Locus Online
Features Indexes
Sunday 2 July 2006

Interplanetary Man of Mystery:
A Review of Superman Returns

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Bryan Singer

Screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, story by Bryan Singer & Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Parker Posey

For people looking for a quick recommendation before they head to the movie theaters this holiday weekend, the message to deliver about Superman Returns is simple enough: if you enjoyed the first two Christopher Reeve films Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980) then you will enjoy this new Superman film, since its creators have endeavored both to maintain consistency with their storylines and to replicate their appearance and tone. (Indeed, the fact that the film fails to give official credit to any of those previous films' creative personnel — especially writer Mario Puzo and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth — is a mystery that warrants investigation, and perhaps litigation.) One can even describe this film as more seamless and thoughtful than its predecessors, inasmuch as director Bryan Singer and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, amidst all the inevitable thrills, also artfully contrive to offer some stimulating insights regarding why this durable superhero keeps coming back — and why he keeps leaving.

An analysis of this film's commentary on the Man of Steel will require the early revelation of some "spoilers," of varying degrees of significance. If you don't already know that the plot centers upon the mad scheme of scientist Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) to dominate the world, and the ultimately successful efforts of Superman (Brandon Routh) to thwart that scheme, then you, like Superman, have been spending a lot of time in outer space, not on Earth.  And thanks to the film's ubiquitous publicity, groundpounders must also have learned by now that the film opens with Superman's return to Earth after devoting five years to a fruitless quest for his destroyed homeworld of Krypton. What is genuinely surprising about the film is its one significant departure from the Superman canon: during his absence, star reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has found a live-in boyfriend — editor Perry White's nephew, Richard White (James Marsden) — and has given birth to a son, Jason White (Tristan Lake Leabu), initially presented as Richard's child but ultimately revealed to be the true son of Superman, presumably conceived in a moment of passion just before he vanished without saying goodbye.

While he did not know what he was doing, we can see that Superman was following the typical behavior pattern of a heartless cad, impregnating a girl and then running away, forcing her to find another man to assume the responsibilities of fatherhood. And attentive viewers can discern that Superman was not simply cruelly abandoning his girlfriend: near the end of the film, when Superman is hovering between life and death, a close-up of one of the two headlines Perry White has prepared for the next edition of the Daily Planet — SUPERMAN IS DEAD and SUPERMAN LIVES — shows the date of Friday, September 29, 2006.  We know that Superman was gone for five years, and while we cannot be precisely sure when he returned, he surely spent some down time on the family farm with adoptive mother Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) before going back to Metropolis, so we can assume that he has been back for at least a few weeks. Doing the math reveals that not only did Superman leave Earth right after Lois's pregnancy, but he also left America right before September 11, 2001 — a day when we really could have used a Superman. If the connection seems fanciful, the film includes a scene in which Luthor's machinations shake Metropolis's skyscrapers and cause a man to fall off a high building and plummet down to certain death, only to be caught by Superman. We are surely being invited to recall the harrowing footage from September 11 of the man who fell from a skyscraper and didn't have a Superman to rescue him. No wonder, then, that at one point an anguished Lois asks Superman, "How could you leave us like that?"

In fact, although Superman Returns accurately describes the film's premise, a title which would better describe its characteristic recurring event would be Superman Leaves. He briefly stays at Martha's farm before going away and, in the film, never seeing her again. After saving the victims of a botched space shuttle mission (recalling another disaster that Superman wasn't around to prevent), Superman waves goodbye to a cheering crowd and flies away. He visits Lois when she steps outside for a cigarette, briefly chats with her, and departs. He rescues Luthor's girlfriend, Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), and literally flies out of her clutches. At the end of the film, he first leaves the room of his son and then, seeing Lois outside, gives the film's final line of dialogue — "Goodnight, Lois" — and soars off into outer space, all by himself. It is transparently ironic that Superman twice tells Lois, "I'm always around," when everything about the film reveals that Superman, in fact, is not always around.

In contrast to Superman's pattern of feckless departures, the two other male stars of the film are models of dependability, always around to assist and nurture the women in their lives. Upon first learning that Lois has a new boyfriend, filmgoers assume that he will soon be revealed as an unworthy scoundrel, to be given his comeuppance and shoved aside to make room for the vastly superior Superman. In fact, Richard turns out to be, as Lois says, "a good man," an attentive companion and doting father who also does his heroic bit to assist Superman, and the film concludes with his relationship with Lois firmly intact. And Lex Luthor, despite his villainous motives, does provide the dying Gertrude Vanderworth (significantly portrayed by the Lois Lane of the 1950s series The Adventures of Superman, Noel Neill) with some genuinely appreciated love and affection, which is more than the Superman of the 1950s, George Reeves, ever did for his Lois Lane. Luthor also remains in the constant company of his girlfriend Kitty, and he must be likeably supportive in some fashion since she remains loyal to him, despite some definite character flaws (like plotting to kill billions of people).

So, what is it that makes Superman the "hello, I must be going" superhero? Certainly, one can say that the father figures in Superman's life trained him in the art of abandonment. There were mitigating circumstances, of course, but Superman's birth father Jor-El did put his infant son in a rocketship and sent him to an alien planet many light years away. And in the 1978 film's retelling of the mythos, adoptive father Jonathan Kent, played by Glenn Ford, after giving the teenage Clark a few words of fatherly advice, drops dead of a heart attack. Left with only images of his male parents — holograms of Jor-El (archival footage of Marlon Brando) and a photograph of Glenn Ford (I think) on the Kent family piano — Superman's abrupt decision to leave Earth in search of remnants of Krypton can be attributed in part to a desperate yearning for an absent father figure, inspiring him to unknowingly follow in his fathers' footsteps and to become an absent father figure himself.  Still, it seems that Lex Luthor also had a less than ideal father — Kitty tells us that one of his last words to his son was "Get out" — without becoming a man who so frequently comes and goes without warning, forcing the critic to search for other explanations.

If a man keeps inching away from beautiful women apparently ready to succumb to his charms, contemporary observers might suspect that he is gay — and some Warner Brothers publicists may be advancing the notion that this film has a "gay Superman," although they are doing so very quietly, as if unsure whether the number of seats filled by viewers anxious to see a gay Superman would be greater or fewer than the number of seats left empty by viewers appalled by the whole idea. And in one scene, after Lois leaves with her boyfriend and son, Superman as Clark Kent does go off with youthful admirer Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) to get a beer from Bo the Bartender, played by Jack Larson, the Jimmy Olsen of the 1950s series and, for decades, an openly gay actor — providing several reasons for raised eyebrows. It's also suspicious, I suppose, that the cake Jimmy gives Clark as a present has a piece cut out, so that its message reads "Welcome Back, Lark." Ultimately, however, I think the gay Superman idea must be regarded more as an innovative marketing tool than as a defensible interpretation of the film.

Then there is the theory that Superman avoids women due to the fact that, like a little boy, he would rather have fun adventures with other boys than to endure the stifling domesticity of female company. He would be like Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca (1943), who walks off with Claude Rains not because he is lusting after him, but because he knows that fighting Nazis with the guys will be much more enjoyable than hanging around in salons with the demure, delicate Ingrid Bergman. And his masculinity remains unquestioned because we know, as Jules Feiffer notes in his introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965), that heroes like Superman and Bogart can still get women if they want to, even though they don't want to. But this represents, in the feminist era, a hopelessly old-fashioned attitude. As is amply demonstrated by the series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) and by this film, hanging around with a modern woman like Lois Lane hardly means limiting oneself to helping to cook dinner and clean the house, because she is perfectly willing to go off on exciting adventures as the need arises (and this film's Lois even gets to rescue the wounded Superman, hauling him to the water's surface with a lifeguard's maneuver). And in any event, Superman is not rejecting women in order to enjoy male camaraderie: when he says goodbye to Lois at the end of the film, he doesn't go back to Bo's bar to hang out with the guys — he goes off by himself, soaring through space until he flies offscreen to make room for the credits.

We are left to conclude that Superman leaves all of the time simply because he would rather be by himself. He suffers from Asperger's Syndrome — or, if you prefer, "avoidant personality disorder," or shyness; as suggested by that conspicuous word on Martha Kent's Scrabble board, perhaps, he feels a sense of "ALIENATION" in human society, usually preferring to stay at his Fortress of Solitude. As such, as I have argued, he would be a character strongly attuned with science fiction, created by science fiction fans (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) and long supervised by science fiction fans (editors Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz). But he is also — undoubtedly to the distress of Warner Brothers executives, to whom the phrase "Superman returns" really means "the money we can make off of Superman" — a deeply problematic centerpiece for any projected film franchise.

When Superman is in the hospital, son Jason says, "I like him," and Lois responds, "I like him too." Indeed, everybody likes Superman. He's handsome, he's charming, he's self-effacing, and he's eager to help other people in any way he can. Yet because he always runs away from human company at the earliest opportunity, nobody really gets to know Superman, which means, ultimately, that nobody loves Superman.  Out of all the super-powers that Superman has displayed over the decades, his strongest and most consistent power is his super-impenetrability. Taking on a life of his own as a fictional icon, Superman has successfully resisted the efforts of hundreds of writers to figure him out, get under his skin, find out what really makes him tick. Even the talented Singer, Dougherty, and Harris, who did so well with the X-Men, ultimately fail to discern what is really going on inside of Superman's head. When he flies into space in the final scene, with an expression of serene contentment on his face, what is Superman thinking about? We don't have the slightest idea.

It may have been his overly stylized suit, or too much makeup, but there were two times during the film when I would have sworn that I was not looking at Brandon Routh, the living actor playing Superman, but was looking at a computer animation of Brandon Routh as Superman. Not simply because of his amazing powers, but also because of his elusive personality, Superman does not always seem like a real person.

And, because he is so very likeable, and so ultimately unlovable, Superman on film and television is generally popular for a while, but he can never achieve lasting popularity. Every television series starring Superman has lasted at least four seasons, but unless Smallville overcomes the odds, none of them has lasted more than six seasons. Superman cartoons were made for three years; after a hiatus, there were two Kirk Alyn Superman serials; and much later, there were the four Christopher Reeve films. There may be a second Brandon Routh Superman film, maybe even a third, but it's hard to imagine this new franchise lasting longer than that. Superman returns to the screen, Superman stays for a while, and Superman leaves.

If there is a genuine emotion that this incarnation of Superman inspires, it is pity, since there are also intimations that he has returned to a world which is now so vast and so complex as to render him increasingly irrelevant. The crisis that occurs again and again throughout the film is a massive power failure — the sort of problem that cannot be resolved by a Superman. Changing the channels at the Kent family farm, Superman observes a disaster on every channel, a disaster in every part of the world; when he flies in orbital space, he hears a babel of voices all crying out for "a savior," far too many for even a Superman to respond to. Expertly distracted by Kitty's out-of-control car, Superman fails to prevent the museum burglary that ultimately leads to his, and America's, near-demise; he can't deal with every crisis that comes up. We are not privy to the arguments made by Lois Lane in her Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," but one might logically maintain that, in a complicated world with so many problems, and so many different kinds of problems, even the assistance provided by a Superman amounts to little more than a drop in the bucket. (Later, when she tries to write another editorial entitled "Why the World Needs Superman," she can't think of a thing to say.) At least a hero like Spider-Man limits his ambitions to the protection of New York City; Superman, like the Atlas he resembles when he holds up the fallen globe of the Daily Planet building, aspires to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. One could assign an undergraduate English major to write a ten-page essay about the various ways that this film portrays Superman as a Christ figure (he even dies and comes back to life twice), but this Superman knows that he cannot save the world, which may be another reason that he keeps running away from the people who so often expect him to do exactly that.

Superman Returns is a rich film, with many themes and references that a single review cannot thoroughly explore. Luthor foregrounds the issue of the uses and misuses of technology by likening himself to Prometheus, a scientist who will benefit the world's peoples by bringing them advanced Kryptonian technology (and making a cunning reference to Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law — "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" — to account for the fact that the advanced Kryptonian technology subsequently on display does not always make a great deal of sense). In an era of globalization, there are efforts to downplay patriotic linkages between Superman and the United States: he is observed performing heroic deeds throughout the world, and when Perry White (Frank Langella) asks his reporters to investigate whether Superman still stands for "truth" and "justice," recalling the famed introduction to the first television series, he conspicuously does not add "and the American way." There are other knowing references to the long history of Superman, including an image of Superman holding up a car that recalls the cover of the first issue of Action Comics. And there are imaginative visual touches as well: we have repeatedly seen bullets bouncing off of Superman's invulnerable chest, but this is the first film to show a bullet bouncing off of Superman's invulnerable eye. Still, when Jason keeps going to the piano to play "Heart and Soul," he may be ironically referencing the one desirable quality that this admirable film about an enigmatic superhero so conspicuously lacks.

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.