This movie is an allegory, though not one I’m sure the filmmakers intended. We’ll get back to that in a sec I have to lay some points out and then we’ll get into it.
First off Superman comes back to earth after a five year trip and does what any sensible American does when returning from a trip out of touch… he zones out in front of the TV and channel surfs. What he sees is disturbing. The first image is one of an apparently middle-eastern looking woman screaming then images of unrest, riots, war, fires, looting. In short the same bull we’ve been subjected in the past five years. After getting his job back at the Daily Planet he learns his old flame Lois has had a kid and is apparently engaged to the nephew of the editor of that storied paper. She’s prospered in Superman’s absence not only in her raising of her son and stable relationship but also for apparently rebuking the very necessity of his existence; an article of her’s “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” has one her a Pulitzer Prize. The world has fallen to the Lois Lane’s of the world, cynical and dangerous.
There’s also references to America’s role in this new chaotic world order. At one point Lex Luther is talking with his cronies on his private yacht and references the historical line of western imperialism Rome to Britain to America. When Clark Kent storms down a hall at one point in the movie a large poster of an old Daily Planet front page declaring “The Wall has Fallen” referencing the collapse of the Berlin wall which is historically the turning point for America becoming the world’s sole super power.
While the film does a great job with character it seems almost to drag during the villain/crime sequences. Though Kevin Spacey is great its just that I became so invested in Superman’s tensions with Lois and her undeniable attraction to him. The Lex Luthor plot is almost exactly the opposite of the first film. Instead of taking away the west coast of the U.S. in order to make money on real estate Luthor wants to add land to the east coast in order to make money on real estate. The opening title sequence features cheesy feeling graphics that have a 70s feel and harken back to the original film. What the film gets really right is the come-back kid feel poignantly debuting Superman’s return to heroic action inside a baseball stadium to roaring cheers when he saves a plane from crashing.
The movie seems set on hammering in this point disapproving Lois’ original cynical claim that the world doesn’t need Superman. Clearly they do and he’s damn good at saving them. The movie dwells on the point of this when a montage shows Superman flying around the world to solve disasters big and small. Car crashes, fires, people falling off buildings there’s nothing too small to do. What’s interesting is the way the movie points out that Superman goes all over the world in his crime and disaster stopping affairs. Here is where I think the allegory plays in.
Despite the fact that the movie clearly points out the role of the U.S. as the sole super or imperial power everyone has problems. Clearly Superman represents an American ideal but what seems clear is that ideal is to be shared. At one point in the film Superman takes Lois on a flight above Metropolis — which in the film exists as a replacement of New York City sharing its bridges shape and parks — he asks her what she hears and she says “nothing”. He replies to her that he hears everything and explains that the people need him “they’re crying out for help.” There’s no problem big or small that this man of steel does not feel an obligation to solve.
Extrapolated to the world outside the film it seems to me to be signaling an unconscious hunger if not of the filmmakers than of the American audience in general for those in power to stand up for what’s right and to wield that power in a human and just way. Not only for the good of the people of the U.S. but for the people of the world. The imperialists of the world want power through dictatorial strategies; Lex Luthor is an expansionist who wants to become a nation-builder. Superman wants peace, integrity and safety for all people of the world. What with Enron, Carl Rove and the Valerie Plame affair, Iraq and Bush’s falling poll numbers there seems to be a collective sense domestically and of course abroad that despite America’s tremendous power and influence it is not using either very well. To borrow a line from another super-hero blockbuster: “with great power comes great responsibility”. Superman embodies that perfectly in the fictional world of the movies but in real life we’re still waiting for a “return” of equal significance.