In 1962, writer and academic Umberto Eco published an essay called “The Myth of Superman,” in which he outlined how Superman (and superheroes in general) didn’t fit the traditional concept of a mythological hero due to the nature of capitalism and the episodic nature of Superman’s life. In essence, Superman has countless adventures over decades, all of which take place in a continuous present, while he remains the same approximate age. His story has a beginning, but it will never reach its end; but more importantly, he can never make progress, can never develop as a human being.
However, the reading public, who are used to “romantic” narrative progression in novels and other works, expect to see some sort of progress in Superman’s life. As Eco writes:
The mythological character of comic strips finds himself in this singular situation: he must be an archetype, the totality of certain collective aspirations, and therefore he must necessarily become immobilized in an emblematic and fixed nature which renders him easily recognizable[…]but, since he is marketed in the sphere of “romantic” production for a public that consumes “romances,” he must be subjected to a development which is typical[…]of novelistic characters. (149)
Eco continues by saying that Superman is “aesthetically and commercially deprived of the possibility of narrative development” (149) because he has such a fixed set of iconic features in the mind of the consuming public: his blue and red outfit (a 1990s redesign failed miserably); his alter ego as mild-mannered Clark Kent; an ongoing sexual tension (but not consummation) with Lois; the Fortress of Solitude; kryptonite, his one weakness; his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor; his specific superpowers; and so on. Superman “possesses the characteristics of a timeless myth, but is accepted only because his activities take place in our human and everyday world of time” (150). This paradox is resolved by simply maintaining Superman’s world in the present, allowing him to accumulate decades of experiences without ever taking another step toward death.
This problem in superhero comics has long been recognized by both fans and the industry itself, and in recent years it has been directly addressed on a number of occasions. In the 1980s, DC allowed Frank Miller to write an end to the Batman story with The Dark Knight Returns, effectively providing an “end” to the Batman myth (which proved so popular, they soon moved to provide his “beginning” with Year One). DC also addressed decades of convoluted continuity with the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline. Meanwhile, comics like Cerebus allowed their characters to age during their adventures, moving through time as well as accumulating experience.
More recently, the issue has been addressed by Marvel’s creation of the “Ultimate” universe. The Ultimate universe, so far, appears to exist as a dynamic universe in which characters age and large changes occur and are later maintained (rather than being later “retconned”). Greg Hatcher at Comicbookresources.com wrote an article on this topic that encapsulates most of the arguments on both sides; in short, the “mainstream” universes of both DC and Marvel continue the tradition of updating their characters’ present world, but keeping the characters at the same approximate age and the same approximate circumstances. There are occasional permanent changes (Superman finally married Lois Lane, for instance, and Spider-Man recently unmasked himself to the public, though it remains to be seen how permanent this will be), but for the most part, there is simply what Hatcher calls an “illusion of change,” which is what Eco was more or less describing in 1962: events occur in the character’s life that appear to show him moving forward in time, like a “romantic” hero, but in fact he’s remaining as static as ever.
I preface my review of Superman Returns with all this gobbledygook because I think it was very much in the minds of director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. Singer has not made a movie featuring the “iconic” Superman: he has made the much riskier attempt of allowing Superman to move through time (in a less direct fashion than the 1978 film’s ludicrous climax). Batman Begins, Superman Returns–titles with temporal allusions which suggest that, unlike these films’ predecessors, this new generation of superhero filmmakers have taken their cue from Eco (in spirit if not directly from his essay) and are presenting us with dynamic, rather than static, superheroes who have a clear beginning and may very well have an end to their mythic cycles.
It’s a laudable goal. Director Christopher Nolan did an excellent job with Batman Begins. Singer, however, seems to be doing something else. Singer has admitted he’s not a reader of comic books, but is a huge fan of the original Superman movies, particularly the first and second. This is very evident in Superman Returns.
Returns, in a maneuver that would no doubt make Eco smile, takes place in our present, but presupposes that the events of the first two films (released in 1978 and 1980) took place. When the film begins (after a credit sequence aped so directly from the original it felt dated), Superman has been missing for five years, having R-U-N-N-O-F-T after Earth scientists discovered the remains of Krypton floating in distant space. Supe heads out to see if there’s anything left of his homeworld.
Meanwhile (gasp!) life goes on in Metropolis. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a kid, finds a guy, and pens a Pulitzer-winning editorial titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” I’m inclined to agree with her, and with Luthor, who says “gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind.” Damned straight. As Eco points out, “from a man who could produce work and wealth in astronomic dimensions in a few seconds, one could expect the most bewildering political, economic, and technological upheavals in the world. From the solution of hunger problems to the tilling of ininhabitable regions, from the destruction of inhuman systems[…]Superman could exercise good on a cosmic level” (162). (I’m reminded of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and a brief exchange where Manhattan mentions having developed revolutionary technologies in energy and transportation.) But Superman sticks to saving people from runaway cars, burning buildings, and crashing planes, presumably while allowing genocide to continue in Darfur. I bring up these points not to be unfair, but because Singer brings them up in the first place by showing Clark watching recent news footage as well as putting up the notion of whether the world “needs” Superman for debate.
Since Supe is MIA, the recently-ex-con Luthor heads to the Fortress of Solitude, where he steals Superman’s incredible Krypton technology and promptly comes up with the absolute worst idea for its use one could possibly conceive. Just by doling out tiny tidbits of the technology, Luthor could make himself wealthy enough to more or less run several pre-existing continents—but never mind. The more important part of Luthor’s plan is to make Superman pay dearly for putting Luthor in prison for five years.
Meanwhile, the newly-returned Superman must contend with Lois’s sudden decision, after fifty cultural years of sexual tension, to move on with her life. She’s now with Richard White (X-Men‘s James Marsden), nephew of Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White (an underused Frank Langella). And (spoiler warning – highlight to read) she has a son, who is apparently Superman’s child, though if we’re to understand that the events of the first two films occurred, then Lois must think her kid is the product of immaculate conception—or a drunken one-night stand—since at the end of Superman II, Superman erased her memory of them sleeping together.
In essence, the plot of the film is Superman dealing with suddenly finding himself in a dynamic world after nearly seventy years of a static cultural existence—the five-year span serving to represent that break with the static, iconic Superman world of old. The question is, does presenting a dynamic Superman make for a good Superman movie? I’m not certain it does. Of course, the static ground was pretty well covered by the first two films, so it made sense for Singer to trying something new. But he made some odd decisions along the way.
For instance, why did he cast so young an actor as Superman? For a film that’s all about Superman living in a world where time actually moves on—a movie where the most important plot point is that he’s been gone for five years—it’s odd to have a Superman who looks barely out of his teens. The iconic Superman is in his early-to-mid-thirties. What would this film have been like if a handsome but older-looking actor had been cast as Superman? Someone with a few miles on him, who might really feel the pain of a woman having moved on, of missed opportunities, of real regrets. The dreamy young Routh Superman needn’t worry about Lois; he can easily have any woman he wants for many years to come.
The comparisons between newcomer Brandon Routh and Christopher Reeve’s Superman have been countless, but the fact is, Reeve knew how to play a Superman with a public face; with the exception of a cute line about flying being statistically safe after rescuing a crashing plane, Routh hardly gets the chance to show that side of Supe. He doesn’t even get any banter with Lex Luthor; this a brooding, humorless Superman, and between that and the film’s portentous (I’ll be kind and avoid “pretentious”) tone, it made the film quite a bit less fun than, say, the Spider-Man movies, or even X2. Routh simply isn’t old enough to have the sense of gravitas that Superman requires; he looks like a kid running around in a Superman suit.
A little more on the Superman/Lois angle: while it’s important, it really doesn’t get much of a treatment in the film. This is largely because Lois is with a good-natured, likeable, and thoroughly respectable man in Richard White, whose courage and heart easily matches Superman’s. You don’t want Lois to betray her family and be with Superman—not in this film, certainly, and preferably not in any sequels, since ruining such a functional relationship as that of Lois and Richard just so she can be with Superman would seem contrived and almost mean. More than any of the previous films, this movie, situated as it is in the “real” dynamic world, emphasizes the incompatibility of Superman’s nature and lifestyle with that of Lois. What’s lost is the sexual tension between Lois and Superman and the triangle of Lois, Superman and Clark. This last isn’t a big deal since Clark is virtually non-existent in the film, and Lois doesn’t seem to care that he exists at all. It seems Richard more than fulfills her need for a normal guy, meaning that she would never fall for Clark, only Superman.
It doesn’t help that Bosworth’s Lois, whether by virtue of writing or acting, can’t hold a candle to Margot Kidder’s Lois. Say what you will about the Reeve/Routh debate, I’m afraid Kidder has it all over Bosworth. There’s nary a bit of spunk or attitude to be found in this Lois Lane.
Like many recent blockbusters, such as King Kong and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Superman Returns feels too long, with action sequences that feel even more pointless as one simply waits, twiddling one’s thumbs, for the inevitable rescue by the omnipotent Superman (one sequence involving a sinking ship was completely unnecessary; it felt, in both style and duration, like I were being forced to watch Titanic again, but with the foreknowledge that these people are main characters in a Superman movie and as such have absolutely no chance of dying. Why would one ever prolong such a sequence?). Superhero comics tend to move swiftly and a single issue can often be read in ten minutes. Why do superhero movies have to be two and a half hours long? There are quality adaptations of five-hundred-page novels that are shorter.
I did like some things about the movie. Most of the scenes in which Superman makes use of his powers are spectacular and entertaining, largely because the filmmakers paid close attention to real-world physics: Superman tries to hold on to a plunging plane by the wing, and said wing tears off; Superman flies from space toward Earth and flames out as he hits the atmosphere. Such realistic details make the suspension of disbelief both easier and more satisfying. The plane rescue sequence is one of the best and most spectacular action sequences I’ve seen in a superhero film.
I was a tad too young to have been a fan of the Superman films when they came out, and for my generation they were largely superseded by a little juggernaut called Star Wars. As such, I didn’t find Singer’s almost slavish devotion to the early films all that gratifying and found myself wishing he’d tried instead to reinvent the franchise a la Batman Begins. As mentioned above, the bombastic opening sequence, lifted directly from the original film (complete with John Williams’s epic score), felt not only dated but also, in retrospect, completely at odds with the tone of the film. This is a somber movie (even more than Batman Begins). It’s the cinematic equivalent of the Crash Test Dummies’ Superman’s Song”. I suspect many a kid out there was a bit bored by this superhero movie. Some might say that comics aren’t just for kids anymore, but come on, Superman is! That’s not to say he’s kiddie stuff, but to make a PG-13 Superman film just seems wrong somehow.
I have the utmost respect for Singer, and I do appreciate what he was trying to do in Superman Returns. But Superman Returns continues the trend seen in Singer’s superhero work from X-Men to X2: a decline in characterization in favor of theme and tone. Sam Raimi has done a marvelous job of maintaining character development in the Spider-Man series, while screenwriter David Goyer and director Nolan brought character to the Batman franchise at last. I would have liked to get under Superman’s skin in this film, but it doesn’t happen. That said, I don’t think doing so was what Singer was interested in.
But you have to admire someone who, in 2006, attempts to bring to the screen a movie about a man whose costume design was based on circus strong-man outfits of the 1930s (thereby ensuring that colorful skintight costumes retained at least some cultural significance for many, many years after their popularity in the real world vanished—other than the brief, best-forgotten Lycra/Spandex craze of the 1980s). Superman is an anachronism today, a virtuous boy scout whose 1950s values and utter earnestness are very much out of fashion in the age of Wolverine. Superman Returns is all about Superman trying to find a place in such a world, but I think Singer held back too much in order to skew close enough to the iconic Superman so as not to risk alienating the audience.
(The quotes from the Eco article are from Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester and published by the University of Mississippi Press, 2004, pp. 146-164. I highly recommend it to scholars of the medium and anyone interested in a fair, academic examination of comics. Imagine my surprise at discovering that Leslie Fiedler was defending comics and arguing for their study as an art form as early as 1955. Well, maybe not all that surprising from Fiedler, who once told a group of literary writers and critics “when all of us are forgotten, people will still be remembering Stephen King.”)