Monday, 30 September 2013

Heroes and Villains

The 1978 film Superman is one I'm always happy to settle down and watch. It's a superhero film from the days before superheroes were the monstrous, all-pervading beefcake-with-psychoses cinematic wallpaper they've become today, every cheap short-run failed comic-book experiment turned into a very expensive failed cinema experiment. I now refuse to watch them: Watchmen was an embarrassing sacrilege and I gather Green Lantern was an insult to the original.

Superman was different. Innocent in many ways: it's a caper without any designs on profundity, which is where our current costumed creations fail: the screenwriters aren't good enough. Superman isn't quite All-American. Yes, he tells Lois that he's there – from another galaxy –  to fight for 'Truth, Justice and the American Way', which you could read as an attempt to recuperate American spirits after having their asses (as they call them) well and truly kicked in Vietnam), but the film's over-riding light-heartedness of tone undercuts this rather implausible claim. He has no political axe to grind nor unresolved Oedipal desires (though his dead father is a Law he breaks, giving rise to the appalling teen-misery of the recent Superman film and Smallville).

The clip above is one of my favourites, and one I show to students when trying to explain semiotics, and cultural studies. Arch-villain Lex Luthor neatly encapsulates the know-nothing reverence for the canon we find in the reactionary newspapers and the views of people forced to read by rote without ever understanding them. He beautifully encapsulates the need to examine all of culture and media – down to the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper – to truly understand our condition. Raymond Williams and Norman Fairclough would be proud.

My other favourite line in the film is towards the end of this clip. Past the glorious geological pun 'We all have our faults: mine's in California' (Lex has launched a nuke to trigger the San Andreas fault so that California slips into the sea, boosting the value of the desert he's bought cheaply), Miss Hackensack points out that the other missile aimed at Hackensack will kill her own mother. Rarely has a shaken head been put to such good use.

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