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‘Truth, justice and all that stuff’

Superman returns - but why, and to do what?

Nathalie Rothschild

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In a recent interview, Bryan Singer, director of Superman Returns, claimed that ‘Superman has always reflected the times’. What, then, does Singer’s Superman reveal about today? Which values does the superhero champion in the fight of good against evil in 2006?

Before entering the cinema, I guessed at the possibilities. Maybe Kevin Spacey’s recent comment that his character, Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor, was modelled on Kenneth Lay, the former Enron chief, could be a hint. Maybe, I thought, Superman would take on corporations in a fight against corruption? Or he might put a stop to the war on terror or even try to halt rising temperatures to prevent global warming?

Thankfully, Singer hasn’t let Superman become a pawn in any of those debates. But on the other hand, his Superman doesn’t do much at all. Sure, he can stop bullets with his eyes, lift planes and rescue women in danger, but that is only to be expected from someone equipped with superpowers. Shouldn’t there be some reason why he takes up the fight of good against evil?

Various commentators have laid claims to the man of steel over the past few weeks – he stands for the immigrant’s quest for belonging, camp masculinity, or Judeo-Christian values, depending on whom you ask. There is a revealing moment in the film, however, when Daily Planet editor Perry White gathers his team to an editorial meeting upon the return of Superman to Metropolis after his mysterious disappearance five years earlier. He tells his staff to find out everything about the hero: ‘Does he still stand for truth, justice and all that stuff?’

‘All that stuff’ has replaced ‘the American Way’, which Hollywood is these days not overly keen to promote, because of its negative resonance abroad. Superman can no longer be a patriotic symbol, so now he’s just a good guy who wants to help out wherever he can and fulfill his purpose on Earth, which is to show mankind its capacity for good – to be, in the words of his father Jor-El, ‘the light to show the way’. Still, the hero’s major moral conundrum in Superman Returns is a personal, romantic one.

The film starts off with the man of steel returning to Earth after a five-year search for Krypton, the planet he was born on. On his first night back in Kansas with his adoptive mother Martha Kent, he flicks from channel to channel on the television and sees a world still ravaged with conflict and destruction. There is still a need for Superman!

Some, however, think it’s debatable whether humanity needs superheroes from outer space. Taking up his position as reporter Clark Kent at the Daily Planet in Metropolis, Superman finds out that his old love Lois Lane has won a Pulitzer prize for an essay she wrote on why the world doesn’t need Superman. Soon enough she is eating her own words, for Clark hasn’t even been back in Metropolis a full day before he has to shed the geek outfit for the blue tights and red cape and safely land a crashing plane, with Lois onboard, in the middle of a crowded baseball field. ‘Are you all right?’ he asks Lois before stepping out of the plane to soak up the cheers of the crowds. He didn’t say it, but surely he was thinking: ‘It’s good to be back.’

But Superman has to deal with the fact that the woman he loves has moved on. She now has a new man in her life, her fiancé Richard White with whom she has a young son, a frail boy with all sorts of allergies who an hour or so into the film saves his mother’s life by pushing a grand piano over one of Lex Luthor’s cronies. Hmm…. It’s been five years since Lois spent the night with Superman, her son is five-years-old and is showing a propensity for supernatural powers….what could it mean?

Anyway, the question is will Superman put his own feelings first or will he act selflessly and not disrupt Lois’ happy family life? This is a tough emotional decision, but hardly a dilemma upon which the future of mankind, truth and justice depend.

While Superman is busy taking Lois on romantic night flights over Metropolis, his nemesis Lex Luthor is planning to destroy the United States, killing millions of people in order to replace the continent with a desolate and jagged landmass and then make millions from real estate. Obviously Superman can’t let that happen.

But actually, it’s not really Superman who disrupts Lex Luthor’s megalomaniac master plan. First, Lois Lane, gutsy reporter, confronts the villain in his mansion. Then her son saves her from being knocked out and her husband comes to their rescue when he picks them up in his private plane. Superman is part of the rescue mission, but when he tries to reclaim the magic crystals that Lex Luthor has stolen from him, the villain attacks him with Kryptonite. He then gets rescued both by Lois and her family and by a team of surgeons who remove a chunk of kryptonite from his back. In the end, it’s Kitty Kowalski, Lex Luthor’s sidekick, who saves the day.

In short, Superman is just a catalyst for good deeds, someone who inspires goodness. So while it is indeed good to have him back, we shouldn’t rely on him to save the world.

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