Last week, I wrote about Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. If you haven’t read it and don’t feel like it, here’s a quick summary: basically, I argued that Snyder’s post-9/11 reinterpretation of Superman resulted in a real downer version of the character that was barely recognizable as Superman. I lamented that, given the tumultuous times we currently live in, Snyder decided to forgo the opportunity to present audiences with a piece of aspirational entertainment, anchored by a character who traditionally embodies the most positive elements of the American ethos.
If any readers feel the same way, know that I share your pain. But I have good news! If, like me, you didn’t find the Superman you were looking for in Dawn of Justice, there’s a movie out there that has exactly what you need—a movie that presents a positive vision of Superman, America, and the world. I’m talking, of course, about Bryan Singer’s criminally under-appreciated Superman Returns.
At this point, many of you are probably sharpening your fangs and preparing to pounce; go ahead, because I don’t care. Superman Returns is a great movie, especially when you look at it in comparison with BvS, which is what I aim to do here. So let’s get started.
* * *
The world is a grim place in Batman v Superman. Still reeling from the destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel, there’s a deep-seated fear of, and anger towards, Superman among the humans of the world; from the billionaires Wayne and Luthor; to politicians like Senator Finch; to common citizens like former Wayne Enterprises employee Wallace Keefe. Superman is treated like an alien threat rather than the defender and paragon of American ideals. And who can blame them, when his actions in the movie make him seem much more like the former than the latter?
America’s reaction to Superman couldn’t be more different in Returns. When Superman places an airplane fuselage safely on the field of a baseball stadium, the audience erupts into overwhelming applause without a second’s hesitation. We then cut to crowds on the streets of Metropolis, in a bar, in the Daily Planet, all cheering Superman. Keep in mind that this is a world that Superman effectively abandoned for five years, but as soon as he returns the people of Earth welcome him back with open arms.
The differing reactions humanity has to Superman in the two movies can be effectively summed up by comparing two images. They’re both crowd shots: one, of a mob gathered to protest Superman’s presence on Earth; the other, a vigil for a Superman near death after saving the world.
So in one movie, we have a world that fears and rejects Superman. In the other, a world that loves and embraces him, and by extension the best parts of themselves. I don’t know about you, but I know which of those two worlds I’d rather live in, and which Superman I’d rather live with.
(You could argue that Superman in Returns has been around for a lot longer than the one in BvS, making his ethos and motivations much more of a known quantity. That may be true, but the fact remains that Henry Cavill’s Superman rarely acts in a way that would inspire the people of the world to take his good intentions on faith.)
* * *
If the peoples’ reaction to Superman is very different in BvS and Superman Returns, Superman’s reaction to the people is equally different. In Dawn of Justice, Superman absorbs the peoples’ ambivalence and reflects it back at them. He dithers for most of the movie over whether he should bow in the face of their fear and stop being Superman. When we see him take action to help people it’s in situations on the level of rocket explosions, natural disasters, and Doomsdays. It feels as though he exists on a scale that’s larger than the majority of the worlds’ problems.
In Superman Returns the Man of Steel takes a much more micro view of his responsibilities. Sure, he’ll sacrifice his life to fly a kryptonite continent into space and save the eastern seaboard from destruction, but he’ll also foil a “simple deli robbery” and everything in between. Superman loves mankind unconditionally in Returns, and as a result no act of service is too big or too small for him to perform. He hears the peoples’ cries for a savior and willingly takes on that burden, because he knows he has the strength to do so.
* * *
One of the biggest criticisms of Superman Returns is that Superman never punches anything; one of the biggest criticisms of both Batman v Superman and Man of Steel is that Superman punches entire cities into oblivion. There’s probably a middle ground somewhere between those extremes that would satisfy a lot of people—myself included—but if those are our only two options then I’ll take the Superman who doesn’t punch anything, because that’s the version that hews more closely to my ideal interpretation of the character.
Superman in BvS is an extremely violent dude. He busts a guy through, like, four walls; he wrecks the Batmobile and threatens Batman in a very un-Supermanly way; he later pummels the everliving shit of Batman, who might’ve been asking for it but still; and since they included it in the opening sequence of the movie, his contributions to the destruction of Metropolis in MoS can’t be overlooked. The upshot of all this is that, as I discussed previously, pretty much the entire world thinks Superman is a dick.
This is another area where Superman Returns has the upper hand. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Superman foils a bank robbery without lifting a finger. After shielding a couple of security guards from mini-gun fire with his chest, he lets one of the robbers walk right up and shoot him point blank in the eyeball. The bullet bounces off and he literally doesn’t bat an eye.
By taking that shot in the eye Superman makes it abundantly clear that any further violence on the robbers’ part is pointless because it won’t work, and any violence on his part isn’t necessary because they simply don’t stand a chance. Superman has demonstrated his unparalleled strength without having to punch anything. I’ll go so far as to say that this sequence is the most succinct and effective depiction of Superman’s power that’s ever been put to film.
Now, would things have been a little more exciting with some punching? Yeah, and I don’t wanna give the impression that I’m completely against Superman punching things; I’m totally fine with an appropriate, wholesome level of punching, against bad guys who really deserve it. But Superman’s the strongest person on the planet. Unless kryptonite or Doomsday or some other kind of cataclysmic shenanigans are involved, there’s no fight that Superman can’t win. That’s why punching should be Superman’s last resort, not his first, and that’s why I’ll take Superman Returns’ nonviolent Superman over Dawn of Justice’s hyper-violent one any day of the week.
* * *
We live in tumultuous times. Lots of crazy, scary, confusing things are happening right now, and it feels like violence could break out at any moment on any street corner in America. Differing political forces are conflicting in some big ways, and the ideology that America presents to its citizens and the rest of the world is in question. In that climate, maybe arguing about which Superman movie is better seems kind of trivial.
But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s worth questioning what our entertainment says to us about who we are. Zack Snyder’s darker vision of Superman seems to fit the times pretty well; the Superman of Batman v Superman may be the hero we deserve in 2016. But does that mean it’s the version of the character we should be seeing? I’m not so sure.
I think we’d be better served by seeing a Superman who shows us that America is a place where the strong stand up for the weak, where violence and vitriol isn’t the answer to every problem, where people are united in love, not fear. I’m not saying it would change the world, but it might remind people of the best of what we can be at a time when we could desperately use the reminder. That’s what Superman Returns does. In a movie from 2006, Bryan Singer may have given us, not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need right now.