Truth, justice and the American way. It’s essentially Superman’s motto. Warner Bros certainly thinks so – they sued a film about the last days of TV Superman George Reeves that used that phrase for a title; the movie is now known as the far less evocative Hollywoodland.
Truth and justice make appearances in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, but the American way is notably absent – Perry White even leaves it out at a Daily Planet staff meeting. Superman Returns may be the least patriotic Superman movie of all time; on first examination it seems that the only American flag in the film is on the side of the jet and space shuttle Superman rescues, and that seems like the kind of thing the art department would have added, not the director.
Some people will say that Superman is global – he’s here for all the people of the Earth. Why make him an American hero? It’s true that Kal-El’s work on this planet isn’t just for the people of the US (although it’s easy to believe it’s just for the people of the fictional city of Metropolis – the vast majority of the new film’s running time takes place in that town), but to remove Superman from his American origins is to lose the basis of the character. The importance of Superman as an American is because he isn’t from America. Superman is the ultimate immigrant, only instead of coming here from Eastern Europe, like the families of his creators, he rocketed here from a doomed planet.
As an immigrant, Superman embodies the American dream – he grows up imbued with basic American values of right, wrong and fairness as well as his Kryptonian powers. He’s not the same person without both of those things, something that was shown in countless “imaginary stories” (as opposed to all the factual Superman stories) in the Golden and Silver Ages of comics. Superman is the melting pot in human form, combining his glorious ethnic heritage with the solid beliefs of America.
Of course in 2006 we’re far from a world like the one where Superman was created. That’s partially because the American way triumphed – freedom, liberty and democracy are much more the norm in the world in this century than they were in the last. But some things never change, and America remains the destination for people from all over the globe looking for a new start and a new chance. The big difference is that the faces have changed – instead of the Eastern Europeans of the first half of the last century, blown to America by the winds of war, the current faces of immigration are darker, from Africa and Southeast Asia and South America. But that’s just a cosmetic change.
Other things are different in 2006 as well, and one of them might very well be the basic definition of the American way. To me it remains unambiguous, but to some – and one of them, I suspect, is Bryan Singer – it’s been tainted by the last few decades of corruption, partisan bickering and war. I’m as liberal as the next guy (if the next guy is Noam Chomsky), but I think it’s short sighted to judge this country as a whole based on the last few years of dictatorial mismanagement – as much as the current administration seems to hate to admit it, this nation remains founded on the basic principals that Superman stands for: honesty, equality, democracy, liberty, fairness (is there any doubt that Superman was all about the New Deal? He’s such a New Deal character – all about the little guy, but in a slightly totalitarian way that sometimes feels like he’s overstepping his bounds).
What Singer missed out on was the opportunity to reclaim the American flag. There’s a trend in leftie politics to reject any nationalism, and I think that’s pointless. Rejecting jingoism is one thing – let’s not get into a pissing match about whose nation is better, unless you’re from Mexico, in which case we win. But nationalism should be about loving where you’re from, not being blindly devoted to it. I love this country – I love its geography and its culture and its history – but that doesn’t mean I can’t see when it’s fucking up. In fact, my nationalism makes me feel those mistakes all the more deeply; I know we can do better than a gay marriage ban or a pointless and endless war in Iraq. It’s that nationalism that makes me want to improve this country, to fix what’s not working and shore up the stuff that we got right.
Donner’s Superman was more overtly patriotic, which is interesting when you look at when the film was made, in the years after Watergate. There are some people who don’t like to analyze a film beyond the entertainment value of what is on screen; these people are known as “stupid.” Looking at Donner’s Superman films in the context of the time can be illuminating – the patriotism on display is a touch hokey and campy, like it’s seen as something from a wistful bygone era. It’s all a part of Superman’s general corny nature, something naive to be both laughed at and yet wished for.
Interestingly, Singer’s Superman could be seen as representing modern America in many ways. A TV news montage shows us that he intervenes on an international scale, flying in and out of countries to set things right. We find out that Luthor is out of jail because of Superman’s Cheney-esque disregard for the rights of criminals. And speaking of Cheney, Superman appears to be just as much of a peeping tom as the vice president – besides his creepy stalking of Lois Lane’s home, he flies up into the sky to better listen in on everyone’s conversations. Superman doesn’t even need the help of telecommunications companies to eavesdrop on you.
There’s probably another reason that Singer left any patriotism out of the film, and while it’s partially political, it’s mostly capitalistic – Superman Returns is a major worldwide release, and in 2006 the American flag isn’t always seen as the symbol of freedom in other major movie markets. It’s too often seen as the flag of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, the flag of Haditha and global imperialism. And so Metropolis is a nation unto itself, and Superman is divorced from his Midwest roots.
Of all the balls Singer drops in the film – and he drops a number (see CHUD’s tag team review for a rundown) – this could be the one that makes me saddest. Every day I open the paper and read about how the country I love is slowly moving away from being anything I can understand and support, and I listen to people who share my political views becoming more and more exasperated with the very concept of this nation. I would have loved nothing more than to go to the movies this summer and see there on the screen one of America’s great heroes, reminding us all of the qualities that still make this country great, no matter who is squatting in the White House.