Saturday, June 29, 2013

Superman: For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Anger. . .

For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Anger, now and forever. Amen. The doxology of the Man of Steel, according to Zack Synder.

The Irish know a thing or two about anger, it's almost a national trait. The cute side is Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man, getting all angry at her feelings toward Sean Thornton. Sean himself, afraid of getting angry outside of the ring, because he could kill a man with a blow. And let's not forget George Bailey, so angry at his life he wants to throw it away over something as ridiculous as money.

Besides my celluloid kinsman, my own Irish-American dad had a lot of anger, and I've been told people have worried about my own temper. So let's say that I'm an authority of sorts on anger as a destructive force.

What struck me in the Man of Steel was the unchecked anger of the beloved Superman, and the unchecked cosmic anger that Zack Synder and, dare I say, Hollywood seems to be suffering from.

Declare Your Superman Creds
To write anything about SM requires some context, the spectrum of his devotees is so broad. I'm in the ranks of the casual Superman fan. I saw reruns of the 1950s classic TV show for years in the 60s.  (I remember so clearly the experience of the two Lois Lanes, and vaguely remember liking the more caustic Phyllis Coates. That actress switch at the dawn of TV laid the foundation for double Darrins and Beckys to come.)

The Superman opening credits were the first that I knew by heart, I had seen it so many times. An English major in the making, I knew it was 57 seconds of perfect exposition (and the best TV use of the harp).

Faster than a speeding bullet.
More powerful than a locomotive!
Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

("Look! Up in the sky!" "It's a bird!" "It's a plane!" "It's Superman!")... Yes, it's Superman ... strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman ... who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!

I wasn't into comic books, or the Justice League, and I saw the Christopher Reeve movies when they hit TV, but not before.

But I have some emotional bond to the character and the idea of Superman by cultural osmosis, and the musical manipulation of John Williams. I didn't like the cartoony Lois & Clark, but Smallville was an excellent series, with the perfect ending (as Lance Mannion well knows). So this is what I entered the theater with to see Man of Steel.

[Minor spoilers]

I found myself responding to the super-moments: Superman saving the guys on the oil rig; boy Clark saving the bus of kids; Superman's birth history; the first look at Caville in the suit, with the cape flying behind him; the kneel down on the ice to the great leap into the sky. All iconographic, all tingle points, event for the casual fan.

And then there are the HUGE problems, neatly articulated by Super-fan Mark Waid.

Broad points:

Superman's oblivious, literal destruction of Smallville & Metropolis is horrific. The loss of life amongst all those building being destroyed is incalculable and obscene. This is not who Superman is.

Some of Mark's great lines:

"Superman making absolutely no effort to take the fight, like, ONE BLOCK AWAY INTO A CORNFIELD INSTEAD OF ON MAIN STREET." [I love this point.]

"From everything shown to us from the moment he put on the suit, Superman rarely if ever bothered to give the safety and welfare of the people around him one bit of thought."

"As the credits rolled, I told myself I was upset because Superman doesn’t kill. Full-stop. Superman doesn’t kill."

Grief, Anger, and 9/11
I don't know the whole Superman canon for examples of previous anger. The casual fan saw Christopher Reeve's profound grief in Superman II over the death of Lois Lane turn into an anger so great that he could fly against the rotation of the earth and reset time. Cool. That was anger channeled to do something positive. Plus, it was the beginning of the 1980s, big things seemed possible.

Zack Snyder's Superman is oblivious to the anger that drives him to destroy the buildings of his hometown, and then blocks and blocks of the skyscrapers of Metropolis. That's what's so terrible.

Here are interesting points from some real fans, back in 2006 for Superman Returns. The thread? Angry Superman:

•I think its an awful idea to make Superman behave in an angry irrational manner. He should stand for truth and justice and balance.

•Among all his other gifts one of his greatest powers was his instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. you cant exactly have that if your raging around being mad at everything. his cool head has kept him on top even in the worst of situations.

•And while it might be nice to see Big Blue go up against someone who could take a punch without their head splattering, the last thing I want to see is Superman throwing a hissy-fit. Save the angry-all-the-time crap for folks like Batman or Wolverine; Superman's supposed to be someone you actually like.

Of course it's really Zack Snyder calling the shots. One has to ask: What is he so blindly angry about that he doesn't see how over-the-top, unnecessary, fatiguing, repetitive, and obscene his last battle sequence is. Is this a sign of broader zeitgeist anger—about the collapsed economy, government hacking, wars that don't end, corporate malfeasance—that is showing up as a super serious Superman, a World War Z, a Pacific Rim of rock 'em sock 'em robots. Humanity is getting quite a bashing.

My own angry moments of the film experience came from the 9/11 imagery. It's stupid to level Metropolis; it's sad and offensive to do it matching 9/11 imagery frame by frame. Vulture's Kyle Buchanan used Man of Steel to write about, "Is it Possible to Make Hollywood Blockbuster Without Evoking 9/11?"

His point: "It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop." Amen.

But it's the change in Superman himself that I find the more telling point.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, phrases like "nothing will ever be the same" and  "everything is now entirely different" were everywhere. They were empty words for me at the time, so trite, so small in comparison to the monstrosity.

A decade out, this change in the ethos of Superman, part of the very DNA of pop culture America born of immigration, seems to be a real example. Damn.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bloomsday Meets Father's Day: Very Special Year for the Das

Bloomsday—June 16, the date on which the whole of James Joyce's Ulysses is set—and Father's Day intersect every decade or so, making it a special day of remembering and honoring those Irish dads out there, which would include my clan: Grandpa, Dad, and bro.

Grandpa O'Neill:
He would come to visit our house in Massapequa in the summer fairly often. We had a lovely backyard patio where we would sit together before dinner during the stillest part of the day, early evening. The sun had gone done a bit and it was cool but the breezes had stopped (memorialized by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer as “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening"). He would inevitably look out on the grounds and say, “This is the best time to put down fertilizer.”

Grandpa didn’t have an easy life. A second generation Brooklyn Irish, he had to leave school after the 6th grade to work to help support the family. He got a job in the mailroom of Con Edison, when the Irish ruled it straight out, and he worked there for 50 years. He had an excellent memory, and it allowed him to advance unhindered by his lack of formal education.

That his sons went to college and got advanced degrees---a lawyer and a CPA—was an enormous accomplishment, something which my dad always thought he didn't entirely appreciate, it was so beyond his experience. Grandpa was absolutely no saint—few Irishmen are—but that doesn’t diminish the sweat and pain and heartache of raising 5 children through the Depression and World War II and all that followed, along with a first son who died a tragic death in infancy, and a foster child who was taken away by the agency to go to a richer family even as he was trying to adopt her.

And so I found it poignant that in his last years, he was freed to worry about the best time to use the “spreader” to put down Scots Turf Builder, sitting on his son’s patio.

Dad O'Neill: I’ve written about his untimely death and my discovery of his teen bonding with the French language. He has been gone for so long that I don't have any more memories of his actual presence, which I guess is what happens.

I love this picture of him at the family farm in Merrick, Long Island. My grandmother had tired of Brooklyn and thought she wanted life in the country, and so they went. (They didn't stay long.) I think dad looks like a James Cagney tot here, or the character Peck's bad boy. He may be dressed in shorts, but don't cross him, 'cos he'll punch you.

So today my memory is of one of his catchphrases.

When there was a situation that happened that he didn't agree with, he would say, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” in the most sardonic way. Yes, Dad invoked the opening lines of Keats’s Endymion as social comment. (And see, he didn't hold being English against Keats.) He was a very special man. Also no saint.

Bro O'Neill: A dad himself. I imagine he tried to correct mistakes that our dad made with us. And I imagine he's made a slew of new ones with his own kids. So goes the cycle of life.

(Updated post from 2010).