Sunday, September 25, 2016

Clear Images, pt. 4: The Lone and Level Sands

The fuzzy, beat-up VHS recording of this film I had as a kid rather gave the impression Nuclear Man was a helluva lot more naked than he actually is.

Because why wouldn't you?

Let me backtrack. I had a lot of points I wanted to make about this movie, but i don't know if it will let me. A little over twenty-seven minutes in, Superman IV jumps right off the rails.

There goes the franchise!

It's a brief scene, lasting all of three minutes. In it, Clark reveals to Lois--through a particularly ghastly suicide fakeout, that he is Superman. He discloses his troubles, gets her advice, and erases her memory via that Kiss of his, ala Superman II.  Prior to this, Superman IV is a film I would one hundred percent go to bat for. It's full of themes that wouldn't feel out of place thirty years on: the crumbling news industry, the burden of power, the threat of war. It isn't particularly subtle, but subtlety isn't necessarily something I look for in a film where a flying space-alien in a circus outfit dukes it out with his protoplasm-clone in gold lamé. There is some high-quality Superbrooding, before Superbrooding became a staple of any film with Clark Kent in it, and the aforementioned fight, while not good, exactly, at least represents Superman being presented with an adversary his physical equal, something of a rarity in these pictures.

All that brooding is down to a letter Superman receives (care of his friends at the Daily Planet) from a young boy who won't be seen again once he's served his plot purpose, asking him to single-handedly and unilaterally end nuclear proliferation. Because why wouldn't you? If there was a demigod reachable by snail-mail, why wouldn't you ask him to end nuclear war? Or regular war? Or world hunger? Or disease, oppression, bad poetry?

"Man, I just read Black Summer. Screwed me right up."

Because if you had the power to do it, why wouldn't you? If you could step out of your cramped Midtown apartment and wipe every weapon of mass destruction off the map, why the hell not?

There's a film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, La chinoise, that came out about twenty years before Superman IV. It's about a bunch of kids going to college, living in Paris at the height of France's youth-in-revolt. They have snippets written on the walls in their apartment. One of them, in particular, stands out.

In English, it reads "It is necessary to confront vague ideas with clear images." I can't think of a better thesis for superhero fiction in general, and the character of Superman in particular. Grant Morrison, who wrote arguably the definitive take on the Man of Steel in his twelve-issue comic series, All-Star Superman, wrote in his autobiography Supergods about his anxiety growing up in Scotland under the threat of nuclear war:

"Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an idea.

"Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea

"It's not that I needed Superman to be 'real,' I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. I needn't have worried. Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the bomb had no defense against him. In Superman and his fellow superheroes, modern human beings had brought into being ideas that were invulnerable to all harm, immune to destruction, built to outsmart diabolical masterminds, made to confront pure Evil and, somehow, against the odds, to always win."

This idea of Morrison's, of competing Ideas, would inform virtually every piece of fiction he produced. On the surface, of course, it feels like nonsense. Superman is a children's adventure character, no more able to exert influence on the outside world than Peter Pan or Sherlock Holmes. Except once, when he did. Twenty years before La chinoise, and forty years before The Quest for Peace, Superman fought the KKK. The real-life KKK.

Following the Second World War, recruitment in the KKK surged. Journalist Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan when the hate group was at the height of its powers. He collected information on their secrets, but local law enforcement were hesitant to act. Kennedy passed that information on to the creators of the wildly popular Superman radio program, which used it in a sixteen-episode serial, "The Clan of the Fiery Cross," which saw both the Man of Steel stand in active repudiation of the Klan's despicable racism, and the text of the story giving away the Klan's most vital secrets, dealing the group a catastrophic blow.

After a fashion, Superman IV attempts to repeat this feat. Christopher Reeve was very concerned about nuclear proliferation, and he agreed to return to the role (after the overall disaster everyone acknowledged Superman III to be) in exchange for script input and a story that would address the Arms Race.

Superman IV, in the end, wants to be a parable. On the surface, it's one of those fanciful comic-book style parables where the moral boils down to: Don't meddle with the Arms Race, or you may create a Blonde Bizarro with a dangerous affection for Academy Award Nominee Mariel Hemingway. Which: we've all been there. At the edges, it's a different story. While the governments of the world unanimously decide to grant this alien demigod the power to dismantle their defense infrastructure, it's clear later on in the film that Lex Luthor's plan to sell nuclear weapons to the highest bidder is going gangbusters, so it's not as though Superman has actually solved anything. The human race remains as eager as ever to destroy itself. In his speech to the press at the end, Superman as much admits this.

The other problem, which this film largely ignores, is that Superman's actions are that of a despot. He calmly informs world leaders of what he's about to do, and they glowingly cooperate, but what else were they going to do? We are meant to take Superman's side in this film and we largely do because Nuclear War is a nightmarish prospect, but suppose he'd decided to rid the world of all nuclear weapons except America's? Of if he decided to build an 800-foot wall out of neutronium to keep out immigrants? Or if he decided to raze the Middle East?

Not necessarily a non-state actor.

There's a central tension in superhero media between the fantasy of unlimited power and the fantasy of good triumphing over evil. At their best, superheroes are apolitical, non-state actors, totemic ideals. Shamans. Clear images. At their worst they can embody a kind of might-makes-right, us-vs.-them aesthetic, the kind that sees Batman turning a bunch of punk teenagers over to his side not because he's right, necessarily, but because he managed to kick the snot out of their leader, or that sees Ozymandias slaughter thousands of innocents as part of his own lateral scheme to put an end to the Nuclear Arms Race.

Those examples come from a pair of well known comics from the year before Superman IV premiered in theaters: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, respectively. Watchmen (spoilers for a thirty-year-old comic) follows Ozymandias and Dr Manhattan, the former a pinnacle of human achievement who turns his intellect from crime-as-symptom to Saving The World, the latter a superbeing so disconnected from the human experience he no longer perceives a meaningful difference between the living and the dead.

I can't pretend Superman IV took any actual influence from Watchmen. However, it is a fascinating piece of parallel evolution. Alan Moore has said as much in interviews that the book was an outgrowth of his own anxieties about nuclear war and a future for his children. Following the success of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, the comic industry would virtually turn itself inside out navel-gazing at the prospect of superheroics and their bearing on realpolitik.

Let's go back to that one scene, under a half-hour in to Superman IV. The Jump, the Reveal, the Kiss. It's the action of a sociopath. It's like he keeps some little part of Lois' mind to himself, an alternate Lois Lane to whom he can tell his secrets before locking her away again. It's the natural extension of The Kiss in Superman II, the end result of a life without the consequence of human connection, and while the film accepts this uncritically, in retrospect it's chilling, emblematic of the same disconnect that would distance the godlike Dr. Manhattan from his human roots, and animate the unilateral chicanery of Ozymandias.

Plus, we both got execrable Zack Snyder adaptations, so there's that.

It is unfortunate, then, that the movie surrounding this scene is so wholly undermined by it. The film wants us to ignore it, and the whole business probably played much better in 1987 than it does in 2016, but just as I might be frustrated and angry at films like Man of Steel or Batman v Superman Colon Dawn of Justice for failing to get the human angle of Superman, I must admit that this picture paints him at as much a chilly remove as Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan, and not in a way that is remotely critical or self-aware. Whatever good this film attempts, it is ultimately undermined by that scene. All the budget problems, story problems, editing problems, they're forgivable. I've seen worse films done by more technically competent directors. I've seen worse films with this character done by more technically competent directors.

The concerns raised, albeit tacitly, by Superman IV continue to animate superhero cinema to this day. The Dark Knight, arguably the best superhero film made to date, and certainly the most beloved, centers its moral conflict on an unsanctioned, briefly-lived surveillance state created by Batman to track the Joker. It's also a film where Batman, a masked vigilante, sneaks over to Hong Kong to forcibly extradite a Chinese national in a scene that's not a million miles away from the beginning of Captain America: Civil War, a film similarly animated by the question of power versus oversight. Superman IV was last of the Christopher Reeve Superman films. Shortly after this, Clark Kent would return to television, where he would bounce about on and off for the next twenty-plus years, resurfacing into film again, in 2006's puzzling Superman Returns.

About which more later.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Clear Images, pt. 3 Synthetic Unity

This is what happens when you go mainstream, Richard.

1983 was something of a banner year for geek movies. There was the third Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi; not one but two James Bond movies, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again; and the third installment in the Superman franchise. Compared to the triumphant trilogy-capping of Jedi, or even the novelty of seeing original Bond actor Sean Connery back in the proverbial (and literal, in that super-racist bit in NSNA) saddle, Superman III is a bit of a limp noodle. It's a comedy-adventure, with the emphasis squarely on comedy, as evidenced by superstar comedian Richard Pryor prominently displayed on the film's promotional material. 

Make no mistake: Return of the Jedi this is not. Nor was it ever intended to be. The Superman films in the 1980's, in fact, can more directly be compared with, say, those James Bond films, where each installment is just sort of a new thing that happens. The connection to James Bond is a telling one, for me, and not just because of Peter Murton, who served as the Production Designer for this film as well as The Man with the Golden Gun, and as Art Director for both Goldfinger and Thunderball.

"I have no plans. No evil schemes at all."

Analogy time: Superman I is Dr No. Superman III is Octopussy. But whereas the James Bond franchise evolved over twenty years and three actors from Sean Connery's deadpan murder-quips to Roger Moore dressed as a clown, Superman, as is his wont, did the stunt faster than a speeding bullet, at just five years..

Superman III stands in contrast in particular to the first of the Christopher Reeve films and its grandiose American mythmaking. It's compared unfavorably to its immediate predecessor for the same reason. When people remember Superman II, I think they tend to remember bits of it. The Diner. Zod in the White House. The fight. The reversal. What I suspect gets overlooked or glossed over are the constant ways in which the action in Superman II, particularly in the climactic fight between Superman and the Phantom Zone villains, is undercut by little twinges of Richard Lester's idea of comedy. Superman II is a film at war with itself.

To recap: Superman: The Movie and its sequel were filmed concurrently, with an eye for releases closer together than what the public eventually got. As the budget and shooting schedule got out of control, however, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind pressed Richard Donner to at least get the first film done. Eventually, Donner and the Salkind's got into a public row over Superman II, resulting in Donner being sacked and replaced with Richard Lester.

It's not as though Donner's first film is devoid of any humor. There's a wry light-heartedness to Superman himself, and Lex Luthor is played as a camp figure, as performative and faintly ridiculous as he is affably menacing. But Lester's version doubled-down on the jokes, with numerous reshoots changing the depth of the shots as well as a general peppering throughout of little off-hand gags, which, in the particular case of Zod et. al.'s assault on Metropolis, manage to thoroughly drain that scene of any of the tension or horror you might expect from three people who can bench-press a city going to town on a human populace.

"People, people, please! Just because it's a dramatic scene doesn't mean you can't do a little comedy in the background!"

Superman III doesn't have this problem. Left to his own devices, Lester crafts a story that has far more in common with the 1960's Batman TV series than either of the two Superman films that came before. It's impossible, I think, to view the film without considering it through the prism of the fifteen years separating the release of this film from the Adam West Batman TV series. For decades after Batman went off the air, articles about superhero properties--especially those properties translated to the small or large screen--couldn't help but throw in a POW! BAM! or a "Holy Whatever The Hell, Batman!," or what have you. Lester has been quoted as saying he didn't grow up with Superman, and we can take him at his word on that, I suppose. But it's hard not to see the bones of West's Batman, here and in the original Superman.

The original film owes much to Batman. The villain set-up: well-known actor, henchman, mol, are a Superman-themed palate swap from Batman's rogues as they appeared on that program. The only difference between Gene Hackman in Superman and Frank Gorshin in Batman is Hackman's Luthor only has the one henchman, and no brightly-colored knock-out gas. It's a trend that continues here, though Robert Vaughn's Ross Webster owes more in his DNA to a James Bond villain than Lex Luthor, at least as Luthor was portrayed prior to 1986.

See Also: Goldfinger, Stromberg, Drax, Zorin

Comic books, and in particular comic book adaptations, have had an uneasy relationship with camp, particularly in relation to that Sixties TV show, and how it shaped the mass audience's perception of superheroes for almost fifty years. Batman existed in the frisson between ideas that were originally geared toward children and the adult sensibilities of the parents watching that show with their kids. Indeed, Superman III is only two years out from titanic shifts in the comic book industry that were, in large part, a reaction to the continued perception of comics as a children's medium.

The Superman film franchise sputtered with its third outing and nearly came to a halt. And while I'd hesitate to call this film "good," exactly, Superman III gets a bum rap for bringing such a tonal whiplash to the franchise. In today's era, where superhero films are so thick on the ground it's hard not to trip over them, the film might have fared better, simply for the variety it brings, the lack of pompous self-seriousness that informed other superhero films, both flops and successes.

If nothing else,that Brainiac scene at the end gave me nightmares as a kid.

Fucking. Terrifying.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Clear Images, pt 2: The Problem of Lois

Man, to Hell with these script revisions...

What does Lois Lane see in Clark Kent? It's sort of obvious what she sees in Superman, the alien demigod who effortlessly saved her from a helicopter crash in the previous film. He's otherworldly, powerful, and masculine; the journalistic story of a lifetime; and a stark contrast to nebbishy Clark, who has apparently never so much as thrown a punch in his entire goddamn life. That's generally been the dynamic in the comics, and while it gets briefly upset in Superman II, everything eventually resets.

This is a problem. Of course, these are Superman movies and not Lois Lane movies, but, for a character that is arguably the most important one other than the title character in the whole Superman mythos, Lois Lane gets shockingly little to do, and a dim and foggy sense of her motivation to boot. Everyone else's motives in this film are clear: Clark wants to be with Lois. Zod and Lex Luthor both want power. The President wants to save lives. Even Perry White, Trucker Guy, and Superman's Dead Mom have recognizable through-lines in this film, whereas Lois' just evaporates around the first hour mark.

To her credit, Lois Lane starts to get the idea that Clark Kent is Superman fairly early on in Superman II. He makes a little slip-up and she becomes dogged and relentless in her pursuit of the Story of Him. And then she finds out. She confesses her love, and then...nothing. Once she uncovers the truth, the film essentially robs her of all agency. She becomes a prop, a McGuffin to be kidnapped by Kryptonian supercriminals.

Do The Thing or the Broad Gets It!

It's probably impossible to talk about Superman II without discussing the film's troubled production history, but the Lester version is superior to the Donner one in this respect: it gives Lois Lane something to do, before all her agency is drained away. Long before interlocking cross-promotional juggernaut that is Marvel Studios' superhero franchise, both Superman and its sequel were filmed back-to-back. Unfortunately, both for Superman director Richard Donner as well as the sequel itself, Donner was sacked midway through the production of Superman II. Much of his work was reshot under director Richard Lester, including the film's beginning. Donner ties the release of the film's three Kryptonian insurgents to that nuclear missile Superman hurled in to space back at the climax of the first film. Lester, instead, drops that plot thread, and, needing a new space-nuke, concocts a plot by vaguely-defined French terrorists to blow up Paris with a hydrogen bomb.

This leads to Lois Lane's best scene in the film, when she talks her way past an incompetent French policeman into the Eiffel tower, where the terrorists are planning to set up their bomb (natch). She's not quite fearless, in fact she's terrified, but she's going to charge in there anyway. Margot Kidder comes under a lot of fire for her portrayal of Lane--some of it deserved--but here, she shines.

Say it with me: "P U L I T Z E R."

Unfortunately, that's about all we get. The next time we see her, Lois and Clark are on some vaguely-defined investigation into a shady hotel at Niagara Falls, which requires them, in the tradition of many the sitcom and the softcore, to pose as newlyweds.

It's there that the movie briefly segues into the plot of any given Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane comics from the 1950's, where the Daily Planet's Star Reporter tries some ludicrous and potentially dangerous method of proving that Clark Kent is Superman. (In Lester's version she hurls herself into the river. In Donner's she shoots Clark.) Then she finds out, and it's Date Nite at the Fortress of Solitude. After having The Talk with a hologram of his dead Mom (who was presumably reading "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" by Larry Niven) Clark resolves to give up his power in order to be with Lois, romantically. At one point, Lois nearly speaks up, walking in on this Last Son and Dead Mom gab session, but she doesn't. What was she going to say?

Note that while Clark parts his hair on the right and Superman parts his hair on the left, this version of Clark/Kal wears his hair in an unruly mop, similar to Clark's old hair but also to Jeff East's as Young Clark in the first film.

The two of them get busy and head back to the States (Superman apparently stashed a 1977 Celica in the Fortress of Solitude just for this occasion, which rises to the level of preparedness usually associated with DC's other big ticket.

Who's a pirate's favorite Batman?

All the while this romance has been going on, those Phantom Zone criminals have been terrorizing a caricature of Middle America, before Zod finally travels to Washington and boredly installs himself as God-Emperor. Clark spends about a day as a Normal Man before finding this out, mere seconds after losing his first fist-fight, with an odious trucker, a small-time General Zod himself, that diner where Clark meets him his own personal Krypton. In the first encounter with a human being not explicitly in love with him, Clark Kent gets the shit kicked out of him, a scene that is a microcosm of the larger lesson General Zod was going to teach him anyway: there are bullies out there.

On a plot level, this scene is unnecessary. Clark was going to turn on the news eventually, and go back to the Fortress to regain his power because of it. The diner scene is all about themes. It's telling that Clark's first instinct in dealing with this idiot is to pick a fight with him, just like he used to do with bank robbers and would-be despots. It goes spectacularly poorly. When he returns from the Arctic, powers restored, however, he does the same thing: he picks a fight. Now: Clark Kent, a baseline human, has to be about as strong as Captain Odious, also a baseline human. His powers restored, Superman faces off against three people equally as able to wreck a city as he is. There wasn't much of a learning curve to these Phantom Zone types figuring out their abilities. He's more than evenly matched.

He wins, perhaps because he's his authentic self as Superman, and not as Clark. Indeed, by the end of the film, the balance of his life has been completely restored: through an unsettling use of his power set, Clark robs Lois of her memories of the past few days, returning everything to the status quo. This is her final indignity and loss of agency: she isn't even allowed to mourn her wrecked relationship. Lois, pre-kiss, knows they can't be together, that even if the world weren't governed by the rules of humorous Larry Niven essays, Clark will always be in and out, gone in a flash to some crisis somewhere. So, to spare her pain, he erases her memory.


This is, to say the least, deplorable, even moreso down the line in Superman IV and Superman Returns. One of the main criticisms I and other Superman fans leveled at Man of Steel is what we all felt was a level of character assassination, but that's just as well on display here. After spending the last act of Superman II as merely a cipher, Lois is arbitrarily retconned, disallowed from choosing her own path. Only the strength of the actors and a healthy, heaping dose of nostalgia rescue the film from this scene. It's completely fucking awful.

It also raises the question: What does Superman see in Lois Lane? Or in any human for that matter? Lester's version has the memory kiss, which is terrible, but Donner's version would have ended with Superman once-again reversing time and ensuring that the Phantom Zone criminals never escaped. What the hell good are any of his human relationships if they are devoid of consequence? If every slight can be wiped away with a kiss, every missed birthday taken care of with a bit of time travel, how can any meaning take shape?

The imagery of Superman is richly symbolic. Here's this guy, who keeps hidden the brightly-colored truth about himself behind a conservative, bespectacled, buttoned-down exterior. To quote Grant Morrison, who wrote probably the greatest Superman story of all time, "That 'S' is the radiant emblem of divinity we reveal when we rip off our stuffy shirts, our social masks, our nerouses,our constructed selves, and become who we truly are." I love this. It is one of my favorite aspects of the character. The problem with it, however, is its universality forces Lois Lane in to a similarly universal role: that of the Object, of She Who Reacts. It's unfair to her as a character, and the editorial mandate that returned everything to status quo at the end of Superman II is similarly unfair.

It seems clear no one at the time thought this was a bad thing. Indeed, it's shown as a sacrifice Clark is making, as is the earlier scuppering of his powers. Everyone making this film, and surely most people watching this in 1980, thought this was a tragic denouement with the hero giving up his love to return to his solitary vigil. With the benefit of thirty-six years of hindsight, however, it's a failure. Superman II utterly fails the character of Lois Lane, and in doing so damages the human core of what makes the character great.