Man of Steel: A Thoughtful Film that Gets Superman Right

June 14, 2013

I have attempted to avoid spoilers in this review, but different people have different spoiler thresholds. Caveat emptor.

We all bring baggage of some kind into the art we experience, even if it’s not liking art or never having seen Mad Men because you’re lame. Sometimes it’s an intense identification with a character who’s celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday this year. But maybe you’re in the “don’t like ‘splosions” crowd or the “NO CHANGES!” confederacy or you really just like Batman uber alles. I get that. I’ve been some of those people.

I love Superman. As a kid, I wore Superman pajamas until they didn’t fit anymore, and continued for a while even after my feet burst

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve as Superman

through the soles of the stocking part. I watched Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie as often as I could, and Terence Stamp was my idea of self-important rebel leaders before I knew what that really meant. I watched whatever the hell Superman III and IV were supposed to be, and they kind of freaked me out (III came out when I was 2, so I probably saw it for the first time when I was 4 or 5. At least one scene in that movie is *intense*). I watched Supergirl, and a not so successful Superboy TV show, and Lois & Clark, a dull show with some inspired performances.

My main takeaway from what I saw in Superman in films and television and a very few comics read in the supermarket while Mom was grocery shopping, is that if we have the chance, we should help people. Even when the bad guy is the one who needs help. Maybe, if you’re the only one who can help but that help may kill you, you still help. Even if it seems impossible, you still try, no matter the odds. Superman does everything, and anything, he can, to help people who need his help.

Superman made sense to me. He has amazing gifts, but he doesn’t use them for frivolity like financial gain or athletics. He uses his powers to make a decent living for himself as a normal guy, and to help other people who wouldn’t be helped if he weren’t there. To make a difference.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve established a more complex view of how Superman’s powers work and should be used, and as I’ve been reading up on the modern era of Superman comics these last few months, I’m glad to see that comic book writers think with greater complexity on these issues, too. Superman is still a good man, who uses his powers to help people, and sometimes entire civilizations. I’m on board with that. But he is also a man: he makes mistakes, and he lives in a world where sometimes, the morally correct choice isn’t between the good and the bad, it’s between the bad and the awful, or the bad and the vaguely worse. He can’t always solve problems by being faster, stronger, or smarter than the bad guys. Stories don’t always have happy endings. Like the real world. I’m happy with this version of Superman: I like the big blue Scout, but a man of his stature surely encounters issues more complex than whether to save a kitten from a tree.

As I entered Man of Steel, I was a man who wears the shield of El as a ring on his finger every day, with the experience of reading thousands of comic books and dozens of graphic novels and a few scholarly essays on the subject of my favorite hero. Can Man of Steel live up to the Superman I believe in, a man who saves the world by helping people, by using his abilities in a good cause, by fighting when there is no fight left in him, while still acknowledging that even the powers of a god can’t solve every problem in a clean, positive way?

Happily, it managed to meet and exceed those wishes, and I am very happy for its success. It is complex, has substantial arcs for each of its three leads (who I take to be Clark, Lois, and Zod), and gets Superman right: he’s a great man. Flawed, but still great. [Warning: there may be spoilers beyond this point. I tried to avoid them, but there are some plot details you might not want to know]

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Almodóvar’s Kika (1993) – Postmodern Comedy at its Best

February 13, 2013

The last couple of months have been quite stressful. Strangely enough, I have found the ultimate relief in early Almodóvar films.

Almodovar on the set of Kika

“Almodóvar?” you ask. “Isn’t that the director who makes those flamboyant, disturbing Spanish movies with Antonio Banderas or Penelope Cruz? How can those be stress relief?”

I respond to your rhetorical question with another one posed by A.O. Scott:

“Can there be such a thing as exuberant melancholy?”

No, seriously – Tony’s question is a valid one with regard to Almodóvar’s films. How can he make movies that breathe so well – that can be funny, disturbing and tragic all at the same time without resorting to recognizable clichés? Whether or not one buys into the auteur theory, Almodóvar has an unmistakable directorial signature that nevertheless produces a very different film every time. To quote Tony again, “[his] plots thicken and explode according to their own peculiar logic.” (Which is why I’m s0 excited about I’m So Excited.)

Kika

Kika is an uneven, postmodern, self-conscious mess with spectacular pacing and characterization. The film is about an upbeat protagonist in a vicious, cruel society full of the depraved and the depressed, much like in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008). It has all the trappings of a dark comedy, but Almodóvar (as with many of his early comedies) reaches for the bottom of the abyss.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON DOWN

The titular protagonist is a make-up artist who gets involved in affairs with a voyeuristic photographer and his writer/serial killer father Nicholas. The apex of the film occurs when the voyeur son Ramón films from a distant apartment as Kika is raped three times by a randy prison escapee, all whilst Ramón’s father murders a woman in the bedroom upstairs. While any other film would frame this moment in the most misogynistic terms imaginable – emphasizing the voyeuristic affinities between the spectator and the three male perpetrators – Almodóvar manages to play the scene for laughs (i.e., the rapist convict lasts for a ridiculously long time), and our sympathies never stray from Kika and her companions.

And so I got to thinking about HBO comedies and all this long-form television that people so hungrily consume these days… and how all of it could be so much darker and sympathetic toward women, if only Almodóvar were at the helm. Discussions of Bertolt Brecht recall how good the director was at drawing connections between material conditions and the agency of those characters who must endure them. Almodóvar outclasses Brecht by finding endless labyrinths of desire within both the society and characters who maneuver within it, such that we are constantly transitioning between ironic and melodramatic registers in a fashion pleasurable to the astute viewer.

I don’t think it’s on Netflix (OK, it’s on Hulu Plus.) But it’s a gem worth seeking for its total reconfiguration of genre, expectation, and gendered expectations of narrative. An invasive-but-friendly brain massage.

In an age that continuously exalts novelty, I’m suddenly excited to re-watch all the titles from the 1980s and 90s that I seem to have curiously missed.