.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Friday, June 30, 2006


Take-Offs And Landings

So the Superman films are about fathers and sons*, and now they are more overtly about adoption. But if the Donner/Lester and Singer pictures are about anything, they are about land; the lands we come from, the lands we come to, the lands we claim, fight and kill over.

Over at Dave's Long Box, many commenters are bemoaning the lack of giant robots for Superman to kick the shit out of. I sympathize, and I hold out hope for a spectacular homage to the Fleischer Mechanical Monsters cartoon in any potential sequel (again, Warner's, Brainiac) but giant robots have nothing to do with the central preoccupation of these movies to date. And that's land.

Donner sets up Krypton and Earth as a contrast in land. The land of Krypton is dead and cold, its civilization old and tired. Krypton is a husk playing out the string until its sun goes supernova. Compared to this, Donner's Earth is Eden, amber waves of grain rolling across endless fields, bursting with life, color and humor. Post-Krypton, Donner's film shows us the Earth's land in all its variety, from mountains to valleys to cities to the molten center of the Earth itself.

For all that, the obvious exemplar of the land theme is Lex Luthor, recast by Donner as an obsessive would-be land baron, introduced with grand schemes of sinking California in order to establish a new coast under his control. Then, in the second film, he ingratiates himself with Zod in order to claim Australia. In Singer's new film, Luthor ratchets up his ambitions, hoping to swamp the enitre United States in order to establish a brand-new continent--a land mass, not coincidentally, made from the stuff of Krypton itself.

As others have pointed out, Luthor's invasion of the Fortress, and pillaging of Jor-El's memory tapes, show him stepping in as a kind of brother to Superman. "He thinks I'm his son", Luthor says of Jor-El's recording. And Luthor and Superman are very much doubles, because Superman is just as concerned with land as Luthor--but for entirely different reasons. Luthor just wants his cut, while Superman wants a place to belong.

As an aside, this is where Anthony Lane's New Yorker reviews so often fail for me. He's so consumed with using the week's movie to make sarcastic jokes at the film's expense, he often misses what the movie is actually about. In his Superman Returns review, he treats Luthor's motivation this way:
Picture my disappointment as I realized that, for all the pizzazz of “Superman Returns,” its global weapon of choice would not be terrorism, or nuclear piracy, or dirty bombs. It would be real estate. What does Warner Bros. have in mind for the next installment? Superman overhauls corporate pension plans? Luthor screws Medicare?
I'm not going to speculate that Lane can't see the reason for Luthor's plot because he's British, and doesn't share the deep, often unhealthy American manifest destiny fixation on land itself as totem/prize/birthright, but for whatever reason, he just doesn't get the point of the movie on a basic level. He also doesn't seem to understand that in our world, the ultimate aim of all that terrorism, nuclear piracy and dirty bombs is...wait for it...land. Bin Laden wants Saudi Arabia. The Isrealis and Palestinians may deeply disagree on matters of religion and philosophy, but it wouldn't matter if they didn't wantto live on the same postage stamp.

And by the way, Lane's Medicare joke sucks.

But enough of him. Luthor knows who he is and what he wants. The character of Superman is just as concerned with land, but as a way of defining his identity. He makes a five-year journey just to see the land that cast him out. Most of the land from Krypton that has made its way to Earth has turned to Kryptonite and is deadly poison to him. He aches for a homeland that spends all of its time now trying to kill him.

Then there are all of the landing/flight puns: the rocket landing in the fetishized Kansas wheat fields (land that I love), Superman gracefully landing all of the objects plunging dangerously from the sky (the airplane, the Daily Planet globe, construction workers, Kitty's car) to Superman's own landings as he steps down gracefully from the clouds. His most interesting landing isn't graceful at all, as he drops with the force of a small mountain onto new Krypton, the force of his arrival cracking the ground around him. The gag seems constructed merely to show Superman's anger, power and determination, but this is a ersatz chunk of Krypton itself he's stepping onto for the first time, and his abuse of the land he walks on is no accident of the filmmaker. Adopted kids turn emotional cartwheels over their birthplaces and birth parents. Longing and anger are often tangled up in a knot. It's hard for me not to see Superman talking out his frustration on the land that literally spit him out by punishing it a little. By the end of the sequence, Superman overtly throws this ugly hunk of Krypton away from Earth, much as Krypton once threw him into the void. With this he has made his choice for Earth once and for all. Then he begins his final landing, plummeting unconscious back to earth like a shooting star. It's a pretty scene, the unconscious hero falling through the sky into the embrace of our land (this land is your land). It reminds me of the classic "Panic in the Sky" episode of The Adventures of Superman TV series, (in which George Reeves' Superman flew up to stop a meteor, then fell back to earth, losing his memory in the process) as it ties up the themes of the movie in a nice bow. As I mentioned in my last post, Luthor ends up with as much land as he deserves, while Superman eventually awakens to embrace the very rocky terrain of his new life: a broken relationship with his true love, and a son he must entrust to others. Superman's no "deadbeat dad" as some facile critics have suggested; he's doing exactly what Jor-El did, giving his son up for adoption because it's the right thing to do. Superman's world has exploded, and his son will be safe with the Earthlings.

While I understand why Singer cut footage of Superman at Krypton's ruins from the start of the film, for length, pacing and to provide for the more dramatic introduction in Ma Kent's field, part of me wishes the scene had stayed in. It would have made the land theme a little easier to see, and served as a good parallel with the expulsion of New Krypton at the end of the film. Ah, well, that's what the DVD is for.

Many detractors of Superman Returns criticize its air of seriousness. Comic book movies, they think, should know their place, and that place is camp. But when the center of your movie is land, there's nothing out of place about a little gravity.

*As Anne pointed out to me, to say that the movie is about father and sons is incomplete. Say that Krypton, as embodied by Jor-El, represents the father for Superman--laws, ethical rules, knowledge. If Krypton is Dad, then Earth is Mom--literally, Mother Earth, represented by the nearly voiceless love of Ma Kent, patiently waiting, then embracing Clark in the corn field upon his return. After that, Clark's character arc is all about coming to terms with Lois as mother. When Superman finally casts New Krypton into space, in some way he is casting out or putting aside his own father ("the father becomes the son and the son becomes the father" or whatever Brando's drug-induced rambling was about), allowing him to step into the role of father. He then falls back again, at the end of the film as in the beginning, to the embrace of the mother planet, yet another parallel in a script loaded with them. This is one of those movies where I find it curious almost no one is talking about the film on its own obvious thematic terms. It's curious that so many critics have had nothing at all to say about what I consider to be the film's clear subject matter. In my opinion, those who cry "boring" or "not enough punching", or who complain that Luthor's scheme was recyclyed from previous films, (without bothering to ask why Luthor would be consistently imagined with a real estate fixation in these films--and what that means for his opposite number) had no idea what they were watching, or what Singer and his writing crew were even trying for.

Superman belongs to the people. And he's a timeless icon for all ages. So, if we can make him the father of a child out of wedlock, and Lois Lane a single mom, why not go whole hog? Let's see some future Superman stories that really give us a Superman for diverse audiences. Let's see a gay, black Superman. Oh yeah! A gracefully Nubian Clark Kent who works for a struggling alt newspaper that covers alternative lifestyles. Bad enough Clark feels like a chickenhawk whenever he and the boyish Jimmy Olsen get together, but now he finds himself strangely attracted to the rather butch Lois Lane! Plus, these strange feelings of arousal he gets when Lex Luthor calls him a faggot... what's THAT all about?

Oh! The places we'll go.

Yeah, yeah. Not wild about the new Superman. Sorry. Real men don't father kids out of wedlock, and I don't CARE if he was out of the solar system for 5 years. Wear a super-condom, you moron.
To be honest, I don't think the "gay, black" Superman jibe is in very good taste, or particularly relevant.

First of all, give Superman a break. When he got Lois pregnant it was 1980. Do you find the scenario in Superman 2 as objectionable? Because that's where the only pertinent moral choice was made; as the Lois prequel comic makes explicit, both Superman and Lois were unaware of the consequences their one night together.

That aside, I'm not sure why, in 2006, the single parenthood thing is such a huge stumbling block, why it still carries any stigma whatsoever. Do you judge single parents you know this harshly? This aspect of the film seems to have brought out the cultural reactionary in a swath of Superman fans. Even the word "wedlock" strikes me as pointedly, nostalgically archaic, yearning for traditional values that the perfectly usable word "marriage" does not.

The kid didn't bother me in the least; I accepted it as the filmmakers' way of coming full circle with the parenthood themes established in the first Donner film. There's something quite clever about putting Superman in the same position as Jor-El, entrusting his son to humans. It's certainly not the final word on the character, and one of the concept's strengths is how malleable it is. It was plausible to me that the Donner versions of the characters could get to this place after Superman 2. Whether or not glumly extending Donner's themes was the best direction for the film--I guess the box office has decided that. I suspect that a sequel, if it even happens, will either use a different continuity or at the least get a *lot* brighter.

Perhaps you could look at the movie as just an "imaginary story", a la all the speculative futures in silver-age Lois Lane and Superman comics.
I suppose.

I have many personal issues with fathers abandoning their children. Yeah, yeah, I know, Supes isn't doing that here. But, on the other hand, I remain emotionally unconvinced that the characters in this movie bear any resemblance to the 'real' Superman and Lois... whoever they may be, at this point. I guess that's my problem, but I thought you wanted people to respond to your thoughts with their own.

Sorry the black, gay Superman joke was in bad taste, by your standards. Nearly any humorous offering is going to be in bad taste by someone's standards. I guess I misperceived yours.

I think my point was that as timeless icons are hemmed, taken in, and let out again for new generations, they lose their timelessness and can even start to aggravate the shit out of those of us who belong to previous generations. Or something. Those of the generation that the icon is being altered for may find that baffling, but it doesn't mean the point is any less valid.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?