Tuesday, 28 August 2012
Although Superman: The Movie includes elements of science fiction and mythic space opera, the main narrative drive is that of a man coming to terms with, and understanding, his place in the world. Despite Superman’s eventual role being that of a Godlike protector figure, the character still deals with basic human problems like identity and love. Superman: The Movie is a 1978 superhero film, based on the DC Comics character created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster. The film, directed by Richard Donner from a screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz, charts the life of Superman, beginning with his exodus from the dying planet of Krypton, and concluding with him saving the woman he loves in defiance of his father.
The character of Superman is typically defined as a catalyst hero; he is good and unchanging. His virtue inspires others to better themselves. In preparing the character for the screen, a sustained effort was made by the filmmakers to firmly contextualise the problems and anxieties of this superbeing through the experience of a normal man. Already all-powerful, the character’s resolve is instead tested through his relationships with those around him. The film and character are rarely allowed to stray too far into the realms of the fantastical, allowing the audience a firm understanding of this character and the dilemmas he faces. Indeed, it is only when the film attempts the truly spectacular that the audience feels a sense of disconnection. Superman: The Movie is about transition, challenges and transformation, and as such easily aligns with The Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey.
Superman: The Movie begins on the distant planet of Krypton with Superman still an infant, known as Kal-El. We are introduced to Jor-El, Kal-El’s father, during the trial of three Kryptonian criminals, for which Jor-El serves as prosecution. As Jor-El will eventually serve as a mentor for the superhuman aspect of Superman, it is important that he quickly displays certain heroic qualities of character. This is accomplished not only through Jor-El’s explicit involvement with law and lawmaking, but also in his refusal to be swayed by threats. Although the criminal Zod and his cohorts threaten the lives of Jor-El’s family, he is not cowed, delivering instead a sentence of exile. Jor-El is established as an incorruptible force for good; perfect material for a mentor.
‘Mentors represent the Self, the god within us, the aspect of personality that is connected with all things. This higher Self is the wiser, nobler, more godlike part of us.’ (Vogler, 1996: p51)
Psychological function established; Jor-El is now used to communicate the themes and ideas central to the film. The action on Krypton forms a prologue, providing a context for the events that will follow.
‘A prologue can serve several useful functions. It may give an essential piece of backstory, cue the audience to what kind of movie or story this is going to be, or start the story with a bang and let the audience settle into their seats.’ (Vogler, 1996: p100)
Jor-El’s story explains the rules that will dictate the emotional journey Superman will go on, as well as arresting audience attention by showing them the spectacular destruction of an entire civilisation. This sequence also obeys the similar function of a first act.
‘At the beginning of any narrative you have to establish the parameters of the narrative in the audience’s mind. This is achieved by answering a number of simple questions ranging from ‘where are we?’ to ‘what is this about?’’ (Parker, 2006: p27-28).
In preparing to spirit his son away to Earth and safety, we learn that the child’s dense molecular structure, native to all Kryptonians, will allow him superhuman strength on Earth. Kal-El’s mother Lara also frets that he will be alone, never able to fully integrate with his adoptive species. This prefigures the mask identities Superman must take on to shield attention away from his loved ones. It also plants an obstacle for Superman; can he overcome his inherently alien nature and find peace amongst a notionally lower form of life? Just as Jor-El outlines the practical concerns of being alien, Kara, or the female aspect of Superman, defines the emotional instability of being other. Superman’s trials will be emotional, as well as physical.
In preparing his son’s escape, Jor-El meets with the Kryptonian council to discuss the state of the planet. Jor-El pleads that his fellow councilmen see reason and accept their world is dying. Jor-El is ignored and the planet is destroyed, but not before Jor-El is able to ensure his son’s safety. This sequence can be read, like many prologues, as a summation of the path Superman will eventually take. Jor-El defies authority to ensure the survival of his young son. We are shown that rules and bureaucracy are meaningless when tested against basic human instincts such as love.
‘[A]ll fine films… entertain when they give the audience a fresh model of life empowered with an effective meaning. To retreat behind the notion that the audience simply wants to dump its troubles at the door and escape reality is a cowardly abandonment of the artist’s responsibility.’ (McKee, 1999: p12)
This absurd sequence on an alien world is rendered relatable by prioritising emotional content over the fantastical.
The next segment of the film takes place in rural Kansas, the most ordinary of worlds, and details the human upbringing of Superman as Clark Kent. In contrast to the sharp, icy geography of Krypton, Kansas is depicted as flat, endless plains of wheat, an environment alien to what we understand as Superman’s heritage. The farm on which he has been raised is remote and isolated, allowing the boy to toy with his emerging powers, but not fully take advantage of them. A short sequence set around a football training session is used to illustrate the level of self-denial Superman is forced to deal with. Attracted to sports, but unable to participate, Superman has instead taken the role of a general dogsbody, saddled with humdrum tasks such as clearing away equipment. He is taunted by the players, and made to look small in front of girls. Any attempt made by Superman to equalise the situation is greeted with scorn and derision. In this community he isn’t allowed to use his powers, or strive to be treated as special. This is an important stage in developing Superman as a figure of audience identification. Although a being of supreme power, Superman has to cope with mundane problems such as bullies, and strive for a means of valid self-expression.
‘Heroes have qualities that we can all identify with and recognize in ourselves. They are propelled by universal drives that we can all understand.’ (Vogler, 1996: p40).
These scenes establish Superman as an almost rootless being, striving to belong on his own terms. His only real connection with this world is the love he feels for Martha and Jonathan Kent, his adoptive parents. These characters function as the emotional mentors for Superman, teaching him humility and restraint. Whereas on Krypton Superman’s powers were described as tools necessary for his survival among an alien society, here in Kansas his surrogate parents have taught him that they could be used to make the world a better place. Just before he dies, Superman’s human father Jonathan tells his son he is meant for great things, a role and responsibility beyond Kansas. Jonathan’s message and subsequent death are the key factors in Superman’s call to adventure.
‘An uncomfortable situation builds up until that one last straw sends [the hero] on the adventure.’ (Vogler, 1996: p118)
The message cements Superman’s desire to discover who he really is, whereas the death severs one of the character’s more specific ties to the human world.
Although this sequence of events provides an agreeable transition to the next stage of Superman’s life, the audience is left feeling that Martha Kent has been short-changed. An elderly lady, with perhaps not many years left herself; she loses her husband and her son in a very short space of time. Cursory references are made to Martha during the rest of the film, most notably when Superman arranges for half of his Daily Planet paycheque to be sent to her, but we are left with the feeling that this poor woman has been abandoned at a very difficult time in her life. It could also be argued that this situation is reflective of the plight of being Superman - the hero must always work for the happiness of the collective, rather than the individual. Hence, the journey towards becoming a superhero is more important than comforting his bereaved mother.
Superman journeys north to the Artic circle. This can be understood as The Crossing of the First Threshold step on the Hero’s Journey. Superman takes with him a fragment of the spaceship that brought him to Earth. The audience may recognises the landscape of the artic as being a fair domestic approximation of Krypton, the ship fragment going one further by actually constructing a crystalline building, architecturally identical to the buildings we saw in the prologue. It is here that Superman meets with his Kryptonian father Jor-El. Although dead, Jor-El was able to simulate his personality via alien technology, ensuring he is able to guide his son from beyond the grave.
‘[H]eroes almost always make contact with some source of wisdom before committing to the adventure. They may seek out the experience of those who have gone before, or they may look inside themselves for wisdom won at great cost in former adventures.’ (Vogler, 1996: p138)
Superman: The Movie presents the mentor as the prototype version of the hero; this tallies with Vogler’s idea of the mentor as evolved hero.
‘Mentors can be regarded as heroes who have become experienced enough to teach others. They have been down the Road of Heroes one or more times, and they have acquired knowledge and skill which can be passed on.’ (Vogler, 1996: p143)
Aside from the fact that Jor-El is Superman’s father, the character has also been tested by the limits of the status quo, forcing him to take matters into his own hands. This lesson, although not directly told to Superman, is apparent to the audience, and prefigures the drama of a third act were Superman must make a choice between what he is told to do, and what he believes is the right thing to do.
We are told that father and son spend twelve years together, creating the Superman identity we recognise. Snatches of dialogue are used as bullet points to communicate these teachings; these include the declaration by Jor-El that Superman must not interfere with the path of human history. This is Superman as designed by the Father, an altruistic better for mankind to aspire to. An interesting result of making Jor-El an all-knowing God the Father figure is that he also ends up also filling the role of a threshold guardian. By outlining such specific rules about how Superman is allowed to use his powers Jor-El creates an emotional obstacle for his son.
‘[O]n a deeper psychological level [threshold guardians] stand for our internal demons: the neuroses, emotional scars, vices, dependencies and self-limitations that hold back our growth and progress.’ (Vogler, 1996 P64)
How Superman deals with these rules – ironically by inheriting his father’s defiant streak – forms the emotional crux of the supreme ordeal, where Superman uses his impossible physical strength to rescue Lois Lane from a landslide.
Following his father’s tutelage, Superman journeys to Metropolis, this world’s New York analogue, and the physical space where the character will undergo his trials. Superman reassumes his human identity of Clark Kent, using it as camouflage. This Clark Kent is not the boy we met in Kansas; rather this Clark is a deliberate attempt to conceal the heroic identity. The Metropolitan Clark is clumsy and befuddled; he acts in the caricatured shorthand of a fish-out-of-water. This Clark is passive, allowing the Superman to act as a ground level observer. It is as Clark that Superman meets Lois Lane, who variously plays the role of ally, Goddess, Mentor and love interest. Lois represents an immediate emotional connection between Superman and mankind as a whole. She also serves the archetypal function of the trickster.
‘[Tricksters] cut big egos down to size, and bring heroes and audiences down to earth… Above all, they bring about healthy change and transformation, often by drawing attention to the imbalance or absurdity of a stagnant psychological situation.’ (Vogler, 1996: p89)
In many ways, Lois is the opposite of Superman. She is fragile, acts in haste, and is prone to getting herself into dangerous situations. Her impetuous nature is attractive to Superman, and he falls in love with her. Lois can also be defined by the herald archetype.
‘Like the heralds of medieval chivalry, Herald characters issue challenges and announce the coming of significant change.’ (Vogler, 1996: p69)
Lois signals the beginning of a more intimate relationship between mankind and Superman.
Superman’s powers have isolated him from everyone but those closest to him. This coupled with the messianic quest outlined by the spectral manifestation of his father risks making the character an unfathomable alien. The inclusion of Lois at this point reintroduces a relatable aspect to Superman, as well as reasserting the lessons of his loving human parents. In being raised as a human, this Kryptonian has been made human.
The second important character we meet in Metropolis is Lex Luthor, the villain, and shadow of Superman: The Movie. Lex is an evil genius, always scheming to improve his financial lot. He thinks of himself as the ‘greatest criminal mind of the twentieth century’, and conforms to Vogler’s idea of the delusional aspect of villainy.
‘[M]ost Shadow figures do not think of themselves as villains or enemies. From his point of view, a villain is the hero of his own myth, and the audience’s hero is his villain. A dangerous type of villain is “the right man”, the person so convinced his cause is just that he will stop at nothing to achieve it. Beware the man who believes the end justifies the means.’ (Vogler, 1996: p86)
Although Lex knows he is doing evil by plotting to destroy California, it is of supreme irrelevance to him. In this instance, by playing recklessly with the laws of nature, Lex situates himself as a God figure. This marks a particular departure point with ethics and morality of Superman, Superman can act like a God, yet chooses not to, instead he uses his powers to bring boons to the people of Earth. He views them all as being of equal importance, and is unwilling to allow any of them to come to harm. Lex, lacking the power of God, but wishing for it, is instead willing to grind them all up to line his pockets. Lex is a negative reflection of Superman. If Lex possessed the power of Superman, he would bend the world and its populace to his whim. That Superman does not is a strong and vivid indication of his heroism. Superman could rule, but he chooses not to.
‘The Shadow may also be unexplored potential… that goes unexpressed. “the road not taken”, the possibilities of life that we eliminate by making choices at various stages, may collect in the Shadow, biding their time until brought into the light of consciousness.’ (Vogler, 1996: p87)
Lex is also the catalyst for the film’s Supreme Ordeal. Luring Superman to his lair, Lex reveals his plan to launch two nuclear missiles at opposite sides of the country. He also tricks Superman into exposing himself to Kryptonite; a radioactive fragment of Krypton that Lex has predicted will sap Superman’s life force. The usually invincible hero is rendered weak and docile when exposed to the meteorite splinter, he appears to die.
‘[Audiences] love to see heroes cheat death. In fact they love to cheat death themselves. Identifying with a hero who bounces back from death is bungee-jumping in dramatic form.’ (Vogler, 1996: p189)
Superman is only saved when Lex’s subordinate, Miss Teschmacher, briefly switches allegiances and removes the Kryptonite from Superman’s person. Teschmacher is inspired by Superman to do good, but there is also a selfish reason for her shapeshifting – her mother lives near one of the areas doomed to be destroyed by Lex’s missiles. In order for Superman to be rescued he must agree to divert that rocket first and foremost. Superman agrees to this bargain, and inadvertently dooms Lois.
When Lois is killed by the earthquakes that follow the detonation of the California bound rocket, Superman is heartbroken. The physical and emotional representation of his relationship with mankind is gone, and, more alarmingly, perhaps any real chance for Superman to be healthily assimilated into human culture. Superman flies into the heavens where he remembers the teachings of his two fathers. Jor-El taught Superman to be a paradigm, a separate unyielding example. Interfering is forbidden.
‘Of the many fears faced by heroes, the greatest dramatic power seems to come from the fear of standing up to a parent or authority figure. The family scene is the core of most serious drama, and a confrontation with a parent figure can provide a strong Supreme Ordeal.’ (Vogler, 1996: p197)
Jonathan Kent echoes these thoughts, but presents them in a more intimate, humanistic fashion. Jonathan simply believed Superman was sent here, to Earth, for a reason. Superman recalls the death of Jonathan, and how despite his powers he was unable to prevent it. Superman flies into space and begins speeding against the rotation of the Earth, turning it, and thus the course of time, backwards. Although emotionally satisfying in that Superman has defied his isolationist-minded biological father and saved his great love Lois, the ability to rewind time creates a profound illogic in Superman as a narrative entity.
‘[The hero] now finds himself at the end of the line. His next action is his last. No tomorrow. No second chance. This moment of dangerous opportunity is the point of greatest tension in the story as both protagonist and audience sense that the qquestion “How will this turn out?” will be answered out of the next action.’ (McKee, 1999: p303)
Drama is created by decision. If Superman is able to repeal his decisions, he is no longer dramatic. There is the feeling that if Superman can do this at whim, then no threat can ever trouble him, any inconvenience can be negated by a trip to space. The thematic means by which this is accomplished do satisfy however. The decision to alter the course of time is a complete synthesis of Superman the God, and Superman the man.
Superman: The Movie can be read as a film about a lonely soul striving to find where he fits into the wider world. He finds stability and love through his relationship with Lois, and will stop at nothing to maintain that position. Having lost the person he holds dearest he is only able to rescue her by utilising his enormous strength. Rather than act as the separate, higher being dictated by Jor-El, Superman engages with his human emotions whilst testing his God abilities to the limit.
‘For the son who has grown really to know the father, the agonies of the ordeal are readily borne; the world is no longer a vale of tears but a bliss-yielding, perpetual manifestation of the Presence.’ (Campbell, 1993: p148)
In a film with a hero that uses multiple mask identities to conceal his true nature, there is the feeling that this act represents the truest action of character. Superman is acting in his interests alone, and the result is emotionally satisfying: he has become a complete being. This is not a film about a being of conceptual goodness; this is an adventure that deals with human themes and emotions on a grand and expansive canvas, with a central hero that is tested, changes, and prevails.
Sunday, 26 August 2012
Friday, 24 August 2012
I've been wondering about the scale of Takara's new Masterpiece initiative. The Japanese company have shrunk the size and price of their premium Transformers line in an effort to keep pace with unlicensed treats from the likes of FansProject and iGear. This video seems to indicate these new toys are lightly scaled up from their 80s molds to fit adult dimensions - collectible action figures designed specifically to have the same spacial relationship with a fully grown owner that the 1985 bricks had with children.
Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Monday, 20 August 2012
Saturday, 18 August 2012
Thursday, 16 August 2012
An underworld staffed by revolting reanimated war veterans? Van Dammage leading home invasions with a BIC'd head? A story that seems heavily indebted to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness? Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning? Fuck yeah!
Schwarzenegger hauls his old man body around for The Last Stand, a border town beat 'em up with a plot that sounds like Rio Bravo knocking heads with a seventies future shocker. For his big comeback Schwarzenegger's recruited director Kim Ji-woon, a genre man with gems like A Bittersweet Life and I Saw the Devil on his CV. Proof positive that Arnold's knack for recognising out of town talent hasn't deserted him.
Tuesday, 14 August 2012
In the run up to screening the super shitty RoboCop TV series, ITV ran an incredibly neutered edit of the 1987 original. All the cursing was out, replaced with a series of non sequiturs and bizarro tough guy talk. I suppose the idea was to prime kiddies for the new show without stinking up their vocabulary. I can't imagine much of the violence was deleted - children eat that shit up. Most of the swear word alternatives make it into the above clip, apparently assembled from multiple network television dilutions. The only one not included that sticks with me is Kurtwood Smith suddenly becoming helium squeaky during Boddicker's coke den shakedown. Smith, all swagger and Chipmunk intonation, describes how he intends to shove narcotics up his rivals nose until the gentleman in question sneezes and sneezes and sneezes. There's a chance my memory invented that one.
Saturday, 11 August 2012
Friday, 10 August 2012
Thursday, 9 August 2012
Tuesday, 7 August 2012
Black Ops II gets a multiplayer reveal that dishes heavily on the kind of future-tech features usually seen in sci-fi shooters like Halo or Crysis. My favs? A wacky load-out contraption, possibly called Guardian, that seems to shoot sickness rays, and an x-ray gun straight out of Perfect Dark. This is probably the first time a Treyarch entry has looked as aesthetically pleasing as the nearest Infinity Ward instalment. The Santa Monica studio has typically been stung with outmoded engines, and teenage mud and blood impulses that trended gauche. On the evidence presented here, this looks clean and quick. If Treyarch can dispense with the kind of revenge spawning that took the shine off Modern Warfare 3, and clean up a netcode model that saw Black Ops constantly whiffing hit detection, we could be looking at a worthy successor to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's frankly peerless multiplayer.
Modern Warfare 3, mere months away from being ousted as the in vogue dude-bro shooter, finally appears to be getting the kind of support we've been expecting all year. Last week a fairly sizeable weapon re-balance fix dropped, completely changing the fortunes of players committed to American infantry rifles and Japanese machine pistols. This week, Survival Mode gets an arcade flavoured remix entitled Chaos that makes mulch of sneak tactics in favour of the kind of combo aggravation usually glimpsed in side-scroll shooters or Resident Evil's The Mercenaries. Here's franchise superplayer Tom Cassell to talk us through.
Saturday, 4 August 2012
Wednesday, 1 August 2012
Probably conceived as a shelf warmer for The Dark Knight Rises, this animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns has slipped to late September. Maybe the storyline similarities between the two pieces were thought to be a bit too glaring in such close proximity? Regardless, this looks like an agreeably poppy take on Frank Miller's dark age opus. If we're getting nitpicky, I'd prefer it if the character drafts were a touch schlubbier than these lightly rounded breeze blocks. I want lines and folds, more of Miller's obsessive composition clutter to break up these figures. The colour palette could be murkier too. Lynn Varley's contribution was all gloomy, bleeding inks. This just looks a little further down the mandatory pastel colour bar of modern computer assisted animation. Still, wow panels are held to linger (something Miller didn't even do himself in Sin City), and Batman and Robin both look to have distinct, appropriate, movement patterns. Carrie zigs and zags, whilst Bruce looms and crunches.