02 July 2006

Superman Gets Real (Spoiler Alert)

There are spoilers in the post below. Don't read it if you don't want to know.

The movie Superman Returns hit theaters this weekend. (There is, by the way, no better deal in Denver for first run movies than the $5 early matinee prices offered by Harkins Theaters Northfield 18, which is Northeast of the intersection of I-70 and Quebec in a still under construction shopping area.)

This Superman movie is a cultural landmark. The Superman movies have always been family movies, but this one is actually about family. In its previous renditions on television and in the movies, the Superman saga stuck fast to the paradigm of unattainable courtly love for a woman who plays hard to get. Courtly love remains the dynamic that moves the story forward, but the story has moved closer to that genre's origins in medieval Southern France, where the object of our heroes love is already taken, instead merely being chaste.

Lois Lane has gone from being an unattainable virgin, or at least, a close modern day facsimile thereof, to an unmarried mother of a five year old boy with special needs who lives with her rich fiance, Richard. Richard, incidentally, also happens to be a colleague, her boss's nephew, and despite both of those facts, a man every bit as creditable as we could expect from a woman with standards as high as those of Lois Lane. Superman finds himself in the unfamiliar territory of being the cad, instead of his more accustomed role as a paragon of virtue who simply isn't permitted to reveal he good deeds when in the guise of his alter ego, the ever unreliable Clark Kent. Life goes on, and the ancient genre of courtly love, by hewing closer to its ancient roots, has become a thoroughly modern story.

Mr. Kent has not only left Kansas for Metropolis, but, he has also found himself with no choice but to abandon the straight laced Protestant values he developed there, for the more complex realities of 21st century family life.

It shouldn't really be too much of a surprise that Superman can offer us relevant insights on the family. He was an adopted boy at a time when most states were just starting to pass their adoption laws, and adoption was becoming a preferred option in lieu of a brief stint in an orphanage followed by a youth put out as a family servant.

The picture at the top of this post captures the dilemma nicely. In Superman Returns, we are confronted with three well meaning, genuinely moral adults trying to deal in a civil manner with a love triangle that arose through unmalicious miscommunication, in a way that ruins neither their lives, nor that of a child. Lois genuinely loves both the men to whom she is so intimately tied. All three adult genuinely love her son. Both men genuinely love her. And, the two men both take the high road by giving each other respect and by helping each other in times of need, despite Superman's full knowledge of the situation, and Richard's strong suspicions. (Hell, even Lex Luthor is rehabilitated considerably in this film as a man with his own vision of himself as a sort of hero and some biting commentary on the flaws in Superman's persona.)

In short, the story has gotten real. Family courts every day deal with the issues of psychological parents versus genetic parents that are staring us in the face in this movie. Water cooler talk across America struggles with how to deal with love between co-workers and our romantic choices and obligations. Bars and coffee shops across the nation are full of friends counseling each other on balancing their own emotional needs with those of their children. These issues are obviously too involved to wrap up nicely in two and a half hours. Few movies scream "sequel coming soon" more loudly. But, like most family courts would in a temporary orders hearing, we are left with the unstable status quo more or less in tact.

Notably, this is all accomplished without overt sexuality. Yes, there is subtle implication for the adults. It is not Ozzie and Harriet. Richard and Lois had a bedroom at his luxurious place with a single queen sized bed, and share the routines of their lives together. Even those of us who didn't see the first Superman movie (and the opening John Williams leitmotifs firmly places us in the same continuity as the 1978 film), know from an allusion in the dialog between Richard and Lois, what went on between Lois and Superman, even if she isn't willing to admit it. We know how babies are made.

But, even more notably, it is accomplished without shame, leaving the 1950s, and for that matter, Dan Quayle's 1992 Murphy Brown speech, in the dust. Lois is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist not about to acknowledge that she has ever done anything wrong, with a child and a fiance she loves to back it up. Superman may be a cad who knows he has to say he's sorry, but that is as far as his guilt extends. Richard never does anything wrong to anyone and is a model stepfather who is acknowledged as a genuine dad. Superman has, like everyone else, learned that there aren't easy answers or clear scripts when it comes to today's complicated families and that you simply have to take it day by day, little by little, and see how it evolves.

Superman Returns

(Link included in exchange for permission to include the photo at the top of this post.)

No comments: