Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Superman vs The Elite" - Why it may be the best Superman film ever made (Part 2)

(If you wish to read the SPOILER-FREE review of "Superman vs The Elite" click here)

I have this friend. He gives me a lot of crap over liking comics, because he says "they are aimed at children". Of course, when I bring up the fantasy worlds he likes, with the dragons and the elves and the wenches, he believes those are aimed at adults, because of the blood and the tits. I don't hold it against him; he's not stupid, he's just inherently incapable of interpreting pop-culture.

But the "aimed at children" argument is one that never ceases to amaze me. Not because I have any intention of bringing up that comics have featured a lot of sex and blood for the last 2-3 decades (oops, I guess I just did), but because I don't see how this argument is supposed to be an inherent blame for the medium.

"Aimed at children" (not even primarily) does not necessarily mean "kiddie" or "silly" or "stupid". It means material aimed at a group that builds its critical thought and has the necessary imagination to appreciate the things that many of us are too old and cynical to accept and have been missing from, say, the video-games industry for a long time.

The original super-heroes had stricken a great balance: the stories were aimed at children, with super-villains, fantastic worlds and protagonists capable of super-human feats, but the characters themselves had more literary depth than any child could imagine. Batman, for example, was the culmination of horror classics in the form of a vigilante and the celebration of the American dream in his alter-ego. Wonder Woman was the the sum of her creator's radical (for the time) views on sexuality and inter-gender relationships within the household.

Not even hiding it anymore.
But Superman trumped them all: originally created as a villain, an amalgam of strength as per mythical heroes (Samson and Hercules, in particular), an origin to reflect both religious convictions (Moses in a basket on the river to escape death) and celebrate the core of old-school Americana (finding a new home and succeeding away from your place of origin) and all glued together with a loose interpretation of Nietzsche's  Übermensch theory.

I don't know in what fucked up dimension this would be considered "kiddie" and that's only touching the surface of the character's build.

Superman was the "first" and the "best". Manchester Black says so in "Superman vs The Elite". But Manchester also argues his time is gone, that capes and tights are out, fantasies of another era that don't reflect the real, "adult" world. It's my friend's argument all over again.

The thing that nobody ever gave Superman credit for was his tendency to adjust, better than any other super-hero, to the world around him and subsequently lead his ilk into social relevance. Most other characters have remained virtually unchanged since they appeared and the changes they've undergone have only been made to appeal to the lowest-common-denominator of the audience. Few ever had to adjust to "the times".

Don't fuck with Superman. He'll shoot you right in the fucking face.
When Superman was created, the "times" demanded that he was a ruthless vigilante of the post-Depression era, someone who exhibited strength and speed, but most of all an increased sense of justice, far beyond the type of justice humans thought fitting. When he wasn't wearing the tights, he was a reporter, in a time when the Press was something to be admired, when it served its purpose and fought to bring the truth to the public instead of promoting political and corporate agendas.

 The original Superman was above mankind in every possible way. An idealized version of the Homo Sapiens and his potential; the Man of Tomorrow. He knew what was best for us, but he wasn't a saviour. He fought for the "helpless and the oppressed", without spouting dogmas and operating on rhetoric.

Ehm... awkward.
The War came and went and the United States were the big winner; the only country not to be directly hit and suffer devastation in its infrastructure and get out with a massive new weapon. Prosperity followed and with it, the Cold War. Superman was no longer reflecting the struggling post-Depression America. His rebellious conduct was no longer desired by publishers or the public. He was now part of the same establishment a mere decade ago he was fighting against.

The '60s were about two things: the space-race and the unquestionable trust in the establishment, the government that knows better and protects the good public from Communism. Superman comics reflected just that. The stories were of the pop-sci-fi variety, the less-logic-more-imagination type, where alien threats and mad scientists took centre-stage. Superman was the establishment; lawful citizen of the United States, friend to the authorities (who, in the '40s, hunted him down as a vigilante) and a public persona (whereas originally he would avoid being seen publicly and would often-times disguise himself).

A typical Silver Age Superman cover.
Needless to say during those times, investigative journalist Clark Kent was non-existent and ace-reporter Lois Lane was probably living off of well-fare, all the while spending her days competing with Lana Lang for Superman's heart (or penis-- still unclear on that).

The '70s saw the first bold steps towards globalization, socially, politically and economically and thus brought a more socially-aware Superman, toned down the sci-fi element and were concerned with making Superman a citizen of the world (he literally had UN Citizenship). The '80s followed at about the same pace, only with a bit more drama, heavier focus on pseudo-technology and robotics and Superman reverting slightly to his more conservative roots, to juxtapose his sense of the old-fashioned "American Way" to the less-than-noble corporate takeover of the U.S. that concerned a lot of different media at the time (e.g. "RoboCop").

The '90s were a mess for comics everywhere. While some of the stories were good, it was probably the only decade when the character failed to reflect the world around him, largely because the world around him wasn't changing, but instead growing. The '90s were a transitory phase -especially in media and pop culture- that involved a lot of experimentation (with often-times tragic results, especially in the comics industry).
Boy, did he try to fit in with the '90s!
The '90s opted for "cooool" and "raaaad", but even then they knew they were making contemporary trends to survive until they could find a direction. A character as old and enduring as Superman couldn't-- shouldn't follow; and he tried. Oh boy, did he try. But, alas, he had to literally just "faf "about that era and wait for something to happen. He was the nice guy, with the parents, the job, the wife and the super-powers. And that's all he was.

Then something did happen. In the post-9/11 era, the character actually remained consistent. It was as far back as the '60s that his personality was set in stone with few changes and in a world that now saw only threat from an undefinable force and wars that destabilise the entire planet, Superman was more patriotic, but never conservative enough to stoop into heavy-handed propaganda. Much like those United States that were his home and audience were split following the years after the World Trade Centre attack, so was Superman, trying to remain as neutral as possible.

He no longer took on the big issues, instead focusing on the morality of situations and realising, much like he did during the Second World War that he is not human. That he cannot interfere.

To this date, Superman is the cornerstone of everything every other hero stands for. He's the moral arbiter that his friends look to to determine right from wrong. He has transcended mundane story-telling and generational trends and has become the wholesome representation of the entire super-hero genre.

This, by the way, may end up killing his books (people like reading stories, after all), but that's also the reason why even without a series of his own, he will never disappear from pop-culture and super-herodome-- not if the super-hero genre wants to survive.

In "Superman vs The Elite", Superman asks if the world has moved to a place where he cannot follow. The Elite are a force to be reckoned with; not because of their strength, but because they don't represent anything. Manchester repeats, time and again, that he has no intention to inspire. He is there to "fix" the world, a notion that Superman discards early on in the film, as he believes "the world doesn't need "fixing".

Manchester Black and his Elite don't prey on innocents. They aren't looking for glory or love from the world. They don't exploit fear. They liken themselves to "surgeons" trying to cut out "cancers". They believe in what they do. They aren't megalomaniacs, they aren't even bad people. They have a temper, but they aren't villains.

What they are is human. They are tired of injustice, of death, of war. They enjoy their fifteen-minutes, but they never seem to do what they do for those minutes. They really want a better world and they believe themselves the only capable of making it happen. They will clean up the planet, collateral damage be damned!

They are what would happen if you or I got super-powers, without the moral strength to not abuse them-- even if we thought we were doing good.

This becomes apparent when one sees Manchester's frustration with the terrorists that attacked the trains in the UK (in the film, not the actual subway bombings of 2005, which I'm sure served as inspiration). He is genuinely angry. His reaction is a nice-fitting, small piece of a bigger puzzle that's made up of his teammate's vices.

The Hat's drinking problem, for example and Menagerie's promiscuity and temper are small representations of the bigger problem: people with power , lacking the character to use it wisely. If they can't control their vices, how can they control the desires and temptations so much power brings?

Superman has that strength, but he's not perfect. That's why he questions himself. That's why he loses control when he is "deconstructed", when he starts believing that he never mattered, that his principles and everything he has ever known or done are lies that nobody but he cares about. It's painful for him to suddenly realize that perhaps everything he has ever been was a lie.

He has lived among humans and, even though he knows he's not one of them, he admires them and sees their potential. Not the potential for everyone to be like him, but to aspire to something even better than what they already are. Many have seen Superman in the past as a condescending demi-god, but he is merely a man (albeit a man of another world) that lives by his principles and never falters, a bastion of humanity's best traits-- hence the name "Super-Man".

Kelly does a great job of showing just that. He writes a great Lois Lane and he is adamant about neither her nor Clark literary compromising their integrity, whether they are married or not. Clark still outdoes Lois because he types faster, Lois still hunts the exclusive for herself. Their interaction is great in and out of the house, in and out of costume.

This is important, because without Lois or Ma and Pa Kent alive, the story wouldn't have the same impact. As Superman wonders about his place in the world, he is surrounded by people who may or may not agree with him, but love him and support him. If not for this connection, whatever decision he may had made, even if it was the exact same, would feel detached; like a god arbitrarily deciding the fate of the lesser people around him.

Thanks to Lois and the Kents, his decisions feel grounded in humanity (even if one calls them overly optimistic), especially during a scene with Pa Kent on the porch of the farmhouse. Superman has a super-human ability to live by his principles instead of hating by his values (the difference between being ethical and acting morally superior). Unlike most of us regular folk, he can afford to do this. But ultimately all these principles are very human. They were taught to him by that kindly couple in "Nowheresville".

There is also a  scene with Lois on their couch, which manages to be both inspiring and heart-breaking, a staple of drama where the hero needs to forgo his happiness and possibly his chance of survival to stand up for what he believes in. It's not despite, but because Lois shows him love on a personal, genuinely emotional level at that moment that he stands his ground, that he knows what he's about to do is the right thing. Without her, he could've compromised (also see: Red Son, Kingdom Come).

It's fitting that the story takes place in the United States. I'm uncertain it would've had the same impact taking place elsewhere. The film makes slight political commentary. Some have even taken issue with it, but its political commentary isn't really the point. It uses it as a gateway to comment on social tendencies, particularly transparent in the U.S. since 9/11.

Manchester Black often-times mocks Superman's "American militaristic, imperialistic way" and for good reason. The U.S. is a country with an interventionist policy, because it can afford it. If it wasn't as strong and didn't rely on its arms industry so much, it couldn't afford to export warfare. The problem is this policy is carried out often-times ignoring the rest of the global community or even circumventing it. To top that off, it constantly sells morality, principles and ethics to support it.

The political commentary is pretty much this: Superman stands for the American Way, but he let that American Way lose its purity and he allowed corrupt politicians and a scared public to transform it into something despicable. Chester essentially (and to a degree, rightfully) brands Superman a hypocrite. Someone who will stand on principle and not acknowledge the distortion of values he claims to fight for and do something about it. He's not just naive, he's not just a hypocrite, he's an accomplice.

At the same time, The Elite realise this distortion and embrace it. They take a page from that policy, brand themselves the only capable party of deciding what's right and wrong and impose it on the world. Because that's what we do, as humans, because that's what we have proved to do time and again when we are left unchecked.

This is merely the surface of Chester's comment, however, as the meat lies on the social, rather than the political. The tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks turned Americans - understandably- into scared husks of what they used (or had the potential) to be. For all the division that followed, a rather large percentage of the population kept clinging to the idea that they were in danger, that even Iraq was justified (even when it was proved that it wasn't).

They signed away all power in decision-making to the government, a single authority that exists to represent its public, but not make its decisions for it. Fear brought complacency and in that complacency the false sense of security everyone needed.

The parallel isn't even subtle. The world signs away its protection to the Elite, because they offer the same sense of security despite their questionable methods, much like the American public (and, thanks to globalisation, the entire western world) signed away theirs to the American government (either by supporting or ignoring its actions).

The United States have been blessed with not really knowing what war is. There hasn't been war on the country's soil since their civil war roughly 150 years ago and while even in recent conflicts thousands of parents, sons and daughters were sent away to fight and never came back, the tragedy of war remained an idea detached from the public psyche.

It'd be hard to sell the morality of war (especially one that extends over a decade) to countries where people still remember rotting bodies stacking up right around the corner where that convenience store stands today.

Superman operates on simple grounds: never take away a life, lead by example, but let mankind take its course without intervening. One could call this the idealised American Way, the policy people THINK the U.S. government follows whenever it sends kids to kill other, brown kids half-a-world over.

It's what makes Superman and the Elite primarily different. The Elite seize the power and abuse it. Superman uses it to "help out". It's why he never worked as a saviour (hear that, Mr. Singer?) as saviours tend to be condescending fucks that demand praise for their services.

Superman is about setting an example and about acting on his principles (mainly, to protect all life). What happens afterwards, he cannot be involved with. He cannot understand. He cannot intervene or influence policies. He gives this power back to the people. It's why he hasn't stopped wars himself (as per Black's accusation) or why even in fictional USA the death penalty stands (even though it's probably against Superman's ethics code). It's not for him to decide. 

It's also why it's a display of unchecked power that makes Superman's case in the end. The entire story (both the original comic book and the film) is an endless loop of violence, with survival of the fittest being on the menu.

The war between the fictional Middle-Eastern nations of Bialya (spelling may be off) and Pokolistan is mediated by the U.N. (with the U.S. at the helm), then gets taken over by the Elite, who assassinate the political leaders of both countries, then try to kill Superman.

Superman proves stronger and pretends to follow their rules. Being the next strongest contender, he follows the exact same practice as American foreign policy, Pokolistan, Bialya AND the Elite did: "I killed them, so they won't be killing anyone else", Superman says after he takes out the Elite members (sans Manchester Black) one by one.

His plan to achieve this is elaborate, but the idea is simple. He understands the anger and the frustration. You can see it in his face at the beginning of the movie, when the first innocent bystander turns to ashes in his arms after the Atomic Skull blasts him and then he proceeds to knocking Skull around until he is beaten.

You can see it again when he revokes his own non-interventionist policy and disarms those Pokolistani fighter-jets. He is frustrated, he is desperate to prove to himself that he's still relevant, that his values are worth fighting for. He needs to see hope that he feels is fleeting at the moment and worse than that, part of him is considering really buying what the Elite has been selling and cross that line himself.

In the end, he sees just that. He shows the world what unchecked power leads to, what fruit authority without control bears. More than that, he shows what violence and lack of mercy look like.

His speech at the end of the film about "dreams" is a bit on the cheesy side, but that's the point! Dreams should be on the cheesy side, dreams should be devoid of all the cynicism that skews our view of the future, the cynicism we deal with in everyday life. Cynicism is the final obstacle, which when managed to be overcome (i.e. nobody will have reason to embrace it anymore), is when we'll have achieved the ideal world.

Superman's better stories tackle moral and societal issues. He is the only super-hero equipped with what it takes to ask the hard questions, because he's an immovable force within his medium.

This movie does its best to portray just that, a reality that comic-book readers have known for a while. Superman, understandably, takes a lot of crap for his square and clean looks and morals. Black and white isn't inherently interesting and few want a character in a story, who spends most of his time preaching.

But when the questions imposed on us, the audience, have relevance in our society, our politics and aren't deep-rooted in some arbitrary, god-given morality, but the empathy humans naturally have for their species and the levels of ethics and principles we choose to build and stand by, either because of that empathy or to safeguard the continued existence of our world, there are few modern myths more capable to tackle these issues and offer answers.

This is why "Superman vs The Elite" may very well be the best Superman movie out there. It obviously doesn't have the scope and grandeur of "Superman: The Movie", but in terms of characterization and subtext, this movie is a prime example of why Superman still survives as a character and, more than  that, why the entirety of the super-hero genre survives and it's being constantly embraced by new audiences, whether in its original print medium or its other outings.

Because the points raised by the film above may look like they're at least five years too late, but in essence they are points that could've been raised at any time in human history with little change. They speak of our nature, of our understanding of the world, but most of all they speak about our freedom to make the choice on how to build our own future. That is the one thing that transcends generations and morals and all the shifts in society. That is the one thing all humans will always be tasked with until the fall of the species.

We like reading stories about interesting characters, but we prefer looking up to unwavering heroes. This means something.

PS: Perfectly aware of the over-simplifications in history and philosophy. Apologies, but this is long enough as it is.

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