Monday, January 29, 2007
It starts with 2 notes initially adding one more after a couple of beats. The cymbals, the trumpets and the percussion come in later. A full minute into it, the score steps into the halls of majesty as the credit begins fly into screen from yonder curving away left and right as fast as the man could fly. By the time the final note is played and the screen fades to dark, it becomes amply clear that the movie supported by this kind of music is going to be an out of the world experience. Back in 1980, when the first movie in this series was played out on the 70mm screen in the twin-cities (Santosh cinema, Abids) against the regal backdrop of John Williams' score, the overall feeling was a sense of jaw-dropping awe and eye-widening wonder, whenever the images of the man in red and blue flying from far atop the screen diving into the middle and saving the day for the entire world, were rastering the screen. Helicopters dangerously perched on the roof tops of the skyscappers were delicately handled and brought down to the ground with quite some aplomb. Dams that burst flooding the adjoining areas were carefully rebuilt stone by stone, brick by brick in the blink of an eye. Even when it was the case of earthquakes that split earth in the middle and gobbled up good citizens, the Man had an answer - simply reverse the direction of Earth's rotation so far and so fast, that time too would follow suit and reverse all its catastrophic calamities. Superman had the advantage of being brought to the screen first on a large scale, and so everything he did or everything that happened to him and around him became a spectacle. And the facts that nothing could stop him, he was faster than anything, he had the combined charm of a cute little baby and well-mannered gentleman, aided somewhat in the growth of his legend. His only weakness - home - Krypton.
The legend of Superman is one of squeaky clean all American virtuousness, where the world is split right in the middle into good parts and bad parts, the good guys are incredibly good and the bad guys are indelibly bad. "You are either with us or against us" is the kind of mentality that pervades the Superman universe and there are no grey areas or middle grounds in between. This is exactly the kind of material that would appeal to kids, whose worlds are painted in shades that are either dark or light and whose heroes came with lots of smiles and villains with loads of frowns; and it would also endear to people who would like their stories to be kept simple. This (movie) philosophy worked quite well back in the late 70s and the early 80s when the geo-political situation of the entire world was not quite as muddled as it is now. The only raging war was the covert Cold kind and even that didn't deter Superman to join forces with the Russians to make the world a safer place. Now how does this wide-eyed optimism and vanilla white character of Superman port to this contemporary era, where cynicism and pessimism become the congenital traits and birth rights of every new born. Wouldn't the notion that what is best for America is best for the world be scoffed and jeered at by the rest of the world, when Superman starts carrying an American flag when he whizzes past in the sky? Comic book heroes, particularly who carry a badge of national pride on their sleeves, tend to have a shortened shelf life in the era of flat world economics and constantly changing balance of powers situations. Though not exactly a comic book icon, James Bond seems to have understood and grasped this scenario and adapted quite well to the situation. But what about Superman - the All American Hero?
Brood seems to be new word and the order of the day, at least in the comic book hero world. The Man has everything that any nomal mortal would die for. He can go anywhere he wishes to faster than a speeding bullet. He can do anything he wants with all the might he possesses. Why then does he have to brood and rue? This is one troubled area, ironically, where Superman lags behind the other comic book heroes - Hulk, Batman, Spider Man and all the other DC and Marvel heroes. Even with all their super human powers, abilities and strengths, they still have the dark corners, rough edges and the grey shades that they just cannot seem to put them behind their pasts. Their troubles in minds and hearts are rooted in the simple fact that in spite of their prowesses, they are still human and so bleed when cut, cry when hurt. This conflict in their lives makes them more interesting, because their vulnerabilities seem to resonate in the rest of the humanity – when Peter Parker lets go of a culprit who eventually kills his uncle, the burden of guilt weighs so heavily on Spiderman as to commit his powers to the cause. Similarly the apathy of the world to the injustice causes Bruce Wayne to don a Bat suit and do vigilante work. But beneath the tough exterior, Peter Parker still pines for Mary Jane's love, Bruce Wayne finds it tough balancing his black and white act - all stemming from human frailties. Superman, who is a step above all these human heroes, lacks that human touch; and the only thing he has in common with the rest of the people that share the same space with him is his wish for adjustment and acceptance, his wish to be a part of the same system that keeps him at arm's length because of his powers.
It is interesting that Singer and his writers chose acceptance as the principal point on which Superman would return to the screen. After going away for almost 20 years, Superman could not return (to the screen) with the same premise of saving the world through his powers (though they are still the main draw and the movie delivers them quite splendidly) and find acceptance. It is here through Lois Lane, the love of his life, who is mad at him for leaving her in limbo for 5 years and suddenly reappearing in her life, that Superman steps back in public consciousness. Yes, he still saves the world by stopping crashing airlines, uprooting unwanted continents, lifting submerged vessels and preventing building collapses. Even with all this, he wants to get back into Lois' life, who clearly seems to have moved on with her life, with a kid and a fiancée. In a way, Superman returns is as much as about him as it about Lois Lane (in fact, it should have been called Lois Returns, or at least, Lois and Superman) and the rekindling of the longing love that appears to have died out in embers. The domestication of Superman this way seem to open up a plethora of possibilities in terms of his vulnerabilities that are very human, and his use of the powers become as much for the greater good of the world as much they are for his personal needs. Singer's (and the writers') brilliance comes to fore here, where the only way of projecting somebody that is greater than life size is to drag him down, wrap him up in the same life and make him endure the same heart-burns and broken hearts, providing the much needed humanity in an otherwise Super-human life. Thanks to this frailty, Superman has truly returned!