Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No, it’s the first Superman Returns teaser trailer. And it’s pretty cool!

This film has stirred up a bit of fan controversy – partly because of the costume design, which is a pretty much standard reaction to any forthcoming superhero movie, and partly because rumours about the plot and approach have got people twitchy – but I’m not going to judge it until I’ve seen it. From the teaser trailer, it looks like they might be playing up the messianic aspects of the character, which is interesting; notice that the colour scheme of the present-day stuff is pretty dark, with Superman being the brightest part of the shot. The Marlon Brando voiceover, taken from the original Christopher Reeve movie, just emphasises this. Certainly, in a world that seems to be getting darker by the second, and where moral certainties seem to be running short, it’s not surprising that movies are going to do the secular messianic thing again – between this and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe the idea seems to be getting ‘out there’ again.

Thinking along these lines, it’s also interesting that Supes is a modern American folk hero that has caught on beyond the States. People might not accept Bush or the situation in Iraq, but they’ll accept Batman and Buffy and Superman. This might sound facetious, but the Kent farm might be a more acceptable and relatable symbol of America and Americana than the White House in some ways, not because of politics but because of the lack of politics. Superman’s a character who represents the hero, the guy we can get behind, the guy who saves cats from trees and stops rampaging death robots. Secular messiah, symbol of Americana, whatever. My favourite superhero is heading back to the big screen.


7 thoughts on “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

  1. novak

    Messianic indeed! Some of Brando’s voiceover is clearly Johannine in origin. You know, I do hear this kind of thing on a serious level: our entertainment industry has so accustomed people to the idea of alien life being “out there,” somewhere, and there is broadly echoed the Carl Sagan kind of assumption that any such civilization must be one “utterly advanced beyond human barbarities like war” (let’s not even begin to try to list the tendentious assumptions in that statement!). The results of these thoughts being that there is a real, if tacit, belief in alien life that is messianic in character, and isn’t recognized, or even held up as suspect, as being a kind of lazy intellectual transference of “religious” ideas where people don’t want to do the hard work of examining the potential veracity of the truth-claims of actual Christianity and human history. This lets you have your messianism without cost or effort, which is definitely in the fashionable mode of today’s “religion as self-constructed, feel-good mythic narrative.”
    I can’t believe I just wrote that. Anyway, there’s a simple idea in there to be found under my ponderous grad-school sentence construction….

    1. matthewhyde Post author

      Very good points – I think a lot of belief in alien life does have messianic overtones, especially situations like the Heaven’s Gate cult that committed mass suicide when Hale-Bopp passed over. It often falls within a sort of apocalyptic worldview – back in the day people believed Jesus was coming back at any time, but in an increasingly secular society, the role of saviour/destroyer falls to aliens – they’re going to wipe us out if we don’t get our act together, but they’ll save a few of us and take us to Zeta Reticulli or somewhere. Certainly this sort of thinking can play into sci-fi.
      That said, I think there are two different issues here, or at least one issue that takes on two different forms – the ‘truth’ and the ‘fiction’ of aliens. I see things like the Superman Returns trailer as tying into something CS Lewis said in God in the Dock:
      “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.”
      It’s almost as if certain ideas are hardwired into humanity so that we’d recognise them when they happened for real, which is at least partly what Lewis seems to be getting out. To a degree, Superman, as a modern interpretation of those old myths, would seem to fall into this category.
      But you’re right, the reflection is less costly, less rigourous and demanding and ‘real’ than the actuality. No matter how good the special effects and the retirement plan offered by the reflection, it’s nowhere near as important as the reality.
      (lol, and now people who are way smarter than me can poke holes in the theory 🙂 )

      1. novak

        Not me: I very much respect the insight that Tolkien, Lewis and their lot had into the nature of myth, and to notice that the collected myths of humanity might have a certain–and to be expected!–revelatory role. It ties very much into the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on non-Christian religions and jibs equally-nicely with things both Jesus and Paul have to say about the Holy Spirit. So, me, I’m siding with you on that point.
        Totally unrelated: you’ve read Infinite Crisis #2 by now? What do you think of Kal-L’s plan?

      2. matthewhyde Post author

        Yep, I’ve read IC2…I can see where Kal-L is coming from, but frankly I think he’s being played as a dupe and, as he’s pretty much doing this because of what’s happening to his Lois, he’s also lost sight of what’s important – just like the current Supes.
        Kal-L’s plan is, in my current working theory, the means by which the Apex Predator tries to destroy Earth (or whatever the Infinite Crisis uber-plan is). Notice the prominance of the JLI when Kal-L is discussing how the current DCU started off okay – the JLI have systematically wiped out. There’s been no mention of the good things that have happened in the Post-Crisis world, and most of the negative things have stemmed from stories written since the Infinite Crisis was conceived, which would seem to hint at this being more than just an attempt by Geoff Johns to redress the grim ‘n’ gritty thing.
        The Crisis survivors haven’t just been observing Earth – somehow, maybe even subconsciously, they’ve been influencing it; Schrondinger’s Cat, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, whatever. Observation affects the observed, which Kal-L, blinded by worry over Lois, doesn’t seem to have considered. Alex Luthor whispering in his ear in IC1 just adds to the idea that he’s being played.
        I can see why some readers would want to see the GA DCU back, and that’s fair enough. Taking IC as a story though, it seems that Kal-L is being set-up as an antagonist, at least in the short term. The question the current Supes should ask is, “What happens to MY Lois?” The answer to that question would inform just how much of this is a genuinely moral attempt to restore the rightful universe before everything succumbs to premature entropy, or whether it’s a desperate attempt by Kal-L to save his life and the cost of a history…

      3. novak

        Some interesting thoughts here. I had wondered a bit about whether Kal-L was being set up, but I don’t know that I’d settled on Alexander, yet. I’ve been trying to figure out whether Earth-1’s Luthor is this extra one running around, or if I’ve missed something else. It would, I suppose be seen by some as “classic” if Alexander became a “Lex,” but I think I’d find that cheap.
        I think the real drama, in a way, is–as you noted–Geoff Johns fighting Grim’n’Gritty. I’ve wondered whether if even a Kal-L victory “on paper” to restore a world that knows joy could overcome those writers in our world who are clearly writing from their own historical circumstance. Is it the Post-Crisis Earth that’s without hope? Or is our increasingly-secular world that can no longer provide an ethic for the superhero? Through most of the 20th century, even as secularism evolved into its current, more aggressive, all-consuming form–allowing no other vision but its own one of “neutrality”–we were still nevertheless operating on the inertia of an inherited Christian vision and ethic. If we’ve edited that out of our reality, are we only left with Grim’n’Gritty? Identity Crisis kicked off this run to the current epic and its climax, but it seems to me that the “imaginary tale” of Kingdom Come and its increasingly-removed heroes and villains might be the vision that has come to dominate. I know it started, really, with The Dark Knight Returns, but Kingdom Come sketched this vision of what a world increasingly-dominated by an über-race of metahumans might increasingly come to. Wesley Dodd’s question at the beginning of that tale, “Do you miss the concept of human achievement?” seems characteristic of this “remove” of the heroes from society, and thus the increasing sense of the heroes and villains blurring together.
        I don’t know. This is all stream-of-consciousness, but that’s my immediate sense. When I read Kal-L’s “thesis” in Infinite Crisis #2, I was quite taken aback. I do think that Miller’s vision in The Dark Knight Returns was over-adopted by too many writers for too many of the wrong reasons, and that Grim’n’Gritty didn’t always end up being the most successful or only way to tell a “realistic” story. But could we have “realism,” whatever that means in the DC Universe, without tragedy? The death of Robin, the fall of Hal Jordan, even the horror of Identity Crisis, are these necessarily a thematic “error” of our writers that needs “correction?”

      4. matthewhyde Post author

        Sorry it’s taken a while for me to reply to this comment. It raises a couple of issues that I’ve ranted about on the DC Message Boards…
        I think it’s interesting that Kal-L wants to bring back a happier world – remember, he’s the guy who fought in World War 2, and the GA Batman and Catwoman were murdered. I think at least part of this is about looking back to a Golden Age that never really existed; would a hero who’d remember the Holocaust really react so badly to a couple of the things that happened since 1986?
        I’m pretty convinced that Infinite Crisis is part of a DC obsession with the past, and wanting to bring back that past at the expense of the present. I don’t think for a minute it’s impossible to write less grim ‘n’ gritty stories using the current DCU set-up, but it DOES need writers to stop looking at the vibe of Dark Knight Returns and the status quo of the Silver Age. It’s really a merging of their love for the comics of their childhoods and a graphic novel that achieved critical acclaim because suddenly comics were ‘grown up’ 🙂 There’s a feeling that death and cynicism and rape and darkness are somehow more mature and realistic than more positive virtues, an approach that I find to be totally wrong-headed. Very few writers want to write Superman because they think he’s old-fashioned, or too straight-laced, or not edgy enough, or too much of a boyscout.
        Well, I don’t think there’s anything less realistic about love. I don’t think there’s anything boring about hope. I don’t think faith is simplistic, I don’t reject happiness because it’s not edgy enough. And maybe the historical context that DC finds itself in does make it incredibly difficult for people to see those virtues AS virtues. That’s not to say that the death of Robin, or Hal Jordan going nuts are wrong-headed stories, they weren’t, but rather the reaction to them, the way the DC shapes itself around them, is what makes the difference between hope and goodness and grim ‘n’ gritty.
        I’m being stream of consciousness here too… 🙂

      5. novak

        [applauds] Well said. I should go back to the DC boards and chime in, too, I guess, but I don’t find the time: I’ve really only contributed twice. Still, I just got back into all this and have over a thousand unread magazines here in my study area now to catch up with after my hiatus….

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