I seem to be the only person alive who really loves Superman Returns. Most found it too long, too slow, and too sappy. I agree that it is all of those things. But of all the superhero movies out there, it’s the only one that affects me emotionally because it features one of the only heroes in the genre who's really worthy of the title.
To cynical contemporary audiences raised on ironic distance and gritty antiheroes, Superman seems outlandishly corny, a boring goody-two-shoes with no rough edges or shades of gray. And that’s what I love about him. Unlike other superheroes, the world would actually be a better place with him in it. A world so insane, so chaotic and brutal that it requires a violent, emotionally scarred vigilante like Batman to mete out the justice its government cannot is kind of depressing, but what if Superman existed? Imagine the ecclesiastical joy you would feel knowing that there’s someone out there looking after you, who will catch you when you fall. It must be what it’s like to really, truly believe in a just and loving God, only you can actually see Him in the flesh, zooming across the sky in glorious Technicolor.
This religious yearning is crucial to the character’s creation myth, both in the comics and in the real world. Subverting the Nietzschean Übermensch ideology that so inspired the Nazis, Superman was created by two sons of Jewish immigrants at a time when their relatives in Europe desperately needed their people’s long-delayed savior to finally arrive. A survivor from a decimated culture arriving in the heartland of America to defend the innocent and preserve justice, Superman was both of manifestation of the Jewish people’s longing for a protector and a celebration of American idealism. A powerless infant in his native land, he was given strength by his arrival in America, a land where, theoretically, a person of no means could leave behind his suffering and start a new life of hope and promise. Created during the Great Depression, Superman was a symbol of compassion and generosity in a world given to corruption and rot.
I strongly disagree with the idea that being purely noble somehow makes Superman less interesting than more conflicted characters like the X-Men. Just for a moment, pretend that you’re Superman. Earth’s yellow sun gives you immeasurable power, more than enough to rule the world if you wanted to. But you don’t want to. Instead, you only want to help people. You choose to be polite and generous and forgiving and self-sacrificing. Do you understand how remarkable that is? Do you think you or anyone you know would possess enough self-control and basic human decency to not give in to the temptation to use your unlimited strength for your own ends? They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but Superman refutes that. In a world where abuses of power are more often the rule than the exception, I find that immeasurably inspiring. Batman did the best with the hand he was dealt, but he’s a flawed character for a flawed world. Superman flies trailing the promise of utopia behind him like a cape.
And don’t think that Superman doesn’t suffer by choosing not to lord over every human on earth like his own personal ant colony. His body might be Kryptonian, but his soul is pure human. He has the same desire for recognition and adoration as any of us, but he chooses to hide his light under a bushel by trying to make his way in the world as a lowly reporter named Clark Kent. I believe that Quentin Tarantino was wrong when he wrote in Kill Bill that Kent’s bumbling personality is Superman’s criticism of mankind. I don’t believe that Clark is an act. Clark is what being human does to Superman. Because he can’t use his powers without blowing his secret identity, he becomes just like the rest of us: unsure of himself, socially awkward, prone to mistakes. It’s easy to make everyone love you when you can save them from a falling airliner, but wouldn’t you want them to love you for you, not what you can do for them? When he’s Superman, he’s invincible, which gives him confidence and a certain swagger, but when he’s Clark, he’s vulnerable to the same pitfalls of human interaction as the rest of us. Being able to stop a bullet with your eyeball doesn’t help when the people at work think you’re a dork (which you kind of are—you’re a farmboy from Kansas, for God’s sake). That’s why it’s so important to him that Lois Lane fall in love with him as Clark, not Superman. It’s like a rock star wanting to make sure that his favorite groupie loves him for his personality, not for the fame and fortune. It shows that we’re all the same inside, no matter how powerful we seem on the outside.
Superman Returns illustrates this facet of Superman’s personality better than any of the other films in the series. Christopher Reeve gave a deft dual performance as both Superman (a man with so much natural grace that he could sit at a dinner table in a blue leotard and seem perfectly comfortable) and Clark, whose slapstick antics displayed Reeve’s underrated comic timing. For my money, he was Superman incarnate, but Brandon Routh synthesizes the two sides of Superman better. When he has the cape and tights on, he seems like a modest guy who’s been thrust into the spotlight, like a shy best man making a wedding toast. Rather than basking in the glow of his loving public, he seems embarrassed by the hero worship. He knows that he did nothing to deserve these powers he has, so he feels unworthy of such adoration in a world where so many have to work so much harder than he does to achieve far less. To me, Superman’s humility is much more impressive than his superpowers. The latter he was born with, but he earned the former through strength of character alone.
The movie is far from perfect. The plot is non-existent (Superman lifts heavy things!), the ending anticlimactic, and Kate Bosworth's bland, humorless Lois Lane makes me yearn for the feisty oddness of Margot Kidder. It also makes mincemeat of the denouement of Superman II, which, let's be frank, was never hot shit to begin with. Worst of all, they continue the franchise's misstep of using Lex Luthor as comic relief, undermining his effectiveness as a nemesis. In the comics, Luthor isn’t just a criminal mastermind yearning for wealth and power. He’s a captain of industry who already has both. What makes Luthor a villain is his pathological resentment of Superman. In a world without a man who’s more powerful than a locomotive, Luthor would be its most remarkable specimen. He’s a brilliant scientist, a genius businessman, and a stunning lateral strategist. He is the epitome of human achievement, but he pales in comparison to Superman, who attained his magnificence not through hard work and intelligence, but by a simple fluke of biology. This cosmic injustice drives Luthor mad with envy. In his mind, he’s trying to destroy Superman not because the Man of Steel is constantly thwarting his plans for world domination, but because he feels that Superman’s very existence belittles mankind itself, turning all of its achievements into the scribblings of children who need a father figure to protect them. (They do cursorily address this in the film, but this theme gets abandoned for the goofy "Let's make an ugly new continent that no one would ever want to live on" scheme.) To Luthor, humanity will never achieve its potential as long as it has Superman to coddle it. If Superman is God, then Lex is Lucifer, attempting to shove Man out of the Garden of Eden so that he might fulfill his destiny under his own steam. Of course, Luthor also believes that the only way for that to happen is for him to rule the world and show his fellow man the way (while taking his cut, of course—you can’t expect him to work out of pocket), but what do you expect from an egomaniac who feels that his only rival is a man who can lift continents?
Superman Returns is too ponderous and weakly plotted to be a masterpiece, but it does the right things right, at least for me. It shows me a hero who cares more about saving people than he does about the collateral damage-intensive psychodramas that other superheroes engage in with their fellow cosplay fetishists. His past is every bit as tragic as Batman’s, but he rises above it with class and grace. Even when he’s not flying over our heads like a bird or a plane, he still gives us someone to look up to.