It’s all here, including the “Mission Accomplished” moment
Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which was the number one movie in America on its opening weekend in June 2006, is a listless, wilted, drawn-out film in which incompetence and distraction are celebrated ahead of focus and achievement — in short, it’s the perfect metaphor for the George W. Bush presidency.
Superman movies seem to have a history of mirroring their eras’ leaders. Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and its terrific successor, Superman II(1980), gave us the sort of cloaked hero we longed for and thereafter elected. Just as Superman donned a pair of glasses and became the likeable, bumbling nerd Clark Kent, Ronald Reagan had the ability to don a cardigan and become a likeable grandfather. But take Americans hostage or blow up an airplane, and Reagan was ready — compelled against his will, it always seemed, to shed his kindly veneer and come out shooting. Perhaps the most telling linkage between Reagan and Superman? No matter the crisis, neither man’s hair ever lost its perfect coif.
But this is a new era and with it, Bryan Singer offers us a new kind of Superman. This one’s been away for a while visiting the remains of both Krypton and his Oedipus complex. Eventually he comes back to earth, having hitched a ride on a meteorite that does terrible damage to the Iowa landscape as it crashes to the ground. George W. Bush’s moment of emergence in Florida in 2000 wasn’t dissimilar to Superman’s catching the 11:30 asteroid express: unable to cross the finish line on his own steam, he opted for the more chaotic, destructive approach. Sure, it was messy, but it got the job done.
Back on earth, Superman tries to figure out what to do with his newly rediscovered powers, which proves difficult. So he takes leisurely walks and generally devotes so much thought to his childhood and his father that even his super-therapist would flinch.
Unfortunately, the leisure life Superman enjoys proves as impractical for the Man of Steel as it did for the 43rd President. While dressed as Clark Kent and sitting in a bar, of all places, having a drink at what appears to be 9 in the morning (assuming Clark Kent gets to work on time), an airplane carrying precious cargo in the form of both a space shuttle and Lois Lane heads toward certain destruction. Superman springs into action. He quickly saves the doomed airliner, and then is treated to thunderous applause by a stadium full of baseball fans. This, in essence, is Superman’s USS Lincoln “Mission Accomplished” moment. Because the truth is that while he’s more or less won the initial battle, the impending, drawn-out war lurks just around the corner. For while Superman settles into his old job with more than a healthy dose of cockiness and complacency, Lex Luthor, the original terrorist mastermind, hatches a plot to destroy Metropolis and most of the world.
Unfortunately for the people of Earth, every time Superman has the opportunity to stop Luthor’s threat while it’s still in its infancy, he instead opts for spirited photo ops and lighter detail. Consider that while Luthor is stealing Kryptonite from the Natural History Museum, Superman is effortlessly playing the populist, saving Metropolis’s citizens from a runaway car whose brakes have been cut and whose rampage through the city’s flat streets defies the laws of physics (and insults those of us who were present at the Santa Monica market tragedy three years ago). Even people who aren’t comic book fans can see that runaway vehicles are the My Pet Goat incidents of the superhero world. Similarly, while Luthor holds Lois Lane captive on his yacht, Superman retreats to his Fortress of Solitude. The climate’s a bit cooler than Crawford, but it’ll do.
And just as Bush passed time in Crawford while New Orleans was flooding, so Superman hangs out in the Arctic while Luthor unleashes an unnatural disaster of such magnitude that it threatens to topple Metropolis. If only Superman had had some advance warning of Luthor’s plans. Perhaps then he could have evacuated Metropolis ahead of time.
But wait — he did have such advance warnings! In fact, Lois Lane, who’s sort of like Paul O’Neill and Eric Shinseki rolled into couture, is hot on Luthor’s trail and insistent that the mysterious power outages he keeps causing represent a major threat to Metropolis.
But newspaper super-editor Perry White, whose own alter egos include both Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, dismisses Lois’s reportorial instincts and tells her the real story can be found in his many-column-inched headline boasting Superman Returns. Put another way, White’s saying that readers (or voters, take your pick) want to see pictures of Superman in his shock-and-awe-inspiring blue and red suit. They aren’t interested in the messy details of the crises Superman has allowed to occur on his watch.
Eventually, as with hapless presidents, hapless superheroes are forced to act. But they don’t necessarily act with any more caution or counsel. No, Superman flies pell-mell into battle, somehow managing to underestimate Luthor’s weapons of mass destruction. Never having paused to consider an exit strategy, Superman’s great show of strength is short-lived. And thus trapped in a quagmire of his own making, Superman lies stranded on foreign shores, his immense personal arsenal laughably made a mockery of by Luthor’s rag-tag group of — well, “insurgents” doesn’t quite describe these anonymous enemy combatants.
In the end, Superman is rescued by, of all people, a little boy. Watching this, one can’t help but wonder if this is a metaphor for the impending moment when our children and grandchildren will be forced to make amends for our president’s narrow focuses. Will they be able to rescue this country from the damages wrought by intractable foreign wars, unmanageable federal deficits, and denial of the global environmental crisis?
Toward the film’s conclusion, when Superman finally does regain his strength, he solves the immediate crisis, dispensing with Luthor’s menacing plan. But he fails to catch Luthor himself. Watching Luthor stranded on an island, one can’t help but think of Osama bin Laden in his cave, perhaps plotting his own appearance in a sequel.
In the film’s final shots, Superman flies off into space. With the sun throwing off plenty of golden-hour light, the blue suit looks great, the hair’s in place, and the muscles are as plump as a Thanksgiving turkey. But take even one moment to cut through the veneer and one realizes the so-called “Man of Steel” is nothing but a hoax. The arch-villain got away and an entire coastal city lies in ruins. And yet, somehow, down below, the people are cheering.
“Every era gets the superhero it deserves,” the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis wrote in her review. But she only got it half-right; in the case of Superman Returns, we get the hero we already have.