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Why Barry Egan is Superman in Punch-Drunk Love

Christopher Reeve as Superman, flying with his hand in the air, and Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love assuming a similar post

Super strength, flight, Lois Lane and an evil antagonist: the evidence is adding up that Barry Egan might be Superman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love.

Could Punch-Drunk Love be a forgotten feature in the DC universe? I say that in jest, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 movie has many layers to it, including an allegory that the protagonist Barry Egan (Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems) is in fact Superman. 

For some background, Paul Thomas Anderson said that he wanted to make an Adam Sandler movie; at the time, this was perceived as a joke due to Sandler’s reputation for raunchy comedies, whilst Anderson’s was far from that. The film follows Barry Egan, a lonely and constantly overwhelmed owner of a company that markets novelty items. To curb his loneliness, he calls a phone-sex line, who soon begin blackmailing him and adding even more stress to his existence than his seven overbearing sisters. Alongside these events, he is trying to cultivate a new relationship with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson, God’s Creatures) and buy enough pudding to use the recoup the coupons for air miles.

The film is truly a love letter to Adam Sandler movies. Anderson does not try and make a completely different film that the famed comedian happens to be in, but utilises all of Sandler’s beloved character tropes. The self-deprecating shyness seen in his romantic comedies such as 50 First Dates and The Wedding Singer, and the sudden bouts of anger that made Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison such gems are heightened in Punch-Drunk Love to create a compelling story that is stressful, thrilling, romantic, and also very funny. Here’s a list of reasons why Barry Egan is Superman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love!

1. The Suit

Barry Egan runs in the film Punch-Drunk Love, where he is symbolic of Superman
Why Barry Egan is Superman in Punch-Drunk Love – A still from the movie (Columbia Pictures)

When I think of Superman, I am brought back to Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman and particularly his bright blue suit, with the big red ’s’ across his chest. Such an image has become practically synecdoche for the caped hero. Though Barry does not quite don the lycra, he does wear a bright blue suit with a red tie for the majority of the movie. Such a loud colour combination seems out of character for the embarrassed, shy introvert, and his colleagues and family are confused by his outfit decision.

We are introduced to Barry on the first day he wears this suit, and that is when his life begins to become dramatic and exciting. It is the day he meets his romantic interest and it is the day an enemy appears in the form of the blackmailer from the phone-sex line. He suddenly becomes the hero in his otherwise ordinary life, and him donning the suit is symbolic of that and evokes a vision of DC’s cover boy. 

2. Kryptonite

Barry's sisters in the film Punch-Drunk Love
Why Barry Egan is Superman in Punch-Drunk Love – A still from the movie (Columbia Pictures)

In Superman, the hero comes from the planet Krypton and is weakened by the alien mineral kryptonite. For Barry, his seven sisters are his kryptonite, as they weaken him through their tendencies to belittle and oppress. We are introduced to his sisters from the moment we meet Barry as they bother him at work, each phoning him to berate him and talk about the party they were hosting that same evening, or turning up at his work and forcing him to go on a date with a friend. It is apparent that Barry’s stress rapidly rises when they are in contact. As Superman comes from Planet Krypton, Barry Egan comes from the Egan family; he is intrinsically tied to his sisters and also cannot bear to be around them; they weaken him and interrupt his quiet, calm moments with aggressive and domineering presences.

3. Super Strength

Barry Egan holds the unbreakable plunger in the film Punch-Drunk Love, where he is symbolic of Superman
Why Barry Egan is Superman in Punch-Drunk Love – A still from the movie (Columbia Pictures)

Despite his kryptonite sisters weakening him, his reactions to them indicate his strength. At the party they invite him to, he gets so wound up by their treatment of him that he smashes through multiple sliding doors in his sisters house. This scene is not even the first sight of his strength: early on in the film, he breaks the “unbreakable plunger”, a novelty product that his company sells – this may have indicated the product is a dud, but at the same time it does indicate that Barry does have some unexpected force in him. This is referenced multiple times throughout the movie, when he destroys a restaurant bathroom in a fit of embarrassment and rage and in later scenes as he battles his antagonists – who we’ll come to in a bit.

Barry does reference his strength, crediting it to his love interest as he says the famed line “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” A dramatic line reminiscent of 1978s Superman and lines such as, “I’m here to fight for truth, and justice and the American Way” in its sincerity and heroism. 

4. The Love Interest 

Lena Leonard hugs Barry Egan runs in the film Punch-Drunk Love, reminding viewers of the cape of Superman
Why Barry Egan is Superman in Punch-Drunk Love – A still from the movie (Columbia Pictures)

Barry’s great love comes in the form of mysterious and intense friend of his sister, Lena Leonard – with the same initials as Superman’s love interest Lois Lane – which surely can’t be a coincidence? One of the most prominent shots in the movie makes a very strong indication to the Superman theory. It depicts Barry sat down in his blue suit with Lena hugging him from behind in a red dress, and it appears as if she represents his cape – her love makes him powerful.

Like Lois Lane getting into peril as Superman fights his arch nemesis Lex Luther in Superman, Lena becomes collateral damage in Barry’s fight against the thugs blackmailing him, and as a result he fights back harder. The love interest provides the hero with something to lose it makes them vulnerable, and as such is both a weakness and a strength – and it just makes for a great emotive story which both Superman and Punch-Drunk Love certainly have you rooting for romantic success for the protagonists by the end.

5. The Power of Flight 

Barry Egan holds a shopping trolley at the supermarket, looking at frozen food, in the film Punch-Drunk Love
Why Barry Egan is Superman in Punch-Drunk Love – A still from the movie (Columbia Pictures)

Superman’s most prominent power is flight, and a thread throughout Punch-Drunk Love is Barry’s fascination with a supermarket pudding that comes with a coupon for air miles. This is Barry’s method of enabling the power of flight; he buys $3000 worth of pudding as he works out that will earn him 1 million air miles, so that he is able to fly for free essentially forever. Barry doesn’t literally take flight of his own accord (though there is a shot where he leaps from a building in the classic Superman flying pose) the pudding will enable him to, almost like a power-up in a computer game. It must be an intentional choice from Anderson, as this is otherwise only an absurd side plot to the main storyline – though Barry’s line “you know you can get places in the world with pudding. That’s funny” makes it worthwhile. 

6. The Supervillain

Mattress Man and Barry Egan face each other in the film Punch-Drunk Love, where the latter is symbolic of Superman
Why Barry Egan is Superman in Punch-Drunk Love – A still from the movie (Columbia Pictures)

Last but not least, Superman has an arch nemesis, Lex Luther, who hacks into missile programmes and knows Superman’s kryptonite. Barry Egan has a nemesis too: the head of the blackmail operation coming for Barry is Mattress Man, played by Paul Thomas Anderson’s long time collaborator, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote). Hoffman was such a presence in any feature he played a part in, and he spends most of the film being a threatening presence on the end of a phone line. The camp, superhero-y name ‘Mattress Man’ is so humorous and, though he’s just a dodgy blackmailer, fits into Barry’s fantasy of heroic greatness. Mattress Man sends his henchman to threaten Barry, who he fights and easily overpowers with his strength. 

That’s what makes this film so funny: Barry has these completely unexpected extraordinary abilities against these guys who are really just thugs sent at the bequest of a small town blackmailer who works out of his mattress store. The antagonist is used to just dealing with easily manipulatable lonely guys, and Barry treats it like a John Wick type mission to defeat them and ensure the safety of his lover; he transforms himself from an overly anxious, lonely guy into a superhero. Barry doesn’t meet Mattress Man in the flesh until the end of the film, for a rather underwhelming ‘final battle’ not quite comparable to that between Luther and Superman in the 1978 feature.

Punch-Drunk Love is an unusual and compelling love story, and the allusions to Superman throughout just compound the idea that love is empowering and allows an individual to overcome anything bad that they may face. It is, quite frankly, a masterpiece. Anderson made Adam Sandler, a man looked down on by Hollywood for his comedy movies into a respected leading man, he saw something in him that hadn’t yet been unlocked and he did it through one of the greatest romantic movies of the 21st Century.

Get it on Apple TV

Punch-Drunk Love is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Read our list of all Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies ranked from worst to best!

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