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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Reconsidering Superman Returns (many spoilers)

I recently watched Superman Returns again and I got to thinking. I started to remember all the talk about sexism in that movie. Some of it was a little bogus, the "how many fs in catastrophe" reference is a nod to Lois's general characterization (brilliant reporter, can't spell), while the fainting scene is pretty inevitable considering the oxygen deprivation the character went through. But I can understand a lot of complaints. There wasn't much of a feminine presence throughout the movie, all things considered, and Lois's backstory does get questionable once examined closely.

But I'm not sure I'd consider it sexism so much as a reflection of the central theme of the movie which is, in my opinion, "becoming a man".

Wherein Explanations (And Spoilers) AboundIn a strange sense, Superman was very much a self-absorbed adolescent at the beginning of the movie. He had his set role in everyone's lives, however his long absence changed all that. He is then forced to come to terms with the idea that people can't be taken for granted. They change and move on. Relationships need equal give-and-take as well as actual cultivation in order to last.

He is forced to come to terms with the fact that his quick and ready absence hurt people. It hurt Lois. It allowed Lex Luthor his freedom.

He's forced to recognize that while he's unique, he isn't without rival. There are men as good, brave and heroic as he is out in the world, men who will not make the mistake of taking people for granted. For the first time since Jonathan Kent died, he's got a real external example of manhood to aspire toward.

Lex then becomes the dark mirror of Richard. He's utterly self-absorbed. People and relationships mean nothing except for how they work to achieve his goals. If Superman is guilty of taking his relationships for granted, Lex doesn't really consider them relationships at all. People are ultimately replaceable and interchangeable to him.

Thematically the revisiting of the "real-estate" plot becomes important. Sure, it's a rehash of earlier movie plots, but it becomes important because of the source of that goal...his father.

Each of the three men have paternal shadows influencing them and their development. Richard has followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Perry White. Lex of course is following his father's path. And Superman naturally has Jor-El. (There is also possible symbolism in the fact that Richard's father figure is real, present and obviously flawed and human compared to the distant, rejecting shadow of Lex's father or the dead spectre of Jor-El. Especially when compared to the more human characterizations of Superman in other media when Jonathan Kent is more of an influence on his life.)

I do think that the Superman at the end of the movie is not the distant, alien being that he was at the start. He can't be. He's now irrevocably tied to the people of Earth in a way he could never have been before. He's tied by blood and true, adult responsibility.

Fatherhood is symbolically the point where a boy truly becomes a man. He's faced the harsh truths of adulthood and now finds himself responsible for another life, and while he does quote Jor-El's words back, it definitely looks like he isn't going to be the distant spectre that his own father was. (He has a better example now. Though now the idea of Richard White as Jonathan Kent to Superman's Jor-El is suddenly pretty interesting to me.)

Since the theme of the story is manhood, the roles of women, while significant, important and dynamic in their own right, do take something of a back seat toward the roles of the men. (Though it might be interesting to examine Kitty, Lois and Martha as the three stages of womanhood...), but that's because this is ultimately a movie about being a man.

I think there's a big difference between a movie that is sexist and a movie that's ultimately about what it means to be a man. Which probably sounds weird, but there are countless movies out there about being a woman, movies that are themed around femininity and growing into womanhood. Men play significant roles, but the central themes center around the women. These movies aren't inherently sexist. They're just about feminine experience. Superman Returns is the same, just androcentric instead of gynocentric.

Of course, that said, while I'm okay with ONE Superman movie being hijacked to tell a story about manhood and masculinity, Lois Lane had better kick some serious ass next movie. Or We Will Have Words.

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  • At November 30, 2006 1:28 PM, Anonymous green with wheelpower said…

    This is a very interesting observation kalinara:)

    In defense of Lois. She did ask the tough questions on the spaceplane: tried to help in the freefall; kept her cool w/ Luthor; called Superman on his preconceptions AND pulled his ass out of the water.

    I do see what you're getting at though. My first Lois expierience in the comics being where see takes down a drug lord on a plane at the begining of the Wedding Album issue. (and even quips athought about Wonder Woman doing better in a wedding dress:))

    Have a much better/calmer weekend starting tomorrow kalinara.

    Whising a dear friend well,

  • At November 30, 2006 1:32 PM, Blogger heath said…

    thanks for your thoughts. the 'growing into manhood/ becoming a man' angle was one i'd not thought of before, and has been something on my mind in real life. there aren't many movies, that i've seen, that do the growing into manhood as well as you've explained 'superman returns' does, and now i have something more to look into the next time i watch it.
    you're right, the superman as jor-el to richard's pa kent does sound interesting...

  • At November 30, 2006 1:34 PM, Anonymous green with wheelpower said…

    And Jor-El, aside from beng dead of course, did seem to have a caring warmth and sympathy I really admire the actor and Singer for. IMO

  • At November 30, 2006 2:48 PM, Anonymous ben said…

    One of the "secret" plot threads in
    Returns, when I watched it, was the story arc of Martha Kent - especially highlighted in her coming to Metropolis after Clark's freefall and standing in the crowds, unknown and with no one to turn to while her is potentially dying inside the hospital; Lois is dramatically pushed forward into the hospital at the same time but she doesn't know him like Martha knows him. I tend to view Martha is a quieter but still central mother figure in a movie of overshadowing father figures. She is more of a presence than the lamentable all-but-deletion of Martha Wayne in Batman Begins, whose absence was part of the reason I really hated that movie.

  • At November 30, 2006 8:20 PM, Blogger Will said…

    Actually, in Batman Begins, it was nor Martha Wayn'es absense, but rather Katie Holmes' presnes that was so jarring. Batman Begins seemed to show the world as it would be if boys became what they thought adults were supposed to be, rather than maturing into actual adults. Holmes didn't seem to provide an sufficient counterweight to this view.

  • At November 30, 2006 8:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well, Superman returns had one thing going for it: No little girl from Kansas with a heavy english accent calling for help.

  • At December 01, 2006 4:27 PM, Blogger RAB said…

    I just want to second what Ben said. And Martha in that crowd scene is one of the best things in the film.

  • At December 03, 2006 1:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well, even though the original plan for Superman II was to be Jor-El telling Superman he had to give up his powers to be with Lois, the fact it was Lara who told him.

    I'm actually hoping they make Lara an important character in the sequel to Superman Returns, whether or not they use Susanna York footage or not.


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