Simple Superheros and the Superhero Complex


Earlier this week I got an e-mail from San Francisco Chronicle reporter Chuck Nevious. He e-mailed contacts from the Stanford and Berkeley Society of Physics Students looking for their thoughts on the new Superman movie. I forwarded the e-mail along to the Stanford SPS group but decided not to accept an interview since I’ve grown somewhat bored of all of these “The Science of ____” gimmicks in the popular media. (See, for example, The Science of Harry Potter, The Science of Christmas, and, of course, The Science of Superman.) Anyway, the article appeared yesterday and had lots of familiar people giving nice quotes: “Astrophysics Taking off on Superman.”

Brief Aside: I don’t have a problem with books popularizing science. In fact, I first became interested in physics when I read Lawrence Krauss’ The Physics of Star Trek. But there’s a fundamental difference between the science of Star Trek and the science of Harry Potter (despite both being fictional). The writers of Star Trek spent a lot of time thinking about science and technology–i.e. what might be possible and why. This is probably highly correlated with the number of geeky trekkie fans. Harry Potter and Superman, on the other hand, are fantasy. J.K. Rowling and the Superman creators wanted to create alternate universes with different histories, characters, and rules. It makes sense to discuss the science of Star Trek. It does not make sense to discuss science of fictional universes which blatantly disregard science. (This isn’t a judgement against Harry Potter, it’s a judgement against books like “The Science of Harry Potter.”)

Brief Aside II: The most egregious scentific faux-pas in Superman (any manifestation) is the disregard of conservation of momentum. If Superman can fly “faster than a speeding bullet” and then stop on a dime, where is his linear momentum going? Any change in momentum implies a force, hence there must be a huge force acting on Superman when he is soaring through the air. My stab at this is the existence of a scalar field that only Superman can couple to. Just as a fish is able to propel itself through water by essentially “kicking off” the water, Superman can fly by “kicking off” the scalar field. We could call it a “superfield,” but that name is already taken and I spend enough of my time thinking about it anyway. Perhaps Superman can couple to the dark energy field.

That aside, I finally saw the movie and, despite DJ’s positive review, I must say that it was a huge disappointment and a terrible waste of two hours. But besides being a poor movie, I was very put off by this representation of Superman–I think the issues and themes that the movie addressed aren’t those that are natural for this particular superhero. But let me start with the easy part.

Why Superman Sucks, Part I: Cinematography

I appreciate that this movie was only 2 hours long. I’m sure the producers were tempted to make this film another epic, 3-hour creation like the King Kong remake… actually, on second thought, I’m surprised the movie wasn’t only 30 minutes long! Despite making a movie about the greatest superhero to grace comic lore, the movie strives to do little more than write yet another chapter in the Superman saga.

While this might be ok for X-Men II or Spiderman II, we’re talking about th–what must it be–five hundreth Superman movie? More of the same just will not cut it. In Star Wars and The Matrix (and the Lord of the Rings somewhat), each successive movie strove to be greater than the previous one so that the entire trilogy did more than tell a long story, it struggle deeper with the ideas and themes it presented. Each successive Star Wars went further in Campbell’s hero cycle and each successive Matrix tried (tritely, I think) to question our basis of reality a little more. Superman Returns was “just another Superman move,” it with very little that went beyond just this film. This is what makes most television shows boring–they become repetitive.

Superman Returns tried to provide something new by addressing the question of what happens when Superman returns from a five year soul-searching hiatus? While this has tremendous plot potential, the film steers away from this and instead focuses on another Lex Luthor scheme that Superman thwarts. I’ll spoil the ending for you: for the most part Superman restores the status quo. There are some hitches, of course, as Lois Lane now has a child and a fiancee. This goes on to address the question of a world that has moved on from Superman. This idea is rich with potential. My generation is one that has lived without Superman for as long as we care to remember, what does it mean for Superman to return to the big screen? (This, of course, is the natural way to make this movie go “deeper” than the previous Superman films.) How can an old-time superhero appeal to kids who have grown up on Power Rangers, anime, and Batman/X-Men? Just as Superman returns to a Metropolis full of flat-screen televisions and laptop computers, what is the significance of the Superman myth today? Unfortunately, this isn’t resolved or explored in a satisfactory way and I was left feeling like the movie was terribly empty. The only real meta-reference to the other movies was the half-hearted “It’s a bird, it’s a plane…” line in the middle of the movie (which was sardonically well done). The world seems to have no problem that Superman disappeared for five years, so all of the conflict regarding his hiatus is embodied in his interaction with Lois and her new family. Without spoiling the movie, I think this was left unresolved in the sense that the filmmakers didn’t make an effort to have the events of the movie address this conflict.

Why Superman Sucks, Part II: Our Addiction to Superheros

The answer to the unasked question of how Superman fits into today’s culture, I think, is that Superman doesn’t fit into my generation’s zeitgeist. DJ referred me to a wonderful quote from the movie Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004):

“An essential characteristic 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 he 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 that Superman stands alone. Superman did not 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.”

I’m not convinced that Kent is a critique of humanity (though this would be in line with Nietzche’s own ubermensch)–Superman, by definition, is someone who loves humanity. In fact, he’s here to save humanity. If the Judeo-Christian references haven’t bopped you on the head yet, you’ll find the movie full of them. For Jorel so loved the world that he gave his only son? Superman undergoes a crucifixion scene where, by virtue of kryptonite (as the lance of Longinus), he is rendered mortal. ((But then where was the betrayal? Where was Superman leading by example instead of just performing miracles?))

The “big idea,” I’m told, is that Superman is a miracle. In the film the world falls in love with Superman (again) because he saves them. He is a character with no character flaws (which makes him a boring character), and as such the world worships him as a savior.

Why do we–the audience–love Superman? Because he’s the idea of a savior. He’s the pop realization of a messiah who allows us to be sinners, but bails us out because he loves us. We like the idea of someone watching over us, caring.

But we also love him because he’s the idea of absolute power. He’s the realization of power to change the world, invincibility to the things that we, as humans, are vulnerable to.

This is, perhaps, befitting of Superman–the one who came to our planet as a demigod. But what good is that? Superman was born a demigod, by birth and destiny above us. Why try to be like him if it is impossible to do so? In the film Superman was only capable of three emotions: mild irritation, infatuation, and smugness. Whether this was due to poor acting or alien psycho-physiology, it is unattainable to humans. This particular realization of the Superman myth makes no attempt to connect Superman to humans beyond his love for Lois Lane. What is interesting about a character, like Superman, who is completely and utterly predictable? While we will never discover secret hidden mutant powers, we can, on the other hand, relate to the X-men. Despite their superhuman abilities, the X-men series have always been about identity and fitting in. Characters display admirable traits such as leadership, compassion, responsibility, and courage while overcoming personal flaws.
So because Superman is so inherently different from us, the message of his deeds remains “gee, look what this guy can do” instead of “if I work hard, I can do well.”

Speaking of hard work, there seems to be a theme in Superman and Pixar’s The Incredibles: being special is a birthright, not something that can be attained otherwise (say, by one’s own efforts). In The Incredibles, one of the signature phrases was “If everyone is special, then nobody is special.” I think this is a terrible message. What ever happened to the virtue of hard work and improving one’s self to become better? This resignation that our future is outside our control is something I find utterly distateful and that I think is a serious problem in our culture.

Image from

Further, the movie presents a discrepancy between metropolitan technology and rural simplicity. Lex Luthor presents himself a modern Prometheus, trying to bring Superman’s technology to the rest of the world. In true, modern, capitalist, American fashion, he also attempts to use this to make a profit (i.e. extort the world out of its riches). Superman, on the other hand, was raised on a farm and belives in small-town values. Given this juxtaposition of ideas as embodied in characters, the film seems to make a statement about human technological progress similar to that of disgruntled agrarians who saw their way of life becoming extinct during the industrial revolution. Luthor and his plot represented the threat of ambition and technology; he was defeated when the alien technology (crystals) were ejected into space. There was no comment on the potential for that technology to do good and help human civilization; it was unequivocally evil because the one who wielded it was evil. (What I’m trying to say is the analogy of “buildings don’t kill people, earthquakes kill people.”) Taken further, one could generalize this into a conflict between science and religion, and I think the film is far too simplistic to make an insightful statement regarding that.

The 90’s television series Lois & Clark tried to explore the Superman myth from a different point of view–focusing on the interaction of Clark Kent with Lois Lane. More recently, Smallville was about Superman’s teenage years. I never really watched either show, but in the context of Superman Returns I appreciate their attempts to provide a human angle to the story.

I should end by saying that there has been one representation of Superman that I really enjoyed in recent times, and that was the presentation of Superman in the animated series “Justice League” and it’s continuation, “Justice League Unlimited.” These series recently ended (cancelled, perhaps, due to a television-watching audience who didn’t appreciate it), but dealt with the issues that superheros present for the world. Superman, Wonderwoman, the Martian Manhunter, the Flash, and the other members of the Justice League live among Earthlings as gods (a theme that this film tried to touch on)… what is the significance of that? Should humans fear them (this is also an idea in the DC mini comic series “Kingdom Come,” which was also exceptionally well done)? How can Superheros live equitably among the rest of the world? How can their powers be kept in check? The series even presents the complexities of Lex Luthor as a Promethian character who tries to balance the inequity of power between the superheros and the common man. All the while it is able to explore the psyche of its characters (Superman especially) and have some playful, creative, and exciting episodes that would satisfy the inner child of any superhero fan. I heartily recommend it as it slowly comes out on DVD season-by-season.

Last Word
At the end of the day, the themes that Superman Returns tried to address have already been prepackaged into a made-for-the-movies storyline: the death of Superman. The question of a world without Superman and the will of human beings have been explored in the Superman comics of the early 90s. Perhaps the most epic comic event of all time, it is just begging to be made into a movie (though the multi-tiered comic-book storyline would have to be adapted).

Review: Superman Returns–30%. If you want to see a movie where the oceans shift and cities are destroyed, go watch An Inconvenient Truth.


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