Superman made a hasty flight from the movie houses of Peking last week amid public criticism of his battle for "truth, justice and the American way."
The 1978 American movie opened here late last month and was drawing large crowds. By Jan. 13, it was playing at 25 theaters throughout the city.
Then, in almost as little time as it takes Clark Kent to change clothes in a phone booth, the movie disappeared. On Jan. 14, according to film listings, no theater in the city was offering "Superman," and several houses found themselves without any movie to advertise that day. The movie has not been seen here since, except perhaps in restricted showings.
On Jan. 17, shortly after the film's disappearance, the Peking Evening News ran an essay attacking Superman's crusade for "truth, justice and the American way."
"This is a little too obvious," the reviewer said. "The director has Superman and Lois Lane soar freely around the Statue of Liberty in New York. This blatantly exposes the director's intentions. The director attempts to tell the audience that America represents truth and justice, and that there's only a pinch of (villain) Lex Luthor's evil doings to disturb the government's normal abilities."
The review concluded that Superman is not really a savior, but rather "a narcotic which the capitalist class gives itself to cast off its serious crises."
Ordinarily, popular movies remain in movie houses here for several months at a time. Officials in Peking would not say whether "Superman" had been withdrawn, either permanently or temporarily, because of objections to its content.
"We don't quite understand the situation," an official at the Peking Bureau of Culture said.
A woman in the offices of the central government's film bureau said she didn't know exactly what had happened, but added that "it could have something to do with our country's situation."
"You understand, don't you?" she said.
In recent months, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have been urging stricter supervision over culture and ideology, in an effort to promote what they call a socialist spiritual civilization.
Earlier this month, the regime decided to move the Film Bureau, the government agency in charge of movies in China, from the Ministry of Culture to a new Ministry of Radio, Cinema and Television--a move that Chinese intellectuals feel was aimed at imposing tighter party control over film making. Over the weekend, authorities banned any publication of books, magazines and newspapers without government approval.
Despite the apparent cultural chill, there was no sign that "Superman" has run into political trouble anywhere in China outside Peking. In Shanghai, where it opened several weeks earlier than it did here, the movie was still being shown over the weekend.
Peking moviegoers had been able to see "Superman" either in a stereophonic English-language version with Chinese subtitles at a major downtown theater or in a Mandarin-dubbed version at smaller neighborhood theaters.
It was one of the first high-budget American movies acquired for general exhibiting here. Until recently, China, which has the world's largest movie audience, had refused to pay the high prices for film rights to the most popular Hollywood movies and had purchased only low-budget American films.
The U.S. government sponsored film festivals here in 1981 and 1985. Last year China agreed to show the movies "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Turning Point," but only on the condition that two sexually suggestive scenes were cut.
Outside the film festivals, the first contemporary American box-office hit to be shown in China was Sylvester Stallone's "First Blood," which ran here last fall. While some Westerners living in China wrote critical reviews of the movie, it seemed quite popular with the Chinese.
Superman, on the other hand, seems to have been taken by some critics as a symbol of America's pretensions to omnipotence.
"The amazing abilities of Superman have a limit in the end," the Peking Evening News said. "He watches while Lois is swallowed by a fissure in the earth. The only thing he can do is let out a mournful cry. With a sigh of remorse, he says, 'I can't impose in human affairs,' and takes flight.
"We see that to rescue humanity, to protect 'the American way,' this one who poses as Superman has limited capabilities. Humanity has to rely on its own kind."