Written by Radheyan Simonpillai (@FreshandFrowsy)

When Man of Steel opens this Friday, June 14th, audiences may recognize Christopher Nolan’s fingerprints all over it. While director Zack Snyder (of 300 fame) can be counted on to exhaust us with relentless, CGI-heavy action, Warner Bros is banking on Nolan’s influence to give the gravity-defying superhero some added weight.

The studio hired Nolan to serve as producer on the Superman re-launch, a decision based on his success with reviving Batman. Nolan and his co-writer David Goyer took a franchise that hit rock bottom with the infantile Batman & Robin, reinvented the character and carried the darker, politically tinged series to blockbuster and critical heights.

 

Bryan Singer's careful consideration of whether Superman can exist in a post-9/11 era is more sincere than any single moment in The Dark Knight.

 

As a producer, Nolan is now tasked with resuscitating the granddaddy of all comic book heroes, Superman, since the last entry in that franchise is widely regarded as a disappointment. With a $270 million price tag, director Bryan Singer’s 2006 romantic ode to the Richard Donner original didn’t even break $400 million at the global box office, which is peanuts compared to the $1 billion that Nolan’s The Dark Knight pulled in. While critics celebrated The Dark Knight’s insistent post-9/11 allegory and Heath Ledger’s phenomenal performance as the Joker, reviews of Superman Returns ranged from reserved praise to outright pans.

Like any fanboy I’m intrigued by the overhaul that is Man of Steel but I lament that its raison d’être is to clean away the residue left by Superman Returns, which, come on now, was no Batman & Robin. In many ways, I prefer Singer’s contemplation of Superman’s role in the modern era to Nolan’s heavy-handed political treatise in The Dark Knight, where the Joker is a terrorist standing in for Osama bin Laden and Batman goes all George Bush on him, creating an all-encompassing surveillance system that would have served the Patriot Act well.

The problem with The Dark Knight is that it forces as many post-9/11 signifiers as it can—the Joker televises hostage videos, Batman takes part in extraordinary rendition when criminals fly out of Gotham’s jurisdiction—into a comic book narrative, attempting to mirror our reality within a plot about a man who sports pointy ears and a cape. The resulting movie, while admirable and often thrilling, is full of nonsensical plotting and fortune cookie philosophizing, ultimately delivering an earnest political allegory that is problematic at best. At worst, it valorizes Batman, a “silent guardian” as Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon calls him, for resorting to fascist protocols under situations of extreme duress. I don’t think Nolan meant for the movie to read that way but when you pack political references into a movie this sloppy, your intentions get twisted.

While Nolan made a self-serious 9/11 allegory dressed as a comic book movie, Singer made a comic book movie that just so happened to come out post-9/11. Superman Returns, which Singer co-wrote with Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, is far from perfect. The director admitted that his insistent needling of Christ symbolism (see the crucifix pose) was too much. However, his careful consideration of whether Superman can exist in a post-9/11 era is more sincere than any single moment in The Dark Knight

Released in the summer of 2006, Superman Returns begins with Kal-El aka Clark Kent aka the Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) crash landing back on Earth after a five-year hiatus. That dates his departure back to the summer of 2001. So in other words, as soon as he left, 9/11, the War on Terror, and Iraq happened.

As former Toronto Star film critic Geoff Pevere notes in his original review, 9/11 could only happen in a world where Superman doesn’t exist. Pevere goes on to take note of Superman’s very first heroic feat upon returning to Manhattan…umm…Metropolis. 

In a spectacular sequence that immediately recalls 9/11 and rates among the very best scenes from the franchise, Superman stops a plane from hurtling into a crowded baseball stadium, a symbolic location as identifiably American as the World Trade Center. There it is, Superman returns to clean up the mess created in his absence.

But after that grand entrance, met with reverberating cheers from across America, Singer ponders how to reintegrate Superman into this post-9/11 world. That’s when the film turns into a melancholic rumination. The world has moved on. Even Superman’s former flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a new beau. So he hovers over Metropolis, noticed in passing by only few. As an alien, he never did belong, but now his loneliness is deeply felt.

In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Superman drifts above the atmosphere, and listens with his extra-sensory ability to the sounds echoing from the Earth. You can only imagine the things he hears: IEDs in the Middle East, suicide bombers in Pakistan, and genocides in Africa among them. Does he respond to any of those? No. He high-tails it to the nearest, standard, comic book worthy bank robbery where the perpetrators wield a massive Gatling gun. He stops a bullet with his eye.

Some may read Superman’s (and Singer’s) decision as a cop-out, which is fair, but it’s also the boldest and most persuasive kind of cop-out. In that brief moment, Singer has the option to have Superman tackle post-9/11 issues like Nolan does with Batman. Superman could make it his mission to fight arms dealers, terrorists, corrupt governments, and maybe even track down Osama bin Laden.

Instead, Singer’s film acknowledges, with honesty, that reality is far too complicated for a mythological figure like Superman to handle. Superman belongs in the safe pages of a comic book, fighting extravagant bank robbers, rescuing people from fires, foiling a deli robbery, and taking on the latest real estate scheme by Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, relishing the character’s cartoonish flavors). These are the things Superman is built to handle, the movie laments, not reality. Singer concedes that Superman, like Christ, is a figure trapped in his own mythology, having very little purpose in a post-9/11 world. You can’t expect mythology to have answers to today’s reality. 

And speaking of that mythology, the film even goes as far as omitting a piece of Superman’s oft-repeated slogan, accommodating its willful detachment from today’s politics. In an editorial meeting at the Daily Planet, when Perry White (Frank Langella) approaches his politics writer for an angle on Superman’s return, he asks: “Does he still stand for truth, justice…all that stuff.”

Perry leaves out “the American way,” a telling slip and another one of the movie’s bold acknowledgements. How could Superman stand for “the American way” when the country, still stuck in the fog left by 9/11 and Iraq, doesn’t know where its headed? Leave that job to The Dark Knight.

Written by Radheyan Simonpillai (@FreshandFrowsy)