(The analysis itself spiraled out of control because Bryan Singer is a lunatic who bobs and weaves and cuts constantly. More on that tomorrow.)
It goes without saying that Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006) is not a very good film. Or so I thought before hitting up Rotten Tomatoes. Let me put it this way: I think Superman Returns is a mediocre but interesting film. If you look at my chart you can probably guess why: the film mines the imagery of 9/11 in order to address the shit mist of uncertainty Americans fumbled through from 9/12 forward. The Americans in the film had themselves a Superman and the supreme confidence having a Superman entails.
Then they lost him. Suddenly and inexplicably.
Singer wants his audience to imagine what it would be like to wake up one morning and realize that the truly terrible things that never happen here can now happen here. Not too hard. I remember staring numbly at video of the first Tower smoking when I saw the nose of the second plane enter the frame:
I was watching the truly terrible things that never happen here happening here and I felt sick. The sense of security I lost that morning never returned. No amount of anything will ever bring it back . . . with the possible exception of the arrival of Superman.
The Americans in the film have learned to live without Superman. Or so they tell themselves. Lois Lane wins a Pulitzer for a stiff upper lip of an article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" but the article has all the conviction of an empty gesture. ("I never really loved you either!" says the man whose girlfriend just left him.) When Clark Kent suddenly reappears after five years of being elsewhere, the audience knows what the Americans in the film don't: they can quiet that nagging nothing in the pit of their guts and breathe a little easier because Superman is back.
Untangling why actual Americans are happy for their fake brethren is something of a chore, so let me leave it at this: 9/11 so rattled our presumptions that we experience real pleasure at the very thought that someone out there might reclaim some of the gusto they lost that morning even if that someone is an imitation American on a Sydney sound stage. Whatever the circumstances, the film's most powerful moment was always going to be when Superman reappeared. But Singer goes one step further and stages this scene in a manner designed to prime our 9/11 pumps without calling attention to what makes us shit the sheets (terrorism generally and Islamic fundamentalism in particular).
All the props are there—the airplanes, the New York City landmarks, the air traffic controllers—but Singer stripped them of their normal significance so they only horrify secondhandedly. The scene I'll analyze tomorrow is equivalent to what the man who lost control over his car and slammed into a ditch in December feels when he starts to hydroplane in May.