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Caped Wonder Stuns City: The Cinematic Death and Rebirth of Superman

Justice League (2017) opens with a shot from a camera phone of Superman (Henry Cavill) rescuing people from a burning building.  It’s daytime, and Superman’s costume looks conspicuously like a Halloween costume, its airbrushed textures and fake muscles clearly evident.  He’s about to fly away when a child, the one filming this, asks if he could answer some questions.  Superman begins to give him a polite brush off when the child explains its for their podcast.  “Well, if its for your podcast…”  The little boy and his friends proceed to ask Superman a number of questions – “Does that ‘S’ really stand for hope?”, “Have you ever fought a hippo?” – before finally asking what Superman’s favorite thing about the human race is.  Silently, Superman thinks.  Then he smiles.  Cut to black. This opening shot, about a minute long, is easily the best part of Justice League, and is probably the best Superman movie since 1981.  

Henry Cavill

Justice League is a mess of a movie, a Frankenstein monster resulting from hasty reshoots, studio meddling, conflicting artistic visions, tight deadlines, and shoddy special effects.  It’s sloppy, stupid, cheap-looking, and a lot more fun than it has any right to be.  And one thing it gets absolutely right is Superman.

Despite being one of the most iconic fictional characters of the twentieth century, filmmakers and studio executives have struggled to understand the Man of Steel.  No one can seem to wrap their heads around what makes Superman work, operating under the conviction that this is some corny, irrelevant piece of pop culture ephemera that must be radically retooled in order to be popular.  But Superman is already popular.  People love Superman; they have his insignia tattooed on their bodies, adorning their cars, their shirts, their underwear.  All over the world, children are still tying blankets around their necks and jumping off the stairs pretending to fly.  Words like “kryptonite”, “Bizarro”, and “Brainiac” are part of the common English vernacular.  People discuss flight and x-ray vision in everyday conversation.  We don’t need to be sold on Superman; we’ve already bought in, and anyone who hasn’t isn’t going to be swayed by seeing the character brood and get blood on his knuckles.

In a way, Justice League marks the first appearance of Superman in the “DCEU”, Warner Bros’ shared “cinematic universe” for the denizens of DC Comics.  This continuity began in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) but it would be hard to mistake the protagonist of that film for Superman.  Snyder’s character is a bully and an idiot.  He makes out with his girlfriend in a pile of human ash before snapping his opponent’s neck and encouraging the audience to join the military.  Superman’s defining characteristic, more than flying or super-strength or changing in phone booths, is that he always does the right thing.  As soon as the character stops doing the right thing, he stops being Superman.  Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are either wary of or uninterested in this.  It’s too simple.  It isn’t cool.  The fantasy of power abused is, on the surface, more compelling and relatable than power used righteously.  But that’s not the story of Superman.  Superman represents a kind of apotheosis of humanity, human flaws discarded in the Daily Planet storeroom so that human virtues may be elevated to godhood.  Superman is devoid of human flaws like doubt, jealousy, and anger.  Those are Clark Kent’s problems.  Superman is all-encompassing good, selflessness with the infinite capacity to commit selfless acts.   This is something that many of the older cinematic adaptations understood.  The Fleischer animated shorts of the 1940s, the film serials of the same decade, and the classic 1950s television series were all in close enough proximity chronologically to the character’s creation to not really questions any of this, to not feel the urge to deconstruct or retool the formula.  Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz , the creative minds behind Superman (1978) grew up on these adaptions and the comics of that era, and consequently, Superman understands the character perfectly.   Beautifully portrayed by Christopher Reeve, this Superman is kind, chivalrous, charming, polite, friendly, while Clark Kent is awkward, shy, bumbling, uptight, and also charming.  This was more than just the Superman from the comics.  It was like the character had stepped out of our shared cultural imagination and understanding of who Superman is.

Poster for Superman: The Movie

It would be unfair to expect as shaggy a dog as Justice League to pull all of this off, and it doesn’t.  But it does manage to give us the best cinematic version of Superman in decades.  Here, Superman smiles.  He actually laughs.  A great, big belly laugh.  His big entrance line is “I believe in truth…and I’m a big fan of justice!”, delivered by Henry Cavill (who had previously been confined by scripts that had him sulking in front of green screens) with the kind of cornball conviction that would do Kirk Alyn or Buckaroo Banzai proud.  The line got a big laugh.  It was ridiculous, but in a sincere, joyous way, and this was the biggest, happiest surprise – and achievement – of the film.  Superman radiates joy, not just fun or entertainment.  Joy.  It’s something that’s missing from most other modern superhero movies, including many that are much better than Justice League.  But that small, simple quality is worth celebrating.

So, bring your kids to see Justice League.  They’ll probably love it, warts and all.  And they’ll finally get to see Superman on the big screen.

-Hank Curry

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A Spectacle Of War

“Of course, you know this means war!” – Groucho Marx, A Night At The Opera, 1935

Dunkirk

I don’t particularly love war films as a genre. I find most of them to be either overly sentimental, propagandist, violently exploitative, or just racist. For me the first really good and also fascinating war film is  Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919). The other war films (I’m finding this genre label a bit too loose and not very helpful) that have expressed anything of merit have all appeared to have taken something from Gance, even if it is just a shared impulse. The “good” war films, in my opinion, all cherish human life with a capacity that a blockbuster production is incapable of while also posing questions regarding the necessity of violence and the nature of violence as spectacle. The more popular route has always been more propagandist and celebratory of the machismo of war while simultaneously pushing the political agenda of a current regime. That’s precisely why masterpieces such as Chris Marker’s omnibus film Far From Vietnam (1967), Miklós Jancsó’s The Red And The White (1967) and Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1984) remain elusive to most American audiences during a time when they are, perhaps, needed the most. But playing in cinemas today are two films who navigate these concerns with war in different ways that make them as illuminating with regards to their subject while also functioning as a sort of litmus test for the ideologies of this moment in time. The films are War For The Planet Of The Apes and Dunkirk.

Matt Reeves’ War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017) represents a pastiche that apes (pun intended) from such distinguished and diverse films as John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) to cite only the most obvious examples. The culmination of these narrative elements having been reappropriated and strewn together in a patchwork is not necessarily that interesting in so far as imbuing a new degree of emotional response to familiar stimuli, but rather in War For The Planet Of The Apes’ capacity to examine the principles of these narrative tropes that have allowed them to work in different iterations over many decades by simply rearranging and aligning them within a linear narrative construct. Ironically, the detachment required by such an investigation derives from the computer generated apes themselves (they represent a different though just as plastic and campy manifestation as the costumes worn by actors during the original franchise from the late sixties into the seventies).

War For The Planet Of The Apes exists in a kind of limbo in American mainstream cinema. This represents an alternative reading of War For The Planet Of The Apes. Reeves has still delivered an overwhelming spectacle of violence, so it isn’t very likely that many viewers will be watching the film for its subtle genre deconstruction. Due to its blockbuster status, critical discourse around War For The Planet Of The Apes will be miniscule while audiences will not likely feel encouraged to enter into an analytical dialogue with the film. War For The Planet Of The Apes, as campy as it is, successfully straddles the line which is so sacred in American cinema; the one between art and entertainment (intellectual vs. spectacle). The problem here is that there shouldn’t be any segregation.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is Christopher Nolan. His films have consistently pandered to artistic recognition while never truly accomplishing anything worthwhile or remotely interesting as far as I can see. Dunkirk could have potentially demonstrated the various sensations of duration born out of a variety of duress in its hodge-podge semi-linear structure. However, Nolan consistently assumes that his audience suffers from some kind of mental incapacity and chose to label these three experiences of duration, thus negating the final reveal that would have lent Dunkirk emotional power. Nolan’s approach to form via these labels (The Mole, The Sea, and The Air) also functions to deny the film any interesting exchange between the images within the three different timelines as he cuts back and forth between them.

Thus Dunkirk is the antithesis of War For The Planet Of The Apes in that it aspires to art and provides only spectacle. The spectacle itself is not even that rewarding for that matter. As I sat in the theater watching Dunkirk I kept thinking of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk, like A Bridge Too Far, trades on its roster of celebrities and plethora of special effects to pull at the heart-strings of its audience. This strategy, while good in theory, doesn’t allow for ample character development, thus making it difficult for the audience to have anything more than a passing superficial reaction to the film. The only time Dunkirk comes close to achieving any real characterization is during Mark Rylance’s scenes. Rylance brings a subtlety and a sense of experience to his role as Mr. Dawson that renders his character with more depth and ambiguity than could be mustered by the rest of the film’s cast.

What Dunkirk and War For The Planet Of The Apes have in common is what they prove, each in their own way. These two films indicate that a majority of the movie going public see war and accept war purely as a spectacle, as a means for escape. This probably has as much to do with how these films are sold and marketed as with the way which wars are treated by journalists and the media in this country. Arguably, as the images of Vietnam on the 5 o’clock news fade from our national consciousness, so does our ability as a nation to treat war on film as anything other than “pulp”. I doubt that it is any coincidence that a majority of the most worthwhile films about war I have seen were made during the Vietnam conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

-Robert Curry

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Wolverine’s Swan Song

Logan & Laura

“This repression of the ‘non-serious’ aspects of pleasure, of a discourse of fun, is not, of course, a total exclusion. Notions of distraction, diversion, and entertainment have appeared with regularity in the academic discourse on cinematic pleasure. Yet, within that discourse, they are almost invariably positioned as negative terms. They are often figured as decadent – betrayals of truth, morally corrupt, politically incorrect – or, at best, as escapist or trivial. Indeed, it seems that the vast majority of the academic ‘discourse on pleasure’ has been calculated to distinguish between these ‘corrupt’ pleasures and more acceptable, ‘serious’ pleasures.”

-R.L. Rutsky & Justin Wyatt, Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure And The Notion Of Fun, 1990

Most of the films that American audiences see or hear about are designed to maximize public appeal, to gross highly, and to entertain. With this set of priorities, the mainstream, the most commercial of American cinema, cannot afford much in the way of serious artistic expression. If we accept Rutsky and Wyatt’s arguments, then the films that come out of the major studios enter into critical discourse as “corrupt pleasures” insofar as these films primarily represent distractions, diversions and entertainment.

James Mangold’s Logan (2017) fits within this niche easily. It’s a major blockbuster and an installment within a well proven franchise of movies that has been turning a healthy profit in cinemas for seventeen years now. However, unlike most films within a franchise, Logan dares to challenge the genre to which it was born (so to speak).  J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a far more typical representation of how a franchise functions, evidencing how best to keep the grosses consistent: more of the same, again and again. Logan is not just alone in the X-Men movie franchise because of its rating, Logan is also a character study, and a film whose narrative devices have been absent from the superhero genre. In fact Logan has more in common narratively with Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), Takashi Miike’s Rainy Dog (1997), James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) than it does with any of the Batman, X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Superman, Ironman, or Guardians Of The Galaxy movies that have come out in the last twenty years or more.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart

The primary reason Logan does not fit within the aesthetic blueprint of the superhero genre is because the film prioritizes its three lead characters over the spectacle of violence. Mangold’s film is interested in the frailties of his superpowered characters, and populates his film with moments that allow these frailties to function as a direct counterpoint to the sequences of action-violence that the audience is expecting. The narrative of Logan is designed for this kind of investigation into character much in the same way as A Perfect World, Rainy Dog, The Professional and Gloria are. Every time the audience finds comfort in the familiar heroic antics of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and X-23/Laura (Dafne Keen) that comfort is in turn subverted. The scenes of Wolverine caring for Professor X are particularly adept at subverting the standards of superhero fare.

Logan is also unique for assuming that its target audience, comic book fans, will be in tune with the characters introduced in the narrative to a degree that Mangold can forgo the usual scenes of expository action. Besides, one does not need an in depth working knowledge of The Reavers, Dr. Rice or Albert within the context of the Wolverine comics to understand their narrative function. If one is familiar with this set of Wolverine #40, June, 1991characters, that is simply just another layer of pleasure that Logan has to offer. One of the great drawbacks to the superhero genre in film is that the authors of these films assume that the films will not work if they are not “all inclusive” in terms of their narrative accessibility. The best superhero films, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) all operate on the assumption that an audience even vaguely familiar with the characters will be able to glean from the film an understanding of these characters and their respective narrative complexes in other media forms.

There has been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Logan. If one were to read Kevin P. Sullivan’s article in the March 10th issue of Entertainment Weekly, one may very well assume that Logan was the greatest film of its kind ever made. However, Logan can never escape what it is, a “distraction, diversion, and entertainment”. And, for me at least, this isn’t a bad thing at all. 

-Robert Curry

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