Sunday, August 28, 2016

Clear Images, pt. 1: Matters of Fact

I used to watch 1978's Superman: The Movie pretty often as a kid. We're talking around five or six years old. I still put it in from time to time. This was back in the days of video stores. It got so bad that I remember my mother, politely but pointedly, asking me wouldn't I like to watch another movie? Kids do this all the time. They fall in to patterns. I don't know what my own kid will be into in a few years so much as to render it insufferable/unwatchable. But, I know parents from the days of Frozen. I'm sure it won't be good.

I don't know what drew me to the character, then. I can guess. Of course, later on I wanted to be Batman, and then Indiana Jones. But what kid at that age, or at any age, doesn't want to fly?

I didn't see the latest cinematic outing for my childhood hero, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It didn't seem like it was made for me. I watched Man of Steel three years ago, and even kind of enjoyed parts of it until the whole thing seemed to catch up to me later, like food poisoning. I remember getting misty at those first trailers, all Terence Malick imagery and portentous quoting. Please don't fuck this up, I thought. Please don't fuck this up.

Ironically, both Man of Steel and 1978's Superman seem to have the same concern, and that is realism. Back in the late Seventies making the latter film, Richard Donner printed out signs with the word "VERISIMILITUDE" to hang in various production departments. In Donner's words, "It's a word that refers to being real--not realistic, yes, there is a difference--but real. It was a constant reminder to ourselves that if we gave into the temptation we knew there would be to parody Superman, we would only be fooling ourselves."

Superman: The Movie's tagline is, "You Will Believe A Man Can Fly." The first character on screen is Superman's father, Jor El, and his first lines at the beginning of the film are "This is no fantasy. No careless product of wild imagination." There's that idea again. Verisimilitude. But whereas thirty-five years later, Zack Snyder would seek to portray that verisimilitude through the lens of disaster porn and a general contempt for human life--and especially human life from, say, the flyover states--Donner's picture is concerned mainly with just looking grounded and realistic. Indeed, Jor El's words aren't the actual first lines in the film. The actual first words are a voiceover narration. A kid's voice. The first shots aren't of Krypton, or Smallville, or Metropolis. They're from a comic book. Even before that, just after real-life curtains parted in cinemas in 1978, a curtain parts within the film. Even as Richard Donner and the production team strove for realism, Superman keeps the audience at arm's length. The film can't help but keep up a layer of artifice.

At a remove

Superman: The Movie is preoccupied with the prominent concern of the so-called Bronze Age of comics, the negotiation between realism and fantasy. The Bronze Age started with Marvel Comics, with its introduction of flawed, bickering heroes in the Fantastic Four and its angsty teen flagship Spider-Man in 1963. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, et. al. made an astute judgment in launching Marvel. Kids age out of comics, or they used to. By pitching their stories at a slightly older readership, Marvel could hang on to those readers longer. DC, Superman's parent company, has spent the last fifty years trying to catch up.

The transition to the Bronze Age from comics' previous Silver Age--whose best exemplifier was Superman himself--reflects a transition in literature a century prior, from Romanticism to Realism. Intended to portray objective reality, the Realist movement was a reaction to Romanticism, with its rosy-eyed embellishment of the past and grandiose, operatic subject matter. Realism instead favored gritty detail and lower- and middle-class life for its depictions, shedding off a view of the universe it felt was overly sentimental, propagated by the Romantics.

Literary Realism owed much of is existence to the rise of photography and to the proliferation of newspapers. It's easy to be a Romantic with paints. Details can be fudged or exaggerated, the results all sweeping colors and self-imposed grandeur. But the rise of photograph technology changed how people viewed things like war, poverty, and just plain daily life. Similarly, the proliferation of newspapers throughout the United States brought a new style of writing--clipped, informal, concerned with down-to-Earth, daily matters--that drastically informed fiction going forward.

If Donner's Superman can be said to be a Realist work (if anything depicting a flying space alien with laser eyes can be said to be realist) than the Snyder-helmed Man of Steel owes more than a passing resemblance to Naturalism, the literary movement that in turn sprang from the Realists. I had a Lit professor explain the difference between these two schools of thought to me thus: "Realism tells you that life is a pile of shit, but there's a tiny little flower at the top of it. Naturalism kills the flower." I'm paraphrasing. Edwin H. Cady wrote that Naturalism "[...] took to be supremely real all that is sordid, squalid, dirty, slimy, repulsive, brutal, and pathetic in man and nature. Against this reality is poised everything ideal, generous, value-laden, clean, respectable, or gentle as sorry appearances, lying illusions 'the gentle tradition' making the past seem contemptible, a bucket of ashes, the residue of old dreams."

Naturalism was the cynical offshoot of the Realist movement. Where the Realists sought to tear away the veil they felt Romanticism had pulled over Western Literature's eyes so they could see the mud in the gutter, the Naturalists wanted to play around in that mud. Squish it between their toes. Eric Sundquist wrote that the Naturalist movement "[reveled] in the extraordinary, the excessive and the grotesque in order to reveal the immutable bestiality of man in nature, Naturalism dramatizes the loss of individuality at a psychological level by making a Calvinism without God its determining order and violent death its utopia."

The destruction of Metropolis, 2013. It was this or the neck-breaking.

Man of Steel is a reaction against Superman, but how could it not be? Superman: The Movie was a watershed of a film. A lengthy, self-conscious bit of American myth-making in which the hero goes from the Book of Exodus

to Norman Rockwell

and Ansel Adams

to science fiction

to the mean streets of 1970's New York

and to that film genre endemic to the 1970's, the disaster picture.


Superman, arriving in 1978 on the heels of Star Wars, effectively closed out that genre of film, and while Star Wars had the more obvious and titanic impact, it's not hard (for me, at least) to imagine this film closing up shop on disaster pictures on its own.

Superman had other long-lasting impacts, as well, chiefly that in crafting this American Myth, Richard Donner and the film's numerous screenwriters somewhat clumsily grafted on this idea of their hero as a Christ figure, specifically in a bit of dialogue spoken by a simulation of the long-dead Jor-El to his son, in the Fortress of Solitude.

"They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you. My only son."

The immediate next cut.

The Superman franchise, in film and comics, never really quite gets over this. The TV shows (from what I remember) largely manage to steer out of it, but that's more down to the fact that the story of Jesus doesn't exactly work on a twenty-two episodes a year timeline. It's easy to see why Donner, Puzo, et. al. went in this direction. The basics are similar. Superman is an example of selfless good, sent from the Heavens by his Father, to Redeem Us. Just as Jesus is an aspirational figure, so is Superman, and for similar, Golden Rule-type reasons. But by making his morality imposed from an outside force, like Jor-El or God, the film's creators hobble some of Superman's greatness. Jesus' selflessness and nobility is because he's part of God, and to emulate Christ is to reflect the Divine. Superman's an alien, and the Heavens he comes from are metaphorical and the audience knows that. The films never quite then square that circle. Yes, there are surface parallels between the two characters, but to lean in to them as later sequels did does Superman a disservice. If I may deploy yet one more quote, it's this one from frequent Superman comic writer Mark Waid: "Gods achieve their power by encouraging us to believe in them. Superman achieves his power by believing in us."

Most big fans of Superman point to his fundamental decency as a person being our main draw to the character. By making Superman a character whose morality is imposed from Somewhere Else, Donner disconnects him narratively from this American Myth he's so busy crafting through visual cues. Throughout much of his existence, the Superman character has struggled for relevance in a landscape that shifted around him, and while these films are landmark blockbusters, they introduce a version of the character that is stuck in a rut, and only able to be considered from one angle, that of the lonely god. In Bryan Singer's sequel to the Donner films, Routh's Superman is sad and alienated (and a date rapist, but we'll get to that), while Henry Cavill in Snyder's Man of Steel is a sullen, churlish child-god, yoked to this idea of the character by someone who demonstrates a clear contempt of its core concept.

Maybe if Snyder wasn't so constrained by this idea of Clark Kent, SuperChrist, he might have turned out a different picture, though, if his versions of Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen are any indication, he likely still would have found a way to miss the point.

Last year I was so simultaneously disappointed and fascinated by the latest James Bond outing, Spectre, that I went down the rabbit hole of every previous Bond entry, looking for the points where the concerns that informed that movie started to blossom. This time out, I'm tracing the cinematic adventures of the Last Son of Krypton. (I meant to get this all started around Miracle Monday, but, hey, better late than never.) I want to track the reverberations of the seismic event that was the 1978 film, and how the character and franchise have progressed since then.

Because that first film was a seismic event. Despite the character's perennial popularity in other media (he'd been in movie serials, a famous television series, and a wildly popular radio serial in the decades before 1978) Richard Donner's vision and Christopher Reeve's performance continue to inform the character long after those reels were changed decades ago.