Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Recap: "Superman" Part 1: Last Son

Before I begin, I want to make one thing clear. Superman is one of my favorite superheroes.

And not just because his cereal is so dang delicious.
But that doesn't mean I'll be pulling my punches. Superman is often called the greatest superhero film of all time, so it had better be able to defend that title from some nobody with a blog. Just know that what I am about to do, I do out of love.

I must be cruel to be kind.
The film begins with opening theatre curtains, presenting a smaller screen with "JUNE 1938" on it. Slowly, the cover to Action Comics fades in and a small boy turns the pages while reading about post-stock market crash Metropolis.

And here I thought Ang Lee's Hulk was trying too hard to remind us that we were watching a comic book movie.
Boy: "In the times of fear and confusion, the job of informing the public was the responsibility of the Daily Planet, a great metropolitan newspaper whose reputation for clarity and truth had become a symbol of hope for the city of Metropolis."

Wait, a news source has a reputation for clarity and truth? Man, this was made in a different time.

The illustrated Daily Planet fades into a live action version of the building, then the camera decides that it's gotten bored with looking at a building and decides to look at outer space instead. Once in outer space, it finds the opening credits.

Now, honestly, I'm pretty torn when it comes to the opening credits sequence of Superman. My inner film snob says that the blue words zooming over the psychedelic starfield is a simple, yet epic sequence that balances sophistication with over-the-top flair. And it does so in a way that many modern superhero films have replaced with abstract CGI openings in the vein of X-Men, Spider-Man, and Hulk.

Which conflicts with the fact that I was born in the 90's, meaning that I have a short enough attention span to become bored by the opening sequence.

Honestly, I really think the opening credits sequence is sort of the film in a nutshell. It's very well made, but it's certainly a product of its time and can be a little too slow to grasp an audience's attention these days. Not even with that iconic John Williams theme.

But eventually, the opening credits end, and the camera arrives at its destination: the red sun of Rao, around which orbits a sterile-looking planet of ice and crystal. This is Krypton.

In the original comics, the planet Krypton was your typical sci-fi planet, filled with futuristic buildings, men in spandex, and ray guns. But this Krypton is cold. Sterile. It lacks a human touch. Like Spock, it seems that Kal-El will be a child of two opposing worldviews.

Chief among them being that Earth actually likes color.
Inside a large dome structure, a white-haired man (Marlon Brando) is delivering a speech to the image of some floating heads shining on the inside of the dome. And I'm not going to play dumb here. You know he's Jor-El, I know he's Jor-El; I'm calling him Jor-El, even though his character hasn't been named onscreen yet.  When he asks the heads to pronounce judgement, it becomes clear that we've just missed the Kryptonian trial of the century.

"If the cape doesn't fit, you must acquit!"
In the center of the room, imprisoned by Kryptonian hula hoops, are the three on trial, who stand there as Marlon Brando walks around and reads the cue cards calling for the council's judgement.

Jor-El: "On this... this mindless aberration, whose only means of expression are wanton violence and destruction."

Michael Bay?

Jor-El: "On the woman Ursa, whose perversions and unreasoning hatred of all mankind have threatened even the children of the planet Krypton."

Man, if I were the other two, I'd ask to be tried separately from the crazy terrorist chick who just wants to watch the world burn.

Jor-El: "Finally, General Zod. Once trusted by this council, charged with maintaining the defense of the planet Krypton itself. Chief architect of this intended revolution and author of this insidious plot to establish a new order amongst us with himself as absolute ruler."

Well, he's certainly not going to start a rebellion to try and put some other guy in charge, is he?

The council speaks. Guilty.

Zod: "The vote must be unanimous, Jor-El. It has therefore now become your decision."

Zod, do you really think that the prosecutor is going to say "You know what, forget all that stuff I said, they can walk free"?

Zod: "You alone will condemn us if you wish. And you alone will be held responsible by me."

Zod offers Jor-El one last chance to join their cause and gain enough political power to impose his will upon the populace. When that fails, he resorts to megalomania.

Zod: "You will bow down before me! Both you and then one day... your heirs!"

But Jor-El is gone. And the three criminals are about to receive the greatest punishment on Krypton.

Or off Krypton, as it were.
The dome tilts open, revealing the harsh, sterile landscape of Krypton. A mirrored prism flies overhead, drawing the three criminals into it before flying off back into the coldest depths of space.

And I'm sure they'll never be seen again. Not in this movie, anyway.
Jor-El then puts on his glowiest outfit and meets with with the rest of the Science Council.

Full disclosure, I'm recapping one of the many DVD releases of this film. The beginning of this particular scene was not in the theatrical release, along with a few other scenes.Between all the re-releases, this movie has almost as many versions as Blade Runner.

Anyway, the Science Council congratulates Jor-El on a job well done, isolating three more criminals into the hellish Phantom Zone.

Councilman: "An eternal living death."
Jor-El: "A chance for life, nonetheless."

"I mean, why would that trial scene be in this movie unless they were going to return in the sequel?"
Jor-El is quite upset that the others aren't worried about their planet.

Councilman: "The Council has already evaluated this outlandish theory of yours."
Jor-El: "My friends, you know me to be neither rash nor impulsive."

Unlike the real Marlon "I found a stray cat, so now I'm demanding it be in this scene of The Godfather" Brando.

Jor-El: "I am not given to wild unsupported statements, and I tell you that we must evacuate this planet immediately."

But another one of Krypton's greatest scientists, a woman named Vond-Ah, disagrees with his conclusion. To her, all the data simply suggests that Krypton is shifting in its orbit. No more, no less. But... isn't that still a brown-trousers moment? I mean, what exactly is a "shift" in the orbit? Is it slowing down? Speeding up? Drifting further away? Getting closer? Any single one of those seems seems like it would play hell with the ecosystem. But not as much as Jor-El's theory.

Jor-El: "This planet will explode within thirty days. If not sooner."

"Luckily, Krypton's days are a little over one thousand hours long, so we have some time."
Jor-El insists that the council members are being stupid, so they retaliate by ending the conversation and telling Jor-El that if he doesn't keep his trap shut, they'll stick him in the Phantom Zone; particularly ironic since Jor-El discovered it in the first place. In the end, Jor-El is forced to give his word.

Jor-El: "I will remain silent. Neither I nor my wife will leave Krypton."

"Looks like I'll be launching my dog off in a rocket."
Sometime later, Jor-El fiddles with some kind of crystal control panel before his wife, Lara (Susannah York), comes along with their infant son. She's surprisingly okay with Operation: Baby Launch, but she has a few doubts.

Lara: "But why Earth, Jor-El?"

"Don't we have family on Argo he can stay with?"
"No, Lara, that won't be retconned in until the Supergirl film."
Lara: "They're primitives, thousands of years behind us."

So amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

Jor-El: "He will need that advantage to survive."

They talk about his life there, and how he'll always be an outsider. His denser molecular structure will make him strong, fast, invulnerable, and he'll even "defy their gravity." But Lara doesn't want their son to grow up an outcast.

Jor-El: "He will never be alone."

As Jor-El puts the finishing touches on the pre-launch sequence, the monitoring Science Council notes that his living quarters are using more energy than usual. They discuss what they should do if Jor-El turns out to be defying the council's orders, and I have to point out a costume here.

So, the shiny black outfits looked cool, and the glowing robes did too. But check out this bit of costume design.

It's like if Buck Rogers joined the KKK.
Anyway, they send the goofy-looking Krypton soldier to investigate while Jor-El and Lara share one last moment with their son. Then Jor-El places him within the crystalline structure and says one final goodbye.

Jor-El: "You will travel far, my little Kal-El. But we will never leave you. Even in the face of our death. The richness of our lives, it will be yours. All that I have, all that's I've done, everything that I feel. All this an more, I... I bequeath you, my son. You will carry me inside you all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own. See my life through your eyes. As your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father.. the son. This is all I... all I can send you. Kal-El."

This speech is no less epic when you learn that Marlon Brando was reading his lines off of Kal-El's diaper.
With one final green crystal put in place, the planet begins to rumble. Jor-El quickly begins the launch sequence, and baby Kal-El is sent into space as Krypton begins to shatter.

The people of an entire world scream.

The planet crumbles.

Krypton is no more.

Yeah, Obi-Wan's gonna feel that one.
Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton, flies past the Phantom Zone prism while a recording of Jor-El explains that he provided data crystals containing all of Krypton's knowledge and culture. And as the ship makes its long journey, Jor-El imparts a bit of that knowledge, despite the fact that Kal-El will forget everything Jor-El teaches him after reaching Earth. No wonder this scene wasn't actually included in the theatrical release.

Jor-El: "Early Chinese writings point out the complex relationship between...."

Uh, hang on. A few points.
  1. Is Kal-El old enough to actually be able to understand these words?
  2. Is Kal-El old enough to understand these concepts?
  3. What the heck do you know about China, spaceman?
Kal-El also gets a primer on his eventual superpowers; super-senses, strength, speed, et cetera. After a while, Jor-El gets to the important stuff.

Jor-El: "It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history."

Yeah, that line's already hilarious.

Kal-El's ship finally ends up entering Earth's atmosphere a few years later, when Kal-El is now a small boy. Meanwhile, Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) and his wife, Martha (Phyllis Thaxter), are driving down a lonely, Kansas road. All of a sudden, a loud crashing sound startles Jonathan and he ends up panicking and blowing a tire. When they get out to inspect it, they spot the crashed ship and find little Kal-El, naked as a jaybird. Under the well-known legal right of "finders-keepers," they wrap the boy up in the red cloth from the ship while Jonathan fixes the tire.

Martha: "All these years, as happy as we've been, how I've prayed and prayed the good Lord would see fit to give us a child."

As Jonathan works, Martha tells him to take it easy. After all, the doctor said his heart might not be in the best shape. IT IS SUBTLE FORESHADOWING.

Jonathan: "Now, the first thing we've got to do when we get home is find out... who that boy's proper family is."
Martha: "He hasn't got any. Not around here, anyway."

And you know that... how? you don't know for sure that he came from space; for all you know, he's just a random naked boy running around.

Jonathan: "Martha, are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"
Martha: "We could say he's the child of my cousin in North Dakota... and just now orphaned."

"Hm. So we'll be making up a fake cousin to sell this story?"
"No, I have a real cousin in North Dakota who no one will miss."
"...I'm suddenly afraid to say no to this plan."
Martha: "Jonathan, he's only a baby!"
A three-year-old baby.

As they argue, the jack slips from underneath the truck, and the tireless wheel nearly lands right on Jon... were it not for the super-strong toddler holding it in place.

Some years later, the Smallville high school football team finishes up their practice. One of the cheerleaders, Lana, stops to sort her cheerleading equipment, but the waterboy, a nice young man with Christopher Reeve's voice named Clark (Jeff East in heavy makeup to make him look like Christopher Reeve), offers to take care of it for her while her gets the rest of the equipment. In thanks, Lana invites him to a little get together at Mary Ellen's place.

Lana: "Play some records. Would you like to come?"
Clark: "Sure."

But alas, Brad, the school bully, knocked over the football equipment, meaning that Clark has some more work to do. So he stays behind while all the cool kids go to listen to their records. This makes him so mad he throws some pom-poms down in anger. Then when everybody's gone, he kicks a football into low Earth orbit.

He heads home from school in the usual way, by racing the local train. In a scene deleted from the theatrical version, a little girl spots him through her binoculars, but her parents (a couple of cameos from Noel Neill and Kirk Alyn, who played Superman and Lois in the original Superman film serials) don't believe her about the guy outracing the train.

Mother: "Lois Lane, you have a writer's gift for invention."

But her dad simply tells her to read her book.

"Yesterday, it was the man who made the magic green fire, the day before that it was the broad with a gold lasso.
We're getting sick of these tall tales, young lady."
Clark manages to impress the kids driving to Sue Ellen's by showing up on the side of the road ahead of them.

Brad: "How'd you get here so fast?"

Try and figure out Clark's response.

You get one guess.

Clark: "I ran."

Yeah, I know for a fact you guessed correctly.

But they drive off without him, and Clark is left on the side of the road near his house to do the one thing that no teenage boy wants to do: have a serious talk with his old man.

Pa Kent: "Been showing off a bit, haven't you, son?"
Clark: "I didn't mean to show off, Pa. It's just that guys like that Brad, I just want to tear them apart."

"You know, just snap their neck, be done with them."
"Clark Kent, I think we both know you'd never snap a man's neck. Don't be silly."
Well, there's the one direct reference to Man of Steel I'm allowing myself.

As they talk, it becomes clear that Clark is at the age in his life when he wonders why he has to hide his powers.

Clark: "Is it showing off when somebody's doing the things he's capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?"

This is actually a very important question, and one I feel addresses the very core of Superman as a character.

In my opinion, the answer to Clark's question is "not necessarily." The question isn't whether or not you can do something, it's why you do something. If you punch your way through a door with your bare hands on a bet, then you're kind of showing off. If you do it to rescue someone from a burning room, then you're not. The most important thing about Superman isn't that he has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, it's that he gladly uses them on the behalf of those very mortals.

Pa Kent: "When you first came to us, we thought that people would come and take you away because... when they found out, you know, the things you could do... and it worried us a lot. Then when a man gets older, and he thinks very differently, and things get very clear. And there's one thing I do know, son, and that is you are here for a reason."

They hug and have themselves a little race to the house. One that Pa doesn't quite have the energy for, but tries anyway. His left arm goes numb.

Pa Kent: "Oh, no."

Sounds like he just realized he's a mentor figure in a superhero movie.

Clark blames himself for the death of his Pa, and he can't help but dwell on this as he and Martha stand in front of his grave.

Clark: "All those things I can do. All those powers. And I couldn't even save him."

Welcome to every other origin story in the history of ever.

That night, Clark wakes up to hear some kind of whistling, humming noise coming from the barn. He investigates and follows the sound to something covered by an old cloth. Removing it, he finds a glowing green crystal. The next morning, Martha finds her son out in the field. She heads over to meet him, and he simply tells her that he has to leave.

Ma Kent: "I knew this time would come."

Clark's put everything in order, even finding a guy to help out around the farm while he's gone. Clark tells her that he's heading North, and they embrace one last time before he goes. Clark ends up trekking through the frozen wastes of the Arctic until he comes across the part that looks the most like an indoor film set. Knowing he's come far enough, he takes the green crystal out of his backpack and lobs it onto a rubbery iceberg, where it begins to melt its surroundings.

Eventually, the waters below begin to churn, and the crystal sprouts into a gigantic crystal palace. He enters, finding a large room with a centralized control panel of crystals. He picks one up and puts it in another slot, which just happens to be the Kryptonian equivalent of sticking a DVD in the DVD player. Slowly, a hologram appears before him.

Jor-El: "My son... you do not remember me. I am Jor-El. I'm your father."

"No! That's not true! That's impossible!"
"Search your feelings. You know it to be true."
Jor-El: "By now you will have reached your eighteenth year... as it is measured on Earth. By that reckoning, I will have been dead for many thousands of your years."

Jor-El explains that he managed to give Kal-El the knowledge of planet Krypton, and even prepared for Kal-El's inevitable identity crisis. And it's time to deal with that.

Jor-El: "Here in this... fortress of solitude, we shall try to find the answers together. So, my son, speak."
Clark: "Who am I?"
Jor-El: "Your name is Kal-El. You are the only survivor of the planet Krypton. Even though you were raised as a human, you are not one of them. You have great powers, only some of which you have as yet discovered."

This is where it gets weird. The film starts showing us some clips of space, and I always thought the implication was that Clark gets to wander through space for a while as Jor-El's hologram teaches him what's what. But I guess Jor-El is simply transmitting his knowledge into Kal-El's brain for a few years? That's what everyone on the internet says.

Jor-El: "Come with me, my son, as we break through the bars of your earthly confinement. Traveling through time and space."

And that's why I always thought Kal-El was traveling through space. Because that's what Jor-El basically said.

Jor-El: "Your powers will far exceed those of mortal men. It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history. Rather let your leadership stir others to."

So... isn't that still interfering with human history?

Jor-El: "In the next year, we shall examine the human heart."

What, is Clark going to be a cardiologist, now?

Jor-El: "It is more fragile than your own."

"Thanks for reminding me of my adoptive father's tragic heart attack."
Jor-El: "As we pass through the flaming turmoil which is the edge of your own galaxy..."

Don't do it, Clark! Not after what happened to Gary Mitchell!

Jor-El: "We will enter the realm of the red Krypton sun, source of your strength and nourishment, and cause of our eventual destruction."

Wait, what?

The red Krypton sun is supposed to take away Superman's powers; it's the Earth's sun that gives him strength and nourishment. How the heck does Superman, one of the sacred cows of comic fans, make such a massive mistake?

Jor-El: "This year, we shall examine the various concepts of immortality and their basis in actual fact."

Chapter 1: Drinking Unicorn's Blood. Chapter 2: Exile from Planet Zeist.

Jor-El: "By the time you return to the confines of your galaxy..."

Okay, internet, look. I'm going to have to disagree with all of you. I know the general consensus is that Kal-El learns all this at the Fortress of Solitude through some kind of mind meld, but Jor-El is flat out saying that Kal-El is traveling through space, and I have a hard time believing that he's just speaking metaphorically.

Jor-El: "...twelve of your years will have passed. For this reason, among others, I have chosen Earth for you."

You chose Earth because it's super far away from the rest of the galaxy's civilizations? ...Actually, that makes sense. Those Thanagarians can get pretty rowdy.

Jor-El: "It is now time for you to rejoin your new world and to serve its collective humanity."

Now that you're thirty. Seriously, Jor-El had his own son spend his entire twenties floating through space?

He tells his son to embrace the humans, but to also remember his roots.

Jor-El: "They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."

And people say that Man of Steel was heavy-handed in its Jesus imagery?

Anyway, Kal-El has returned to his Fortress of Solitude, and is ready to fly back to America.

So... what part of his teaching necessitated the spandex, Jor-El?
Coming up in Part 2! The world's mightiest man and the greatest criminal mind of our time.

No comments:

Post a Comment