The Fertile Imagery of “Superman Returns”

Spoilers ahead for Superman Returns.

The lost opening sequence of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns has hit the internet.

The scene is a silent, Kubrickian sequence that follows Superman as he looks for his past on the dead planet Krypton, with imagery that reminds one of another controversial 2006 release, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. The imagery also might remind one of something else entirely, as it only goes to prove the visual motif of “fertility” that seems to -ahem- penetrate the film.

Yes, this post might make you a bit uncomfortable.

In Singer’s lyrical Superman movie (written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris), Lex Luthor seeks the Kryptonian crystals that Christopher Reeve’s Kal-El used to build the Fortress of Solitude in Richard Donner’s 1978 film. After he successfully steals the crystals from a kind of growing “crystal shrub” (revealed in the new scene) that ascends from the fortress, he hollows out a peice of kryptonite, inserts the crystal, and using a cannon, shoots it in into a fissure along the bottom of the ocean, giving birth to an island, an undesirable New Krypton.

You have no idea how difficult it was to describe that sequence gracefully.

I really shouldn’t have to argue my point much more, as this sequence is cross-cut with the revelation that in a secret evening together, presumably during the events of Superman II, Superman impregnated Lois Lane. We find out in the climax of Superman Returns that she has fathered his accidental son, and Superman realizes his quest for others like himself is irrelevant. His legacy is not in the past glories of the House of El, but here on Earth, with his son.

Fertility. A new Krypton borne from remnants of a dead world, or a new Krypton borne from a union with Earth. I think it’s clear to non-Superman fanboys that this is obvious subtext, given the phallic imagery and character motivations. I’m sure my fellow Film Nerds will accuse me of bizarre fixation, but again, I think I could just nod to the material and ask them if the proof isn’t right there, pointed directly at their contorted faces.

I think the fact that Singer & Company worked so hard to have these kinds of subtextual connections run through a Superman movie is a brave and honorable goal. All that aside, however, the main question from comic book fans that dislike Superman Returns is probably this: “Okay, the the art is loaded and intentional, but it’s still not Superman.”

That’s a point that I will need to concede. It’s true. The Superman that I am a fan of does regularly not feel alienated or alone. The best iteration of Clark Kent was raised by simple and honest parents who aim for the human ideal, rather than expect an alien dog-and-pony show. That’s what Singer seems to believe humanity expects of Superman, and I do think that’s a bad reading. At its core, Superman Returns is not a Superman movie that is true to the characters roots outside of the 1978 film. On paper, it might work as an “Elseworlds” interpretation. It does not evoke the Fleischer shorts or the George Reeve show or the Kyrk Allen serials. It does not evoke the brawny Socialist bully of Siegel & Schuster, or the good-natured big brother of Swan & Schwartz. It does, however, take an American icon to weird and interesting places, and does not settle to be yet another brainless, flashy blockbuster. For the record, I think this deleted scene should have stayed in the film. It sets the tone for the thoughtful, languidly paced drama that follows, and would have really earned the explosive opening title sequence. Perhaps the film will be re-cut in the next few decades, giving us the ultimate version of the film on blu ray.

Whatever the case, give Superman Returns some credit… just don’t let it go to a frat party with your daughter.