- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2006

After nearly 20 years, America’s strongest, most iconic hero has returned to the big screen in director Bryan Singer’s latest comic-book-inspired blockbuster, “Superman Returns.”

Long a marker for American greatness, Superman wasn’t just a superhero, he was an explicitly American superhero. The reborn Superman of Mr. Singer’s film, clad in the familiar flowing red cape, blocky boots and blue spandex, is once again portrayed as a stirring symbol of power and duty. However, although previous incarnations of Superman boldly proclaimed their American roots and values, the newest variation has been cleansed quietly of any hint of patriotism, transforming an icon of Americana into a touchy-feely cosmopolitan savior.

“Superman Returns” draws heavily on both the original Richard Donner “Superman” film from 1978 and its 1980 sequel. Those films, as well as the many previous iterations of the Man of Steel, proudly waved Superman’s small-town American origins and values.

Mr. Donner’s Superman grew up a country boy in Kansas. There, he was imbued with traditional American values, learning the value of hard work and doing the right thing even when it proved difficult.

“Superman II” saw Superman save the United States from a takeover by evil superbeings. He stopped the destruction of U.S. monuments and proudly posed with the American flag. In Superman’s own words, he fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.” He was a Kansas-born American boy with Kansas-born American values, and he was proud to say so.

“Superman Returns,” in contrast, seems embarrassed by its hero’s unashamed patriotism. Any hint of American exceptionalism has been trimmed away, leaving Superman as a generically postmodern world hero of no particular nationality. Gone are the backgrounds of notable American imagery; there are no flags, no monuments, no glimpses of the Capitol or the White House.

No, instead of Superman framed against a waving flag, the new film’s most prominent image is of Superman hovering above the Earth, eyes closed, using his superhearing to listen to the cries of the world. News reports embedded in the film inform us of his globe-trotting ways, making sure to note his appearance in a variety of foreign locales, as if pre-emptively to clear him of the presumed arrogance of being America-centric. The message is clear: Once a hero for America, he has become a savior for the world.

Gone, too, are Superman’s heartland roots. He makes just a brief stopover at his Kansas residence while on his way to Metropolis. The Donner Superman was a confident, courageous hero who grounded his decision to fight evil in his adopted father’s wisdom, but “Superman Returns” gives us a sensitive would-be savior who feels the world’s pain and fights to share the wealth of his power.

Mr. Singer’s movie refuses even to say the word “America.” What used to be Superman’s personal credo — “truth, justice, and the American way” — is heard only in an offhanded question asked by Daily Planet newspaper editor Perry White, who wonders if Superman still stands for “truth, justice, and all that stuff.” It’s as if the film considers the American way superfluous. Without America in the mix, though, we are left with just truth and justice, two nebulous terms that everyone supports in theory but that mean little without context. In removing America from the equation, the film implies that all truth and justice are equal and America has no special claim to those ideals.

“Superman Returns” offers an adequate measure of big-screen bravado, but shorn of its hero’s long-standing patriotism, it is somewhat empty. On this Independence Day, those looking to the sky for a dose of explosive, unabashedly patriotic spectacle would be well-advised to skip the movies and go see the fireworks instead.

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