- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Man of Steel flies again in “Superman Returns,” the latest ultrabudget superhero film to bring the geeky heroics of comic books to the big screen. Like “Batman Begins” and the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” films before it, the film traffics in excitement and spectacle, delivering the latest in lavishly produced action sequences. Advances in special effects technology have given well-financed filmmakers the ability to show us practically anything, and in these movies, they do. Audiences, in turn, have flocked to the films, making them some of the most successful in recent years.

But in some ways, the fantastic action set pieces on which the films stake their identity are like the flashy costumes worn by their heroes. Beneath their outsized exteriors, each of these films has a mild-mannered secret identity as a movie about ordinary problems and ordinary people. From the personal to the political to the pathological, each uses the backdrop of high-flying action to explore a different realm of everyday life. These costume-clad marvels are both icons and everymen.

The “Spider-Man” films are as much about the awkward, young-adult trials of Peter Parker as they are about his web-slinging alter ego. Throughout the films, Parker struggles to pay the rent, get along with his aunt, satisfy demanding bosses, and get the girl — in other words, to be accepted. The Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus are always lurking close by, but it is Parker’s more commonplace pursuits that drive the films.

By focusing on these plebeian problems as much or more than the primary superhero action, the movies suggest that these unspectacular dilemmas require, in their own way, just as much effort as the more grandiose superhero battles. The first film admits as much from the beginning, opening with a voice-over that states, “This, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl, the girl next door.” Even the choice of phrase — “the girl next door” — explicitly highlights ordinariness. Being a superhero is tough, the film suggests, but so is being a young adult.

Where the “Spider-Man” films wrestle with Parker’s struggle to be accepted as an individual, the “X-Men” series is about the desire to be accepted as a group. In these films, the superheroes are mutants born with their powers. As a result, many have become outcasts from society. The focus here is as much on how to achieve societal equality as it is on mutant mayhem.

Government action and legislative battles figure heavily in all three “X-Men” films, with the massive action sequences serving as literal expressions of the group’s political struggles. While the “Spider-Man” films reminded us that even superheroes must juggle the mundane details of everyday life, the “X-Men” series gives us superheroes who, not just despite their powers, but because of them, must face up to the world of political engagement and interest group representation.

“Batman Begins” deals less with outward acceptance than with coming to grips with personal pathologies. Attempting to fend off Gotham City’s criminal underworld while mastering his sorrow-filled past, Batman doesn’t just fight crime: He fights his own demons. It’s a tale of obsession, in which a young man who blames himself for his parents murder devotes himself and his considerable financial resources to bringing the criminals of his city to justice. Batman may be a billionaire and a superhero, but he’s also a scarred young man — a neurotic outsider trying to overcome his obsessions.

Although Superman’s parents also died when he was young, his struggle is less with his past than with power and duty. Superman has long been one of the most patriotic heroes, and although “Superman Returns” has been cleansed of any hint of American exceptionalism — he now stands for “truth, justice, and all that stuff” — the film still posits him generally as the world’s hero, if not specifically America’s.

One of the film’s most stirring images shows Superman floating in space, eyes closed, using his superhearing to listen to the cries of the world as he decides who he will save. Although de-Americanized, Superman remains as public-spirited and altruistic as ever — except now he is citizen of the world, and it is that familiar, ordinary citizen’s duty that propels Superman to his continual acts of heroism.

Whether in politics or movies, ours is a society that continually seeks out heroes. Our heroes are manifestations of ideals, representatives of the best we can be. But we are not satisfied with lofty heroism alone. Our heroes must also be flawed — ordinary in some way — so that in some way they remind us of ourselves.

The conceit of these movies is that their flying, swinging, superhuman heroes could be — and indeed are — any ordinary individual. Perhaps more important, the reverse is also true: Anyone can be a hero, personal struggles and all. Superhero movies, then, are the American dream in brightly colored spandex: You can be anything you want — even a superhero.

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