For Superman, it really is lonely at the top

The latest ‘Superman’ film soars with special effects and a heart of gold

by Matt Graham

It’s lonely being a superhero.

You’d think superpowers would make impressing the ladies easy, but if there’s anything the recent slew of comic book movies has shown, it’s that with great power comes great isolation, and no superhero illustrates this better than the most super of them all – Superman.

“Superman Returns” is the sequel to 1980’s “Superman 2.” Director Bryan Singer – helmsman of the first two “X-Men” films – wisely pays homage to the Christopher Reeve classics while asking us to ignore the paltry later installments from the series.

The film opens with the explosion of a red star that smashes the planet Krypton to bits before moving into the familiar title sequence of the old films. Cut to a Kansas farm, where Martha Kent hears from her kitchen an explosion. She runs out to the field to find her foster child Clark (Brandon Routh) laying in a smoldering crater, back on Earth after a five-year trek to the remains of Krypton in search of his past.

Clark returns to Metropolis to resume his job at the Daily Planet, but finds that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has gotten engaged and has a 5-year-old son. What’s worse, she won a Pulitzer Prize while Clark was gone, for her editorial “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”

Of course, it doesn’t take long for Lois to find herself in harm’s way when the experimental space shuttle launch she is covering goes awry and the jumbo jet she and the rest of the press are on begins to tailspin toward earth. Superman’s rescue of the aircraft is one of the most visually remarkable movie special effects scenes ever.

But in the meantime Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has managed to find Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and has designs on using the Kryptonian technology there for his own gains. He seeks to grow an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, an island that would flood much of the world’s mainland and leave him as Earth’s real estate kingpin.

Spacey does an outstanding job as Luthor, combining biting humor with enough evil genius to do Gene Hackman proud. He and Christopher Reeve look-and-sound-alike Routh carry the movie.

Like the other comic films, this one features a hefty dose of social commentary. When on the aforementioned airplane, Lois asks a government official why only one television network is covering the flight, and one might imagine it must be Fox News Channel. Meanwhile, the planetwide flooding that Luther’s scheme entails bears more than a little resemblance to global warming.

But the commentary goes deeper. After Superman returns to the city, Daily Planet editor Perry White wonders, “Does he still stand for truth, justice and all that?” Fans of Superman know what the “all that” in the phrase is – the American Way.

A lot has changed in the five years Superman has been gone. It’s hard not to make the connection that five years ago was summer 2001, a time before Sept. 11, when America still had the naïve innocence of the 1990s. Although the events never are mentioned directly, the farm field crater Superman’s arrival creates at the beginning has an eerie resemblance to the World Trade Center ruins, and the ghost of that incident seems to haunt the film’s world.

It is that world that makes Superman so lonely. Yes, you feel for him that he never can be with the woman he loves, no matter how much she clearly loves him back (at least she loves Superman; Lois remains indifferent to Clark). But what makes him so heartbreakingly sympathetic is that he puts the weight of the world on his shoulders to fight an endless battle that he can never, ever win. He tells Lois that in her award-winning editorial she “wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.”

All good comic book heroes are haunted by demons – that’s what makes them so compelling – but Superman is haunted by the demons of the entire world. In a world where Wolverine exists, a hero so perfect runs the risk of being boring, but it is Superman’s perfection that makes him so compelling. Superman becomes a nondenominational messiah of sorts, and it’s hard not to feel deeply for someone who wants nothing more than to be good and to make the world good.

If the heroes of the Marvel comic universe (and DC’s own Batman) come across as characters from a psychological thriller, Superman seems more the subject of a Homeric epic. Sure, he’s the most powerful character, but he’s also the loneliest.