Superman has just made public his return to Earth after a five-year absence by saving a group of astronauts from certain doom and then safely crash landing an airplane in the middle of a baseball stadium, while a game was in progress. He mugged for the cameras, made a small joke, and then flew up, up, and away, leaving people with plenty of questions.
Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White assembles his staff of reporters and photographers to give them their marching orders. The story is Superman, Superman, Superman, White explains, and people are going to want to know Everything.
Why did he leave? Why did he come back? Does he have a new girlfriend? How will this affect the economy? Is he still for "truth, justice, all that stuff"? You get the idea.
One reasonable interpretation of the scene would see it as a spoof on our obsession with celebrity. In fact, ace reporter Lois Lanewho was on the plane that Superman savedis somehow the only person in the room capable of any distance.
Sure, Superman's return is a big story, she grants, but what caused the mishap with the rocket and the plane? It turns out that Supe's old nemesis Lex Luthor is behind it, and it is a sign of much worse to come.
Now think with me for a minute. If we wanted to construct as unreasonable a reading of the scene as possible, could we do any better than the reaction of many of America's conservative culture warriors?
They were informedvia stories in the New York Post and the Hollywood Reporter that "the American way" had been "removed" from the normal run of things that Superman stands for, and, well, they promptly lost it:
On the blog of the Independent Women's Forum, the usually sensible Charlotte Allen called for conservatives to celebrate the Fourth of July by boycotting the film.
Carol Platt Liebau wrote in the American Spectator that "Superman no longer fights for 'the American way' because, for at least some Americans, it's nothing worth defending."
In a review titled, "So, Lois Lane is a Single Mom & a Slut," Debbie Schlussel complained that while Superman fought the Nazis in World War II propaganda, the current movie doesn't feature the Man of Steel taking the fight to Muslim terrorists. Lex Luthor should have teamed up with al Qaeda, which would have made for a "dynamic and exciting" plot. It would, however, have been "too politically incorrect, current, and exciting for the Hollywood culturatti. Maybe that's why 'Truth, Justice & the American Way,' is now just 'Truth & Justice (and all that other stuff).'"
On FOX News, a stand-in for Neil Cavuto wondered how much the film's blatant anti-Americanism would depress domestic box office.
My personal favorite response was on the blog What Would Tyler Durden Do? The anonymous author responded to some typical fluff from the movie's scriptwriters (i.e., that Superman isn't a hero just for America; he's a hero for the whole world) by declaring "Superman is not American anymore." He explained to readers that he would have had more to say, but "I'm just so angry right now, and when I tried it was just 'dirty god damn hippies' and 'god I hate Hollywood so much some days' for like 8 pages."
Great Caesar's ghost, it's hard to know where to start.
First, Superman Returns is built on a body of work that includes thousands of comics, cartoons, television shows, movies, pajamas, and lunchboxes. Very few people in the audience supplied with part of the phrase ("truth, justice ") would fail to mentally supply " and the American way."
Second, given that it's probably a send-up of celebrity silliness, to vocalize " and the American way" would have been to mock it.
Third, when Superman was helping the Allies drop bombs on the Nazis, he was not, yet, a champion of "the American way." That came later, with the preamble of the Superman live action show starring George Reeves.
Fourth, in the current film, Superman returns to his hometown of Smallville, Kansas, and then moves back to his old stomping grounds of Metropolisa stand-in for New York City. He does some global do-gooding but it's clear the U.S. is this demigod's adopted home.
Fifth, at the climax of the film, Superman puts his life on the line by uprooting a growing landmass off the Eastern seaboard that would have displaced most of the North American Continent, killing millions (Lex Luthor: "No, billions!") and completely wiping out the U.S.
Let me restate that so the movie's critics can't miss the point. In Superman Returns, Superman saves America from certain destruction, thus ensuring that "the American way" can keep on trucking.
Jeremy Lott is author of In Defense of Hypocrisy: Picking Sides in the War on Virtue, just released by Nelson Current.
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Christianity Today Movies' coverage of the film includes:
The 'Savior' Returns | Bryan Singer, director of the highly anticipated Superman Returns, says it makes sense to compare his protagonist to Jesus because, after all, "Superman is a savior." (June 26, 2006)
Superman Returns | Superman Returns not only stands on the shoulders of the first two movies, it also retraces their footsteps, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in very big ways. (June 27, 2006)
What's So Super About This Guy? | Born in the Great Depression, Superman still holds our rapt attention 70 years later, even as he headlines a new movie opening this week. (June 27, 2006)
Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
Dining Dilemmas | How shall we then eat? (June 27, 2006)
Incorrigibly Bookish | Michael Dirda on reading and life. (June 20, 2006)
The Not-So-Evil Empire | A report on The Historical Society's conference earlier this month. (June 13, 2006)
Very Important Fiction | The Gospel according to The New York Times Book Review. (May 23, 2006)
Back to the Garden | Digging in the dirt as spiritual formation. (May 16, 2006)
Words Made Flesh | Calvin College's 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing. (April 25, 2006)
Betrayed Again | The Gospel of Judas Roadshow. (April 18, 2006)
American Theocrat | Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic political ambitions, and the evangelical pawns. (April 11, 2006)
Was George Washington a Christian? | A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. (April 4, 2006)
The Mystery of the Numbers | B&C's annual baseball preview, 2006 edition. (March 21, 2006)
Passionately Ambivalent | Christians in the art world. (Feb. 14, 2006)
WorshipWhat We've Learned | A report from the Calvin Symposium. (Jan. 31, 2006)
Makingand BreakingVows | A compelling memoir from the son of a priest and a former nun. (Jan. 17, 2006)
For book lovers, our 2006 CT book awards are available online, along with our book awards for 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1997, as well as our Books of the Twentieth Century. For other coverage or reviews, see our Books archive and the weekly Books & Culture Corner.