Sunday, July 9, 2006

Still room for heroes even in this culture: Or: why I was wrong about comic book movies

I really didn't think it could be done. I really had given up after dozens of disappointments and false hopes. In general, I really didn't think any comic book movie could ever again produce the kind of good feelings, excitement, and genuine cheesy grin that I had watching movies when I was younger. And specifically, I didn't think the new Superman movie could be done in this culture without some serious changes made to the way he is portrayed.

Oh, how wrong I was, and how thankful I am to admit it.

Superman was the first comic book movie in a long, long time to give me goosebumps. No, it was not from the overwhelming action scenes or from over the top battle sequences. It was because the new Superman had a kind of meaning that no recent superhero movie has.

Spiderman represents an ordinary kid, to whom many of us could relate, but who gains extraordinary powers. We journey along with him, experience what he experiences as he grows into his powers and is challenged in exciting and visually stunning ways. Batman is a tour de force in dark heroism, a distant and strange person passionate about crushing the injustice about which we all feel so frustrated and helpless.

But Superman comes off in the movie as a hero. He is a towering figure of good whom we look upon and wish we could be like. We can't relate to him but we instinctively want to rise to his example. We look at him and say, "that is how people are supposed to act!" More than any movie of its kind in many years, this is a movie about a guy that the world needs.

I really didn't think it could be done, not in this culture. Ours is a world of cynicism, where the least act of heroism is quickly picked apart for selfish motives. Heroes are not heroes as they have been in the past. This is a world as The Incredibles describes--ones in which superheroes are sued for collateral damage and for offending the sensibilities of villain-victims. Bryan Singer and the team which produced Superman are to be congratulated for their daunting task: taking the classic figure of Superman in all his unspoiled goodness and placing him in our cynical world in such a way that our world comes out looking as hollow and corrupted and soulless as it actually is. That is a grand, perhaps even superhuman, achievement. And that is why I am profoundly grateful for this newest movie.


James Wood said...

WARNING: Massive Spoilers in this comment!

I guess I had the oposite reaction. I saw the Christ figure thing as being over played and the Clark Kent moments being nearly invisible. I never really found myself caring about Superman - I didn't care that he and Lois couldn't be together (I was a little creeped out by his stalking). I didn't care when it seemed like he died, because he never really seemed to live. I didn't care when he found out he had a son because I had no connection with him as a person. So really all I was left with was the action and the plot . . . er . . . yeah . . . so the, uh, effects were pretty good. Kevin Spacey really did seem like an evil genius, too.

Dwayne Hilty said...

James, I think I had a similar impression in that Superman was so "other-worldly" that I had a difficult time connecting with him. And, yes, Clark Kent did seem rather absent, leaving me with less of an identity crisis and more with Kent as a "token" figure that gets thrown in now and then.

Jason, I think the movie was better - much better - than what I expected, and that's coming from someone with limited knowledge and experience in comic books. What you said is insightful ("We can't relate to him but we instinctively want to rise to his example") and may be the "make or break" aspect of this movie. How relational is Superman, and how does this define his character and that of the world's?

rebecca marie said...

i'm glad to hear it's better than expected, but i'm still gonna wait and rent it. something about it, even in the ads just didn't feel right. the only thing i'm really looking forward to is kevin spacey, and i hear his pores are too large for my stomach to handle on the big screen.

ted said...

I have for a long time seen Superman as something of a Christ analogy, with him being sent to Earth by his father to do great good. So it stuck me as a little odd that Superman now has a child out of wedlock, especially since he is kind of the paragon of good among comic book superheroes. The whole Superman's kid plot line seemed to me like a little bit of a Kryptonian Da Vinci Code.

I also found that I really didn't care about Superman. What's that? Superman got stabbed by a chunk of his home planet? Hmmm. Hey is all the popcorn gone?

Superman for me is too powerful to work as a character I'll care about. He can be shot in the freaking eye with a .45 fer crying out loud (all physics aside). He is never in any real peril. The only people who are in any real danger are Superman's friends and loved ones who become nothing more than bait. Superman can fly. He's stronger than savage Hulk at his angriest. He's faster than Flash. He can't be hurt unless you find an obscure piece of space debris or you break his heart. He has x-ray vision (which he only uses to spy on people in their homes or to make off the cuff medical diagnoses). He has heat vision. He can survive the rigors of space travel unprotected. Shoot, most super-heroes just wish they were as tough as his suit.

Remember the Far Side comic where there was a guy on Jeopardy and his opponent was God? God had some absurd amount of money and the mortal dude had a big fat goose egg. Gary Larson commented once that he had originally planned on giving the guy like one dollar, but then he thought about it and that would mean that this mortal had either beaten God to the buzzer or God had missed a question and this guy had picked it up. Larson said the thought about it more and figured that God couldn't miss a question or get beaten to the buzzer so the mortal got zero. This is kind of how I see Superman. He's so powerful that if someone gets the better of him it doesn't seem to work. Something is off.

And I found Lois Lane to be pretty annoying.

And in the evil mastermind competition, Lex Luthor would have to stand on a ladder to kiss Kaiser Soze's butt.

So I guess in the end, the best thing about this movie was seeing the Spiderman trailer.

Gunslinger said...

Ok, I have not seen this movie, and really do not plan on it. Primary reason...

Taking "American Way" out of the Truth and Justice line. What the hell is that? Super man is all-American. If you live in another country, and do not like that statement, MAKE YOUR OWN SUPER HERO!!!! I was watching a thing this afternoon on the history channel about comic books. All the pictures were of Superman kicking Nazi asses. Doesn't get more American than that.

Anyway, once you politicize something to make a profit in more countries where people do not like America, but want to be us, you can count me out of being one of the people supporting that behavior.

ted said...

Superman is not American. He is not even an earthling. He is a foreigner and should be given no slack whatsoever.

Gunslinger said...

Good point. Boo to the alien! Boo!

James Wood said...

So what you're saying is we should deport Superman?