Monday, 1 July 2013

Critiquing The Superman Movies

(Some spoilers ahead.)

There are some standard ways to retell a classic story. One of them is to stay faithful to the vision of its original author(s). Another is to retell it using a secondary character as protagonist. Yet another is to explore variations on the core theme, such as reinterpreting the story to be in tune with modern times or with a different cultural context.

For example, the recent movie 'Bride and Prejudice' explored an interesting Indian-themed variation on Jane Austen's classic novel. Reinterpretations tend to offend the purists/literalists but excite those who grasp the spirit of a work and love to see it explored from many new angles.

Superman is a classic story that has been retold a number of times since it first appeared in print in the 1930s.

The Superman comics have been exploring various angles of the story for decades. Among my favourites was the angle of how the presence of a superman in our midst has emasculated humanity, reducing us to passive victims who wait to be rescued instead of helping ourselves. It is only Superman's temporary absence in that retelling that helps people become self-reliant again.

In this post, I'm going to restrict myself to the movie interpretations of Superman.

If you refer back to my decoding of the Superman meme, you will recall that it is about the immigrant to America who adopts the values of his new country and realises his great potential even as he helps those around him. Everything in Superman is an allegory, so a moviemaker needs to approach the story with care, lest they unwittingly violate one of its key elements. There is also the opposite risk of retelling the story without contributing any fresh angles to it, making it a boring repetition rather than a retelling.

The first Superman movie (1978) did a number of things right. It got the character right, which is the most important thing. Christopher Reeve was Superman to a T. More importantly, he was the quintessential Clark Kent, who is the person Superman really is at heart, - gentle and considerate, seemingly bumbling but slyly competent. The movie also got the character of his foster-parents right, especially Jonathan Kent, because they embody the values that he imbibes. And it got the atmosphere of Metropolis right, with both its energy and its brusque, somewhat uncaring culture. As the audience, we huddle behind Clark Kent, wanting both to protect him and to be protected.

But 1978's Superman got a few things wrong, too. Margot Kidder's Lois Lane was more irritating than plucky. The time-travel bit was exciting, but a bit embarrassing to explain to those not already sold on Superman. However, the worst thing the movie did was to say the unsayable about Metropolis.

Superman's Metropolis is meant to represent the big city, nothing more. Everyone acknowledges with a nudge and a wink that Metropolis is really New York City (just as Batman's icy, windy, gangster-ridden Gotham City is probably Chicago), but it is part of the lore that one must never actually utter those words! When the moviemakers got Superman to take Lois on a short trip out from her apartment to fly past the Statue of Liberty, they shouted it out like a drunk at a genteel party. They destroyed a carefully-maintained allegorical reference and left me disgusted. It is remotely plausible that other cities could also have yellow taxicabs, but the Statue of Liberty? That really ruined it for me.


The worst scene in the 1978 movie - By depicting the allegorical Metropolis as nothing more than New York City, the moviemakers drove a green Kryptonite dagger through the heart of the Superman fable

Superman II and III continued with the tradition quite ably, and I liked both of them. The second movie brought back the old Kryptonian villain General Zod, who lightened his villainy with the number of droll things that he had to say, wittingly or otherwise. [It's part of the Superman ethos, even in the comics, that the main character is himself humourless, but that there's plenty of humour thanks to supporting characters.] "So this is Planet Houston" remains one of my favourite chuckle-inducing quotations.

The core premise of Superman II was what would happen if Superman lost (or voluntarily gave up) his superpowers. Although he did get them back in the end, the premise caused him to be humanised to an even greater extent. The scene where he is thoroughly beaten in a bar fight and is shocked to see his own blood is the emotional high point of this movie.

The third movie explored what would happen if Superman were to lose his goodness while retaining his superpowers. It was a chilling sight to see an unshaven Superman getting drunk in a bar, distorting a mirror with his heat vision and breaking bottles by flicking nuts at them. And when good finally triumphed over evil, it was in the form of the Clark Kent persona in civilian clothes who succeeded in vanquishing his evil costumed side. That scene proved that Superman really is Clark Kent, rather than the other way around. Richard Pryor's presence also ensured that this movie was more comic than either of its predecessors.

Superman IV was so terrible and forgettable that I won't waste any space describing it. It was clear that the moviemakers wanted to flog the franchise for what it was worth, and it showed. Thankfully, that effort sank without a trace. I have it in my collection, but only because I like to collect full sets.

After a long period punctuated only by TV serials ("Smallville", "Lois and Clark"), Superman hit the big screen again with "Superman Returns" in 2006. Although panned by many critics, this was a really good movie in my opinion. It explored another, later aspect to Superman's life, and it did it without disturbing the core meme. I especially loved the treatment of some new angles to the superhero. One was the mystery of the paternity of Lois Lane's son, which was resolved quite dramatically in a late scene. Another was a new allegory of Superman as Jesus Christ, who has been sent by his father (Jor-El, of course) to save humanity. I confess I had goose-bumps when I saw the scene of Superman suspended high above the Earth, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, hearing the cacophony of anguished cries from the millions of distressed souls below. As he told Lois, "I hear everything". The meme of Superman as Christlike saviour was a beautiful one, and it even appealed to an agnostic/atheist like me. In contrast, there was a short and somewhat disturbing view of Superman as stalker, although he shows that he has the restraint to stay away. I also liked the relationship between Superman and Richard (Lois Lane's current partner), which is strangely unpunctuated by jealousy. Both men are united in their devotion to Lois. "Superman Returns" was a promise of the many new ways in which this classic fable could be respun. Long after I saw the movie, I remain haunted by the scenes of vast expanses of beautiful green ocean.

But then, 2013's "Man of Steel" landed with a clumsy thud. After the retellings of the Batman and Spider-man stories in recent years (which only seem to get better and better), this was such an awful disappointment. Apart from giving General Zod a semi-noble motive, the movie added nothing new to our understanding of the Superman story. Even the theme of alienness and aloneness has been dealt with in so many unrelated works that it seems boring when attempted for the first time in Superman.

The movie had one clever line. On Clark Kent's first day at The Daily Planet, Lois greets him with, "Welcome to the Planet". Unfortunately, that was the only clever part of a deadeningly boring movie.

There was also a very touching conversation that brought out the nobility of Superman, and this was when Lois tracks him down.


Lois Lane: I figured if I turned over enough stones you'd eventually find me. Where are you from? What are you doing here? Let me tell your story.
Clark Kent: What if I don't want my story told?
Lois Lane: It's going to come out eventually. Somebody's going to get a photograph or figure out where you live.
Clark Kent: Well, then I'll just disappear again.
Lois Lane: The only way you could disappear for good is to stop helping altogether and I sense that's not an option for you.

That last line brought tears to my eyes. That's who Superman is! He can't stop helping people even if it affects him.

But apart from those two sparks of brilliance, "Man of Steel" serves as a useful reminder that no amount of special effects magic will help a movie with a weak storyline. The violence and destruction put me off totally. Superman's story is a noble one, and doesn't deserve to be reduced to an extended street brawl. [And we really should stop destroying buildings wholesale with every superhero movie. Between DC Comics and Marvel Comics, Manhattan will soon be reduced to rubble.]

The movie also broke a very critical element of the meme. Superman does not kill even his worst enemies. While it may be argued that General Zod left him no choice, a good moviemaker would not put our hero in that no-win situation. From the time he first appeared to us, his hands have been unstained by anyone's blood. A pity that run had to come to an end in 2013. Poor show, Zack Snyder.

I would suggest other angles for future Superman movies, all based on acceptable variations to the core meme of the talented and assimilated immigrant.

1. What if Krypton was like China or Vietnam rather than Europe? Many American immigrants today are Asian rather than Caucasian, so that may be an interesting angle. What if Confucian values inform Superman's approach to life? [Interestingly, Dean Cain (who played Superman in the TV Series "Lois and Clark") is part Japanese, so an Asian-looking Superman wouldn't be such a novelty.]

2. Immigration to the New World doesn't have to mean America. Australia is part of the New World too. Australia's Smallville would be Alice Springs, and its Metropolis either Sydney or Melbourne. (They should just take care to hide the Opera House and Harbour Bridge when they show Superman flying around.) There are plenty of traditional Aussie values that an immigrant should imbibe, and egalitarianism would fit very nicely with Superman's character. I'm already chuckling in anticipation of the dry Australian humour in such a movie.

3. What if the culture clash between immigrant and host society is too big to ignore? The phenomenon of home-grown terror in Western countries shows that not all immigrants assimilate successfully. Some, even those born in the new country, tend to identify more with what they believe to be the values of the old. In "Man of Steel", Superman comes close to making a political statement by bringing down a surveillance drone that was trying to track his movements. There is scope for a very edgy and controversial Superman that tackles the political hot-button topics of the day - government surveillance and the often misguided War on Terror.

4. There is a term used by Generation Z - "O.P." for "over-powered". Superman is simply too powerful to be interesting. A good story requires a challenge, and a superhero who is invulnerable, has super-strength, can fly at super-speed, see through objects, heat and freeze things with his eyes and super-breath, is a bit of a let-down in the challenge department. Just as "Man of Steel" toned down the garish outfit, perhaps a future variant could feature a hero with his powers scaled back a bit. Give the villains a chance, in other words.

5. For someone with such formidable powers, Clark Kent seems to attract bullies like flies to honey. How does he even manage it? Differentness accounts for part of the reason, but a person has to actively exude diffidence to attract the vultures. It's probably not enough to carry a movie by itself, but it would be interesting for the bullying theme to be tackled as part of some larger story.

6. Superman has all kinds of physical superpowers, but there is no indication that his intelligence is significantly above average. A more cerebral, less physical Superman could be another variant. The Sherlock Holmes of two recent movies (played by Robert Downey Jr) was turned into an unrecognisable action figure. Hollywood should atone with a Superman who thinks and solves clues to get his villain. It's time for a match against Brainiac.
Post a Comment