Waiting for Superman to return
Growing up the youngest of three children I had my taste in everything from music to movies to clothing influenced by the field-testing my brother and sister had done before me. Both of them were larger than life to me, who I wanted to become when I grew up, and the fact that my sister had a shrine to Andy Gibb on her wall meant that he must be the most important man in the world, right behind Scott Baio.
My sister was five years older, though, and spent more time sitting in the front seat of a parked car with her boyfriend than she ever did in a room with me. It was my brother who had the most impact on the things I was interested in, and over the course of my childhood he introduced me to the finer elements of our generation’s culture, things like Journey and Star Wars and posters of Heather Locklear in a bikini. Much of my youth was spent living through him, watching him get excited about the new album from Men at Work because that spectacle was more rewarding than if I had been excited about it myself.
The most significant piece of pop culture in his life was the original movie version of Superman, and rarely a week would go by that we didn’t watch it at least once. He loved everything about that movie — the love story, the heroism, the special effects — and memorized the entire script to the point that he could recite it word-for-word from memory. What I loved most about it, apart from the huge crush I had on Christopher Reeve and the years I spent imagining what it would feel like to have his bulging arms holding my body two miles above the Earth’s surface, was listening to my brother talk about it. For him it was more than just a comic book made into a full-length feature. It was the perfect metaphor for good against evil, for the complicated relationship between a father and son, for the emotional and spiritual quest every human experiences when trying to figure out why we are here. For him it was the meaning of life.
Listening to him analyze that movie was much like listening to a religious sermon, and I believed everything he said with as much feeling as I did anything I ever heard at church on Sunday. He was so moved by the Superman story that he couldn’t contain his passion for it, and now that I am older I think back to those conversations as fondly as I do any rock concert I’ve ever been to. He was such a great story-teller, as talented as any musician is at what they play, and hearing him speak about Superman with as much love as he did was as thrilling as hearing my favorite song played live.
My brother and I have grown apart somewhat over the years mostly because of physical distance and the responsibilities we have to our own families. But we also became very different people, and we don’t talk as often as we should. He still listens to Journey and believes that at some point in history a man named Noah gathered two of every animal on Earth onto one boat. I became the type of person who tirelessly seeks out newer music and who believes that the story of Noah is just as valid as the idea that a Flying Spaghetti Monster rules over the Universe. I am the type of person who prefers the latter because at least that story involves pirates. The only thing my brother and I have in common is the fact that we both think the other one is totally nuts.
When I first saw the trailer for the new Superman Returns, I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified. It looked fantastic, and I knew that because of the technology in the industry today that it would be nothing short of a visual gem. There is a standard vocabulary in modern film-making when it comes to special effects that makes it easy to assume that every explosion, every flight sequence, every seemingly impossible stunt will not only look real but also very, very awesome. I wasn’t worried about that at all. I was worried about how they would honor the original film, and how this new movie might disrupt one of my most cherished memories from childhood.
My husband and I saw the new film at the first showing on opening day, and during the opening credits when I heard the first note of the theme song I got chills on every inch of my body. I was transported back to the floor of the living room in my childhood home where I would lie on a pillow near my brother and watch as the names flew across the screen. If anything bad could be said about Superman Returns it would be that maybe it was too faithful to the feel of the original. But that’s exactly what I was hoping for, the spirit of the story that I grew up with except with a little more style now that the directors and producers have more money and expertise when it comes to making it look like Superman really can put out a raging fire by blowing on it with his mouth.
Brandon Routh’s performance as Superman was nothing short of brilliant in the sense that there were several points in the film when I actually forgot that he wasn’t Christopher Reeve. There was a certain humility in the way that he channeled the character Reeve had created, in the way he didn’t try to change it or build it into something new, into something of his own, but instead brought it back to life in its exact form, gave it a new body. It was as if he knew that for fans of the original he needed to honor the character in that way, needed to bring it back in tact, because otherwise he would have disrespected how we feel now about Christopher Reeve’s legacy.
Last week I finally called my brother to see if he had seen it, and he dove right into a gushing, almost giddy analysis of the new movie as if the 20 years we have lived since we last talked about Superman never happened. I had seen the movie before he did, but listening to him talk about it made it seem as if I had watched it with my eyes closed. It reminded me of why I think my brother is one of the most talented people in the world: he can make me love something just by showing me the energy with which he loves it. I should call him more often.