Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Americans Secretly Hate Superman

The Reason Why the "Man of Steel" Just Doesn't Resonate with American Audiences Anymore...

A lot of times, our movie going experiences are WAY, WAY more memorable than anything that happens in the movies we watch. In fact, in some instances, we really can’t recall any major details about movies, but we sure as hell haven’t forgotten what happened within the theater while we viewed those otherwise forgettable motion pictures.

Now, I’m not talking about secondary reasons for why you can’t remember the movie (like, you couldn’t remember the plot line for “The Master of Disguise” because you were getting third-based at the time). Rather, I’m talking about those rare experiences where the audience’s interaction with the film before them becomes so intense that such a reaction takes complete precedent over the film itself.

For example, I will NEVER forget the time the 300 pound plus African-American woman stood up during one of the “Scream” movies (I honestly can’t recall whether it was the second or third installment) and yelled, at the top of her lungs “BITCH, DON’T GO IN THERE!”, nor will I forget watching a good three quarters of the audience storm out of the opening night screening of “Freddy Got Fingered” when Tom Green started swinging a newborn around a hospital by its umbilical cord, with blood splashing all over the walls.

And in 2006, I had a similar experience with the ill-received Superman Returns.”

As moviegoers, we’re able to buy into all sorts of nonsense. We can believe that JFK, Jr. can use investor money to steal NASA equipment so he can fight homeless terrorists, who somehow pose a greater and more elusive threat to civilization than Al Qaeda. We can believe thata mildly retarded, legally blind boxer that lives with a robot and an alcoholic brother-in-law not only has the ability to knockout a HGH-fed Russian killing machine, but is capable of delivering an impromptu speech immediately afterfifteen rounds of brain-damage inducing fisticuffs to bring the Cold War to an instant end. Hell, we can even believe that a state of the art, technologically marvelous nautical vessel can be destroyed by a single piece of ice. Needless to say, it takes a lot to get American audiences to stop suspending their disbelief, and “Superman Returns” provided me with not only such a rare moment, but perhaps the most vociferous crowd turn I’ll ever witness.

If you’ve seen the movie, you probably know the exact scene I’m talking about. Superman is doing battle with some generic thugs, and one of them shoots him. . .right in the eyeball. I mean, dead center, on the pupil, at point blank range. And of course, since he’s Superman, he shrugs it off like it’s an open palm strike from Richard Simmons, and the Krypton ass-kicking, it continues.

Prior to that scene, I’ve never heard a movie audience boo in unison before, let alone direct their communal jeers towards the hero of the damn movie. This fat dude in a camouflage hat and overalls waddled ever so slightly out of his seat, and yelled at the screen “That’s bullshit!” before crashing back into his seat to shove more popcorn kernels into his maw. “Man, this is STOOPID,” I hear some kid in the back row smart off. The disdain in the air wasn’t just palpable, it clung to your clothing for three days afterward.

There’s this thing I’ve invented and not at all stolen from Fredric Wertham called “The Invincible American Syndrome.” By and large, Americans picture themselves - and by proxy, their archetypical, symbolic representations of themselves - as completely indestructible figures, these people that are physically impossible to kill, hurt or even impede. You see “The Invincible American” figure all the time in our movies, from the John Wayne types that can survive getting shelled by every single piece of German mortar made in the years of 1931-1941 to the modern day Bruce Willis-Harrison Ford type that can sustain mortal injuries, shrug it off, and then proceed to kill half of the standing army of whoever the international villain du jour is that week at the multiplex. Clearly, this Superman figure is the ultimate -and really, prototypical - “Invincible American,” that (ig?)noble, practically immortal representation of our delusions of grandeur as a nation. We really do think that if we had heavy artillery on us like Dirty Harry or Rambo, we could stop all forms of violent crime by ourselves. We really do think that we can smoke, drink and jam fast food down our throat holes and avoid any and all health consequences, living out our golden years like the aberrational Jack Nicholson we all think we’ll be. In short, we all sort of think we’re a real-life Superman, totally oblivious to the realities of our own meager, oh-so-easily suspended mortalities. 

Way to block out the super asshole.

The really, really ironic thing here is that Superman, for all intents and purposes, was designed as a mockery of the “Invisible American” figure by two Jewish artists that were pissed off that their original idea for a Hebrew super hero got rejected by publishers. Hell, for that matter, the original idea for Superman was a pastiche of the Nietzschean idea of the Superman, a telepathic super villain that was supposed to be a snide swipe at post WWI German nationalism. Nobody seemed to have gotten the “joke” some seventy years ago, and apparently, nobody has picked up on it since.

Despite the critical and commercial failure of the last attempt to reboot the cinematic Super-series, Hollywood just can’t leave the property alone, apparently.

Right now, “Man of Steel,” the latest (and most certainly not the last) Superman reboot is currently in production. Seeing as how the last go-through was about as successful as a hot dog stand outside a mosque, the movie is being super-engineered to avoid failure by enlisting a trifecta of talents that are no strangers to the superhero genre: director Zak Snyder (“The Watchmen”), writer David S. Goyer (the “Blade” series) and even Mr. Batman Reboot himself, Chris Nolan, serving as a producer for the project. The cast - which includes everybody from that chick from “The Muppets” to Russell “Take a Picture of Me and I’ll Punch Your Balls into Your Throat” Crowe - looks like the sort of mega all-star line-up that simply cannot fail. Hell, the filmmakers even gave comic book readers the world over the thrill of a lifetime when they unveiled pictures of the new Supes rocking a costume that FINALLY got rid of that stupid external underwear get-up in favor of something that actually resembled pants. Although details remain sort of sketchy, the film is supposed to merge the first two Richard Donner movies into a single narrative - meaning after 30 plus years of waiting, we’re finally getting another cinematic depiction of GENERAL GODDAMN ZOD on the horizon.

Clearly, these guys are working very, very diligently to avoid turning this one into yet another box office dud. What these big shot movie people don’t grasp, however, is that no matter how they tackle the source material, there’s no way they can turn the film into an interesting human drama...primarily, because we can’t relate to Superman, because we’re not a bunch of unkillable space refugees.

The first two Superman movies worked because they focused on the man part of the Superman mythos as opposed to the super (and yeah, I guess it didn’t hurt that those movies were also written by the same dude that wrote “The Godfather,” but whatever). All of the truly great super hero movies are the ones that center on the human being behind the mask, the guy that just wants to lead a normal, although unattainable life (Spider-Man 2) or guys that are fighting against hell and high water to retain their ethics and ideals (The Dark Knight). The first two Superman movies - especially the second, which was pretty much all about the main character giving up his super powers so he can bone his girlfriend - managed to go beyond the fact that this dude could fart lighting and piss tornadoes, turning the “Man of Steel” into something of a tragic figure that, as powerful as he is, can’t change all of humanity for the better, no matter how hard he tries. That’s some deep, extremely poetic shit to think about. . .which is probably why the next installment of the series was more about Richard Pryor being visibly high on cocaine than Superman’s existential dilemmas.

As a modern archetype, the Superman our grandparents grew up with is completely irrelevant. The character no longer represents the new-wave immigrant (which, at the time of the character’s debut, were mostly Eastern Europeans). Nor does Superman really embody the hyper-patriotism of World War II, or the cautiously optimistic technological excitement of the Cold War. As a cultural icon, it’s pretty safe to say that Superman hasn’t really been emblematic of anything in the U.S. since the 1960s - a decade where the far more politically and socially-driven Marvel characters replaced most of those anachronistic DC characters as the nation’s foremost comic book heroes.

The problem with Superman, I suppose, is that unlike Batman or Spider-Man, the character just hasn’t evolved with the times. Whereas Spider-Man is an immortal representation of the intellectual (although underprivileged) middle class and Batman is an immemorial symbol of our psychological yearnings for justice, Superman is just this alien-dude that’s ridiculously, absurdly hard to kill, for whom no human being stands an even minimal threat. As such a powerful character, his rogues gallery is one of the weakest in all of comics, since outside of Lex Luthor lugging around a shit ton of Kryptonite, nobody seems even remotely capable of going toe-to-toe with him. As grandiose as our illusions of invulnerability may be, there’s simply no way we can relate to a figure that belches tsunamis and has the ability to reverse the earth’s orbit by walking backwards. Canonically, the dude doesn’t even require the basic human faculties of breathing oxygen or eating food to survive, meaning the character is, for all intents and purposes, virtually immortal. Americans can grasp a guy being really, absurdly, ridiculously difficult to kill, but as a collective, we just can’t get behind any figure that boasts of an eternal lifespan (unless, of course, he claims to be the son of God or something.) 

Bet you didn't know "The Dark Knight Returns" was based on real events, did you?

That’s the rub with the whole “Invincible American Syndrome”, and in many ways, the Superman character. You see, although we all like to think that we and our heroes are unkillable, deep down, we all know that mortality is inescapable. Someday, we will kick the bucket, and odds are, it’ll be in an incredibly unheroic fashion (George Patton, your table is waiting.) As such, we like to believe that heroism is the one natural counteragent to the grim reaper, even though, yeah, we really know it isn’t.

Superman is a character that takes the “Invincible American Syndrome” to such a ridiculous extreme that there’s no way it can allow us to take refuge in the safety of our delusions. To a post 9/11, post Hurricane Katrina, post-economic downturn society, Superman is a downright intelligence insulting pastiche of all of those things we hold dear about the human spirit, like bravery, and duty, and commitment, and all of that jazz. The fatal flaw with the character is that he’s literally an undying monument to ethics and ideas that are incredibly easy to defeat, thus negating that whole thing about sacrifice being worthwhile and valuable to society. Real-life heroes remind us of the frailty and vulnerability of our own humanity…which are two things that get totally thrown out the window when you’re dealing with Superman.

DC Comics? You might want to take note of that.

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