Bright Lights Film Journal

Superman Returns I: Superheroes for the New Millennium

“This new millennium hero lives in a fortress of solitary and alienated hyper-masculinity.”

Note: This article contains spoilers.

I never thought I would see the day when I would write about Superman. I have always regarded him as an example of triumphalist American imperialism. This is typified, for example, by the ending of the 1980 Superman II film where Superman places the American flag back on top of the White House. This scene had Australian audiences hooting with derisory laughter. An American present at one such session was at a loss to understand why the Australian audience found this so funny. Truth, justice, and the American way indeed.

I recently went to see Superman Returns and was fascinated by it for a number of reasons. I enjoyed the film and found its portrayal of a gloomy and alienated Superman, acutely aware that he is the last of his race, most interesting. There are also resonances with the 2005 Christopher Eccleston incarnation of Dr. Who as the embittered and grief-stricken sole remaining representative of a once powerful people. Perhaps these represent new millennium themes of loss of Empire or at least loss of belief in a utopian form of Empire emerging in both the American and British renditions of their iconic heroes.

If I found this tortured version of Superman evocative, I was horrified by the portrayal of Lois Lane. It is a portrayal which I would say would offend just about all the decades that the Superman story has been around. It would have been unthinkable in the pre- and post-World War 11 period for Lois Lane to have a sexual relationship with Superman, a child out of wedlock, and then shack up with another boyfriend. The weak, domesticated, manipulative victim portrayed in Superman Returns would also have been anathema in the 1980s and 1990s. There was no sense in Superman Returns that this woman could possibly have had the drive, intelligence, and guts to do the work needed to win a Pulitzer Prize as the film claims she has done. Neither does she have the honour or principles to stick by Superman or engage in a responsible adult relationship with him. Not that Superman appears, in this version, any more capable of conducting an adult relationship himself. This forcing of women back into the domestic sphere and role of passive victim whose only power lies in manipulation unfortunately seems to be emerging more and more as a feature in mainstream Hollywood film.

If we look at X Men: The Last Stand, the powerful Jean Grey transformed into The Phoenix is nothing but the victim of her own subconscious mutant powers, merely standing around looking blank while the dark Phoenix force channels through her. In the comics she at least has a say in how she uses her powers and finally takes her own life to save the universe when she realizes her powers of destruction are uncontrollable. In the film, she has to ask a man to do the job for her and put her out of her misery.

After seeing Superman Returns I couldn’t help but think of the TV version of the Superman story Lois and Clark which I had enjoyed in the 1990s, so I went out and bought the DVDs the next day. I can’t speak highly enough of this version. Lois Lane is played by Terri Hatcher as a career-focused, intelligent, pro-active woman. Superman — or rather Clark Kent — is played very nicely by Dean Cain. He makes a stylish, charming, and amusing Clark Kent, a well-adjusted young adult, interested in seeing how he can contribute and participate in the social body both as the ordinary Clark Kent and as his alter ego, an alien being with super powers. He does not spend much time sitting around brooding over his uniqueness and alienation.

Watching both Superman Returns and Lois and Clark raises interesting questions about the choices that can be made. The same individual can choose a life of angst and alienation and the noble and lonely mission of saving the world, or can cheerfully decide to engage in the situation in which he finds himself knowing that even with all his superpowers if he can’t do everything, at least he can try to do what he can. The Dean Cain version is more ordinary and more believable and offers a number of practical solutions to living. Brandon Routh’s Superman is attractively alien but does not say much about real social engagement. Interestingly, Dean Cain is widely vilified for his portrayal of Superman — perhaps it is because he makes him an optimistic participant in the social body on an equal footing — not some remote and mysterious demi-god whom people want to worship. Dean Cain’s Superman — an alien — is far too integrated into mainstream society. It is the job of those who are different to remain different.

Still on the theme of religion, much has been made of the resemblances between Jesus Christ and Superman. Superman Returns is full of religious allusion and iconography. Superman says to Lois while they are suspended above the earth that he can hear everything — a world crying out to be saved. When he dies after saving the planet from disaster, he falls back to earth arms extended in cruciform position and back on earth rises again after remaining dead for at least a couple of days. Give me the ordinary, practical, non-divine Dean Cain version any day.

There is also the issue of the American obsession with “family”: Superman and his absent father, Superman and his son to whom he is also an absent father. All of this is very tedious. Interestingly another TV series still currently in production, The Dead Zone, also features a hero who has been away in a coma for six years and awakens to find he has psychic powers, and his girlfriend is married to another man and is bringing up his own son. Again, this seems to be another new millennium theme. Romanticised fatherhood with none of the responsibility, as in the absence of the father, the girlfriend has conveniently partnered with some nice, down-to-earth, steady man whom it would be a crime to abandon, a man under the happy illusion that he has fathered the child.

Men with special powers can’t shoulder the everyday responsibilities of fatherhood — but they can have the sentimental satisfaction of having a son who is carrying on the blood line. It is up to the domesticated women to deal with the mundane, while the superhero man is out saving the world. Of course, the father feels bad about this, but what can he do? The woman needs a steady man, and the spurned superhero has the consolation of knowing that she still secretly loves him. And since in Superman Returns she is not actually married to her new partner, there is still hope.

This new millennium hero lives in a fortress of solitary and alienated hyper-masculinity, bleakly holding on to lost visions of Empire and a lonely sense of his duty to save the world. Women are mere shadows in this world, but remain guardians of the generational continuity, maintaining the fabric of the everyday, alongside emasculated new age men who no longer know how to be men. This status quo will hold until times improve and Empire and the masculine order are restored.