Sunday, July 30, 2006
A Bittersweet Return
Because we mortals are bound by the limits imposed upon us by the immutable laws of time and space, we inevitably come to that point in our lives when we discover that we can't go home again. The world spins inexorably onward, heedless of human desire, and those people and places we cherish most are lost.
SPOILERS for Superman Returns follow...
Superman Returns is a story about a man who is seemingly invulnerable, but nonetheless finds himself at the mercy of time's arrow.
The film begins with a brief explanation: five years ago, Superman left Earth to explore the remains of his home planet, Krypton, led to believe that there might be survivors. The world has had to get by without its greatest protector and inspiration.
After the very retro opening credits (a breathless journey through astronomical wonders such as asteroid fields, nebulae and exotic ringed worlds), Superman returns, his spaceship crashing into a familiar Kansas farm, where the last son of Krypton is reunited with his adoptive mother, Martha Kent.
At the same time, his old nemesis, the mad scientist Lex Luthor, has set a fiendish plans in motion - he wants to use Kryptonian technology stolen from Superman's Fortress of Solitude to remake the world in a form that will suit his grand ambitions.
Against this backdrop, Superman - and his other self, Clark Kent - attempt to step back into their old lives, first with Clark's charming, awkward return to the Daily Planet, then with a thrilling shuttle/airplane rescue. These sequences show that director Brian Singer made a wise choice in casting Brandon Routh as his lead; as Clark, Routh is vulnerable, sensitive, playful, and burdened with a secret almost too large to contain. As Superman, Routh is a force of nature, often silent, grim, determined to protect the world from farm; he even shows a glint of the slightly vindictive 1930s Superman, back when the character wasn't above putting the fear of God into the bad guys. (There's a scene in which a thug shoots Superman at point blank range...and the bullet bounces off Superman's eye. Routh offers a tight, mocking grin - clearly, the goon doesn't stand a chance.)
There follows a short but effective montage, in which news clips show Superman on the job around the world. I loved this brief sequence - it shows that Superman is a hero for all humanity, not just the United States, and that his spectacular feats are performed with a self-effacing grin and genuine concern for the people around him.
As might be expected, Clark's return is little noticed; save for young Jimmy Olsen, few seem to care that Clark is back from his "vacation." No one even questions his absence, nor remarks upon the fact that he returns at the same time as Superman. Some might see this as contrived, but to me it seems entirely proper; as Superman's human half, Clark is meant to be overlooked and ignored, or even viewed with slight contempt by those who cannot perceive his inner greatness. (Every geek in the world secretly believes in this powerful myth - that while we may be Clark Kent on the outside, inside we're something far more.)
Superman's return, on the other hand, is hailed around the world; people are understandably happy to have him back.
Except for Lois Lane, Superman's one great love. Hurt by the Man of Steel's abrupt departure, Lois has moved on with a vengeance, winning a Pulitzer for her article "Why the World Doesn't Need a Superman." Even worse, from Superman's point of view, Lois is engaged to Richard White, and they have a young son. White is genuine, charming, and clearly cares about Lois and their little boy; a worthy match for Lois.
Superman's attempt to come to terms with his new personal reality forms the core of the story; Luthor's plot is a device to move the more important personal journey forward.
And it succeeds in this regard. Luthor captures Lois and her young son; Richard is the first on the scene to rescue them, while Superman is occupied saving Metropolis from a killer shockwave. When Superman returns to pull the trio from the ocean, he asks Richard if he has a solid grip on Lois and the boy; when they rise into the air, the human chain they form is a symbol of their new relationship. Superman is at the outside, hovering above the humans; the others are clustered together as a family unit.
Shortly afterward, it looks like Luthor has defeated Superman, stabbing him with a shard of Kryptonite and tossing him into the ocean to drown. But Lois and Richard come to Superman's rescue, showing that you don't need to be a Superman to risk everything for the greater good. After a brief respite, Superman returns to Luthor's artificial continent and lifts it heavenward, heaving it into space and saving the world...though not without exposing himself to dangerous Kryptonite radiation. Superman becomes the man who fell to Earth, and once again it is up to human beings - good Samaritans, policemen, doctors and nurses - to save their own savior. Superman recovers in hospital, tended to and watched over lovingly by the people of Metropolis.
And then he's gone, for one last personal journey. For he has discovered that Lois and Richard's son is, in fact, his own; and he must say goodbye, for he knows that it is not for him to raise the child. He already has a family.
In a scene both tender and sad, Superman acknowledges his only son, accepting that the sleeping boy will grow up without his direct involvement. His decision to leave Earth to its own devices has exacted a huge personal price, and now Superman will have to live with the consequences.
As he leaves his son behind, Lois appears, calling him back to say goodbye.
"Will we see you around?" she asks.
"I'm always around," Superman replies, with that touch of bittersweet melancholy that comes only when you finally understand yourself and your place in the universe. One journey is over; the next stage of his life must begin.
There are some problems with plot and characterization in the film. Luthor's scheme to create a new continent would be much more plausible had his new world seemed like an appealling place to live. Who would want to build a community on a grey slab of lifeless stone? Granted, we know from previous films that Kryptonian technology can create creature comforts (see Superman II), but this film makes us question how Luthor expects his plan to work at all.
Also, Superman isn't the kind of hero who uses his abilities to eavesdrop on mortals. When he listens in on a private conversation between his lost love Lois and her fiancee Richard, he's behaving unethically; no question about it. If he had acknowledged this error somewhere in the film, I could have forgiven it, but as it stands we're left with the impression that Superman thinks it's okay to spy on people. A line of dialogue at the end of the film - an apology to Lois, an admission of how deeply the disappointments of his return have affected him - would have gone a long way toward addressing this problem.
Perhaps most troublingly, Superman's justification for leaving Earth behind isn't explored nearly enough. It seems irresponsible to leave humanity without his services just when people had come to take a protector for granted. A flashback sequence showing that Earth was in pretty good shape - perhaps a metaphor for the Clintonian 90s, the pre-911 era that now seems like a mini Golden Age - would have made his decision to leave more acceptable, and more tragic. He could have left without guilt, feeling that Earth's people had grown up enough to manage on their own, only to find (as he does in the film) that things have gone to hell. Superman should be anguished by his decision to leave, not because of the cost to his personal life, but because of the cost to the people he has sworn to serve and protect.
Finally, the decision to introduce a child into Superman's life, while it works thematically for this film, does raise questions for future storylines. I'll be interested to see how the series develops, given this new reality.
These flaws aside, Superman Returns is an ambitious film that tries to tell a very different, more mature story about one of pop culture's most enduring characters. Superman's struggle to come to terms with the passage of time and the regrets of possibilities lost is a struggle that every person shares, and because Superman, in the end, bears the burden with grace and even optimism, we too can draw strength from the very best of our human qualities: the ability to empathize with others, and to sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of our fellows. And to realize that we are stronger than we imagine, that the sacrifices we make help not only others, but ourselves.
We must remember, too, that Superman Returns exists within a very specific real-world context. It's a story about growing up, about moving past old regrets, and in that sense, it's a story that this generation shares. Those of us who were children when we first saw Christopher Reeve's Superman take flight in 1978 are the ones at the best age now to best appreciate this film, since many of us, now approaching middle age, are looking back and wondering which choices might have made us happier. Perhaps we, too, once abandoned our responsibilities to pursue our own ends, and came to regret the decision. Perhaps we kept secrets from those we loved, only to see them drift away. Perhaps our life's tapestry was forever altered by the careless trimming of a single, seemingly unimportant thread.
At the film's close, Lois begins to write a new article: "Why the World Needs a Superman," a rebuttal of her own award-winning piece. We never discover what she writes, but the answer seems pretty obvious to me.
The human family now comprises something over six billion souls. We are fearful and petty, vindictive and hateful, and we're tearing each other apart as we struggle for our share of the world's wealth. We poison our homeworld and ignore the suffering around us as we struggle to cling to our own small comforts.
We need a Superman - or something akin to him - for one simple reason: to remind ourselves that we can, we have, and we must do more. We can be a great people, if we wish to be, claims Jor-El, Superman's father; we only lack the light to show the way.
But here's the thing: we don't lack the light. It's all around us. All over the world, ordinary people donate blood. They protest against injustice. They donate to charity. They join political parties. They write letters to the editor. They volunteer. And they show compassion and kindness, whenever they can.
At this moment, all over the world, human beings are reaching out to help each other. Right now, someone is saving a life; right now, someone is offering comfort to the lost; right now, someone is making love.
In my deepest, blackest, most cynical moments, Superman and everything he symbolizes remind me that we have every reason to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity, because the evidence is not only all around us, it lives within us. Superman never left, and never will.