- Somewhere in Time:Utopia and the Return of Superman
Superman is one of the most durable icons of American popular culture, evidenced most recently by the release of Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006). The success of Superman texts depends in large part upon their ability to appeal to audience familiarity with the Man of Steel, a paragon of American values. It is this familiarity, coupled with the promise of moderate deviation in each text, that strongly informs the long-standing popularity of Superman. I argue that Superman Returns performs work consistent with the body of Superman texts that precedes it; the film uses intertextuality and self-reflexivity in order to express continuity with the past as well as the promise of change. In the end, the film, which can be read as both a vague remake of and sequel to Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978), exploits a tension between the past, present, and future that Umberto Eco sees as instrumental to the appeal of Superman texts.
The film acknowledges the utopian promise inherent in the figure of Superman as well as a conservative investment in the present that circumvents the realization of utopia. More specifically, Superman Returns expresses a utopian longing from a childlike subjectivity that equally informs the production and consumption of the film. A utopian vision of the future and a nostalgic yearning for the past are conflated by the consumer of Superman texts, so that the pleasure in viewing Superman Returns reflects Superman's own longing for a futuristic past (the lost planet of Krypton) that is equally out of reach. Superman narratives therefore affirm an eternal present, keeping the past and future perpetually at bay. The consumption of these narratives achieves the same objectives. My argument here is that not only do Superman narratives maintain a present stasis, in which the past and future are equally "hazy" (to use Eco's descriptor), but that Superman as a commodity does so as well.
Narrative stasis is one of the primary characteristics of the typical superhero text, distinguished by the hero's preoccupation with his or her past. In fact, some of the most popular superheroes base their origin and ongoing careers as crime fighters on personal trauma. Young Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents and, vowing to wage a ceaseless war on all criminals, becomes the Batman in adulthood. Teenager Peter Parker refuses to stop a robbery and later, when the thief murders his Uncle Ben, dedicates his life to fighting crime as Spider-Man. Each time Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker don their costume they respond to a defining trauma from their past and, in fighting crime in the present, ritualistically relive and rewrite that original moment of trauma. Their crime fighting serves a strongly symbolic role for them; they invoke the trauma in order to contain and pacify it. Importantly, since they can never undo what has happened to them in the past, they are compelled to repeat their confrontation with trauma and must fight criminals in perpetuity.
Superman is interesting in this context, for, while he too is marked by a traumatic past (the destruction of his home planet at infancy), he cannot ritualistically redress this past by fighting criminals in hand-to-hand combat, as Batman and Spider-Man do. Superman generally protects people from apocalyptic threats that evoke the fate of Krypton. Importantly, this is the central concern of both Superman and Superman Returns. In each film Superman's climactic task is to save millions, even billions, of lives by thwarting geological catastrophes created by Lex Luthor. So while Superman does fight an individual criminal, that battle is projected onto a larger scale than typically seen in Batman or Spider-Man narratives. The stakes are higher because Superman's trauma, and personal loss, is greater. His catastrophic loss informs his intensely nostalgic construction of Krypton as utopian, a literal "no-place" that he never knew and can never return to. Superman [End Page 26] has lost not only his parents but his entire native world, and his adventures often center on a recapitulation of that loss, with Earth standing in for Krypton.
Superman reconstructs and reconnects...