Revisiting Superman (1978): The Perfect Superman Movie

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Superman is held in very high esteem amongst most comic book movie nerds. Snyderverse megafans aside, everyone seems to be able to respect that Richard Donner set up shop in a industry landscape that was a far cry from our modern one and made a film that perfectly presented the most iconic version of a beloved hero (speaking of our modern climate, what’s weirder: that Oscar nominee Josh Brolin just finished playing Thanos AND Cable in movies released a month apart from one another or that most people don’t even think of this as being strange?). Superman regularly turns up on “top five best comic book movie” lists, was recently the subject of a thorough examination on Moviebob’s popular Really That Good video essay series and is fondly remembered by everyone who hasn’t recently tweeted out #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. So, I am now left wondering why my recent revisitation of the film left me feeling disappointed.

For my relationship with this film, context matters a lot. I had put off watching it forever due to a then still sadly engrained bias against what I sometimes incorrectly perceived as “dated” special effects (honestly, Superman looks better than most of big budget movies made in the 90s) and partly because, as a younger person, I self consciously believed that I was somehow above an earnest, old movie about a big, blue boy scout. Flash forward to one neck snap later, when my then girlfriend and I were leaving Man of Steel. I vividly remember discussing the film for 3 hours afterwards, with interludes about what we even wanted from a Superman movie at all and what elements of the character we deemed fundamental. It was at this point that we viewed Superman and it arrived like Lois Lane, throwing away the kryptonite of gloom, bad editing and tornado induced suicide that was Man of Steel at the last second.

It was nice to watch a movie that didn’t seem as self conscious and embarrassed of its own source material as Man of Steel is. There are colours, smiles and many other staples of the funny books that Zack Snyder was all too happy to kick to the curb in his Nolan emulating, fun devoid reboot. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was (and is) the stuff of acting legend, with his performance being able to definitively answer the question of why nobody realizes Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. You could never believe that Reeve’s Clark was a superhero, even if you saw him lift a car with his own two hands. The way that he minimizes himself in crowd shots (a testament to the quality of the scene blocking as well as Reeve’s physical acting) has you almost forgetting he’s there in the same way that Lois always seems to. Incidentally, a brilliant choice by Margot Kidder and/or the filmmakers is to have Lois never really look directly at Clark. This inattention is a byproduct of Clark’s meekness as well as Lois’ ambition and tendency to multitask. All of this comes together really nicely in what is as perfect an early Lois/Clark dynamic as has ever been realized in any medium.

If you noticed that I was gushing in that paragraph, it is because there are certain elements of this movie you just can’t help but gush about. Donner’s perfect use of tone that distinguishes the various chapters of Superman’s life, the performances of literally every actor in the film, the unabashed commitment to the source material. It’s all so great. Why, then, was I left feeling so cold?

I guess it was because certain things just stick out in today’s political climate now in a way that they didn’t back in 2013. This is partly due to my increased political awareness and partly because institutions like the police, the presidency and the USA itself have had their flaws and failures exposed by the magnifying glass and microphone of social media. When Lois quips that Superman would have to put every elected official in America behind bars if he were truly committed to justice, Superman responds with “I’m sure you don’t believe that”. In 2013, this kind of claim was antidotal. It was a refreshing optimism that cured my disinfatuation with grim and gritty comic book movies. In 2018 however, it is just one frustrating way in which the conservatism inherent in so many superheroes manifests. Superman spends the movie catching criminals and gleefully handing them over to the Metropolis police department. He has faith – which he is never actually asked to justify – in the American political system as it currently functions (as distinguished by having faith in the principles that the system *should* be a product of, which would be far more permissible). He also manages to drop Lex Luthor off in prison at the end of the movie*. The problem with that ending of course being that using “gets dropped off at an American prison” as narrative shorthand for “justice is served” is naïve at best and propagandistic at worst. The police, the prison system and America as an institution are never examined, questioned or even paid that much attention to. Instead, these oppressive and deeply flawed systems functioning without any depicted flaws or any onscreen questioning is the baselines reality that Donner’s Superman lives in.

In a way, this does make Superman the definitive cinematic representation of the character of Superman. He, like many superheroes, fills us with happiness, optimism and hope when the world seems bleak. Superman is charming, funny and comforting in a way that conveys the warmth of his best stories. However, he, like many superheroes, is an adamant defender of the status quo who would rather unilaterally intervene in circumstances he doesn’t understand and offer a quick, easy “solution” that tempers any lingering worry that the world isn’t a simplistic fantasyland in which the right man punching the right guys often enough will fix anything or help anyone.

I still love Superman and I am happy to revisit it at new times in my life and have my reactions change as I do. The desire to hold on to the good feelings offered up by simple, uncritical pieces of art and media rarely have good consequences. The fact is that Richard Donner made the perfect Superman movie but, as I get older, the perfect Superman movie gets further and further away from my definition of the perfect movie full stop. I am just interested in continuing to see how my relationship with Superman and, well…Superman continues to grow and change in the coming years.

*This post assumes the truth of a number of controversial social positions for the sake of brevity. I would love to hammer out the details of why these systems shouldn’t be exalted and what exactly Superman should do instead but that is another post for another time

 

The Contemporary Relevance of Thor: Ragnarok

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The main thing that many people will likely respond to coming out of Thor: Ragnarok is the film’s comedic tone. It represents a huge departure from the previous entries, particularly the overly serious Thor: The Dark World, and leans into a comedy heavy script and a “fun first” sensibility. This very sensibility will likely draw the ire of people who think that superheroes are serious business and that Marvel films are already nothing more than quip-laden diversions. However, it seems to me that Ragnarok is a film with a lot on its mind and it seems worthwhile to dive into some of that here.

Odin is a curious fixture in the Thor movies. In the first one, he is basically just an all seeing Christian God figure who happens to be dressed like a viking. However, the second movie pivots on his characterization and depicts him as a petty, shortsighted man who is motivated by fear and is more interested in winning a war than saving his people. Ragnarok opts to try and reconcile these characterizations to some extent by revealing that Odin has sanitized not only his own history but the history of all of Asgard. As it turns out, Odin and his (up until now secret) daughter Hela built up Asgard’s golden empire via an incredibly destructive path of violence and imperialism. The paintings in the halls of the throne room that at first seem to depict Asgard’s history are revealed to be lies. We see later in the movie that the real, violent history of Asgard is represented by different pictures that lie just underneath sanitized fiction.

It is hard not to read the film as a cautionary tale against sanitizing a nation’s history. The fact that Odin removed all mention of Hela from Asgard’s history and locked her away meant that nobody knew she was coming or how to stop her. We also see Odin’s sanitization of history come back to haunt Asgard in the form of Hela’s army, which she literally acquires by reviving the corpses of the soldiers that Asgard previously used as its imperialist armed forces. She acquires these soldiers from a secret tomb that is hidden under Odin’s treasure room (which we also learn is filled with lies of its own). In today’s world, where Neo-Nazisim is on the rise and god awful media outlets like The Daily Wire still run pieces about how Christopher Columbus was a great man, the film’s message is an important one.

What the film does not do, however, is given credence to people who want to keep statues of confederate generals up because they view the statue as part of their history. Not only is this a nonsense argument, ignoring that fact that statutes serve the function of memorializing and do not act as historical record, it is the one the film engages with. When Loki is ruling Asgard in Odin’s place, he takes a stab at historical revisionism of his own. He puts on plays that recount the events of The Dark World from a pro-Loki perspective. Guess what else Loki uses at a tool of revisionist history and manipulation? That’s right, a giant gold statue of himself. The film is clearly arguing in this scene that statutes serve the agenda of history revisers, not history preservers.

The film’s second main thematic through line is embracing change. Not only is the film a total stylistic and tonal departure from what came before but Thor also loses his iconic hair style, cape and hammer. Similarly, Bruce’s dynamic has inverted, so that Hulk is the dominant persona rather than himself (this is symbolized beautifully in a sequence that plays out the usual hulk transformation in reverse, with Hulk trying to stay angry to avoid becoming Bruce). Both Thor and Bruce have to learn to embrace these changes throughout the film in order to come together and save Asgard. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Thor tricks Loki (yet another clever reversal) and, before leaving him behind, tells him about the importance of embracing change.

So, we have a film that is arguing for the embrace of change and the honest confrontation of history that seems especially relevant in a time where people seem fear change and confronting history. There is a common narrative around the Marvel films and their aversion of stakes and meaning. Sometimes these criticisms are fair but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t engaging in a thematic discussion that’s worth having. Thor: Ragnarok is one of the best times that I have had in a movie theater in years but nothing about being fun, energetic and full of spectacle precludes being intelligent and having plenty to say.

Daredevil #1 (by Charles Soule) – Comic Book Review

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It seems as though Marvel cannot go two weeks without relaunching one or more of its series. First it was Marvel Now, then All New Marvel Now and now in the wake of its universe redefining crossover Secret Wars we have yet another series of #1 comics pouring in. The uncertainty of seeing books continue past 12 issues has been a deterring me from reading Marvel books as of late but I could not help myself when I heard the words “new Daredevil series”, so here we are.

I had not been keeping up with Mark Waid’s brilliant run all the way to the end due to commitment with school/lacking a job at the time so I am going in without much background knowledge on how the previous series lead into this one. I have heard that there isn’t much in the way of continuity between this series and the previous one anyway but let this serve as an explanation if I miss something about the new status quo the book sets up.

My initial impression of this new series is one of cautious optimism. The book starts things out by returning Daredevil to New York city (the last series had him in San Francisco if I am not mistaken), which is a bit of a drag because I really liked how Marvel was making an effort a few years back to spread out its heroes to different parts of America. Also, Matt and Foggy are on the outs due to some vaguely defined measures that Matt had to take to make his identity as Daredevil a secret again (for those who don’t know, Daredevil’s identity has been public knowledge for many years in the comics). I’m not sure how I feel about this change in dynamics between Matt and Foggy though, as these characters have been through so much together at this point that it is hard to believe Matt could have burned that bridge without doing something truly terrible.

It is not all bad though because Daredevil seems to have a brand new friend in Blindspot, his invisibility empowered partner (sidekick?). If I could give Matt Murdock any advice in superheroing, it would definitely be that he should not have sidekicks with ironic names that elude to his identity as Matt Murdock. It would be like Spider-Man’s sidekick being made The Photographer, it is just bad for business. It is hard to get a read on this character since I have not read the Point One story that introduced him.

That covers the “cautiously”, now let’s move onto the “optimistic”. Ron Garney’s art is fantastic and gels well with the darker tone that Soule is going for. The new enemies that Daredevil is taking on are compelling (the silly name of Tenfingers not withstanding) and the book being written by a lawyer can only serve it well moving forward. One big problem with the Netflix show was its lack of focus on Matt’s vocation and some of the best stuff from the Brian Michael Bendis run featured Matt in the courtroom.

I also like the prospect of Matt having a secret identity again. The previous run did a lot of great things with Matt’s public identity but I have always been a sucker for old school superhero secret identities. It serves to isolate Matt from his usual support system, which is clearly the larger goal that Soule has in mind with this book. Here’s hoping that the circumstances of the public forgetting that Matt Murdock is Daredevil aren’t as preposterous as they were for Spider-Man in One More Day.

I plan to keep buying and reviewing the book unless it gets bad but Soule has proven himself capable in the past and like I said, I am cautiously optimistic. Now, if they can just get rid of Daredevil’s terrible black costume…