After a fabulous evening of escapism to see Pirates of the Caribbean II on its opening night in Bradford, Pennsylvania with my mother and her husband, we decided to risk deflation by going to see Superman Returns the following night. I did not expect to enjoy the film much, not being a fan of the Christopher Reeve’s films and not particularly liking this particular superhero overmuch, finding him too stiff, too patriotic, too uptight. I generally prefer more complex, angst-ridden superheroes, from X-Men to Xena. So I was much surprised by what I found in this new Superman.
First, I was quite pleasantly surprised by Brandon Routh’s easy, comfortable portrayal. I liked his quiet voice; I relaxed into his small gestures and controlled, compelling facial expressions; I enjoyed his combination of confidence and insecurity. And I grooved on the silent and smooth way Superman flew. With a risk of falling prey to reactionary white masculinity in superheroic form, I found a real allure in his mellowness. Unlike the excessive X-Men, I did not feel overwhelmed by constant slashing and crashing. Unlike the twitchy adolescent Spiderman, I was not nervous watching him. Unlike the dark Batman of recent memory, I did not have to worry that he would act unpredictably, jarring my senses every scene.
What was best of all for me in the film was the way it challenged conservatism that I entirely expected to see. I’m not arguing the film is radical. But, I like that the film makes Lois a single mom with mediocre parenting skills to say the least. She forgets to pick her son up, takes him to follow up a lead that takes her right into Lex Luther’s lair, and doesn’t worry overmuch that he might be traumatized for life by what he has been through. I also really like that the limits of the nuclear family are pushed in the film. Lois’s fiancé Richard keeps his machismo at bay, doing a lot of the parenting (and better than mom) and letting Lois call the shots in their relationship, from waiting around until she is ready for marriage to going back to save Superman at her command despite his jealousy and fear that he may lose his already skittish fiancée to him. While the film could use this depiction to make the character dismissible, a placeholder until Superman can come along and sweep her off her feet again, it does not. As we see in Jason’s drawing of the family, Superman, Richard, Lois, and Jason can all be a family together. Ok, we don’t get true polyamory (Lois and Superman do not even kiss in the film), but we do get a sense of alternatives that do not require traditional marriage as an endpoint.
This is capped off with a resistance to gratuitous nationalism and flagwaving—as Superman lets us know that he hears the voices of the suffering all over the globe and not just in the God-blessed U.S. of A. This is highlighted when Perry White—played with love by Frank Langella—actively resists completion of the Superman tagline “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” reflecting that truth and justice are the real concerns here and the “American Way” is outdated, predictable, perhaps irrelevant, and maybe even distasteful in today’s global economy.
Such delights let me ignore the poor casting for Lois, the glaring plot gap of no one noticing Clark Kent is missing for the entire time that Superman is in the hospital, and troubling awareness of ongoing American desire for escapism in superhero discourse (however cynical it usually is) rather than waking up and changing the way we live our lives and practice our version of democracy. With chin clefts and ultra-blue contacts like Routh’s, it’s so tempting to feel reassured when Superman says, “I’m always around.”