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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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Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) brings audiences one film closer to Thanos in the upcoming Avengers film. It is a new chapter in the Marvel cinematic universe. Cameos by our favorite superheroes abound, and so did bright colors and nutsy sets. Thor: Ragnarok even comes with trailers for the upcoming Justice League and New Mutants films. No doubt that this truly is the age of the comic book.

Blanchett as Hela

Thor: Ragnarok is a hopelessly complacent film. It is as if the executives at Disney/Marvel Studios are just going through the motions (maybe they are distracted by Star Wars). Thor: Ragnarok does not take itself seriously at all, nor does it attempt to direct its playfulness towards a subversive end. It exists simply to fill Marvel’s unspoken promise of delivering a picture every season, raking in the receipts at the box office every few months.

Thor: Ragnarok isn’t even up to being the kind of decent escapist fare that Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Doctor Strange (2016), arguably, both managed to be. In large part this is due to the absence of any dramatic stakes or decent character development (it was sad to see so little done with Cate Blanchett in the role of Hela). Yet, something should also be said of Taika Waititi’s lackluster direction, the employment of actors as signifiers of “qualities” associated with the characters that they have played in other films (Jeff Goldblum especially), but also the film’s inability to deliver the spectacle of the Marvel Universe which usually yields some interesting images born out of special effects and cinematography (I’ll admit that Thor is unlike anything else Javier Aguirresarobe has shot).

So what is the appeal of the “superhero” film anymore if it loses even its most superficially attractive qualities? Honestly, apart from the spectacle of a comic rendered in live action, there isn’t very much to recommend these films, DC or Marvel, to begin with. Consistently the genre has defined itself by its lack of social relevancy, its avoidance of controversy, and its casual attempts at political correctness.

Silver Star
So when is Jack Kirby’s Silver Star ever going to get made?

-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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