The Man of Angst and Steel

A Heady Review of Superman Returns

by D.J. Palladino

Every time we saw a preview, my spouse asked: Where is he
returning from? Don’t know, I said, maybe the Phantom Zone, the
drawing board. Now that I’ve seen the picture, I realize the
question is wrong; the better query is: Where is he returning to?
The big screen is the cynical reply. But in truth, Superman always
returns to us.

Like many a comic-book superhero, Superman was born during the
Depression, times of gnawing fears and lopsided hopes as even
casual fans of the era’s music can affirm. Comic books reflected
both hyped-up fantasy and menace, which is why horror, war, and
crime books outsold the so-called funnies. Superman fought burglars
with striped shirts and black masks before he met Brainiac and

Comics are also caricatured emotion; every sentence ends in an
exclamation point. But the subtext is anxiety. From Mickey Mouse to
Zap Comix, four-color magazines love characters with sweat drops
popping from their heads. Most heroes are worry warts obsessed with
self-improvement, family, girlfriends, and rivals­ — from Donald
Duck to Peter Parker. Think about Peanuts’ Charlie Brown and you
have summoned the poster boy for 20th-century angst.

But Superman, who seems so cool — so godlike, really — isn’t.
Picture the big guy for a moment. It’s not Nietzsche’s Übermensch,
but bumbling Clark Kent, insensitive Lois Lane, brusque Perry
White, family dog Krypto, and Mr. Mxyzptlk, the implacable imp from
the fifth dimension. You probably laugh at Clark’s eyeglass
disguise ruse, but not at his seemingly axiomatic need for it.
Whether it’s TV’s Adventures of Superman’s George Reeves (who
allegedly committed suicide), or the late ’70s/early ’80s cinematic
Kal-El Christopher Reeve (whose fate was so sad), or the Man of
Steel’s newer pop incarnations like Lois and Clark or the eerie
Smallville, all Supermans are surrounded by characters about whom
to constantly worry. In the 1960s’ Superman, the sex attraction for
Lois was potent, but marriage and even dating were taboo —
abstinence was key. Bad guys would get her. Superman, who can bend
steel in his bare hands, could not hook up.

With a persona slashed into three already — he is the alien
Kal-El from Krypton, the hero Superman, and the mild-mannered
reporter Kent — our boy had a deeper well of worry than most mere
mortals do. He was an impostor at work. Identity anxiety compounded
by sexual frustration, Kal-El was a mess.

It went deeper — Superman as a literary device is us (as in
U.S.), pure allegory for the American experience. He comes from a
different place, and all Americans were once aliens. He’s rooted in
Smallville farm life with a Ma and a Pa and a sweetheart next door.
Coming of age meant relocation to a big city with another corny
allegorical name: Metropolis. He works in media, the Daily Planet,
because, since 1949 at least, America tells the world what to
think. He polices despots urging truth, justice, and the American
way. As a myth, he represents the power of democracy located in a
plain human being. He inherited greatness leaving a dying

The problem with Superman, now, though, is the failure of
America. Clark Kent worked in the 1960s, before sex was invented by
Heffner and the Pill. But by the 1970s, lily-white values seem
dated, as was the policing of despots. After Vietnam and Watergate,
few smart people believed America’s pure super-ness. His comic
sales fell, too, despite several attempts to make him more
vulnerable. So why does Hollywood want to bring him back if his
market’s down and he has lost hype as an archetype?

Superman’s got legs because he can fly. We like that. He
satisfies us on a level psychologists call the omnipotence phase.
He is sexy; he floats Lois’s boat in this film.

But it’s a long way from the Depression to Christopher Reeve and
now this. Remember Nietzsche? His Superman was about social
evolution. Zarathustra said that man is to ape as superman is to
man. Cinema Superman evolved too, or changed with us. This one has
a bastard child with Lois Lane. This Superman went away to get his
head on straight. He “met the lamas,” says an adoring Jimmy. He
came back to take Lois for a ride again, but now she has to choose
between stable boyfriend and flighty bad boy. Imagine reading that
in a 1960s comic book.

Our anxieties today have less to do with identities and more
with our children inheriting a world Lex Luthor can destroy.
Superman is still an inconvenient Boomer fable. We used to think we
were cool enough to save the world and fly a little on weekends,
too. But now we realize we need home. The planet’s endangered and
we must worry very much what powers our children might inherit to
survive under the yellow sun. We can only hope anxiously they’ll be
met with superness, too.


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