The newest film incarnation of the Superman myth opened recently to much fanfare across the country. From the outset, it’s clear that Superman Returns takes a number of liberties with the legend of the Man of Steel. In this version, he returns from a five-year absence to find one-time love Lois Lane with a young child and a Pulitzer for explaining “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Strangely enough, it almost seems that the movie’s creators agree with her — at least when it comes to the superhero’s proudly American identity.
Superman certainly isn’t who he used to be. As everyone knows, from his very inception, Superman always fought for “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” But in this new version, he fights for “Truth, Justice… and All That Stuff.” How inspiring.
Certainly, Hollywood filmmakers want to distribute their films overseas. It’s possible that someone felt that explicitly aligning Superman with American values and interests might alienate some foreign audiences. After all, these days, moviegoers abroad are used to seeing American films that depict the worst, rather than the best, of the American character.
But if that were the case, the phrase “the American way” could simply be dubbed out of the film’s foreign versions, treated like other culturally inappropriate material when films are adapted for an overseas audience. As ridiculous as that arrangement would be, it could, at least, be defended as a business decision, albeit a repugnant one.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s not only that the film’s creators believe that non-Americans would find the phrase offensive — they themselves do, too.
According to reports in the New York Post, the screenwriters of the film wanted to avoid “outdated jingoism.” One of them commented, “”I don’t think ‘the American way’ means what it meant in 1945.” The other noted, “He’s not just for Metropolis and not just for America.” Apparently, he’s a new Superman for the global age.
The screenwriters are relatively young men, but the mindset their comments reflect has been characteristic of much of the left for forty years or more. Good, old-fashioned love of country and attachment to one’s own city are derided as hopelessly unsophisticated, naive, even. The phrase “the American way” doesn’t mean anything — or if it does, it’s nothing good. For the movie’s screenwriters and people like them, America stands for little more than its shortcomings and setbacks. The generous, open-hearted nature of its people and its history — an ongoing, noble struggle to realize more perfectly the principles the Founding Fathers articulated in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence — count for nothing.
Indeed, the cynicism of the Superman Returns screenwriters isn’t even directed exclusively at America. Replacing “the American way” with “all that stuff” implies a certain dismissiveness of the concepts that precede it — something like “Truth, Justice, blah, blah, blah.” It’s a crude but effective way to signal that no truly sophisticated person could wholeheartedly embrace such simplistic, old-fashioned virtues.
Perhaps it’s all a sad sign of the times. Superman no longer fights for “the American way” because, for at least some Americans, it’s nothing worth defending. Even “truth” and “justice” apparently lack the moral resonance they used to possess.
But eliminating “the American Way” from the Superman myth reveals a basic ignorance both of current events and of America’s role in the world. Ensuring that “truth, justice and the American way” will prevail here at home is exactly why our soldiers fight today in Afghanistan and Iraq, and stand guard elsewhere around the world — a world the United States has repeatedly protected through great sacrifice of its people’s blood, toil and treasure. As we continue to fight the war on terror, it’s worth remembering that a people lacking even basic knowledge of and confidence in the superiority of their own way of life cannot easily defeat an enemy that expresses active contempt for it.
It may be that oh-so-sophisticated moral relativists like Superman Returns‘s screenwriters have always been with us. But especially during wartime, the virtues that have made America great — including truth, justice and, yes, “the American way” of decency and fair play — should be celebrated, not dismissed. And denizens of Hollywood shouldn’t project onto the legend of Superman — that most uniquely American of superheroes — the moral ambiguity and ambivalence that pollutes their own world view.