Monday, June 17, 2013

SUPERMAN (1978, 1980, 2006)

SUPERMAN (1978, USA, Richard Donner, screenplay Mario Puzo, David & Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Tom Mankiewicz)
SUPERMAN II (1980, USA, Richard Lester & Richard Donner, screenplay Mario Puzo, David & Leslie Newman, Tom Mankiewicz)
SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006, USA, Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris)

Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them…. It is now time for you to rejoin your new world and to serve its collective humanity. Live as one of them, and discover where your strength and power are needed… They can be a great people, Kal‑El. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all — their capacity for good — I have sent them you. My only son.

Battles rage, wars are waged over whether SUPERMAN RETURNS is a worthy successor to its predecessors. Over where the franchise went wrong, over who was the best Lois Lane or Lex Luthor, over whether Supe is a Christ figure, or whether he's a worthy one, or whether it matters. Over whether SUPERMAN and its sequels and siblings saved a foundering seventies film industry, or whether the adolescent adventure blockbusters from the Whiz-Bang kids (Lucas, Spielberg, Donner et al) were commercial kryptonite to the golden age (or would it be a silver age? I can never keep such matters straight) of seventies auteurism (Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader et Altman). I'm inclined toward a third theory: that the seventies were an abysmal time for movie-goers, that apart from the occasional masterpiece there wasn't much on the big screen that you'd want to watch any given week, but that as refreshing as Supe, Indie and Skywalker's gang may have been, they also resuscitated a dying studio system whose resurrection was mostly bad news for good movies. You can pick your own myth.

What's obvious about this new generation of nostalgia-tinged adventure flicks is that they were just plain fun: they didn't take themselves too seriously, they lasted longer than a theme park ride and you didn't have to travel to Orange County to get your thrill. What's maybe not so obvious is that all three of the fin de seventies "Just A Movie" franchises offered audiences something more than just a movie. Along with thrills and chills and good triumphing over evil (in morally ambivalent times), they offered – or tried to offer, or could be interpreted as offering – Faith. Transcendence. God.

It had been a long, long time since Christians had found much at the movies that connected with their faith. Not since the Good Priest movies of the forties or the Bible Blockbusters of the fifties had the silver screen reflected much Light. Cinematic dreamers dream the dreams of their culture (check out David Mamet's Writing In Restaurants for more on this), and for a couple decades there our collective consciousness had pretty much decided God was dead, or at least too boring to be in a movie. Christians who loved the movies and yearned to see some sort of onscreen representation of their faith – or any sort of faith – had to gain what soul sustenance they could from dour and doubting Europeans. Christian film books pretty much orbited around Bergman, Bresson, Fellini and Dreyer (how could they miss Rossellini?), or settled for spelunking for moral nuggets deep beneath the surface of Oscar-contending American fare.

Maybe that's why we all seized so hard on what Robert Short called The Gospel From Outer Space. Suddenly, from the place we least expected it, there was all this religious stuff. Righteous quests, spiritual mentors, mysticism and transcendence, the affirmation that there might be something higher than cold rationalism and reductive science. Christ figures even! The coolest movies out there, the ones everybody wanted to see, also carried this secret (or not so secret) message, and if you knew how to decode it, the right answer was… God!

Somehow it was validation. It was like finding out the most popular kid in your high school was a Christian! So maybe you weren't such a geek after all.

I think something like that accounts for the immense amount of attention these movies attracted in religious circles in their day – and for the rather underwhelming spiritual significance that's apparent when when you re-examine them today, in a time when religious faith is once again permissible onscreen. You'll find people (guys, usually: they were between ten and twenty when their favourite came out, probably while they were going to a Christian school) who spin elaborate theologies out of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Superman movies, and as interesting as their arcane and intricate and well-supported theories may be, you can't help feeling the case is being over-argued: the movies weren't as good as they're certain they are, and the spiritual import of the stories isn't all they crack it up to be. The rest of their tastes have grown up, they've discovered Kieslowski and Kurosawa and Kaurismaki, but when the talk turns to Quasi-Spiritual Blockbusters Of The Late Seventies, the perspective shifts. They take on the unreasoning (or over-reasoned) intensity of benign conspiracy theorists. They've seen these films more times than they've read the gospel of John. And that's saying something.

No doubt they're onto something. In the original SUPERMAN film, when his father sends baby Kal-El away from the dying planet of Krypton, Dad's blessing has undeniable Johannine overtones: "You will carry me inside you all the days of your life… The son becomes the father, and the father the son." Discovering an apparently abandoned toddler near a meteorite crater, Ma Kent speaks of her prayers that "the Good Lord would see fit to give us a child," and when young Clark comes of age he leaves his earthly family behind to head into the wilderness and learn his true nature. At thirty, in obedience to the words of his heavenly father, he goes out into the world "to serve its collective humanity." In the words of Jor-El (echoed in the series-reviving SUPERMAN RETURNS , which makes a point of taking up and embellishing the orginal film's Christological imagery), "They can be a great people. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all I have sent them you. My only son." (Woulda been better with "only-begotten son, but whatever…)

It's at this point – a full fifty minutes into the story – that SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE goes suddenly astray. In the portrayal of Superman's origins, on the dying planet Krypton and in the Kansas cornfields, there is a commitment to evoking the mythos of the original DC comics, being faithful to a context in which the sheer goodness (and even, perhaps, the Goodness) of the hero rings true, in which the mythic themes resonate, in which simple heroism can carry the day. But when Our Hero hits the big city and encounters Real Evil – a guy stealing a tomato? wacky newsroom types unsure how to spell "massacre" and "rapist"? – the film descends to corn and camp, and for this viewer at least, its capacity to stir the soul is lost. Some appreciate Christopher Reeves' penchant for physical comedy: it struck me as embarassing and, as much fun as Gene Hackman is sneering his way through Lex Luthor (splendidly reprised by the impeccably-cast Kevin Spacey in the 2006 revival, though with a nastier edge), the whole tone increasingly veers into the kind of dismissive camp I knew enough to hate when the Batman TV series did the same to my other DC hero – when I was only nine! Fans of the films protest when less-than-fans say these movies are "for kids," but can they really deny that much of the writing here is utterly juvenile? From Clark's goofball act to the smirking "dirty joke" tone of Lois and Clark's first date to her unbearably mawkish monologue as Superman takes her flying ("Do you know what it is that you do to me? Holding hands with a god, quivering like a little girl shivering, you can see right through me, wondering why you are all the wonderful things you are…"), it's really embarassing and juvenile. Sorry.

SUPERMAN 2 compounds these sins. In an attempt, I suppose, to make the too-good-for-the-times Superman "a guy we can all relate to," a situation is contrived for the no-longer-quite-so-super man to sleep with Lois – hey,everybody was doing it – and the whole Messiah Of Steel thing has pretty much fizzled away to nothing. The mighty had well and truly fallen, unadulterated goodness trumped by good old adultery. How disappointing.

Two more sequels followed, each lacking more lustre than its predecessors, and for a couple decades it seemed Superman was deader even than God – who, incidentally, was making something of a comeback at the cineplex in the absence of the Krypton Christ. Which in turn may have prepared the way for Bryan Singer's re-theologized franchise-resurrecting SUPERMAN RETURNS in 2006.

Singer and his writers pay tribute to the 1978 original with abundant (some would say overly abundant) references and riffs while dialling down on the camp and picking up on the Christ. When Superman returns to earth after a five year absence seeking his father's home planet, Ma Kent cradles him in her arms in an obvious pieta image. Lois has won her Pulitzer Prize but lost her hope, writing an acclaimed article "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman," telling her live-in partner "The world doesn't need a saviour, and neither do I."

But this film is convinced that, actually, she does, and it goes an extra mile or two to polish up this particular Superman into something closer to the image and likeness of a savior. Superman responds directly to Lois's cynicism: "You say the world doesn't need a saviour, but every day I hear them crying for one." In the film's most affecting image, a world-worn Superman flies high above the earth to surrender himself to the life-restoring light of the sun, then to listen to the sounds of human life rising up like prayers to his all-hearing ears: at the sound of evil or suffering, he soars back earthward to bring at least a limited sort of salvation.

Like the earlier films, this one also goes some way toward putting human flesh on the man of steel, and for some reason I appreciated the way that theme was handled here in pretty much exact inverse proportion to how I felt about it in the earlier films. Clark/Supe is clearly in love with Lois (and far more convincingly: Clark isn't so pre-adolescent goofy, and Lois loses her shrill and salivating silliness), but he's kept from inserting himself back into her life by the fact that she's got a pretty good relationship with a pretty decent guy, who's being a not-too-bad stand-in father and provider for the child Supe/Clark fathered in that previous one-night-stand. (Yup, in the new Superman moral universe, even those sorts of actions have consequences.) In his loneliness, he yields to temptation and uses his super-powers to watch and listen in on what he shouldn't - not to leer through Lois's clothes (as every teenaged Superman reader fantasized, and the earlier films toyed with) but simply to watch her leave in an elevator (a gorgeous bit of filming), or to torment himself by eavesdropping on a scene of peaceful domesticity with Lois's new family. The earlier film told us Kal-El would be isolated and alone: this film shows us that, let's us experience it at least a little bit.

But still. What sort of Messiah is this Man Of Steel? In even the best of these films (whichever you might personally prefer), or in the Superman uber-myth that overarches them all? How much of a saviour is Superman?

Maybe not much of one. For starters, there's a big difference between saving somebody dangling from the edge of a building, or even a planeload of somebodies hurtling toward their mortal destruction, and doing anything about anybody's immortal souls. I suppose that's self-evident, and everybody knows that even at their most intentional superhero movies would never claim to have anything more than a parabolic, metaphoric resonance with bigger, realer stories of salvation. But this 1979 Newsweek points up a potential problem with that sort of thinking;
People can croak "Entertainment! Entertainment!" until they're blue in the face. The fact remains that films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, SUPERMAN, and even STAR WARS have become jerry-built substitutes for the great myths and rituals of belief, hope and redemption that cultures used to shape before mass secular society took over.
In settling for heroes who offer only salvation from physical danger, in conflating invented, simplistic earth-bound myths of strong men coming to the rescue with truer, eternal myths of redemption through sacrifice, the kind of strength that's only shown in weakness and surrender, do we subtly lose track of those essential truths, swapping them for something that's a pretty cheap substitute?

In 1983, Robert Short drew out the nervous-making resonances between Neitzsche's superman and the more familiar guy in the cape and tights, going on to point out how different either were from the Guy from the sky the latter sought to invoke: "There is a significan resemblance of Superman to Christ in the man part. But an essential difference is in the super….
Jesus was very cautious in using the 'super-powers' of his Father, although he obviously could have at any time. "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?"… Why did Christ generally refrain from this kind of outwardly obvious use of supernatural power?
Short points out not only that Jesus avoided offering signs or proofs of his divinity in order to put the focus on who he was and what he taught, but also that
Christ doesn't let us off so easily: he rejected the role of a superman… He was a humble rabbi, a meek and lowly shepherd, the carpenter's son, whose mother and brothers and sisters the people also knew. To believe in this man requires a radically deep sacrifice on our parts… God did not send our Savior to us in the form of a superman, but rather in the form of a servantman, a lowly man of sorrows who finally would not even save himself from the torment, the humiliation, the death, of the cross.

To be fair, as sharp a commentator as Roy Anker is quite content to delight in the incarnational resonances he finds in SUPERMAN without building an entire (and misguided) theology on them. In his very fine book Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies, he identifies this as "a Jesus story – significantly, not the Jesus story," and demonstrates how "the shape and substance of these contemporary religious fables" fits them quite specifically into Catholic film scholar Neil Hurley's designation of "christomorphic" fiction (which Hurley developed from the work of Theodore Ziolkowski). Citing films that range from John Ford's THE FUGITIVE or Bresson's DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST to Ken Russell's TOMMY and Rosenberg's COOL HAND LUKE, Hurley identifies and finds value in a specific type of film by considering "formal patterns of resemblance and not…the theological substance of the life of Jesus as we find it in its exemplary expression in the gospels."

Anker in turn brings considerable skills as an interpreter of literature to his exploration of this particular film franchise, and if we disagree about Christopher Reeve's "splendid physical acting and nuanced manipulation of voice and face" or Anker's assertion that Superman's first public miracle "is perhaps the finest comic moment in a golden age of American film, 1970s cinema," it's nevertheless a pleasure to bask in this erudite (and theologically sophisticated) writer's detailed enthusiasm for a favorite flick:
The whole of the film serves to elucidate and impart the surprise, wonder, and delight of the fantastic possibility of an incarnation of divine love itself… no simple miracle-working trickster in a cape or spider webs but a notion of God that features an extravagantly loving servant who comes out of nowhere to suffer and triumph for bedraggled human creatures. To the filmmakers' credit, they do indeed, in Frederick Buechner's words, "get the joke," the high humor of the Incarnation, "the hilarious unexpectedness" of the impossible actually happening.

But if we're going to haul in Roy Anker as a witness for the defence, we need to consider consider the estimable Robert Jewett for the prosecution: he's got real problems with Superman and all his buddies. In Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil and The Myth of the American Superhero, co-written with John Shelton Lawrence, the boys go kinda easy on Supe while finding the whole American fixation on superheroes the root of all kinds of evil. You'll think they're nothing but kill-joys when I tell you they don't like the fascist politics and spirituality of STAR WARS (huh? what?). But you know? They make a lot of sense. They see Superman as the pivotal dude, the guy who added "super" to the earlier vigilante heroes of Lone Ranger ilk, and led to the proliferation of an anti-democratic, counter-Christian monomyth where leaders are always weak or corrupt, the community helpless and truth and justice entirely in the hands of the lone, zealous outsider who overcomes evil with violence – a distinctly American "pop fascism." Shame on you, Shane! (I'd be curious to know what Bob and John think of SUPERMAN RETURNS, where some just plain folks actually do follow the hero's lead and get heroic themselves, filling in the part of the job that the man of steel can't quite manage on his own.)

So anyhow, that's SUPERMAN, weighed and wanting. Look for too much theology and you run into trouble. Supe just ain't that great a Christ figure, and his movies just ain't that great either. These are pretty slight cinematic fare, and their underdeveloped Christ The Kick-Butt Rescuer theology isn't really going to feed anybody's soul, won't sustain for the long journey.

Or will it? Because, having said that, it still feels like there's something there, and to dismiss these movies out of hand would be to dismiss something this story (in its many incarnations) actually does manage to get right, at least in its better moments.

Maybe it just comes down to this. For all the times the movies fumbled it, for all the ways the Supe-as-Saviour metaphor falls short, for all that other superheroes may be more complex or more conflicted or more human or more identifiable-with-in-their-human-fallenness… I think this contributor to the Arts & Faith conversation (he goes by CrimsonLine) got it right: "I've always been a Superman fan. He set the example that I always aspired to - pure self-sacrificing nobility."

Maybe it's that simple. Maybe that's all the soul food we're really going to get from Superman. And maybe that's enough.


first posted 2006

1 comment:

Jason Goode said...

Nicely put. I was struck revisiting Superman 2 this past week that Superman (in that particular incarnation) is the opposite of Jesus in a lot of ways: he gives up his powers in order to be fully human; but when a tyrant threatens the earth he quickly gives that all up in order to return to being a butt-kicking god-like superhero again.

There was also a tyrant in Jesus day (Caesar), yet Jesus did not grasp at his powers like Supe, but emptied himself and made himself a mere servant. (So inefficient! Such a waste of talent! Think of how many more people he could have reached!)

And yet THAT is how he saved humanity. Not through a show of force and coercion, but through a self-sacrificing humility seen only by a small group of people. But his true faith resulted in the coming of God's kingdom.

His actions are so backwards to what we want and expect. Superman did the obvious thing: grasp at the power available to him. Jesus showed us that God is the exact opposite of that.