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.

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