The superhero narrative is an assertion of faith. As the tagline for Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978) read, 'You'll believe a man can fly.' Comparisons of superheroes to religious figures, and descriptions of them as 'secular gods', are well-worn, yet at its core any superhero story is about a system of values. Even 'darker' protagonists such as Batman and the Punisher champion some form of justice, even if it is personal rather than institutional. Values define the superhero, and s/he has 'a determination to, no matter what, protect those values' (Fingeroth, 17).
With their affiliation to values, 'grand narratives', superheroes and postmodernism don't mix - which perhaps explains why Hollywood has blitzed us with superhero movies since September 11, 2001. The West's postmodern era ended on September 11. That day, metanarratives were 'revitalized' in American culture and heroes were needed again (Boon, 302). History, like art, moves in cycles: from periods of belief (in one idea) to unbelief (in the same idea) and back to belief. The cycle from modernism to postmodernism has been around before. To use an artistic example, in ancient Athens, it occurred when the state-sponsored theatre of Aeschylus and Sophocles gave way to that of Euripides; when the values expressed with 'full seriousness' by the former two playwrights could only be expressed with 'ironic cynicism' by the latter (Zelenak, 100). As the 1990s began, both Left and Right declared the 'end of history' as Jameson's logic of late capitalism took over. Writes Mark Fortier: 'To live in the postmodern condition [...] is to live without a grand and deep sense of abiding truth' (Fortier, 176). Since 9/11, grand truths and grand narratives are back in vogue: the War on Terror, the West versus Islamic Extremism, Democracy versus Tyranny. The rhetoric has been toned down since Barack Obama took office, but the narratives remain: we are all more aware of Forces at work in the world now than we were before September 11.
The commercial success of the superhero movie genre in the 2000s can be measured not simply by considering the proliferation of sequels and spin-offs, but by looking at the money. Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002) became the first film to gross over $100 million in the US in its opening weekend, ultimately grossing $821,708,551 internationally. Spider-Man 2 and 3 (Sam Raimi, 2004, 2007) made similar amounts worldwide, $783,766,341 and $890,871,626 respectively. Each of the films in the main X-Men series grossed more than the last: X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) $296,339,527, X-Men 2 (Bryan Singer, 2003) $407,711,549 and X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner, 2006) $459,359,555. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) is currently the highest-grossing superhero film ever, and with an international gross of $1,001,921,825, the fifth highest grossing movie of all time and one of only five films to make over $1 billion globally. Superheroes may have had their origin in comics, and material for the movie franchises is still overwhelmingly drawn from comic book sources, but as comics readership has declined and the medium has increasingly occupied a niche market, television, movies and videogames are now the mainstream home of the hero with extraordinary powers (Fingeroth, 170).*
If to live in the postmodern condition is to live without a sense of grand truths - Lyotard's 'failure of master narratives [...] which might allow for a total and unified understanding of the world' (Fortier, 176) - then the superhero narrative is always anti-postmodern: 'Truth, Justice and the American Way'. To live with superheroes is to believe in a value outside ourselves, a 'saviour value'. There must be grand truths like Justice and The Right Thing, because the hero we put our faith in fights for them. The hero, the example set for us, always 'knows what the right thing is' (Fingeroth, 17, emphasis in original). Superhero narratives - particularly those movies of the first decade of the twenty-first century, where we have seen a host of both 'origin stories' and 'reboots' in the wake of 9/11 - often enact a movement from a postmodern moment, a moment of ill-defined or confused societal values (or social chaos), to a restoration of faith, a belief in some 'saviour value' beyond us (i.e. the superhero and/or what he represents). In Spider-Man 2, when Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gives up being a hero, the city turns to chaos: crime soars 75 per cent and villain Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) goes on a rampage of destruction. Parker's Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) gives him a speech on the faith we place in heroes - those who 'allow us to die with pride' - and Parker's faith in himself is reaffirmed: he gives up selfish pursuits to be the saviour people need. When Spider-Man saves a train full of passengers, those passengers catch him as he nearly collapses and revive him; though his mask is missing, those present won't reveal his identity, because he is their hero and they believe in him. A similar restoration of faith takes place throughout Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight. Though, in the bleak universe of Nolan's Batman, faith is only ever inches from despair. In Knight, a man captured by the Joker defiantly declares that Batman is a symbol 'that we don't have to be afraid of scum like you'. Bruce Wayne admits he wants to 'inspire'; Batman is about restoring people's faith in themselves and their broken, lawless city.
One superhero movie which consciously enacts a movement from a postmodern loss of faith to a restoration of faith is Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns. Superman, 'our greatest protector' as the opening text announces, has been away from Earth for five years, visiting the remains of his home world, Krypton. In his absence even those closest to him have moved on, loss of faith has set in; Lois Lane has won the Pulitzer Prize for her piece 'Why the World Doesn't Need Superman'. Superman returns, saving Lois from an aircraft disaster to thunderous applause. The Man of Steel puts his life on the line to stop the latest diabolical scheme dreamed up by arch-villain Lex Luthor. After ridding the world of Luthor's Kryptonite-infested 'new continent', which threatened 'billions' of lives, Superman falls to earth, arms outstretched, Messiah-like, watched by the stunned population of Metropolis, the Superman universe's New York-esque 'everycity'. Brought back to health by the humans he serves, 'our greatest protector' tells us 'I'm always around'. Lois Lane sits at her computer in tears tapping out 'Why the World Needs Superman'.
It could be argued that Bryan Singer is the director responsible for initiating the superhero movie blitz of the 2000s, after the 'surprising box-office success' in 2000 of his X-Men (Wright, 291). After directing X-Men 2, Singer left the franchise to take on Superman, who hadn't been seen on the silver screen since 1987's critical and box office disaster Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the last Superman film to star Christopher Reeve. Following numerous failed attempts to reinvent the series - including the involvement of Tim Burton, a contract for Nicholas Cage to the play the Man of Steel, and scripts by Kevin Smith as well as Lost creator/Star Trek (2009) director J.J. Abrams - distributor and owner of the franchise, Warner Bros., put their faith in Singer. Superman Returns, however, disappointed - at least as far as the studio and its hoped-for commercial success were concerned. Although Returns made $391,081,192 worldwide and received largely positive reviews, the film's budget was high ($270 million), and Warner Bros. admitted dissatisfaction with its final earnings. '[...] I think it should have done $500 million worldwide,' said President & C.O.O. of Warner Bros. Entertainment Alan Horn in August 2006 ('Horn Planning Superman Sequel for 2009'). 'Superman [Returns] didn't quite work as a film in the way that we wanted it to,' said Jeff Robinov, President of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, in 2008. 'It didn't position the character the way he needed to be positioned.' Currently the plan is to reboot the character on film once again, 'just to reintroduce Superman' (quoted in Schuker).
Superheroes are continually subject to reinvention; superhero movies work precisely on the basis that they are both drawing on a tradition and offering something new in that tradition. Superman Returns follows this formula, using as its primary inspiration Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie. Singer's film is a pseudo-sequel to Donner's movie and 1980's Superman II (directed by Richard Lester but including much footage filmed by Donner before he left the project); Returns ignores continuity established by the weak Superman III and IV. Going by its disappointing box office figures, however, at least as far as large sections of its audience were concerned, Superman Returns did not balance correctly the new with the old. Fingeroth writes that the superhero 'has to represent the values of the society that produces him' (Fingeroth, 17). Considering this, and considering claims made of Returns that it is 'unAmerican', 'not macho enough' or presents a 'gay Superman', this paper contends that Singer's movie failed to represent the values audiences expected of a Superman film, thereby lessening its commercial impact. A significant aspect of the popularity of any genre film, the superhero film included, is the audience's expectations: 'originality is to be welcomed only in the degree that it intensifies expected experience without fundamentally altering it' (Robert Warshow, quoted by Peter Hutchings in Hollows and Jancovich, 63). Singer's movie demonstrates a restoration of faith, but, in superhero movies, faith must be restored in certain ways, with specific character expectations met.
Singer's film presents three obstacles to its own success and popular acceptance, discussed below: (i) in an era when Superheroes have essentially been confronting their humanity, Superman is portrayed as very much not human; (ii) the balance between harking back to tradition and moving the character forward is not struck in such a way as to give the audience either enough newness or enough comfort with the character - Returns often feels more like a postmodern homage than a movie in its own right; (iii) the film breaks with decades of mainstream tradition in not emphasising Superman's essential 'American-ness' and masculinity - in fact, it de-emphasises them.
A hero not human
Human heroes were elevated in the wake of September 11: the president, firefighters and rescue workers (Boon, 302). And, in the past decade, superhero movies have highlighted the humanness of their heroes. Batman Begins intricately details the lengths to which an ordinary (if extremely wealthy) man will go to achieve both vengeance and personal redemption. Spider-Man is the story of a teenager in unrequited love who has abilities thrust upon him and doesn't quite know what to do with them. He faces a very human - indeed, adolescent, in its focus on identity choices - dilemma: to pursue what he wants or use his powers to help those in need. Initially Peter Parker wants only to impress the girl, competing in a cage fight to win money and buy a car. In Spider-Man 2, he even gives up being Spider-Man, deliberately ignoring crime happening all around him, to focus on his studies and romantic possibilities, before arbitrarily coming to the conclusion (by the start of Spider-Man 3), that he can be have a relationship, be a good student and be a hero all at the one time.
The X-Men saga offers a different human struggle: the struggle for acceptance by the minority into the mainstream, and whether members of the minority should have to give up what makes them unique (and also a source of ignorance and terror in the population at large) in order to be accepted. Although a struggle between 'humans' and 'mutants', the issues in play are all about humanity. In X-Men 3 a 'cure' is developed, which 'suppresses the mutant X gene' and turns mutants into ordinary human beings. Parallels to theories of the 'gay gene', and subtexts about whether it's right to suppress one's true identity in order to fit in, are clear. The emotions at play between competing groups of mutants in the X-Men series are all very human, too. The choice in responding to being ostracised is between anger and faith. An exchange between Storm (Halle Berry) and Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) from X-Men 2 describes the choice directly:
Storm: Well, I gave up on pity a long time ago.
Nightcrawler: Someone so beautiful should not be so angry.
Storm: Sometimes anger can help you survive.
Nightcrawler: So can faith.
In each of the above-mentioned films, the 'ordinary' in the extraordinary is put to the fore. Small screen live-action incarnations of Superman in the 1990s and 2000s have also focussed on the hero's humanness and his human challenges. With a movie franchise not in play, television was where young mainstream audiences were going to develop ideas about the character. In Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, produced from 1993 to 1997, Clark Kent is the 'real' character, not Kal-El or the figure dressed in red and blue spandex. This take is in line with John Byrne's 1986 reinvention/restart of the Superman comics continuity, following D.C.'s 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' reconfiguration of its superhero universe. In Byrne's reinvention and Lois & Clark, Jonathan Kent doesn't die in Clark's youth; both foster parents have a bigger role and survive to see their son become Superman - creating a subtly different basis for the character's heroism than that in Superman: The Movie and Returns. Superman's outsider status is downplayed. At the end of Byrne's six-part 1986 Man of Steel miniseries, Clark declares that America and Earth 'gave me all that I am' and 'all that matters' (quoted in Gordon, 180). In Lois & Clark, the focus is on Clark as a decent man raised in Kansas who happens to have superpowers, rather than on Superman as the Last Son of Krypton. Smallville, a show about a young Clark Kent which premiered in 2001 shortly after September 11, and was recently renewed for a tenth season, takes a similar line on Clark being the 'real' identity - though it does introduce many elements from the comics mythos as well as pay homage to the legacy of the Reeve films (Reeve himself guest-starred in two episodes). The series is almost Spider-Man-like in its focus on a young man coming to terms with both growing up and growing up with extraordinary abilities. Interestingly, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, storywriters on Spider-Man 2, were the creators of Smallville and executive producers of seasons one through seven. Clark faces some very Spider-Man-like, pains-of-growing-up dilemmas in the show. In the seventh season episode 'Action', Clark and his girlfriend Lana Lang discuss his future. Clark renounces the hero life for his personal one:
Clark: I'm not going anywhere. For the first time in my life I've everything I ever wanted and it's right here on this farm, with you.
Contrasting with these incarnations which present Superman as human in all but basic biology, is Singer's film:
Superman: I hear everything.
'You wrote that the world doesn't need a saviour,' Superman (Brandon Routh) tells Lois (Kate Bosworth), 'but every day I hear people crying for one.' Superman's sacrifice is foregrounded in Returns. He can't have it all - the girl, the recognition for himself as Clark, and be a hero - as he does in Lois & Clark. The very opening lines of the movie remind us of Superman's disconnect from humanity - he is not from here: 'when astronomers discovered the distant remains of his home world, Superman disappeared'. Throughout the film, as in the dialogue above, the awesomeness of Superman's power, the sheer inhuman scale of it, is highlighted; in one scene, he literally does listen to all the conversations of the world to find people who need his help. When this Superman's day is done, he does not go to his apartment in the city (Lois & Clark) or back to the farm (Smallville), he floats in the mesosphere, always ready to intervene.
Superman loves like a human, feels compassion, and even has his human weaknesses (at one point, he almost kisses Lois, now engaged to another man); yet, he and we are constantly reminded that he is not one of us. One moment in the movie shows both Superman's human flaws - he is spying on Lois at home - and his human pain: he hears her tell her fiancé that she never loved Superman. Flying away, an emotional Kal-El hears the words of his father (Marlon Brando), first spoken in Superman: The Movie: 'Even though you have been raised as a human being, you are not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.' These words are followed by the mythic shot of Superman floating in the mesosphere. Superman is a god sent to earth, not a man. Critic Roger Ebert comments on how portraying a god is problematic from a purely cinematic point of view: As for Superman, he's a one-trick pony. To paraphrase Archimedes: "Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the universe." Superman doesn't need the lever or the place to stand, but as he positions himself in flight, straining to lift an airplane or a vast chunk or rock, we reflect that these activities aren't nearly as cinematic as what Batman and Spider-Man get up to. Watching Superman straining to hold a giant airliner, I'm wondering: Why does he strain? Does he have his limits? Would that new Airbus be too much for him? What about if he could stand somewhere? (Ebert).
The man of yesterday
Singer's film harks back to Donner's for its main inspiration. The movie may demonstrate a societal shift from postmodern loss of belief in heroes to a restoration of faith, but as a work of art, Superman Returns is classically postmodern in how it re-writes, re-presents, analyses and re-imagines Donner's picture. For Jean-Francois Lyotard, the 'post-' of 'postmodern' signifies 'a procedure of analysis, anamnesis, anagogy, and anamorphosis that elaborates an "initial forgetting."' (Lyotard 1993, 50) Superman Returns works in such a way on Superman: The Movie.**
Superman Returns's homage to/reinvention of Donner begins even before the opening credits. We are greeted with an image of the planet Krypton, white-green and crystalline as it was in 1978, while John Williams's music from Superman: The Movie plays. This is not a new Superman: we are being reminded of the old.
When the credits begin, they are performed in Donner's signature style, with Williams's same Superman theme, over the same trope: a journey through space from Krypton to Earth. The basic plot of the two films is essentially the same: Lex Luthor has a plan to destroy part of the United States in some cataclysmic event, so he can create new prime-value land for himself; Superman comes to Earth to stop him; along the way Luthor attempts to kill Superman with Kryptonite from a meteorite which landed in Addis Ababa, and Lois Lane provides the love interest. Brandon Routh's portrayal of the Man of Steel is heavily indebted to Christopher Reeve's, the 'definitive' portrayal (Yockey, 29). 'Certainly of all [the actors who've played Superman] my performance was influenced by Chris. Chris was my Superman', says Routh (quoted in Yockey, 29). Neal Bailey remarks that, following Superman's conflict with bank robbers in Returns, Routh's 'arch of the eyebrow is so incredibly Reeve, lifted from Superman: The Movie' (Bailey).
While John Ottman is the composer on Returns, Williams's music from the original Superman is sampled throughout; at the beginning, as mentioned, but also, for example, during a nighttime flight of Superman and Lois over Metropolis, which offers a reprise of the love theme from the original, played during a similar flight above the city. Lines and scenes are replayed/recreated from Donner's film. After Superman saves Lois and a planeful of passengers from an air disaster, he remarks, 'Well, I hope this experience hasn't put any of you off flying. Statistically speaking, it's still the safest way to travel' - almost an exact repeat of his line after rescuing Lois from a helicopter crash in Superman: The Movie: 'Well, I certainly hope this little incident hasn't put you off flying, Miss. Statistically speaking, of course, it's still the safest way to travel.' Following both rescues, Lois faints as Superman flies away. In the original movie, Superman's saving Lois from an air disaster announces his arrival on earth; in Singer's film, it announces his return - in both cases the first public display of his powers since coming to earth.
An exchange between Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his female assistant Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) in Superman goes:
Teschmacher: Get out.
Luthor: [Laughs] Before that. He said, son, stocks may rise and fall, utilities and transportation systems may collapse, people are no damn good, but they will always need land and they will pay through the nose to get it.
In Returns, between Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and his assistant Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey):
Kowalski: You're losing your hair.
Luthor: Before that.
Kowalski: Get out.
Luthor: He said, you can print money, manufacture diamonds and people are a dime a dozen, but they'll always need land. It's the one thing they're not making any more off.
The care with which the lines have been rewritten suggests a serious attempt at postmodern reimagining. Teschmacher eventually betrays Luthor, as does Kowalski.
Both films close with near-identical shots of Superman flying above the earth as the sun rises; he smiles at the camera and vanishes. The overall effect of such strong intertextual links is a stirring of memory, almost déją vu - an 'oneiric quality' (Yockey, 34) only enhanced by the film's heightened, more-than-real colours and eclectic, 'timeless' design. As regards design, especially costume, says Louise Mingenbach, costume designer of Superman Returns: 'What we're trying to do is bring in a little bit of the '30s, a little bit of the '40s, the '50s, all the decades that Superman's been important' (quoted in the featurette 'Requiem for Krypton: Making Superman Returns', included on disc two of the two-disc Superman Returns DVD set ). In this, Returns fits the Lyotardian postmodern paradigm of 'bricolage', 'the multiple quotation of elements taken from earlier styles or periods' (Lyotard 1993, 47).
Less than American, less than a man
American conservative website Right Wing News lists Superman Returns as one of its 'least manly action films of all time'. Writes John Hawkins: 'They may as well have just called this "Lois Lane" the movie because it was really more about her than Superman' (Hawkins). Among Hawkins's 'most manly action films' are 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007) and Rambo: First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) (Hawkins). The link between comic superheroes and heightened masculinity is long-established, with Superman as masculine paradigm: 'the superhero body represents in vivid graphic detail the muscularity, the confidence, the power that personifies the ideal of phallic masculinity [...] As his very name makes clear, Superman is the ultimate masculine ideal [...]' (Brown, 31). Prior to the launch of Returns, its gay director had to defend accusations that the film presented a 'gay' (and hence not masculine enough) Superman:
'If you can believe the editors of The Advocate, America's most influential gay publication, Superman is about to be dragged out of the closet.
'Or, at the very least, he's going to be celebrated as a gay icon when Warner Brothers releases its $200 million US summer blockbuster, Superman Returns, on June 28.
'But is the Man of Steel gay himself? That's the question which has been stirring a frenzy not only in the tabloids and on the Internet but also in the mainstream press' ('Fans question Superman's sexuality').
Singer 'admits that his sexual identity is relevant to his work, especially the outsider-themed X-Men movies. But he resists a similar reading of [Superman Returns]. "Interestingly enough," says Singer, "Superman Returns is the most heterosexual movie I've ever made."' (Jenson). Nevertheless, commented one reviewer: 'This film uses scenes like the gang bashing of Superman (which hints at a gay bashing) and the nature of Superman as a single entity in comparison to the nuclear family in order to reveal a social stigma. It is not hard to see why leading a secret life and assuming a conservative exterior to avoid showing a real identity is here mistaken as a gay experience. Let's face it folks, no one is more in the closet than Superman' (Milfull).
While Singer defended Returns as 'heterosexual', he also described it as 'my first chick flick [...] a movie about what happens when old boyfriends come back into your life' - a quote which can only lend weight to Right Wing News's criticism that the film was not 'manly' enough to satisfy action movie audiences (Singer quoted in Gross). In addition to the 'feminine' focus on Lois, it was argued that Routh's performance was 'effeminate' or 'soft' compared to previous portrayals. Certainly, Routh's performance is not brash or aggressive; as Superman he has very few lines and when he does speak it is with a sensitive, quiet authority. He reflects the director's own vision of masculinity: 'If there is any virtue in it, it has to have a vulnerable side' (quoted in Gross).
In Superman: The Movie, there is a moment of sheer masculine rage. After discovering Lois has died, Superman lets loose a ferocious howl and furiously flies to spin the world backwards and reverse time, disobeying the instruction of his father not to interfere in human history. In Superman II, there is a similar moment of masculine satisfaction. After being beaten up by a bully at a diner while missing his powers, Clark, powered up again, returns to the diner to both teach the bully a lesson and regain his pride. Reeve's performance in his films is less laconic and more direct than Routh's. In this sense, Routh and Singer's Superman could be seen as less 'masculine' than his predecessors, and if audiences expected a 'more manly' Superman they would have been disappointed. Indeed, one of Warner Bros. primary complaints with the film after its disappointing box office performance was that it did not feature enough masculine action: 'We should have had perhaps a little more action to satisfy the young male crowd', said President and C.O.O. of Warner Bros. Entertainment Alan Horn in August 2006 ('Horn Planning Superman Sequel for 2009').
The loss of overt masculinity is related to the loss of overt Americanism; Jeffords has written of the correlation between American nationalism and masculinity in Hollywood movies (Jeffords, 6). Did Singer make America's great cultural icon anti-American?
Superman has a more intimate, subtle and complete connection with the land of his creation than any other superhero, even the brash Captain America; it is a central tenet if his identity. That a muscular, masculine power fantasy is seen as a stand-in for American values will not surprise many, perhaps. Nevertheless, Superman's links with the United States run far deeper. In comics he has often been seen in patriotic poses or reflecting American life - covers have had the Man of Steel at thanksgiving dinner or playing baseball, and he is frequently shown with the American flag; he was once even elected president (Grant Morrison, Jeph Loeb, et al., Superman: Cover to Cover, 42-55). Throughout his 72-year history, the Man of Steel has represented and embodied changing national values and trends. Gordon, after Eco, writes that 'the character's dimensions [are] set by the prevailing social order' (Gordon, 180). At his creation, in Roosevelt's 1930s New Deal/Depression era, Superman fought corrupt police, and tore down slums so the government would have to build better housing (Gordon, 181). In the 1940s, the Man of Steel headed to war for America - covers depicted him destroying German tanks and submarines, and going after the 'Japanazis' (Cover to Cover, 92-93); Superman comics were distributed to troops. In 1980's Superman II, our hero became a child of the sexual revolution, the 'sexually liberated man' (Gordon, 181), becoming mortal to make unwedded love to Lois Lane. World War Two, writes former D.C. Comics Editor-in-chief Jenette Kahn, brought Superman's supremacy as a cultural icon (Cover to Cover, 117) - just as it brought America's supremacy in the world. Superman was born in the final throes of Depression and rose as America did. As American power grew throughout the twentieth century, Superman's powers became increasingly astonishing.
Criticism of Returns as anti-American focussed on one particular line. Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella) asks of Superman: 'Does he still stand for truth, justice, all that stuff?' The traditional 'American Way' has been excised. 'And for what reason?' asked one conservative commentator. 'To appease a worldwide audience and placate the liberal America-haters in this country?'; 'What a personal blow to the nation that made Superman great' ('My Superman Returns Review: AWESOME!'). There is a moment of pure internationalism: After returning to earth, Superman is seen and talked about on television saving people in Germany, Paris, Shanghai and elsewhere around the world. There is no scene specifically relating Superman to the American justice/political system and its values, as there is at the end of both Superman: The Movie and Superman II. In Donner's film, the Man of Steel delivers Lex Luthor to jail, and the warden thanks him:
Superman: No, sir, don't thank me, warden. We're all part of the same team.
The final moments of Lester's movie see Superman delivering the American flag to the White House. 'Good afternoon, Mr. President. Sorry I've been away so long. I won't let you down again,' says Superman, gazing up at the flag.
While Superman Returns obviously reflects and reinvents Donner's film in many ways, it departs from it and Superman II, the previous successful cinematic portrayals of the character, in downplaying both Superman's masculinity and his ties to America.***
There is one final development in Superman Returns which sets it apart from its predecessors. We discover in the course of the movie that the Man of Steel has a child by Lois, who is engaged to another man who believes the son is his own. For a character who 'acts as an instructive tool for what passes as virtue in society' (Gordon, 180), this is something which changes Superman irrevocably, as fan Neal Bailey describes:
'THESE characters are MORAL ARBITERS [...] Singer obviously knows these characters SO WELL with the dialogue and story he's made, but knows them NOT AT ALL because of this wrinkle he's added.
'Yes. Families like that exist. They're the norm, not the exception. Mommies cheat on daddies with other lovers and still love another person when they're with another ALL THE TIME. And the reverse for daddies too. But fact one: It's always a result of someone's critical moral failing. And fact two: it hurts kids, so it shouldn't be glorified. Is it here? That's debatable. I say signs point to yes. It happens in movies.
'BUT NOT SUPERMAN [...] Superman can NEVER be with Lois now without becoming NOT Superman [i.e. not a moral arbiter]. This universe has destroyed the Lois and Superman love. That's a BIG no-no' (Bailey).
The 'love child' plot point is one which blatantly violates Fingeroth's 'no-change rule' for superheroes as regards core characters and their relationships - adherence to which is vital for mainstream success, he suggests (Fingeroth, 35). In Superman: The Movie and Superman II, the clock is turned back on major plot developments and the story is reset: Lois is brought back from death (Superman), and both her relationship with Superman and her memory of it end with a magic kiss (Superman II). The 'no-change rule' is vigilantly observed. If 'familiarity, coupled with the promise of moderate deviation in each text' informs the popularity of Superman narratives (Yockey, 26), then Returns did not get the balance between familiarity and deviation correct for its mass audience. Having an 'illegitimate' child is something which resets Superman's relationship with the world and would have had to be incorporated into any sequels to Singer's film. As Jeff Robinov remarked, 'It didn't position the character the way he needed to be positioned' for a financially successful franchise.
Fingeroth writes that the superhero must reflect the values of the society that produces him; the corollary of this is surely that any superhero that fails to gain mass appeal is not reflecting the values society wants to see. Singer produced a Superman who was less macho and less American, and so out of keeping with history; moreover, though his Superman breaks with his sources of inspiration in the stated ways, Singer looked to 1978 for inspiration, rather than create a contemporary vision. The result is a Superman movie too different in values and too similar in style to its predecessors, alienating audiences on both fronts.
A fan's postscript
Of course, neither critical value nor commercial success has much bearing on personal preference. Superman Returns, in this fan's opinion, is a beautiful movie, a beautiful Superman movie, of a kind we are now not likely to see again. It shows Superman's distance from us, his loneliness and pain, in a clearer way than perhaps any other text. It solidifies the legacy of Reeve and Donner. It avoids patriotic grandstanding and makes Superman a hero for all of us; avoids a macho conception of the character and offers something spiritual. These things, however, are its problems, and perhaps the reason mainstream audiences turned away, expecting their faith in a decades-old character to be restored differently.
Current reports are that Christopher Nolan, director of Batman Begins and the phenomenally successful The Dark Knight, is producing the next Superman film, another attempt to restart the franchise. At the very least, fans can look at Returns as the conclusion to the Reeve-era movies that should have been: Superman III and IV removed from the canon and Superman: The Movie and Superman II now joined by the third part of an enjoyable trilogy. As fans, as always, we await the next reincarnation.
* All movie budget/gross figures referenced in this essay are taken from Box Office Mojo, accessed April 19-23, 2010.
** Although Superman Returns matches Lyotard's definition of a postmodern work in several ways, it conflicts with it in others. As a superhero text it espouses grand truths and lacks the incoherence and disruption of form, the presentation of 'the unpresentable in presentation itself' which Lyotard sees as part of the postmodern (Lyotard 1984, 81).
*** Other recent financially successful superhero movies have played up connections to America. The final shots of both Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 feature the hero swinging over New York, in full view of the American flag (in the first film, released the summer following 9/11, the flag dominates the screen); the climactic battle of X-Men takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Although Superman's first act upon his return, saving an aeroplane, takes place in the sky above a baseball game, the stakes in representing Superman as American are higher than with any other superhero, given his history. In Returns, his American-ness is downplayed far more than it is implied.
Books and articles referenced
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