It’s a bird…it’s a plane…its…you guessed it: Superman!
Analysis done on Superman Returns.
Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is a contemporary film which relies on myths and traditional cultures for its narrative. It uses traditional cultures and stereotypical elements to elaborate on the myths of this genre. Superman Returns is the continuation of the Superman film franchise, but does not heavily rely upon its predecessors for a back story. The film begins with Superman (also known as Kal-El & Clark Kent; the hero) returning to Earth from his search of Krypton (his home planet; his past). He is forced to return his duties as Superman, whilst obtaining painful information about the events involving Lois Lane (her having a son Jason and engaged to Richard White; the damsel in distress). While at the same time, Lex Luthor (the villain) has something apocalyptic planned, which tests Superman’s true strength and purpose on this planet.
A film is a series of images and sounds that are compiled together to give the viewers a feeling of continuity (the organization of the shots of a film so that the viewer is at ease). “Films use images to convey emotional concepts, express various states of the mind, tell a story or present an argument” (Nicholas, “The Semiotics of Film”, 2010 P.30). The music adds to the illusion of continuity even if the images are from different sources. All films rely upon the use of signs (Nicholas, 2010). Semiotics (the study of communication) defines a sign as “the smallest meaningful unit of communications”. (Nicholas, “The Semiotics of Film, 2010, P.31) In a film, each shot is a sign of some sort. Since the viewers grasp the image quickly, they are under the impression that the meaning is already in the image. Whereas, each shot (i.e. sign) can have numerous interpretations depending on the viewer and how they choose to see it. The viewer immediately attaches a signified (the meaning of the image) to the signifier (the shot viewed or heard) (Nicholas, 2010). The combination of the sign, the signifier & the signified helps form a myth (a broader picture of the image/sound that is based on historic and cultural references) (Barthes, 2013). Most film signifiers possess a referent (it is what a sign refers to the outside the cinematic structure). The majority of images except CGI (computer generated images) have a referent (Nicholas, 2010).The use of a traditional structure help form myths. However, at the same time, the combination of the signifier, the signifier & the myth help advance the story being told by the film thus result in a narrative.
Superman is one of the most indestructible icons of American Pop Culture. When viewed on the denotation level, we see a man who is physically tall and muscular, wears blue and red tights and a red cape. He wears an ‘S’ symbol on his chest, has blue eyes and has a cowlick on his forehead. The character Lois Lane gives specific details in regards to his build such as standing 6 feet 4 inches and weighing 225 pounds(Refer to Appendix B). On the connotation level, we see a man who saves the day when others are in danger, someone by the name of ‘Superman’. We see the ideal man, with a very attractive face. He is kind, courteous and an idealist. He exhibits superpowers such as enhanced hearing, super strength, invincibility, heat and x-ray vision, cold breath & super speed. He is an alien to planet Earth. In the film, Lois Lane describes his powers as to be able to see through anything by Lead and is “faster than a speeding bullet, draws his power from the Sun, invulnerable to anything but Kryptonite and he never lies” (Peters et al & Singer, 2006). However, from the mythical approach, we see that Superman stands for truth, justice and the American way (Johns & Buseik, 2006). This phrase was also recited Perry White in the film as ‘truth, justice, and all that stuff” when describing an article about Superman.
The “S” that Superman wears on his chest is an icon of his utopian past (the crest of the house of El), but when worn as his costume, it becomes a symbol of the true American way. Superman Returns shows the combined hope for a utopian future and at the same time a nostalgic yearning for the past. This is shown in the character of Superman, where he longs to go back in time to his home planet Krypton (which is out of reach) and at the same time protect and preserve his new home: Earth (Yockey, 2008). The narrative of the typical superhero text is renowned by preoccupation of the hero’s past. In fact, the most popular superheroes have had a traumatic past to help build their origin story. Batman’s persona was formed when young Bruce Wayne (Batman’s true identity) saw his parents get shot in cold blood. Spiderman’s origin had young Peter Parker (Spiderman’s true identity) prevent a robbery which took an unfortunate turn which got his uncle shot. Each time Batman and Spiderman don their mask, they fight criminals whilst channeling their trauma for good using a symbol. Superman does the same: having a traumatic history of to strive for hope, he tries to save billions of people from apocalyptic events caused by the Lex Luthor and other villains. Superman not only lost his parents, but his whole world, which makes it all the more important to save the current planet he resides in (Yockey, 2008).
Superman (or Kal-El) clings on to the past using alien technology. In the film, Kal-El uses crystals in the Fortress of Solitude (a fortress built by him in the Arctic region filled with his Kryptonian heritage) to hear messages left by his late biological father, thus being reminded of his purpose on Earth. Superman must save the planet from colossal threats in order to restore balance amongst society, but at the same time must “not allow the realization of utopia” (Yockey, 2008, p.27) which is equally dangerous to maintaining balance. For Superman, utopia exists in the past as Krypton – but Superman figuratively lives in the future for the common man. By portraying Superman as utopian due to the virtues he holds from his heritage (Krypton), utopia is literally out of reach for the common man (Yockey, 2008). Superman represents the two traditional cultures of the narrative, the one of Smallville (a farm where he was brought up which represents the American country life) and that of Krypton (his home planet filled with alien technology). He is the sole survivor of these two cultures and therefore, is the carrier of those ideals. Since, Krypton is regarded futuristic, Metropolis will always be regarded as the generic present. Therefore, Superman combines the past and future and projects these ideals in the present. The key moment in the film which portrays this narrative is when Superman returns to Earth from his search of Krypton (the past-future), he first arrives in Smallville (past) and eventually moves to Metropolis (the present) (Eco & Chilton, 1972).
There are a lot of God-like references (mostly in regards to Christianity & Christ symbolism) made about Superman in this film. Lex Luthor says “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind” (Peters et al & Singer, 2006), when accused of playing God by Kitty Kowalski. In one of the many messages recorded by Jor-El to keep his son on track, says that the human race can “be great people. They only lack the light to show the way. For this above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son” (Peters et al & Singer, 2006). This is very similar to the text in John 3:16, which states “For God so loved the world that he sent is only begotten son” (Cardin, 2006). Lois calls Superman a “savior” multiple times and states that the human race doesn’t need one. This is a more modern approach to religion in film; due to the disappearance of Superman, Lois lost faith in him and now believes he is not needed anymore i.e. non-believers of God. The most iconic moment is when Superman throws the Kryptonite filled land-mass into outer space and falls down on earth unconscious due to the prolonged exposure to Kryptonite(Refer to Appendix A), with his head tilted backwards, his arms unfurled and his feet and legs together. This bears an uncanny resemblance to Christ’s crucifixion (Cardin, 2006). It is understandable for Superman to be represented as a God-like entity, because he is the savior of millions of people. He is an alien immigrant, much like a “diaspora Jew” who was forced to leave his home planet and find refuge in a strange place in his new home (Earth). He was later forced to leave the strange place (Smallville) and had to reside in Arctic wilderness (The Fortress of Solitude) and eventually move to an urban city (Metropolis) to fulfill his destiny. Similarly, Jesus Christ had to leave his celestial home in the heavens and descend to Earth. He had to leave his rural home (Nazareth) and roamed the desert, eventually reaching the Roman conquered cities to fulfil his purpose (Kozlovic, 2002).
Despite being able to walk the Earth as a superhero, Superman has to use an alter-ego by the name of Clark Kent to go on with his daily life and to protect his loved ones. On the denotative level, we see a well groomed man, wearing a suit, a hat and thick framed glasses. He has blue eyes (Refer to Appendix C). His physique is very similar to that of Superman’s. In the movie, Lois and Richard try to guess Clark’s height and weight by estimating it between 6’3-6’4 and 200-215 pounds respectively. On the connotative level, we see Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter who works for the Daily Planet and lives in Metropolis. He a clumsy individual who stammers a lot. However, he is kind, modest and a gentleman. He is portrayed as attractive, however not as much as his other identity; Superman. On the mythical approach, we see an average American trying to live the American dream, a small town boy trying to make it in the city. In this film, Clark Kent has very little screen time and most of it involves him catching up with old friends such as Jimmy Olsen and Perry White since his leave from work. However, it is evident that Clark and Lois had a romantic relationship in the past, as it was vaguely mentioned a couple of times. There are many similarities between Clark Kent and Superman, the major one being their involvement with Lois.
Lois, as well as the citizens of Metropolis, can’t tell that Clark Kent is Superman. Irrespective of the outfit and disguise (which is mostly the combed hair and thick framed spectacles), the inability to notice because both of the characters resist significant development. Their primary characteristics are the same irrespective of the different plotline and scenarios. Clark and Superman are opposites of each other, i.e. Superman is everything that Clark is not and vice versa (Yockey, 2008). In the film, as mentioned above, when Richard and Lois describe Clark, it was due to a quick denotation of both the individuals (Superman & Clark), but they dismiss the topic in seconds when Clark acts like his usual self: the connotation. In the following scene, Lois and Clark bump into each other, causing most of the contents in her purse to fall out and him to drop his glasses. There is a very brief moment where Clark has a look of fright that he might get caught, but Lois is busy collecting her fallen stuff from the ground (Eco & Chilton, 1972).
Lois Lane, the love interest of both Superman & Clark Kent. On the denotative level, we see a woman of average height, wearing formal clothing and carries around a handbag. She has curly hair and at times wears spectacles (Refer to Appendix D). On the connotative level, we see Lois Lane, an attractive woman and a driven reporter for the Daily Planet. She is a single mother who previously had a romantic attachment to both Superman and Clark Kent but has moved on ever since they abandoned her. She is currently engaged to Richard White and has won the Pulitzer Prize for her article, “Why the World Does Not Need Superman”, indicating her final step in letting go of her past. She secretly smokes and lies when questioned about it. However, on the mythical level, we see both an independent woman in the modern world and a damsel in distress. In the film, her first appearance is of her in need of being rescued from a plane crash. It is one of the most highlighted moments in the film, in which Superman safely lands the plane and is reunited with Lois, saying that flying is still “statistically the safest way to travel”(Peters et al &Singer, 2006), causing Lois to faint (a line he used in Richard Donner’s Superman).
Lois is both a journalist and a woman, who is expected to perform these two roles as per society’s norms. The use of sexism helps define the role of Lane as a Damsel in Distress; because she is a woman, she is defenseless and cannot protect herself from danger. In films, this has been the target concept to provide a narrative (Stabile, 2009). Lois Lane plays the role of the Damsel in Distress again in the film, when kidnapped by Lex Luthor. Her son, who is part alien and exhibits powers similar to Superman, also protects her at times. In Richard Donner’s Superman, Lois was completely dependent on Superman. However, due to modernization, women are now being empowered which is shown in the film. Indeed, Lois plays the role of the Damsel in Distress in the film, but she also plays an independent woman at the top of her career and able to take care of herself (McNair, 2013). She shows that there is a life after Superman, and that women do not need to depend on men to be taken care of. In the film, she rescues Superman and takes out the fragments of Kryptonite from his wound, thus saving his life. Due to her investigative reporting, she finds out Luthor’s plan which makes Superman aware of all that is happening and saves the planet from destruction (Refer to Appendix A).
The romantic aspect plays a vital role in the on-screen chemistry and the narrative of the film. Lois Lane is romantically attracted to Superman and (in this case, was) attracted to Clark Kent. This is due to the previous era of film making, where women were dependent on males to save the day. In Richard Donner’s Superman, Lois is always swept off her feet by the superhero in red and blue tights. She was a woman in a man’s world (Stabile, 2009). At that point of time, equality between men and women were along the marginal lines in films. In Superman Returns (which was inspired from the original film), the weightage on the roles are reversed, making her a more independent figure and less of a damsel in distress.
In superhero films, there is always a basic narrative of where the hero saves the day by rescuing the damsel in distress from the villain. On the denotative level, we see a bald man, who is usually in a white coat and is dressed in formal clothing. He is usually holding a crystal, which is green in color. (Refer to Appendix E). On the connotative level, we see Lex Luthor; a genius billionaire, who uses his resources for selfish reasons which involves destruction and death all around. He is narcissistic and a sociopath (Fingeroth, 2006). He is educated, and by his attire, we know that he is had it easy his whole life (i.e. comes from a wealthy family). He is envious of Superman, and his end goal is to achieve power and control. He wants to use alien technology to become a superior individual. He is the complete opposite of Superman. On the mythical level, we see the archetype villain of a superhero. His style of dressing is in contrast to Superman’s colors. Luthor is what defines Superman, without him the narrative is left incomplete (Lederman, 2010). The traditional concept used here is of good vs evil. Superheroes and their arch-nemeses narrative is a mix of the mythical approach & the novelistic approach. In the mythical approach of the narrative, we know the end outcome (good triumphs) and in the latter, the outcome is unknown, thus attracting viewers (Yockey, 2008). In the film, we see Superman save the day, but towards the end, we momentarily see Luthor emerge victorious as he beats Superman down and when Superman falls to his death after saving Metropolis (Refer to Appendix A). However, since it is a mix, Superman recovers and is resurrected, and Luthor is left on an abandoned island, away from society. Lex Luthor, much like Superman, does not have any significant character development. He is the archetype villain. There are a couple of religious references made in regard to Lex Luthor. The name Luthor implies “Lucifer”: God’s rebellious angel who establishes a territory of his own in another region (Lederman, 2010). Throughout the film, Lex Luthor is never seen in public, he is always in his secret lair scheming a plan. Luthor is also regarded as the Devil, who wants to get rid of God (Superman) and create his own world, where he rules the people (Kozlovic, 2002). Much like the plan in the film, being apocalyptic in nature (Refer to Appendix A).
Society plays a very important role in the narrative of a superhero film. Over the years society is shown to be helpless, and the superhero saves them from annihilation. Society cannot change itself in these narratives (Yockey, 2008). The novelistic approach of a superhero is consumable (has an end), however the mythical approach of the superhero is inconsumable (does not have an end). Superman is the hope for a utopian society. However, in order for that to happen. The myth has to be consumed and the society has be re-created after the apocalyptical event (Eco &Chilton, 1972). In Superman Returns, utopia is the closest it can ever be in regards to a superhero film. If Lois and Superman were shown to have been married, it would have inched towards Superman’s self-consumption, i.e. his death (Eco & Chilton, 1972). Richard White is evidence of society not relying on the superhero to save his loved one. However, when he is helpless, Superman arrives out of the blue and saves Lois & Jason. Kitty Kowalski, one of the lesser evils in Luthor’s group, betrays Lex by getting rid of his equipment to rule the world, shows that good people still exist in society and who are themselves ready to make the world a better place. Along those lines, Lois being the mother of Superman’s child ensures continuity of the narrative & leaves the myth to be inconsumable.
In conclusion, narratives play a significant role in character development and film production. Superman Returns is a prominent example of a contemporary film, where the protagonist is seen as utopian from both the child’s point of view and the adult’s point of view. Irrespective of the progression of society’s norms over the years, the narrative of the superhero genre still depends on traditional cultures and symbols. Despite any alterations made to the elements, the narrative uses elements, such as the hero, the damsel in distress, the villain and society.
- Yockey, M (2008). Somewhere in Time: Utopia and the Return of Superman, The Velvet Light Trap, 26-37
- Kozlovia, A.K. (2002). Superman as Christ- Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah, The Journal of Religion and Film, 6(1)
- McNair, B. (2013) ,OH SUPERMAN, Journalism Practice, 7(5), 652-654
- Stabile, C.A. (2009). “Sweetheart, This Ain’t Gender Studies”: Sexism and Superheroes, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 6(1), 86-92
- Fingeroth, D. (2006). Why Superheroes, Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell us about Ourselves and Society. 15
- Lederman, M.J. (2010). Superman, Oedipus and the Myth of the Birth of a Hero, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 7(3), 235-245
- U & Chilton. N (1972). The Myth of Superman, Diacritics. 2(1), 14-22
- Cardin M. (June, 2009). Superman Returns – as a Christ figure.
- Peters,J et al. (Producer), & Singer,B. (Director). (2006). Superman Returns (Motion Picture). United States of America. Warner Bros. Pictures.
- Barthes, R. (2013). Myth Today, Mythologies, translated by Lavers, A. & Howard, R. pp 1-5
- Nicholas, B. (2010). The Semiotics of Film, Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies. 29-38
Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns”, serves as a continuation of the original Superman film franchise incepted by Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, but is portrayed as a stand-alone film with no reference to the previous films for its backstory. Superman Returns is set in the city of Metropolis, in which millions of citizens reside not knowing the whereabouts of Superman (an alien sent from the Planet Krypton who exhibits superpowers when in Earth’s atmosphere but is vulnerable to fragments from his home planet). Lex Luthor (played by Kevin Spacey) is portrayed as an evil genius, sociopath & sadistic businessman who has been brewing a plan to consume the Earth’s resources and emerge powerful and wealthy in that process. Superman, also known as Kal El (portrayed by Brandon Routh), returns to the Earth after claiming to have searched for his home planet Krypton that was destroyed years ago and returns to his dull job as a reporter for The Daily Planet using his alter-ego Clark Kent. Lois Lane (played by Kate Bosworth) is an intrepid reporter who plays Superman’s (or rather, Clark Kent’s) love interest. However, she has moved on with her a life engaged to the Editor of The Daily Planet: Perry White (portrayed by Frank Langella)’s nephew Richard White (portrayed by James Marsden), with whom she has a son by the name of Jason White (portrayed by Tristan Lake Leabu). Understanding that everyone has moved on from the idea of Superman being around to protect them, Clark Kent temporarily makes no effort to don the red cape.
However, after realizing that Lois Lane is amidst a plane malfunction due to a nationwide power blackout, he is back in the air – making his first appearance as Superman since his disappearance – to rescue her and the several passengers aboard the plane. Emerging successful, he continues his duty as Superman all around the world and Lois Lane is forced to include him in her life due to her job and previous relationships. However, unknown to Superman and the rest of Metropolis Lex Luthor’s plan is in action. While attempting to research on Superman, she finds out that the power outage was due to Lex Luthor’s plan to dominate the world. She is kidnapped along with her son by Luthor on his boat where he explains his plan to use meteor fragments from Superman’s home planet in the form of crystals to create similar land forms on the Earth’s surface, killing billions of people. At the same time, he suspects that Jason is actually Superman’s son i.e.; an alien. While the plan is in progress, Lex Luthor and his team flee, abandoning Lois & Jason on a sinking boat to die. While Superman is saving Metropolis from destruction, Richard goes out into the sea during a storm using a plane to find and rescue Lois and Jason (using co-ordinates sent by Lois).
Arriving a bit too late, Superman helps Richard using his strength to raise up the sinking boat thus saving the mother and child. After doing so, Superman finally flies off to one of the land formations where he faces Lex Luthor head on. He is rendered powerless after the kryptonite within the land-form drains his energy, and is beaten senseless by Luthor’s henchmen. Luthor attempts to kill Superman once and for all by stabbing him with a sharp kryptonite crystal and pushing him into the sea. However, while Superman was facing this ordeal, Lois convinces Richard to turn the plane around and help Superman. They reach him just in time and take the crystal fragments out of his wound, allowing him to recover. Superman flies above the dark clouds and faces the sun to regain his energy to save the city from destruction. He flies down into the ocean and breaks through the sea-bed and reaches the core from where he uses his strength and might to lift the kryptonite-filled land mass from the surface of the earth to outer space. Luthor is betrayed by Kitty Kowalski (one of the lesser evils in Luthor’s gang who felt sorry for Superman and felt that Luthor’s plan was unnecessarily evil; portrayed by Parker Posey) when she throws all the remaining crystals in the sea while they were fleeing from the floating landmass. Emerging victorious from this task, the long exposure to Kryptonite leaves Superman in a catatonic stage where he falls to his death. Crash landing in Metropolis, he is instantly taken care of by emergency services who remove the remaining minute fragments from his wound and is put under intensive care. While unconscious, Lois visits him in the hospital, whispers something to him and leaves. Later, Superman is seen in Jason’s room now aware of the connection with Jason reciting the same words his father Jor –El (portrayed by the late Marlon Brando) recited to him while he is asleep, and flies off reassuring Lois that he is now back to stay for good.
References: Peters.J et al (Producer), & Singer. B (Director). Superman Returns (Motion Picture). (2006). United States of America Warner. Bros Pictures