Good Guys and Bad Guys…

Jin and I (along with my sis and some friends) went to check out Superman Returns the other night. It was a much better movie than I had heard (I think Roger Ebert was particularly hard on it), though by no means Oscar material (or even watch for a second time material for that matter). But it was fun and things blew up, so no worries. There is one little tidbit that I found to be insightful in (I assume) a completely unintentional, and therefore highly ironic and amusing, way.

There’s this bit in the movie where Superman is just beginning to reclaim his role as the great protector of humanity. This comes, apparently, after a few years of backpacking around Europe (read here: traveling distant regions of space and the depressing ruins of his home world of Krypton) trying to find himself. In what is seemingly an attempt to settle into his new environs Superman flies up into the thermosphere (or maybe it was the mesosphere, this point was never made clear) and begins listening carefully to all of the noise of pain and suffering on planet Earth. As we listen along with Superman we hear crimes as they occur. I can’t remember much that is distinct among the wave of noise, but I am sure that at one point I heard a little girl’s voice crying out for help. On hearing this cry Superman, of course, rushes down to the planet below to save this poor, defenseless child…or not. Instead the little girl’s cry is immediately drowned out by the sound of, you guessed it, a bank robbery. Superman’s eyes snap open and he launches himself down to a large metropolitan bank somewhere in the continental United States (really where the hell else are you going to find a bank worth robbing? Switzerland I guess, or maybe the Caribbean, but they have much stricter gun-control laws which may have hindered the thieves in obtaining their boom-mounted gatling gun).

Are you kidding me? In a world of 6 billion people he couldn’t find a potential rape or murder victim to save, a woman being abused by her husband, a pedophile kidnapping a child? A bank? Seriously? What the hell kind of superhero is this guy? People are dying, pain and suffering everywhere, the world is on the brink of coming apart at the seams, but let’s make sure that our property is safe. Let me clarify that I have no problem with personal property, and I really hope that nobody ever robs me (I am setting aside the fact that robbing a bank only really hurts the bank and their insurance company), but given Superman’s crime fighting assets I really think that he could have done better here.

I doubt that Bryan Singer or any of his co-producers are actually trying to say that possessions are more valuable than people, but this subtext seems to jump out at the viewer regardless. Either way the spectacular irony (and indeed hypocrisy) of this subtext is the fact that the film’s villain Lex Luthor is presented as evil precisely for engaging in this sin of valuing wealth over people.

Is there, then, a real difference between Superman and Lex Luthor? Between hero and villain? In the structure of the story as a whole the difference is immense, but in this small instance of subtext I think that we see with far more accuracy the truth of human nature. At the core the difference between “good guys” and “bad guys” is much more slight than most of us wish to believe.

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