TCS Daily

Zeitgeist in Tights

By James Pinkerton - June 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Are Americans ready for a post-George W. Bush "Superman"? You know, a sensitive guy, more thoughtful and reflective than the 43rd president -- but also better looking than John Kerry? If so, then "Superman Returns" might be the perfect post-Bush-era movie.

Or maybe not. Because it's always a question as to whether or not a movie succeeds in reflecting -- or, in rare cases, actually shaping -- the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. Moviemakers are desperate to read the Zeitgeist right, of course; Universal tacked on a happy ending to "The Break-Up" after focus groups thought Jennifer Aniston had suffered enough -- that is, she shouldn't have to lose Vince Vaughn, too. As for the film's downer of a title, it was evidently too late to brighten that up.

Some argue that film folk are simply too out of touch -- culturally, financially, and ideologically -- to connect with ticket buyers anymore. And yet Warner Brothers has gambled nearly $300 million, just in production costs, for "Superman Returns." A lot of people are going to have to be moved by the aforementioned spirit of the times to buy a ticket to this flick, or else WB will be sorry.

So it's no wonder that director Bryan Singer has attempted to weave so many Zeitgeistial themes into this film, in hopes that audiences will get snagged on one thread or another.

Oh wait. I'm reviewing a movie: The main part of my job is expertly to summarize the film, so readers can pretend they've seen the picture, even if they haven't -- any explication of What It All Means must come after the summarizing. So here goes: Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) hatches an evil plan; he will use ultra-fast-replicating crystals to create a new land mass that will suddenly jut out of the Atlantic Ocean and displace the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States. Luthor, of course, will be the new landlord (yes, the plot of the 1978 "Superman" was somewhat similar); he will then spread his new crystalline-land-mass dominion o'er the entire world. When his moll-with-a-hidden-heart-of-gold, played by Parker Posey, worries that Luthor's plan could kill millions, he corrects her: The true casualties will number in the billions.

Meanwhile, Superman's sexual tension with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) still smolders, even though the superhero and the super-reporter haven't seen each other in five years. There was that night -- oh what a night! -- five years ago, but then Superman left her without saying so much as "goodbye," because he wanted to travel back to search for survivors from the exploded planet Krypton. Oh, and speaking of the "K" word, Luthor's continent-growing crystals contain an admixture of Kryptonite, which, of course, can kill Superman. But our hero confronts Luthor anyway, even as the Kryptonite makes him vulnerable, nay, mortal. So what happens? Well, I can't reveal any more than that.

But for anyone over age eight, what's interesting about Superman is not the plot, but rather what hero-saga tells us about ourselves -- about the Zeitgeist. To put it bluntly, sometimes Superman is in vogue, and sometimes he is not. The comic character first appeared in 1938, as Nazism and its Ubermensch ideology were gaining momentum in Europe; meanwhile, in Cleveland, two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, decided that America needed an Ubermensch of its own. So Superman emerged, to fight for "truth, justice, and the American way" -- against Hitler's way. During the Cold War, too, Superman was a popular TV hero, fighting against crypto-communists of various kinds. However, by the 60s, Vietnam and race riots poisoned the idea that America was super; the character went into remission.

So the return of the hero in 1978, embodied so well by Christopher Reeve, represented Hollywood's big-budget gamble that American confidence had been restored, enough to support a new Superman. And, in fact, the film was a hit, such that it spawned three sequels over the next decade. Alas, each new installment was worse than its predecessor. After the fourth "Superman" went straight to video, it was time to give the series a rest.

Now, 19 years after the last Reeve-as-Superman flick, our hero has returned, now starring Brandon Routh. Or perhaps, one should say, He has returned. Yes, this new "Superman" is heavy on Christ imagery -- how's that for a Zeitgeist grabber? This is a mostly Christian country, right? So why not show a suffering Superman, experiencing the Passion of the Kryptonite? And Lois, who starts out the film declaring, "The world doesn't need a savior" ends up knowing better by the end of the film. Of course, some Americans probably won't appreciate the film's E-Z equation between the Lamb of God and the Man of Steel.

But "Superman Returns" has plenty more Zeitgeist-angles as well. For example, women. Like Reeve before him, Routh is handsome and beefcake-y, but at the same time, not he's not offputtingly pretty. Yet in the Reeve era, Lois Lane was played by Margot Kidder, notable for her sassy and smart-mouthed feminism. And in her interactions with Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, she showed her superiority -- or, more precisely, Hollywood showed who was brainier and bossier.

By contrast, today's Lois is softer and more feminine -- no more 70s stridency. Also, crucially, the new Lois is a mother of a five-year-old. Indeed, the kid looks a bit like Superman, which cuts against the Christ parallel, except, of course, for the "Da Vinci Code" crowd. And it's important to establish Superman as a heterosexual, since the new film has picked up a gay vibe. Why is that? For one thing, director Singer has been an "out" gay man for a long time; for another, The Advocate put Routh on the cover and asked "How Gay is Superman?" And while the gay-oriented magazine makes some sly points about the superhero genre in general -- they have to keep their "difference" secret; they live operatic, or at least soap-operatic, lives; they are "totally hot" -- these points are not applicable to "Superman Returns," for one huge reason: He is visibly heterosexual, in the form of the little...oops, better stop there.

Moreover, the film throws in more chick-flick archetypes, such as a sinking-ship sequence that's straight out of 1997's mega-weepy "Titanic." Yup, improbable as it may seem, this new movie desperately imports the Titanic touches, including loudly groaning metal and upended lovers clinging to each other, even as water cascades down dangerously.

That's Hollywood for you, especially when big bucks are at stake: Throw a spaghetti-plate of our collective cinematic unconscious against the wall, in hopes that audiences will buy a ticket to see whatever it is that sticks.

So we come to yet another bit o' Zeitgeist that "Superman Returns" wishes to bite off: the 2006 movie as a metaphor for 2006 America. The superpower -- I mean superhero -- is shown as good, but flawed. He has made mistakes, most notably, not being sufficiently, er, multilateral with Lois. And he has paid a price for his go-it-alone unilateralism; he is now isolated from the ones he loves, and from those who love him, or should love him -- as seen in this poster. Whereas the old Superman blasted into our face with America-saving energy, the new Superman is pensive, even existential. He is not only alone, he is also unsure of himself; no cocked fists for him, his arms are extended and his hands open, as if he is trying to feel his way to a new place.

Of course, in the end, Superman discovers his true place -- his heroic place. Speaking of his solitary vigilance, he says, "I hear everything." And yet he has no choice but to stay on duty, to protect the world: "Every day I hear people crying for me." So Americans can see the movie and be reassured: The world might not like us as much as it once did, but the world still needs us. That ought to be a good box to check off on the box-office Zeitgeist checklist.

So there you have it, Mr. and Ms. America: The latest Superman has a little bit of Jesus in him, but actually, not too much. He digs women, and they dig him right back, dammit. And now that he has learned a little, including a little humility, he would make a heckuva next president of the United States. Will you buy it? Will you make Singer and Superman richer than ever, in response to their retooled Super-script and focus-grouped Super-message? We'll know in the next few days.

My bet is that they have gotten it right -- or enough of it right. Supermoney awaits Superman.

James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's media critic.



Men in tights
What's your point here? After all there have been other heroes who also wore tights like Robin Hood, right?

Lex Luthor, CEO
Why doesn't the TCS crowd object to the negative way the Superman franchise portrays visionary high-tech entrepreneurs in the character of Lex Luthor?

Lex Luthor, CEO
"Why doesn't the TCS crowd object to the negative way the Superman franchise portrays visionary high-tech entrepreneurs in the character of Lex Luthor?"

Why? On what basis should one object?

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