Sunday, July 09, 2006

Superman Returns

And I say he's not welcome.

I haven’t seen Superman Returns yet (not out in France), but there’s something about the idea of the film that has me profoundly worried. I’m not particularly concerned about the quality of its content – although, I admit, I have my reservations – but rather about what the films represents.

I think the superhero genre has a lot of potential. In addition to the fact that comic books are basically movie storyboards, I think that the heroes's superpowers nicely reflect our country's status as a superpower. Their internal moral struggle is therefore ours. Superheroes, like America, have great powers (even Batman, whose endless fountains of money and unstoppable sociopathic insanity make up for his mortality and inability to fly) and they have to wrestle with the idea of those powers and what they should do with them. The temptation to misuse those powers is very real, so it's understandable if they occasionally do; they've had little to prepare them for that wealth of responsibility and, in the end, they really are only human.

In turn, then, it's understandable that America will occasionally go wrong and abuse its powers. I'm not saying it's good; I'm saying it's a reality and that, as Americans, it's important for our national identity to be able to be proud of our country even if we sometimes disagree with what it does. I'm not happy that we've invaded Iraq, but Spiderman originally tried to use his superpowers to be a professional wrestler and the Dark Knight basically killed Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins. If someone who is unarguably a superhero can do that and still be a superhero, then a great country can make the mistake of invading another country and still be a great country and I don't have to be ashamed to be proud of it, even if that pride is tinted by disappointment.

Superman, however, casts aside moral ambiguity and vulnerability. He is too Good (I'm going to use a capital G to emphasize the moral - as opposed to the qualitative - function of the word) to ever succumb to temptation, laziness, or apathy and he's just about invincible. He has an inhuman lack of flaws. Further, his primary enemy is the embodiment of pure evil. There is no identifying with Lex Luthor. He's just Bad. Dr. Octopus, Magneto, and the aforementioned Ra's Al Ghul, however, are more complex and sympathetic; in the end, they are just shadowy reflections of the heroes who fight to stop them.

Superman was "born" at the dawn of World War II - and there were, in fact, a series of cartoons depicting him fighting the Nazis and the Japanese - so it's logical that he would be such a straightforward, black and white character. In terms of foreign policy, those were more or less straightforward, black and white times. The victors' position as authors of history aside, America was the good guy during World War II, and the Axis powers were the bad guys. Superman was a fine image for those times: a new superhero for a new superpower.

Our friend from Krypton, however, is no longer relevant. Deluding ourselves with his image both sets us up for disappointment and misleads us, because our country can never be as good as he is or as strong and impervious to attack as he is, and it would be wrong for us to believe that it could be. Similarly, it's unfair to use Lex Luthor as a representative of our country's chosen enemies. While the members of Al-Qaeda may do horrible, execrable things; they are not pure evil and to represent them as such is reductive and ignorant.

As I understand it, the movie begins with Superman's return after a prolonged absence and Lois Lane has recently written a story about how, in the end, Metropolis doesn't need Superman. Presumably, the movie goes on to show that in fact it does, and the parallel argument would be that real-life Americans need Superman back in their lives, too. Metropolis, however, is a fictional city with supervillains like Lex Luthor lurking about; once upon a time it was an apt symbol of the real America and the real world, but not anymore. Nowadays, the real America and the real world is more complicated, and pure evil, just like Good, is hard to find. America does not need Superman because we no longer are Superman. We are human, just like our enemies, and we are just as flawed, but that doesn't mean we can't be great.


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