“Whether you’re an immigrant or you’re born in the heartland, at some point we all feel like an alien.”
Those are not the words of an immigration rights attorney but rather of filmmaker Bryan Singer, whose last three films, the first two editions of “X-Men” and the upcoming “Superman Returns,” which opens on June 28 nationwide, all present parables on the current state of xenophobia pervading this country.
Of the famed Man of Steel, first introduced to comic book readers in the 1930s, Singer said, “He’s kind of the ultimate immigrant. He comes from a foreign place, adapts to the value system and has a special relationship with his heritage.”
Singer sees Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — two Jews who were sons of immigrants — as a Judeo-Christian hero, part Moses, part Jesus. Like Moses, Superman is the boy dispatched down the metaphoric river to be discovered in the cornfields, if not the reeds, of the Midwest. Like Jesus, he has a kind of doubling with his father, voiced in the new film as in the 1978 “Superman” by the late Marlon Brando, who says, “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.”
If Superman first entered popular culture when the Nazis were beginning to assert their power in Germany, he “never cleared up the problems in Europe,” Singer said. “He handled small problems; he served by example.”
Over the decades, however, through numerous incarnations in comic strips, animated shorts, television shows and films, Superman began tackling worldwide catastrophes, as he does in Singer’s new film, though he does not rescue Jews per se.
That does not mean that Superman lacks a Jewish pedigree.
As Michael Chabon suggested in his novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Siegel and Shuster, in conceptualizing Superman, may very well have been inspired by the Golem, a mythic figure in Jewish folklore, who could be built from mud and clay, according to strict rabbinic instructions, and could vanquish all evil.
Yet “Superman Returns” never implies that its protagonist, played by Brandon Routh, is of any ethnicity other than Kryptonian. If he resembles any mythological creatures, they would seem to be Greek ones. Like Atlas, Superman lifts, if not the entire planet, a huge nefarious landmass, which he hurls into space. He also catches the ornamental globe that sits atop the Daily Planet Building, a structure modeled after the art deco former home of the New York Daily News. Of course, Superman’s strength is matched by his speed as he flies through the sky like Hermes, easing a plane carrying Lois Lane, played by Kate Bosworth, into an emergency landing on a ball field.
Superman may have been in drydock for five years, as we are told in the film, but unlike Roger Clemens, he doesn’t get the benefit of a trip to the minors. He must perform at a big league level from the start, although we do see flashbacks to his youth, when he runs through the cornfields and learns how to fly, a nice touch since Superman did not fly in his early comic strips.
The 40-year-old Singer calls “Superman Returns” a “dream project” and said “it was a fantasy of mine to have Kryptonian blood,” not surprising for a man who in the 1970s loved watching reruns of the “Superman” TV show starring George Reeves. But Singer did not read the comics as a child. To this day, he suffers from dyslexia, which still impedes his efforts at reading. He likes to read short stories, but he did not even know about the “X-Men” until he was assigned to direct the first movie of that franchise.
While “X-Men” and “X2,” which came out in 2000 and 2003, respectively, predate the current illegal immigration crisis, they, like all of Singer’s films, deal with the human capacity for evil and for persecuting outsiders, whoever they may be.
Like Superman, the mutants in the “X-Men” movies are not simply stand-ins for illegal immigrants. They are heroic, if in some cases demonic, fantasies of the other — the outsider in all of us.
As a gay, adopted, agnostic Jew, Singer has always been drawn to the otherness of these superheroes, though he chuckles when asked about a recent Los Angeles Times article that highlighted Superman’s gay appeal. “If you look at my career,” he said, “I’ve probably never made a more heterosexual movie before.”
None of his previous studio movies may have had an explicit gay theme to them, but “The Usual Suspects,” his 1995 breakthrough film, which received much buzz for its plot twists, subversion of the noir genre and brilliant ensemble cast, may be best remembered for the Oscar-winning performance of Kevin Spacey, essaying Verbal Kint, a criminal mastermind of dubious sexuality.
Singer followed that with 1998’s “Apt Pupil,” in which Brad Renfro plays a high school student obsessed with the Holocaust and with a former Nazi living in his neighborhood. The film featured some baroque horror touches, such as when Ian McKellen’s Nazi tries to stuff a cat in an oven, and Singer even framed a few longing looks between the 16-year-old boy and his Nazi mentor, cut next to a shot of the boy’s indifferent response to the sexual advances of his girlfriend.
Then came “X-Men” and “X2,” McCarthyite allegories that among other provocations featured McKellen, the Nazi in “Apt Pupil,” as a Holocaust survivor, who like Darth Vader has turned to the dark side.
“X2,” in particular, showed us non-Geneva-friendly torture taking place in prison cells that but for their high-tech gadgetry might remind one of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. There are also congressional and presidential calls for mandatory mutant registration, prescient in the wake of today’s immigration legislation proposals, and, of course, a teenage son coming out to his parents that he is a mutant, prompting the altogether familiar reply from his mother, “Can’t you just not be a mutant?”
While Singer wants as broad an audience as possible to enjoy the film, he particularly wants “older people and women to have an emotional experience,” he said. Unlike his past films, “Superman Returns” is, Singer said, “a romantic picture.”
It is also a film with a long and troubled past. Over the last decade, numerous actors and directors were attached to the film, whose budget, like its superhero, seemed to know no bounds. None of that history worried Singer, who got a chance to reshape the storyline and, indeed, has a story credit on the film. It also helped that he used some of his regular repertory of actors, such as Spacey, playing yet another notable villain: Lex Luthor.
Singer’s first real understanding of evil came when, as a boy of 9 or 10, he dressed up as a Nazi one day while playing a World War II game with his German neighbors in Princeton Junction, N.J. He came home wearing a swastika.
Singer’s mother admonished him, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when his junior high school teacher, Miss Fiscarelli, taught an entire unit in social studies on the Holocaust, that he gained a greater understanding as to why his mother had been so troubled. That class changed Singer’s “whole perception of what people are capable of anywhere,” he said.
“Superman Returns” is not directly about Nazis, and its diabolical antagonist is more over-the-top than menacing, yet Singer does not discount the possibility of future genocides.
“The German culture [at the time of the Holocaust] was extremely artistic, extremely sophisticated and extremely advanced,” he said, proving that “anywhere, any place, any century, it’s possible, and any person is capable of it.”
“Superman Returns” opens nationwide on June 28.