The last temptation of Superman

The last temptation of Superman June 8, 2006

Last week, I posted some thoughts on the first two Superman films; this week, I watched the other two, to be complete.

I guess the best thing one can say about Superman III (1983) is that it sort of tries to be its own movie — I say “sort of” because Robert Vaughn’s goofy criminal mastermind is really just a rip-off of Gene Hackman’s goofy Lex Luthor — and the best thing one can say about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) is that it sort of tries to honour the spirit of the first two films, not least by bringing back Hackman as Luthor and giving Superman a genuinely super-powered super-villain to fight.

But these sort-of strengths are weaknesses, too. III is so different from the first two films in tone and focus — it is so nakedly trivial — that it feels like a serious mis-step; and IV really doesn’t honour the first two films so much as it recycles entire gags and sequences, including Superman’s flight with Lois Lane and the amnesia-inducing kiss he gives her to make her forget that he and Clark Kent are one and the same. (Yeesh, how many times is he going to give away his secret and then take it back like that? That can’t be psychologically healthy for anybody involved.)

The first two Superman films were essentially mythic in scope, and while the fashions and whatnot might seem dated, the stories still play today as well as they did when the films were new. The same cannot be said for III and IV, which are hopelessly dated.

III came out the same year as WarGames and one year after Tron, at a time when, as my wife puts it, “computers were magic!” But whereas those other films bore at least some relation to the computers that people were using in real life, Superman III has no idea what to do with this theme, and so it ends with the bad guys launching missiles at Superman via a console that looks rather like an Atari video game — complete with numbers that pop up on the screen every time a missile explodes near its target.

IV, on the other hand, is annoyingly sanctimonious, not only in its arms race theme — a “serious” theme that is ultimately obscured by all the usual tacky stuff — but also in a subplot involving a takeover of the Daily Planet by a wealthy tycoon who is known for his tabloid sensationalism. Supposedly, everyone at the Planet is offended by this because they believe journalism is about “the truth”. But, um, hello, does anybody remember how the first film emphasized that Perry White and Lois Lane were sensationalists in their own right? (Speaking of which, Lois gushes too much, here, especially where Superman’s politics are concerned. What ever happened to her free-spirited, contradictory spunk?)

And let’s not talk about the scene where Nuclear Man takes Mariel Hemingway into space — where there is apparently not only sound, but breatheable air, too. Or the scenes in which yet another new power is invented for Superman — apparently he can levitate people and rebuild walls just by staring at them!

An aside: It’s amusing to see future Oscar-winning character actor Jim Broadbent in here as a French arms dealer!

One detail that intrigues me is how both films revisit Clark Kent’s small-town past. Much of III revolves around Clark going back to Smallville for a high-school reunion and getting reacquainted with Lana Lang, who is now a divorced single mother. In one scene, they briefly allude to the death of Ma Kent; and then, in IV, Clark puts the Kent farm up for sale. This intrigues me because the screenwriters on Superman Returns have said that they don’t necessarily want to say that these sequels never happened — they say the Superman films should have a loose continuity not unlike the James Bond films — but, well, Eva Marie Saint will be playing Ma Kent in the new film, and director Bryan Singer has basically said that he’s ignoring these last two sequels. Hmmm.

I am also interested in the way that Clark Kent, in these sequels, toys with the idea of dating women who are not Lois Lane. Having nearly lost his powers — and the planet! — because he slept with Lois in II, it stands to reason he has no interest in actual relationships with any of these women. But he goes through the motions of dating them anyway, and I wonder why. (Of course, in III, Superman briefly becomes a “bad guy” and does something naughty with the villain’s girlfriend, which means somebody has slept with Superman in his full Kryptonian form…)

This last point brings me to the concept that I hint at in the title of this post. Shortly after reading the original screenplay for Superman II, it occurred to me that the first two films not only play on certain Christological motifs (a father sending his only son to be a light to humanity, etc., etc.), but they also arguably do for Superman what The Last Temptation of Christ did for Jesus.

In both films, the hero has doubts about his identity, doubts about his mission, a surviving earthly mother but no other family, a distant heavenly father whose will the hero rebels against, and a potential lover with whom he can consummate his passion only if he abandons his godlike status among men. And in both films, after apparently abandoning this status and consummating this passion, he turns back time (figuratively, in Superman’s case, through the amnesia-inducing kiss — though he did turn back time in a very literal way on a previous occasion!) and accepts the mission that his father had willed for him in the first place.

Of course, there are differences between the two films, not the least of which is the fact that the original version of Superman II has the virtual Jor-El (or is it the very real spirit of Jor-El?) sacrifice himself entirely — essentially taking his own life — in order to restore Superman to his supernatural status. If The Last Temptation had gone this route, it would have been as if, in order for Jesus to become Christ, God had to sacrifice his own life.

There are a fair number of Christian interpreters of the first Superman film who go ga-ga over the Christ-figure parallels, so I’ll have to go back and take a look at some of their analyses to see how, or even whether, they deal with this aspect of it.

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