Saturday, March 29, 2014

Superman Unbound: A Tale of Two Fathers (And a Bonus Messiah Complex)

Suck it, Brandon Routh
There are some things that work great on paper but seem to have some internal mechanism that prevents them from bridging the gap with implementation.  For most of us, this might manifest as everyday, mundane activities like orchestrating a simple kidnapping or arson, or a three-way with your girlfriend's hot cousin, or the impregnation of your impotent friend's wife at the couple's behest.  Then, of course, there's Superman.

I have a Superman shirt.  And it is fucking awesome.  And when I wear it, my awesome quotient invariably increases.  I always loved the idea of Superman, but I hated the character of Superman.  As a cultural icon, Superman is pretty powerful (even more so than a locomotive or a massive load shot out at Mach 3 from Ron Jeremy's massive cock).  He represents strength: not only physical, but also moral.  Invoking the tropes specific to the mythology of Superman is to draw inspiration to be our best selves.  We can look towards him as an archetype of incredible physical feats and endurance or the epitome of "good guy" morality in situations that have (comparatively) more clear ethical boundaries and we might be tempted to falter.  Superman as a symbol works great.  He's an ideal; something to strive towards but never to be attained.  Superman tracks down the owner of the lost wallet full of cash and returns it personally.  Wolverine drops the wallet off at the cop shop with all of the ID and credit cards in tact but keeps the cash as a finder's fee.  Lobo keeps the wallet, then tracks down its owner and beats the shit out of him for being a dumbass. 

As a character, however, Superman to me was never engaging.  From a narrative standpoint, Superman is pretty much as shitty a character as they come.  His superpowers are that he is stronger than everybody else, faster than everybody else, and that, oh yeah, nothing you do can possibly kill or even hurt him.  Whenever I tried to engage with any Superman narrative in any medium, I could never escape from the pull of the paradox-induced black hole that the abilities and capabilities that distinguished the character and made him unique and "worth" telling stories about were the very same abilities that completely negated any possible semblance of narrative or dramatic tension.

It was especially Superman's apparent (and actual) immortality that kept me from engaging with any of his narratives or really enjoying them.  Humanity's mortality is (currently, until we can transfer our minds into immortal robot bodies) a key component to how we perceive the world and everything in it.  Any sympathy or empathy is built upon the uniting element of shared mortality; that is, I can "feel" for another mortal being because, like me, that being has something precious and finite that can be either partially or completely disrupted.  Dramatic tension in built upon the premise that there is something at stake for the protagonist or protagonists, which in Superman's case has been proven time and time again to be completely and utterly untrue.

How do you sympathize with a man who can't die or even hurt?  How can you build suspense (not "suspense" as in a horror film but "suspense" as in raising the stakes) into your narrative with a character like that?  The short answer is, you can't.  Superman never seemed to be in any real danger and so no matter what threat he faced there was never any reason for me to give a shit.  The whole "Death of Superman" fiasco still stands (for me at least) as the ultimate evidence of how Superman's complete inability to die in any sense of the word completely alienated the character from his audience.  One angle that some artists (in the general sense) have taken is to build suspense into the narrative through the threat to human characters and then have Superman existentially vulnerable like, for example, feeling guilt about all the people he couldn't save even when he did save some people.  But even these small attempts at trying to build a character I might possibly be able to identify with have been constantly thwarted in all nearly every incarnation of the character because he's so goddamn powerful he doesn't even have people's deaths to feel guilty for because he saves everybody.

The worst offender to me will always be the Richard Donner's 1978 SUPERMAN film.  Now, I will give it credit for ushering in an era of blockbuster superhero films (an era that was subsequently murdered by BATMAN: FOREVER and had its corpse thoroughly desecrated by BATMAN AND ROBIN) and being the forefather of the current wave of superhero cinematic craziness.  But watching the film now it's so apparent that it sucked total balls, and the only genuine pleasure anyone can possibly get from it is by the injection of pure nostalgia it delivers to certain brains.  Which is fine.  Everybody has a right to like whatever they want, and I fully acknowledge that there are some quantifiably shitty films that I enjoy based on nostalgic recollections or illogical emotional responses.  But neither will I try to argue their artistic merits.  And while I recognize that some people really enjoy the 1978 SUPERMAN movie, I think any reasonable fan would be forced to admit it was quantifiably bad.  (Except for that fucking score by John Williams which is brilliant and almost as iconic as Superman himself.  I still find myself randomly humming that shit throughout the years.)

There's a lot (a LOT) wrong with the movie, but for me the worst is the scene near the end when Lex Luthor sends two missiles in opposite directions, and Superman - fast as he is - can only choose to stop one and his decision results in the demise of his special lady, Louis Lane.  Now, if they would have run with that, this might still stand today as my favourite (or one of my favourite) iterations of the character.  But no, instead of the touching personal sacrifice and humanizing realization that maybe - just maybe - he is not all-powerful, instead he flies around the world really fast thereby reversing the rotation of the Earth and - somehow and for some reason - time itself to (yep, you guessed it) save everybody. 

Now, putting aside all of the scientific reasons why this wouldn't work and why reversing the Earth's rotation would not reverse time but cause destruction on a global scale, the main reason this particular part of the narrative failed so absolutely was because it made Superman totally OP and in so doing robbed him of any sense of weakness or mortality that would make him a relatable character.  The narrative and the character were robbed of any sense of danger or suspense.  There were no stakes because now Superman's abilities included not only the inability to die but also the inability to lose.  There wasn't even some character arc where Superman learned some lesson.  All he learned was that he could now get everything he wanted all of the time and nobody could do anything about it.  Thank goodness for all of those good old fashioned American values he was instilled with so he didn't become some sort of merciless dictator.  (And also a big "Fuck you!" to everyone else in existence ever who Superman decided to let die by not continually resetting the world to bring everybody back to life again.)

Now, the immortal or seemingly immortal protagonist is a trope that not only dominates a lot of the comic world and action movies alike but is magnified to the Nth degree.  You have guys like John McClane or any character that Jason Statham plays now that seemingly can't die or even suffer from so much as a paper cut or a hangnail.  And in all fairness, the vast majority of narratives are based on the metapremise of Protagonist Invincibility where the audience is fairly certain that the protagonist of the narrative isn't going to either A) die or B) fail.  One of the hurdles that face any narrative is establishing that illusion of mortality for its protagonist or protagonists by balancing the audience's external narrative expectations of a successful hero or heroes with the internal narrative expectations of mortal vulnerability up to and including death.  One element for an engaging narrative is that the audience has to feel like the protagonist could die or be in some sort of trouble while at the same time knowing that the protagonist probably won't die and that there will be some sort of resolution by the end of the journey.The problem with Superman is that the very boundaries of his character tend to annul that balance.

In the world of cinema, especially, I have been continuously disappointed and even, it seems, had my brain intentionally assailed (dare I mention Superman's "rebuilding vision" in SUPERMAN IV?) by mind-numbingly terrible iterations of the character.  That was, until Zack Snyder's 2013 reboot/reimagining MAN OF STEEL, which (for the most part) demonstrated how to bridge that gaping chasm of Superman the Icon and Superman the Narratively Engaging Character. 

Part of what made the Superman mythos finally click for me in MAN OF STEEL was the re-framing of the narrative from a superhero story to a science fiction story.  Which makes perfect fucking sense because Superman (Henry Cavill) is actually an alien from another world, which is kind of glossed over a lot of the time.  Even the title of this latest movie is kind of misleading in a way because he's not really a "man" as in a "human" in the strictest biological sense.

But in another way, he's presented as almost more human than human.  While not biologically human, Superman has to learn what it means to be "human."  He's hyper-conscious of the truth of his birth and the fact that he's not human, so he pays attention to the things we take for granted.  In the philosophical sense, then, Superman is human in a way that even humans aren't. The titular Bill of the KILL BILL duology made the profound observation that Superman's true identity was Superman and the disguise he put on was Clark Kent:

"Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red 'S,' that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears--the glasses, the business suit--that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak... he's unsure of himself... he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race."

On the one hand, that analysis makes Superman sound like kind of a Superdick, but on the other hand from his point of view it's a pretty accurate assessment.  It goes without saying that to an immortal all mortals would seem like a bunch of pussies.  But the thing is that in order for Superman to be our saviour instead of our destroyer, it is essential that he learns how to be a pussy.  But even more than that, it is important that he embrace the very essence of pussiness.  Which is where Superman's adopted father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), comes into play.  Their relationship both in MAN OF STEEL and in the mythos in general is essential.  For the good of the planet, Jonathan Kent has to breed the ultimate pussy.  But more than that, he has to breed the ultimate pussy from the loin-fruit of immortals.    
Also, Lois Lane was there.

At first, Jonathan Kent's advice to his adopted son seems pretty terrible.  He keeps telling Clark to hold back, to not reveal himself to the world, even at one point more than strongly suggesting that letting a school bus worth of children drown in order to protect his identity (although, in all fairness, you never can be too sure which school bus the next Hitler is riding on, so better safe than sorry).  Then later when Jonathan dies seemingly needlessly in a tornado saving the family dog, leveraging his psychological and emotional bonds with his adopted son to prevent him from saving his life and fucking him up emotionally.  I know that for a lot of people it didn't seem to make a lot of sense for Superman not to save his own dad when it was well within his physical capabilities to do so.  

Well, at first I was kind of scratching my head (before scratching my balls, because hygiene is important kids), but upon careful consideration it kind of actually makes total sense.  Jonathan Kent's seemingly morally and logically dubious behaviour is actually necessary to allow Superman to be able to empathize with humanity by exploiting some of the few weaknesses he seems to share with us: his mind and his emotions. In helping forge his adopted son into the pussy he needs to be, Jonathan Kent remembered one of life's important lessons: every good pussy needs a decent licking every once in a while. Being a god, it's easy to lose touch with the little man, so Jonathan had to teach him a lesson in loss and powerlessness that would royally fuck him up enough that he would never forget it.  

There was another good reason that Jonathan Kent kept telling Clark to wait to reveal his powers to the world, which was that human beings are generally assholes by default. As Carmine Falcone in BATMAN BEGINS aptly pointed out, people tend to fear that which they do not understand. Jonathan probably surmised--rightly enough--that if Clark just came out to the world, he would be greeted by fear that, as Yoda taught us, is often accompanied by anger and hatred and erectile dysfunction probably. This kind of reaction might serve as the world's worst example of a self-fulfilling prophesy, alienating and embittering the very dude who might otherwise serve as a planetary hail Mary for our species should the need arise. So, in order for saviour Superman to be accepted as such, he would have to have some greater force to fight against. An evil yin to Superman's righteous yang. Luckily for Supes, General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his cronies showed up because those Russians, ethnically ambiguous Generic South Americans, and North Koreans are sure taking their sweet time in getting around to instigating World War III.

All of this, of course, kind of makes Jonathan Kent the real unsung hero of the whole mythology. As narratives like Superman: Red Son point out, Superman's upbringing is of the utmost significance in his development. Just imagine if little baby Kal-El had been discovered by a couple of Neo-Nazis, or some religious wackos, or any governmental organization, or Kanye West. Shit would have been completely different and the world would almost certainly have been doomed.

Which is why Jor-El, Superman's biological father, is really kind of a dick.

In MAN OF STEEL Jor-El (Russel Crowe) sends his son away from their dying planet, Krypton, in a spaceship as some kind of space Moses loaded with the collective genetic history of their entire species.  The thing is, though, that he specifically sends him to Earth knowing that he will become unto us like a god.  And what's more, Jor-El seems to just set the general coordinates as "Planet Earth" which is a hell of a craps shoot, as there's no telling who might find this kid or even if his space pod will end up at the bottom of the ocean, which, given the geological make-up of our planet, actually represented a far greater probability than ending up anywhere on dry land.

And even if the pod and the newly minted immortal god-baby did end up on land, because of his powers he could end up being either the greatest thing since the inception of five dollar hand jobs at the train station or the Apocalypse in a can.  Despite Jor-El's desire for his son to break free of the caste system that seems to have stifled his civilization in a lot of ways and give him the chance to "choose his own path" or whatever, he seems to be playing a very dangerous game of roulette with our planet. For one of Krypton's leading scientific minds, this seems like the potentially least scientific and ethically irresponsible methods of saving his soon-to-be-orphan son's life considering how powerful Jor-El knows he will become (should he actually survive the journey and end up on dry land, that is). I mean, it ended up being OK because both of Superman's dads were actually Robin Hood, but it seems like a lot more poetry than science on Jor-El's part.
You can't beat the real thing.
Never fuck with a gladiator, son.

In fact, a lot of Jor-El's decisions during Krypton's last days seemed based on some pretty romantic notions of free will and building intergalactic good will along with a healthy dose of religious symbolism rather than the logical Vulcan-like reasoning that one might expect from one of his people's top scientific minds.  Perhaps this romanticism was forged in the heat of his genetically homogenized, caste-oriented, giant-mutant-firefly-riding, environmentally impaired society. Or maybe he had delusions of grandeur and wanted to be remembered as the father of space Jesus. Either way, Jor-El seemed like the idealistic counterpoint to Jonathan Kent's pragmatism.

It was telling, though, that it was Jor-El that fell first (though his holographic ghost popped up to lay down some fatherly advice) and it was the pragmatic, down-to-earth Kent who ended up raising Superman. Though it did seem that Jor-El had the best of intentions, there's no telling the kind of shit that his son might have gotten up to had his ego not been kept in check. I mean, he already flies around striking Christ-like poses and hanging out in churches underneath stained-glass windows of Judeo-Christian iconography. Imagine if Superman hadn't had Jonathan Kent to keep the whole god-like powers from going to his head and reinforcing the one sound ideal that Jor-El passed on which was that sometimes the value of free will was directly proportional to the degree to which it could be sacrificed in service to others.

Which, I suppose, is a pretty heavy-handed message to extrapolate from a big budget summer blockbuster that, as many have pointed out, seemed to revel in the mass destruction Superman caused while doing battle with General Zod and the rest of his seeming-to-be-destined-for-eternal-exile pals. But, if we can't get moral guidance from Hollywood blockbusters, then where the fuck does that leave us?


As I was genuinely impressed with MAN OF STEEL's take on the mythology, I'm going to have to give it an 8/10 = One Head Flying Gloriously Towards Freedom With Only Minimal Effort to Minimize Propoerty Damage   


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