Comics Ate My Brain

November 23, 2005

Move over, Clapton

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 2:40 pm
The new Superman Returns teaser trailer doesn’t reveal a whole lot of plot, or even show a lot of characters (our hero, maybe Ma Kent, maybe Lois). Instead, it sets a tone which might best be described as “reverent.” As the teaser shows a stunned crowd looking up in the sky, Marlon Brando intones “They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.” As Superman rises above the clouds, silhouetted by the sun, Brando continues, “They only lack the light to show them the way.”

It’s a very effective presentation, thanks in no small part to John Williams’ epic “Planet Krypton.” However, its effectiveness comes from its imagery of Superman being “above” humanity — someone who, as a boy, learned to stop himself from falling, and indeed to leap high above the Kansas plains. Later, the trailer shows Superman taking off from a rooftop, and it concludes with Superman in space, looking down on the Earth like the Star Child at the end of 2001.

While I’m no film student, to me the trailer’s emphasis on flight seeks to convey two aspects of Superman: freedom, as in Clark’s childhood exultations; and also that “above”-ness. Combined, the message is “He can do whatever he wants” — and the unspoken amendment of the message, alluded to in the last shot of Superman rocketing back to Earth, is that “he wants to help you.”

The cover of All-Star Superman #1, showing a relaxed Superman sitting on a cloud high over Metropolis, conveys the same comfort. The rest of the issue brims with the kind of assurance that Grant Morrison had already summarized eight years before in JLA #1: “No sweat, kids, the crisis is over. The big guy’s on the case.” I wish I could remember the preamble of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” but from memory I believe it talks about “a man from the sky who did only good.” Put them all together and Superman is more than the fatherly George Reeves, more than the big-brotherly Christopher Reeve, and certainly more than the superpowered pretty boys Dean Cain and Tom Welling. Right now, the trailer for the new movie paints Superman as God.

Clearly this is not a new idea. I’m not even sure it’s a conscious idea, much of the time. However, it makes Superman unique among other superheroic icons. Batman represents the apex of human potential, and Wonder Woman an idealized female warrior. The major Marvel heroes represent different aspects of human behavior. Only Superman has developed into a paragon of moral virtue, whose strict adherence to such a code is as much a part of his portrayal as his powers are.

The flip side of this portrayal is the notion that Superman is so powerful, he’s not interesting. One way to get around that is the current monthly books’ route of challenge through emotional manipulation. The Superman Returns trailer exemplifies another way, and that is to define Superman through the perceptions of those around him. It’s easier to do Superman-as-God the second way, because honestly, after a while the first way just ends up feeling forced.

Still, the second way results in a somewhat unknowable Superman, and that doesn’t sit with the regular-guy picture of Clark. It fits better with the pre-Crisis model of a “Clark Kent” persona created and shaped by a being who knew at his core he was Kal-El. Under that way of thinking, Superman doesn’t really make “human” mistakes, even as Clark — he only makes mistakes resulting from approximations of human behavior.

That sounds a little extreme, doesn’t it? Probably so, and I would argue that regardless of the era, Jonathan and Martha Kent deserve a lot of credit for shaping Clark into a more socialized being. Otherwise you get true “approximations of humanity” like Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan or Supreme Power‘s Hyperion.

That, I think, is the subconscious difference between Superman and various other omnipotent comic-book figures — Superman relates to the public (and thus the reader), even as he hovers over them. If he is God, he’s the God of miracle and wonder, not an Old Testament deity desiring sacrifice and dispensing retribution. In that light, Superman Returns‘ notion that the world has learned to live without him takes on an extra layer of significance.

Not that I expect the movie to be so deep, mind you; but based on the trailer, who knows?

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