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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Musing Pictures: Superman Returns

"Superman Returns" is all about symbolic images, and that is quite fitting for a film with such a pop-cultural icon at its center. Plenty of other films have made heavy use of iconography and classical symbolism in the past, but few use so much of it so well (a good example of mis-use of classical symbolism can be found at the end of "Signs", when director M. Night Shyamalan turns a wonderful sci-fi story in to a Christian allegory, complete with Holy Water and a reincarnation) Director Bryan Singer's reliance on classical iconography is often obvious in "Superman Returns", but it is never blatant, and never disruptive. He begins by throwing the audience an early bone: Lex Luthor (the arch-villain, for those of you who are not so familiar with mythology) re-tells the myth of Prometheus in a sentence or two, and compares himself to the tragic, mythic character. From this point, once Bryan Singer has set up one myth-myth comparison, he is free to work with plenty of other parallels (and those in the audience who remember their studies might pick up on these additional textures). Superman, of course, is the central icon, the central image of the film, and of course, it is Superman who receives the greatest mythic treatment by Singer. At one point in the film, an earthquake dislodges the large, spinning globe that sits atop the skyscraper that houses "The Daily Planet". It's large, made of steel, and it threatens to crush lots of people below it. Singer knows that if Superman were to fly in and grab this large, plummeting globe from the top, it would be a moment in a film, but if Superman were to fly in under the falling globe and catch it on his shoulders, with his head at an angle and his arms straining to balance the thing, that would be Classic -- and not just classic, CLASSICAL. Superman is Atlas, known to the Romans as Titan. Yeah, This Guy. It's an image, and Singer knows it so well, he even has Sam Huntington (played by Jimmy Olsen), a news photographer with The Daily Planet, snap lots and lots of photos (significantly, Huntington's first "good" photos of the superhero). When Superman runs in to trouble late in the film, he falls from the sky, first with his feet straight and his arms stretched out (a cross, a Chrystological martyr-figure) then, as he falls, his arms and legs bend, and he approaches a fetal position, wrapped in his red cape, a more universal image. And as I watched this moment in the film (not quite a scene, more than a shot), I couldn't help but think of Icarus, whose flight took him too close to the sun, melting his wax wings...

This dedication to images -- classical interwoven with modern -- is what made "Superman Returns" really work for me. Singer knew well that Superman needs to be iconic, and he was smart to make full use of the powerful mythic icons the Western literary canon offered.

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An entirely separate note from the film.

A scene that struck me very much comes early. Lex Luthor, after stealing alien crystals from Superman's secret, polar hideaway, discovers that even a tiny speck of one crystal, when put in to water, reacts very powerfully and catastrophically. To demonstrate this, he has one of his cronies drop a grain of this crystal in to a "lake" -- a model lake, to be precise, in a beautiful, elaborate model railroad setup (a "model railroad pike", if I recall the terminology correctly). The crystal, when placed in water, grows very quickly and destructively, pushing through anything in its way. In this particular case, it throws the entire model city in to an earthquake-chaos, and Bryan Singer thrusts us right down in with the model citizens, watching the model trains crash and burn from the two-inch eyelevel of the plastic, painted figurines. This in itself is a creative way to demonstrate the impact of what Lex Luthor has in mind (the ultimate use of the full-size crystals), but it's not everything. Watch the scene and listen carefully. There are sounds of trains, of explosions, even, amazingly, of people screaming. It's a model, and it looks like a model, but in an odd way, it attains the gruesomeness of "the real thing".

This scene impressed me not just because it was a clever way to convey an idea, but also because it seems as though every filmmaker who had a train set as a kid spent at least some time trying to do something cinematic with it. Spielberg, it is said, made movies with his trains, and if you look through my old videotapes from middle school (or even early in high school, really), you'll find my own train set among the footage. I've seen model trains in movies, but this really was the first time that I've seen a model train used in a film the way a kid with a train set might imagine it being used -- and it's used very successfully.

-AzS