One shortsighted critique of Superman Returns claims the film tries too hard for iconic imagery, neglecting the action of a hero fighting super villains. But this view misses the thematic significance of that iconic imagery and its deeper significance to Superman in general. Rather than bludgeon his characters with punches and his audience with empty Christ-figure symbolism, Singer utilizes Atlas imagery that encompasses Superman’s place as a Christ-figure.
Instead of playing super fists, Routh’s Superman is engaged in the more important task of saving people. He is shown over and over again lifting and carrying people both literally and symbolically. Kitty even sings “He’s got the whole world in his hands” as Lex first reads of Superman’s return. But it doesn’t stop there. The film asserts that along with saving people, inspiring them to save each other is Superman’s mission on Earth. His first act of heroism after he returns is to fly up and save an airplane full of people. He spends the film instilling hope, being the savior people are “crying out for,” and in the end, as he drifts in the water, dying from the Kryptonite shiv in his back, Jor-El’s voice-over tells him “Your leadership can stir others…” Cue Richard and Lois “flying” over in their own plane to, this time, save the savior.
What does it say about our concept of heroic behavior that so many need explicit conflict to be appeased? True heroism is in giving of our selves, lifting others up and being the example that inspires heroism in others.