A C Gralying

The philosophy of Superman

From Prohibition-era enemy of the mob to post-9/11 saviour

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I must declare an interest: as a devotee of DC Comics’ Superman since early childhood, I am incontinently prepared in advance to enjoy every radio show, television series and film that features him. So before seeing this one, Superman Returns (which opens here on 14 July), I was ready to give it a good review, and I have not been disappointed. It’s a cracker. Christopher Reeve look-alike Brandon Routh does not have to act — his task is to be tall, to fill the famous suit well, and to keep still for the cameras when in flying pose, and he succeeds on all counts; so there are no problems there. Because the real acting is done by Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, the result is a treat.

Given the nature of the Superman mythos, it is inevitable that everything proceeds to formula. Ninety-five per cent of the film consists of noisy special effects; the remainder is divided between the stock evil of Luthor’s world-domination obsessions and Lois Lane’s Superman obsessions, with the standard semi-comical Clark Kent subplot attached.

The story, so far as there is one beyond a revisit to the two obsessions mentioned, is that Superman has been gone for five years, seeking any evidence of the remains of his home planet, Krypton. Unsuccessful in this quest, he returns to Earth, oddly enough in a spaceship which makes a very bumpy landing near his adoptive mother’s humble farmstead. He gets his job back at the Daily Planet (crusty editor Perry White still in charge) only to find that Lois Lane, severely annoyed that Superman had left without saying goodbye five years earlier, has a partner, a son and a Pulitzer Prize for an article entitled ‘Why The World Does Not Need Superman’. The movie is, roughly, about why she changes her mind.

For aficionados, the film’s real interest lies in the evolution it represents in the Superman persona. It is a forgotten fact that the very first, very short-lived Superman back in the early 1930s was a bald-headed villain seeking to destroy the world. In that brief avatar he was a parody of the Nietzschean übermensch (Nietzsche’s übermensch was then understood only in the Nazi parody of the idea). But the Canadian artist Joe Shuster and the American writer Jerry Siegel quickly reinvented him as a good guy determined to uphold ‘Truth and Justice’ (a motto that later, in the 1940s, became ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’).

In the first decade of Superman’s existence he could run as fast as a speeding train and leap an eighth of a mile, but during the 1940s he progressed to flying and, moreover, as fast as a bullet. For decades he was a rugged, muscle-bound thirtysomething, but in recent films he has become an increasingly svelte twentysomething.

In this movie the evolution has taken what is popularly miscalled a quantum leap. For here Superman has progressed from being an updated amalgam of Greek mythological heroes — principally Hercules and Perseus, the latter with Hermes’ winged sandals and Athene’s impenetrable shield — to being Jesus Christ.

In the first DC Comics we are told that his parents sent him into outer space from the planet Krypton, as it perished, in order to save his life; and that he fell to Earth by accident, benefiting from its lower gravity and yellow sun. In this film we are told that his father Jor-El sent him to earth specifically to be its saviour. Jor-El’s encouraging message to him is, ‘I am always with you’, and that ‘the father is in the son, and the son is in the father’. More fully, Jor-El’s message to him is that human beings can be a great people, and ‘only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all — their capacity for good — I have sent them you, my only son.’

Superman and Lois Lane accordingly discuss the degree to which the world needs a saviour, with him in the title role, and, in the face of Lex Luthor’s determination to drown the United States in a flood (shades of Katrina), she comes to agree. Near the end, after Superman has laboriously and at great risk to his own life hurled into space the kryptonite-infected continent that Lex Luthor has created in the Atlantic, he falls to Earth in the posture of the crucified Christ, arms spread wide, feet crossed, head lolling in iconic form.

One wonders what the devout will make of Superman’s new Christological persona, once they wake up to it — no one seems to have noticed yet. Moreover this is a Superman–Christ with a son. Perhaps the world has been readied for this development by Dan Brown and his imitators, but it complicates matters for the next and subsequent chapters in the cinematographic saga. (The son’s mother is Lois Lane, of course. We Superman aficionados used to believe that no mortal woman could possibly withstand, or even survive, the Man of Steel’s amorous attentions, especially if he were roused to any sort of super-pitch; and that therefore he was doomed to celibacy or, at best, onanism. But then came the short-lived Supergirl comics, and we thought DC was about to relent. Yet in the Christopher Reeves era, Superman and Lois did indeed spend a night together. Lois must be some girl.)

And by the way: Superman–Christ versus Luthor–Luther? We are used to the Manichean simplicities of comic-book morality (aka the American world-view) but this is getting complicated.

Notice the stages of Superman’s evolution. In the 1930s his upholding of Truth and Justice coincided with Scarface Capone and the rest of the Prohibition-created criminal gangs which held Depression America to ransom. In the 1940s Truth and Justice were joined by the American Way as what Superman defended, during the war against Nazism and Japanese aggression. In the 1950s Superman fought battles against dastardly technologically-savvy super-villains, a straight Cold War theme. Later, and especially in the period since the Cold War ended, matters become merely personal: the task of pitting his brawn against the brains of Lex Luthor and Brainiac appeared to be independent of bigger questions.

But now, caught between the terrifying George W. Bush and the terrorist Osama bin Laden, America is in earnest need of a Saviour for everything from the minor inconveniences to the major horrors of world catastrophe. And here he is, the down-home clean-cut boy in the blue tights and red cape, who says to an aeroplane-full of terrified and dazed passengers whom he has just saved from a horrendous death, ‘I hope this hasn’t put you off flying; air travel is still the safest way to travel.’ And to prove the point he soars off into the empyrean, applauded by multitudes.

A.C. Grayling’s The Form of Things is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in September.