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Columns and Reflections

It Isn’t Easy Being Blue: Appreciating Superman Returns

from Totally Fushed, January 2007

In the silence, the night holds two people. The lights of buildings glowing far below, Superman holds Lois Lane above the earth. Her bare feet stand on his red boots.

‘What do you hear?’ the Man of Steel asks. 

‘Nothing,’ Lois says.

‘I hear everything.’ 

There, in those three words, is the pain of being Superman. 

Perhaps that is the finest achievement of director Bryan Singer’s 2006 movie Superman Returns – showing us Superman’s pain. How do you find problems for a guy who can stop bullets? Superman’s greatest challenge isn’t kryptonite, it’s being Superman – bearing that responsibility.

‘You wrote that the world doesn’t need a saviour,’ Superman tells Lois, ‘but every day I hear people crying for one.’ 

I’ve always needed heroes. Something to believe in, even if it’s fiction. Superman was the ultimate hero. Not a dark pursuer of vengeance like Batman, or a confused kid with powers thrust upon him like Spider-Man – but a saviour from beyond our world. Like a man, just better – a hero for all seasons. When I was growing up, Christopher Reeve defined Superman for me, as he did for so many others. Upon the release of Superman Returns, much was made of how newcomer Brandon Routh was Reeve-like in his portrayal. But Routh also brought something new to the role: a stillness even Reeve didn’t have. 

‘Will Superman survive in a world of new heroes?’ critics asked before Singer’s film came out. The public was used to movies about Spider-Man, Batman, the X-Men – darker or more reluctant superheroes. What’s more, our planet was facing new uncertainties; it had been nearly twenty years since the last Man of Steel movie – and that one was a simple failure. And Lois Lane seemed to answer the critics herself. ‘Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman’ – the name of her Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial in Superman Returns. But, unlike the Superman in Singer’s movie, who left Earth to search for the remains of Krypton, our Superman never went away. Smallville has been on TV since 2001; before that there was Superman: The Animated Series and Lois and Clark. New Superman comics are shipped every week. The Man of Steel didn’t die with the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. For seventy uninterrupted years, this character has been part of our consciousness. There’s something there that people don’t want to let go of. 

It’s about belief. I’m always slightly amused by those who complain about Clark Kent’s ‘glasses’ disguise. This is a being who comes from a different galaxy (from a planet where they apparently speak perfect English, by the way) – yet he looks entirely human; he can shoot heat out of his eyes, lift islands with his bare hands, and fly without wings – but what’s unbelievable is that he can hide his identity with just a pair of glasses? Careful, or you’ll miss the metaphor – about not being able to see what’s in front of us, still waters running deep, and all that. Superman Returns added a nice touch: Lois’s young son instantly sees behind Clark’s glasses, and has an asthma attack as a result; it’s only the jaded adults who miss the truth. 

‘You Will Believe a Man Can Fly’. So declared the posters for the original Superman: The Movie. One of the most beautiful things about Superman Returns is its heightened nature – right down to the colours, comic book-like in their vividness. Yet the film is also deeply grounded in the idea that Superman is a real part of our lives. There is this subtle scene, where people on a Metropolis street look up as their hero flies low beneath an evening sky. If Superman: The Movie made us believe a man could fly, then Superman Returns goes further. At any moment, Superman might swoop from above to stop our fall. It’s so real it makes me wish it were.

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