In defense of Superman Returns

Over at the science fiction blog io9, hardly a week passes that doesn’t involve a dig at Bryan Singer’s 2006 film Superman Returns. For example:

Warner Brothers Takes the Time to Make a Superman That Won’t Suck.

Next Superman Movie Will Have Actual Superheroics.

How to Make You Believe a Man Could Fly Again.

While some criticisms are valid (a too-slavish devotion to Richard Donner’s interpretation, an emphasis on “rescue-action” instead of a superheroic throwdown), I think the good folks at io9 do the film a disservice. And I have a different idea about why the film might not work for the average audience thrilled with Iron Man and The Dark Night. I think it’s because Superman Returns is the first superhero film to really deal with adult issues.

Consider the plot stripped of its super-ness. A well-intentioned but somewhat naive hero has a one-night stand with the girl of his dreams, then gets some news from home. He leaves without saying goodbye, and is gone for five years. When he returns, his dream girl has moved on to a long-standing relationship with another man with whom she now has a son. This new man is decent, loves her and the boy, and more importantly has stayed around when our hero skipped out. In a crisis, this new man proves every bit as courageous as our hero, so that when the boy’s true paternity is revealed (to only the mother and our hero), our hero faces his toughest choice yet. Should he reveal the truth and risk ruining everyone’s lives? Or should he suck it up, accept that the situation is entirely his own fault and keep his mouth shut to spare good people more pain?

That’s the core plot of Superman Returns, and it’s a very specific dilemma for our hero. It’s also a very specific dilemma faced by blended families throughout the world. As both a father and a step-father, it speaks to me with more emotional clarity than any of the so-called moral dilemmas in a film like The Dark Knight. In that film, Batman and the other characters have to choose between right and wrong; in Superman Returns, Superman has no “right” choice. That’s much more like the real world than any other recent comic-book film.

And I don’t think this sort of dilemma connects with the average vocal, blog-commenting super-hero fan, the ones who made The Dark Knight the second-biggest film in history. At the risk of being smacked for generalizing, most are young, most are probably not yet parents, and the majority of their toughest life choices are ahead of them.

I love Superman Returns, and I’m not ashamed to say so. Even if Bryan Singer, Brandon Routh and company are kicked off the next film and the entire series is rebooted to be more in line with the “dark” trend current among these movies, I’ll still think it’s awesome. And when little Jason runs back to give injured Superman a kiss, I’ll still choke up every time.

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