What lured me back to Superman
A solitary man, flying above a city
It was really just one moment in Superman Returns that made me go back.
It's a shot of the superhero glimpsed from below, as he passes about four storeys above the sidewalk. It's dusk in Metropolis, and the flying figure passes over with a quiet, almost ghostly whoosh. A few people notice him, but for the most part he's alone.
I suppose he was actually going somewhere in that shot, that he was motivated in his journey to connect some link in the movie's plot to the next. But even after two viewings I don't remember what that purpose was. Nor do I care. For me the image stands alone as the expression of something greater than the movie that generated it.
And that's what got me. It's got to be some lonely work being the most invulnerable being on the planet — and there must be plenty of occasions just like that. When you're flying alone in the dark, with almost nobody looking on, just doing the job of being Superman.
Superman Returns is a seriously mixed bag of a movie, but the stuff in it that works, works beautifully.
Strangely, it's not the common stuff of a summer popcorn superhero blockbuster that resonates, but the matter of myth and metaphysics. What I found compelling about Superman Returns is the question posed by that single image of the flying man in the dark city. Editor's Note: I agree. If only the actor playing him...who was fine, but not brilliant...and the script he had to work with....which was fine, but not nearly as focused or powerful as it could have been....if only those things had given the whole thing the added HEFT it needed to really drive those moments home. (Think about the runaway train scene in "Spiderman 2" as just one comparison).
What's it like to be the man charged with protecting a race you can't ever truly part of? And what do you do when you're alone? What if you wish you'd never landed on this godforsaken lump of dirt? Editor's Note: Very good questions! Cool food for thought. What motivates this guy? I mean, even the BEST of us want to throttle another human or two every now and then. And we get to go to the parties; Superman hardly ever gets any fun.
There's another potent moment in the movie, and like the dusk flight it passes too quickly. It's of Superman flying high above the planet, his radio-tuner mind filled with the cacophonous static of a world of pain.
Imagine what torture such supersensory sensitivity must be like. If you listen closely enough, you can hear every bit of individual pain crying out for help below. How do you decide which to relieve first, especially since you know that each decision you make means that countless others in need will go unassisted? Wouldn't it be tempting to just fly away to a distant universe where the voices can't be heard? Editor's Note: I'm a Girl Scout from WAY back, but I think at some point I'd just SNAP, and fly as far away as possible. Wouldn't YOU?!
It's the existential Superman that Bryan Singer's movie touches on with such acute but frustrating power. Frustrating because it's left more hinted at than fully explored, and because the whole Lex Luthor plot — which involves a looney takeover-the-world angle concerning, of all non-metaphysical matters, real estate — seems so trite and familiar by contrast.
I don't think the Lois Lane stuff works either, but at least it's rooted in Superman's tragic isolation. Editor's Note: Singer is gay, right? So Lois wasn't cast via the old-fashioned Casting Couch. But after all the talk of how many actresses were pushing for that role, the skinny non-entity they picked was so very disappointing. But that's just me...back on my Chicks-should-kick-some-derriere soap box. Sigh.....That's why the moment where Superman descends (again quietly, in the dark) in front of Lois's house is another one that transcends the plot contrivances that create it. Using his x-ray vision to look in on a domestic situation he'll never enjoy, he's like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers: a hero who can't ever enter the house it's his mission to protect.
But because the question of Superman's purpose — how to be a saviour to a world one can't ever be part of — is not only so rich but so essential to the very conception of this most overtly messianic of pop heroes, it results in a movie that is terminally divided against itself.
Created by a couple of Depression-era Jewish teenagers, Superman set the template from which all ensuing caped crusaders would be stamped, and galvanized not only the comic book industry but the pop mythology of magically endowed outsiders. (He was the Elvis of superheroes, at once a father figure, inspiration and burden to everything he spawned.)
With his secret identity, Superman also established the inherently divided soul of superheroes: people who must pose as regular folk to pass as human, but who must live with the soul-dividing consequences of the secrets they bear.
At first, of course, it was precisely this condition of closeted divinity that gave the comics their fantasy charge. What geek didn't dream of showing the world how badly it needed him? Editor's Note: I don't think this yen is in any way unique to 'geeks'.
But this was also the superhero's curse and Singer's movie. By dramatizing this condition in such blatantly pulp-Christian terms, he brings Superman into the 21st century by casting him as a man forced to confront his own impossible mission.
Or almost. How I wish the film had delved further into the idea of Superman's abandonment of humanity. Instead of providing us with the excuse that the Man of Steel has been absent because of some intergalactic wild goose chase involving rumours of the survival of his home planet Krypton, what might have happened if Superman had just given up? What if he'd decided that his role as mankind's protector was not only impossible but futile, exhausting and thankless, and the business of the movie became the explicit struggle of the guy to come to terms with his own calling? Editor's Note: And then wouldn't Lois be even MORE pissed off! If he left her, not because of some galactic 'calling', but because he was having a midlife superhero crisis?! (although, it would certainly make him more like other men, huh?)
And what if, meanwhile, the world had given up on him? After all, these past years have provided many opportunities for pondering the nature of evil and the limitations of human goodness, and it would be fascinating to see how Superman might grapple with a planet so cynical it has written him off as a quaint relic of a simpler era, a deadbeat saviour who screwed off when he was needed most. What would rekindle his sense of purpose?
I don't think I'm asking for anything that isn't deeply embedded in either the movie or the mythology's foundation anyway, and I only raise these alternative scenarios because the movie itself so provocatively suggests them. As long as we're going to make the Jesus connection, let's not forget that, according to some interpretations, the Son of God himself was a saviour torn between divinity and humanity, and who spent a lot of time alone wondering if he was up for the job. Or if the race was worth saving in the first place. Editor's Note: Keeping in mind that the Superman mythology was created by two nice Jewish boys, so I don't think we want to go TOO far down the Jesus-analogy path, huh?
Walking out of Superman Returns a second time, I turned to my 18-year-old daughter, a bred-in-the-bone comic freak with understandably mixed feelings about the burdensome legacy of the Man of Steel.
"After all these years I still don't get it," I said. "Why does Superman need a secret identity in the first place? Why can't he just be Superman all the time?"
"Because that's the only way he can be with people," she said.
Bingo. That's the Superman movie I really want to see, and that's the Superman movie that flies, quietly and almost imperceptibly, in the dark just above this one. Editor's Note: Ok. I just got MAJOR goosebumps. Ones I wish I'd gotten when watching the movie itself. Well done!