golem myth — the supernatural creature who vanquishes the Jews’ enemies (early on, Superman battled the Nazis directly). Most fans believe the man from Krypton is a Methodist, an opinion divined from Clark Kent’s Midwestern upbringing. But there’s another possibility. In the original 1978 movie and the new one, the superhero’s father tells him: “They can be a great people … They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all — their capacity for good — I’ve sent them you, my only son.” Yes, Superman is a Christ figure.

Is the religiosity of a cartoon character going to become part of the culture wars? Of course not. It’s just comic books and they’re open to anyone’s interpretation. But it’s certainly fun to discuss.

The article includes a short snippet of an interview with the founder of Adherents.com, Preston Hunter, who has analyzed comic book characters and found religious denominations for several of them, including Daredevil’s Elektra as Greek Orthodox. I say go figure on that one, I never saw the movie, but placing spiritual attachments in fantasy is nothing new to Christians, particularly the fans of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

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Who’s missing from the big picture?

aslan eyeLet me (during a short break in my D.C. meetings) jump up on a soapbox for a minute.

Is Entertainment Weekly a news publication? Probably not, but it is published by a news organization and it has some pages in the front of each issue called “news.” The current issue has one of those trendy annotated list/feature stories by reporter Tim Stack titled “Claw Power: The top ten franchise characters in movies — Wolverine, Madea and Jigsaw are only some of the heroes and villians that attract audiences.”

The article never clearly defines its terms, which left me to assume — a bad word in journalism — that the goal of the article was to describe the characters at the heart of current Hollywood movie franchises, movie series that have potential to roll on for some time into the future making the big bucks.

The man at the top of the list is currently ruling global theater screens:

Despite some negative prerelease buzz, mixed reviews, and a furry blue Kelsey Grammer in a leather vest, X-Men: The Last Stand demolished Memorial Day box office records with a huge $122.9 million domestic four-day gross. It’s the latest impressive haul for a franchise that just keeps getting bigger: In 2000, the first X-Men pulled in $157.7 million total, while 2003′s X2 took home $214.9 million. With The Last Stand this X trilogy has come to an end, but the film’s best-known character, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), is set to live on in a highly anticipated spin-off, which could spawn sequels of its own. That’s why the blade-bearing mutant tops our list of film’s most powerful characters.

Notice that there appear to be two key factors linked to the meaning of this “franchise” term — (1) big box office and (2) the ability to produce more sequels. In other words, EW says it wants success right now and solid potential for success in the future.

Thus, Harry Potter is No. 2 and Spider-Man is No. 3. Shrek falls to No. 4. Shrek 3 is on the way, but beyond that? What is the source material for Shrek 7?

The rest of the list gets kind of strange (read the article for the explanations of each):

(5) Robert Langdon (with or without the hair of Tom Hanks)

(6) Jason Bourne

(7) James Bond

(8) Jigsaw

(9) Bart Simpson (fading on TV, first movie on the way)

(10) Madea

Aslan Lion Narnia MovieActually, I would have rated Perry’s “trash-talking senior citizen” higher in the list, in part because of her cost-to-box-office ratio. Clearly, there is a niche out there for African American humor that has some sense of (how to say this) faith and funky family values. I also get the impression that Perry is tapping a very deep personal well of creativity.

But I digress.

Take a look at that No. 2 slot — Mr. Harry Potter. Now, I love these books and think the movies are OK. The fourth movie was a smash and brought in $290,013,036 in domestic box office. That’s a strong total, and few doubt that the final three movies will do likewise.

But what if you had a franchise character that brought in $291,710,957 in its opening movie? What if the character was at the heart of a beloved, classic seven-book series that sold roughly 100 million copies in the second half of the 20th century?

With six books to go, could we say that this character has solid box-office potential? If the first film topped that No. 2 franchise, might not this new franchise character at least make it onto the list? Somewhere?

Who is missing from this list? Why is he — or even He — missing? Why doesn’t this pop-news article in EW play by its own rules?

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Latest in evangelistic video games

stbbc8So, be honest. Which of the following two news stories scares you the most?

Option (a), or option (b)?

Which story makes you the most depressed about the future of public discourse in our culture? The future of organized and non-organized religion?

OK, I’ll cut to the chase. Which is the bigger news story?

But wait. Is it possible that these two stories are actually the same news story, only looking at fads in different zip codes?

Have a nice day. I need a nap.

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Inside Dan Brown’s Holy of Holies

bonalisa2Just a reminder, gentle readers, that I am still interested in actual news stories about The Da Vinci Code that escape the basic news templates we have seen over and over and over.

Although, I guess, if somebody out there is doing an evangelistic weekend that actually focuses on church history and art, that would be a novelty.

Anyway, the Los Angeles Times did print a feature this week that tries to offer newspaper readers a bit of a trip into a world that they do not see — the life of the screenwriter. In “Breaking ‘Code’ down on the page,” Charles Taylor tried to explain the challenges that Akiva Goldsman faced in taking the novel — that many book reviewers said resembled a bad movie driven by fake cliffhangers — and actually putting it on the screen.

Here’s the key: The book actually is about the ideas in its pages and the action is, for the most part, beside the point. Dan Brown really believes this stuff, and Goldsman tried to honor that. Perhaps director Ron Howard wasn’t up to the challenge? Thus, Taylor writes:

… (It) would be dishonest to pass judgment on Goldsman divorced from any knowledge of what Ron Howard did with his script. Howard is too conventional a director to bring the film the craziness and pace that it needs. (If ever there should be a lapsed Catholic behind the camera, this is the movie.)

But the slow deliberation of Goldsman’s script does provide the pleasant novelty of a summer blockbuster that isn’t punctuated by explosions every two minutes. There’s also no escaping the kick of seeing a big-budget Hollywood movie that qualifies as an honest-to-God blasphemy.

It could be that we are officially entering a new stage of coverage, a kind of “Yes, lots of smart people (click here!) think the movie stinks, but it’s cool that it’s attacking the right people and the ideas in it are worth thinking about even though all of the history and art stuff is bunk.”

It is also clear that many of the ideas that are in the book have been watered down in the movie, almost certainly — as a PR man linked to Sony told me long ago — in an attempt to make the book less offensive to Catholics and other traditional Christians. But the worldview is still there, no matter how hard Tom Hanks tries to say that it is all just a bizarre story.

So what is the heart of the story in the movie? If this is a refreshing blast of blasphemy, what is the key element of its heretical doctrine?

Most journalists have focused on the “Did Jesus get married?” angle, but a few have dug underneath that and hit larger questions. Over at USA Today, veteran religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman sped past the plot and offered this summary: It’s pro-feminist Gnosticism.

Is there really a feminine aspect to God? A theology that’s been sub rosa, hidden for centuries beneath the feminine symbol of the rose, the flower reminiscent of a blossoming womb? Author Dan Brown says one reason his book is popular with women is because it confirms their sense that Christianity has kept women in secondary roles to downplay or disguise the feminine aspect of God, maintain male religious authority and stamp out rival beliefs, such as goddess cults.

Our world today is based on “outdated male philosophy,” Brown said recently on New Hampshire Public Radio. So he countered with a heroine whose very name, Sophie, means wisdom. It’s a salute to Gnosticism (gnosis is Greek for knowledge), a first-century sect some claim was more feminine-friendly.

model smallLike the Matrix movies, DVC does have a massive dose of gnosis. But, in the novel, Brown goes further than that, further back in time, and ends up in a place that, frankly, I have been stunned has not set off warning sirens in some Jewish sanctuaries.

That was the subject of my Scripps Howard column this week. If you want to read that, click here, but here is a hint: There was more going on inside the Jewish Temple than the sacrifice of lambs. The priests and the priestesses were getting it on in there.

In the beginning, Judaism was a faith built on sacred sex.

At least, that’s what Dan Brown told 60 million readers in “The Da Vinci Code,” speaking though a fictional Harvard scholar named Robert Langdon. And while the characters are fictional, the novelist continues to affirm the statement that opens his book: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”

One of those “secret rituals” is an eye-opener.

“Langdon’s Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the temple, no less,” wrote Brown, in one of many long speeches that explain his iconoclastic plot. “Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple housed not only God but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the Temple to visit priestesses … with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union.”

So, journalists, it might not hurt to include a local Orthodox rabbi in your source list — or a tantric sex expert — for the next round of DVC coverage. Brown’s unique Judeo-Christian Gnosticism has a sexy edge to it.

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