Saturday, July 01, 2006

Some thoughts about Superman Returns

For a long time, I've thought that the Hollywood blockbuster is the contemporary version (at least one) of what was in earlier times, the religious spectacle, but popularized and secularized (sometimes), and then packaged with the label, "entertainment." It is life extraordinary. It is the reality where anything is possible, and there is usually a moral to the story.

Many Hollywood action adventures employ biblical motifs--I think Job and Jesus must be the most popular, though I have no numbers to confirm this.

Why do I bring this up? Well, yesterday I used a free movie ticket I got for signing up for broadband service and went to see Superman Returns, an o.k. movie I thought, good special effects, but a little too obvious for me.

I say this as one who can generally suspend disbelief during movies; to me, that is the whole point of the Hollywood Blockbuster. People don't go to see such movies, especially action-adventure, horror, science fiction, etc. movies looking for realism. They want to go "where no human has gone before" and to experience life "faster than a speeding bullet," where superheros can walk through walls and perform other miracles. So, I tend not to have problems when characters in such movies defy gravity and fly up into the sky, whether they have capes or not.

Why did I have trouble suspending disbelief while watching Superman Returns? It wasn't the flying. Who would go see a Superman movie and complain that Superman was able to fly? It didn't help for me that everytime Clark Kent changes his guise, the heroic Superman music starts to play (and the fact that nobody recognizes Clark as Superman is starting to seem silly to me after all these years). But I guess this is all the stuff of myths and rituals. That music is part of the ritual experience.

I also don't usually have issues with overt expressions of religion in life or in art; in fact, I have always been interested in it. But the allusions to the accounts of Jesus' life in the Gospels are just so apparent, so obvious, so in your face. Voiceovers of Superman's father saying: "I gave my only son." Superman in the sky in crucifix pose. The scene where the nurse walks into Superman's hospital room and discovers he has disappeared, just like Jesus' corpse disappearing from the tomb. The very name, Superman Returns. Just substitute, "The Messiah...."

There is a drawn-out discussion throughout the movie about whether humans need Superman, and it becomes clear almost from the outset that Superman equals savior, so the real question becomes: "Do Humans need a savior?" Lois Lane initially argues that they do not ("You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but everyday I hear the world crying for one"), but her thinking on this gradually changes as the movie progresses.

I don't know enough about the history of the Superman comic to know if these allusions were always there, though I guess Lex Luther/Lucifer is pretty obvious. However, I never noticed them in such an obvious way before.

In the final analysis, I didn't mind Superman Returns, but I just couldn't get past the fact that I was sitting in a movie theater watching a movie. It didn't really take me out of the present, out of the mundane. There was no momentary transformation, no absorbing me into the reality evoked by the movie, and that, in my view, is what a successful ritual should do.

UPDATE: I guess my ability to recognize allusions in movies isn't that bad. In the comments, Charlie points us to this AP article at that makes the same case. See Jesus Christ Superman (quoted material below):
Pedersen said Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who introduced Superman in 1938 in a comic book, were Jews who were inspired by the Old Testament story of Moses and the supernatural golem character from Jewish folklore. (Author Michael Chabon made much of these similarities in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.")

The Christian allusions are recent innovations that compromise the integrity of the Superman myth, she said.

"This does not need to be a consistent cultural form from its beginning to its present, but something has to be maintained," Pedersen said.

"Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer said the notion of Superman as a messianic figure is simply another case of contemporary storytelling borrowing from ancient motifs.

Singer, who is Jewish, said his neighbors' Christianity played a powerful role in the community where he grew up.

"These allegories are part of how you're raised. They find their way into your work," he said. "They become ingrained in your storytelling, in the same way that the origin story of Superman is very much the story of Moses."

It's unlikely that studio executives, conscious of the size of the Christian audiences that were coaxed into theaters by the biblical echoes in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," would discourage religious associations.

"The way in which the Christian population can get behind a movie that they can agree with is a huge push financially," said Skelton, who also distributes Bible-study kits that draw scriptural lessons from classic television episodes. "It's a smart move in terms of attracting an audience."

At the same time, Superman is fixed firmly enough in popular secular culture so that the religious accents are unlikely to alienate a mainstream audience, said Craig Detweiler, who directs the film-studies program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

"Just like Jesus, in some ways (Superman) transcends parities and politics and can not be co-opted to serve the narrow interests of others," he said. "That could be one reason why studios aren't afraid to let Superman go that way, toward the religious." (Read whole article)


Blogger Charlie said...

I think you would like to read this article:

3:09 PM  
Blogger Wulingren said...

Thanks Charlie. I've added the link. I knew I was on to something, as obvious as it was.

7:04 PM  

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