X-Men movies? See: I was a fan of the original school for gifted youngsters, and I lost interest when the Sentinels grabbed Scott and Jean and took them into space and Jean “died” saving the others. But for most people that’s actually when the Golden Age of Mutant Comics started, and even with the weird adaptations made for the big screen, the movies have been faithful enough to the themes of the comics.
Spiderman: loved them – and I can’t wait for “3” even though it is jumping the shark by having too many supervillains in one movie. Fantastic Four? Well, it was better than the first try to make that movie which, thank Stan, you cannot find anywhere; it also had the benefit of really great Human Torch special effects. Hulk? Oh Booyah – it was great. Completely on the money, and true to the story if not the story lines. Daredevil? Fine in spite of Ben Affleck.
But then we come to ... Superman. This is a guy who’s back story is frankly sacrocanct in comic book terms, and frankly Christopher Reeves pretty much knocked the rest over the fence. I really like, btw, Dean Cain on the TV version, and I really like the few episodes of Smallville I have seen even though both are somewhat radical departures from the traditional view of “SuperBoy” and who Clark Kent is/was growing up.
I mean: it’s Superman. It’s not very complicated. One of the seminal issues in the mythology is that he’s a kind of an antithesis of the boy raised by wolves – he’s this son of a ridiculously-advanced humanoid culture with high moral values, and he’s raised by a Kansas farmer and his wife. You know: Tarzan was raised by apes, and that makes him all man plus enhanced by ape. Kal-El is inherently superior (inhuman) to Jonathan and Martha Kent, but in them he gains “humanity” in the purest and most archetypically-heroic sense.
With Batman and Spiderman, the deal is that the anguish is in guilt over unfulfilled responsibility. In Superman, as so perfectly captured by Mark Wade/Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, the tension is between being perfect in every way – morally, physically, mentally – and fitting in among mere mortals who need his help but do not need his lording over them. Superman’s great attribute as a character and as a hero is that he fulfills all his responsibilities and is enriched and enriches those he is sworn to protect.
Superman is about archetypal heroic achievement. He is not a modern anti-hero. When handled properly, his is a story about the redemption of others through sacrifice. Do not hear me say that his story is about Christian virtues, because it is not. His story is made without reference to Christ. But Superman is not a tragic hero, or a modern hero: Superman is a traditional culture hero whose purpose is to advance the values of the culture he represents.
And hear me: Superman doesn’t represent Kryptonian values. When Shuster and Siegel invented him in the last century, he was invented to stand for, and I quote, “Truth, Justice and the American Way” (TJAW). And that’s not TJAW as you might see it with warts and pimples at the bus stop: That’s TJAW as idealized in the American culture of the 30’s and 40’s.
Now, so what? I’m into page 2 here according to WORD, and I haven’t even told you what I hate so much. Geez: I went to Superman Returns last night, and I absolutely hated it.
Now, let’s be fair. It had some great moments. Clark’s flashback to his days as a boy in Kansas was really fun. Superman dealing with a somewhat-traditional predicament that Lois got herself into was frankly a visual treat for the comic book fan – the details were impeccable from the rate at which his cape flapped in the wind and the way his body cracks the sound barrier when he was flying to the way the metal crinkled when he saved the day. Just plain cool.
But not enough to save the movie. See: Clark Kent is not Peter Parker. Clark is not Bruce Wayne. He’s a very smart Midwestern guy who grew up on a farm with two loving parents, and frankly he’s not an emotionally-disturbed person. In the 70 years or so of stories about him, the ones that work recognize that his greatest problem is that it protects the people around him to conceal his true identity and that his #1 motivation in life is to protect the people around him.
Goofy Clark is the way Superman protects Lois from the danger of being, for example, the father of Superbaby. Goofy Clark is the way Superman protects Martha and Jonathan from the schemes of Lex Luthor. Goofy Clark is the way Superman protects the Daily Planet from being the epicenter of supervillian revenge efforts (as if it wasn’t already). Goof Clark is important to Superman in practice.
And this movie frankly has no idea about this. Yes: Clark acts goofy in this movie. The problem is that Superman doesn’t seem to understand why Clark acts goofy, and he personally has violated and is still violating the hedge of protection Clark creates for the people he cares about.
Goofy Clark is about the moral imperative Superman lives out in protecting others – because as much as he is doing a lot of protecting, the people he is close to must be protected from Superman. Everyone knows the Parker maxim, right? “With great power comes great responsibility.” In Spidey’s case, the application is “you can’t forget that you need to use your powers to do more than make a buck.”
In Clark’s case, the application is, “you cannot let your powers overwhelm those who are around you.” Dude: He’s Superman. He can change the orbit of planets; he can fly back in time; you can’t hurt him unless you have Kryptonite, and even then he’s impossible to kill. I promise you: he can kick your asterisk-dollarsign-dollarsign. If Clark was not careful, and aloof, and distant, and kind, and smart, somebody would be trying to make a god-emperor out of him. So he interacts with people as Goofy Clark, and when they are in a fix they can’t fix themselves he puts on the blue tights and a cape and the big red “S” and goes out there and fixes it up. And they love him because he always leaves on a high note – he never wears out his welcome, and he doesn’t let anyone ask too many questions.
This Superman stays too long. You may think that ironic as some of the reviews out there are complaining that he doesn’t have a lot to say, but I’m not talking about his willingness to break out into monologue. I’m talking about his history of involvement with Lois – which, I admit, is a sort of rethinking of what happened in the original Christopher Reeves movies. Problematically, though, the Chris Reeves Superman knows what I am talking about here, and he broke it off with Lois before she got hurt. This guy in this movie comes back and sneaks around people’s lives as if he really would like to get involved in a different way than he knows he is able. You know: Peter Parker follows Mary Jane around in Spider-gear because he’s too much of a dork to ask her out; Batman skulks around the city because he’s a brooding misanthrope. Clark doesn’t have the emotional baggage these losers have, and for him to be creeping around Lois’ house in the dark is just … it violates the Vulcan T’Hain’s Dictates of Poetics: A character’s actions must flow inexorably from his or her established traits.
All my other objections to this movie – which have a moral flavor to them – stem from the fact that this version of Superman was clearly generated by people who don’t know anything about what Superman represents as a character, or who Clark Kent is.
Go see it or don’t: just don’t talk to me about it because I really have nothing good to say.