I watched “Superman Returns” again last night. I had watched it on DVD shortly after it came out and found the movie a bit slow. I don’t particularly disagree with Roger Ebert’s review. But I watched it again a year or so ago when it was broadcast, and now I watch it just about whenever it is on. As much as I liked Margot Kidder, and as much as I like Erica Durrance and Kate Bosworth, I never quite got why Superman loved Lois Lane.
So why do I watch it? In part, because every time I viewed it I felt like I was missing something. Not that the movie was missing something, but that I was. I had a similar feeling the first time I read Anna Karenina. I focussed on the things I wanted Anna to do – get a lover, but someone more worthy than the shallow, oafish Vronsky – instead of just going where Uncle Leo wanted to lead me. And as I’ve re-read Anna again over the years, I’ve gotten to the point where I go where the book wants me to go and it’s an amazing place. Sometimes a writer requires you to be a better reader. And sometimes a movie requires you to be a better viewer. “Better” in both of these cases means that you sit in the boat and enjoy the scenes as they pass by.
I had a similar sense watching Superman Returns last night. They aren’t comparable works of art, but this time I think I got what I had been missing. I had been looking through the wrong end of the telescope: Lois is not a wonderful person because of something in herself, Lois is wonderful because Superman loves her. Like Jehovah and the nation of Israel. Or Jesus and the rest of us. Making Superman a Christ figure is fairly old hat, and had been remarked upon in the reviews of the movie – I just had not extended the analogy to Lois.
After making that (obvious, I’m slow) connection, I began to see how nearly everyone in the movie was loved. Clark was loved by John and Martha Kent, Superman is loved by everyone decent, Lois is loved by Superman and Richard, Josh is loved by Lois and Richard and Superman – even Lex is loved by Kitty. So Bryan Singer made a superhero movie about love, and not action. Love and its loss, and reconciliation to that. The “I’ll always love you” vow that can be relied upon even after the breakup.
As an antidote to all that love, let me offer Bill’s take on Superman, from Kill Bill Volume 2.
Bill: As you know, l’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.
The Bride: [who still has a needle in her leg] How long does this shit take to go into effect?
Bill: About two minutes, just long enough for me to finish my point. Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race. Sorta like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plimpton.
The Bride: Ah, so. The point emerges.
Bill: You would’ve worn the costume of Arlene Plimpton. But you were born Beatrix Kiddo. And every morning when you woke up, you’d still be Beatrix Kiddo. Oh, you can take the needle out.
The Bride: [does so] Are you calling me a superhero?
Bill: I’m calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be. Moving to El Paso, working in a used record store, goin’ to the movies with Tommy, clipping coupons. That’s you, trying to disguise yourself as a worker bee That’s you tryin’ to blend in with the hive. But you’re not a worker bee. You’re a renegade killer bee. And no matter how much beer you drank or barbecue you ate or how fat your ass got, nothing in the world would ever change that.