27 June 2006

Superman. The Movie.

Chris Reeve as Superman. What's not to love?
Origin Stories
It's funny. My re-interest in comics is almost neatly coinciding with the revival of the Superman movies (or we hope movies if Singer does a good job), which were the source of my first fascination with comics. As I've mentioned before in this silly online whatsis called a "'blog," Superman, The Movie, and by that I mean the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder/Gene Hackman/Mario Puzo et al. film of 1978, was a fairly powerful factor in my childhood. I am clearly not alone among gay men (and others) in this. Blogs are a-buzzin' with anticipation for Bryan Singer's Superman Returns--opening at the end of the month (and by the time I post this, has already opened)--and most of the excitement I've been reading has been fueled by a strong fondness if not downright love for the first two movies. I am such a painful geek about this stuff that when I saw the first preview for Superman Returns--a loving tribute to the initial cloud, sun, and sky trailer for the first Superman, complete with what sounded like a Brando voiceover, and snippets from the original, John Williams score--I actually got teary. And I'm not so easily moved. But it struck a chord for me, a very old one in an old place that hadn't been touched in a very long time, and that is sort of the reason I'm writing this little tribute to Superman and to some extent Superman II.

Christopher Reeve as Clark KentSecret Identities
There is a quality of sweetness about our childish obsessions, because, and not despite, the fact they were tinged with a green eroticism. There is no doubt whatever that part of the appeal of Superman for me was Chris Reeve, his muscles (especially because he was a skinny, but tall, shrimp of a man before he worked his ass off to get big for the role), his clumsiness and shyness, the sweet holding back he showed with Lois, his manliness, his politeness, his selflessness, and his vulnerability. There is no doubt that as with other hero figures in any boy's life, there was the unintelligible, ineffable difference between wanting to be him and being in love with him. For gay boys, a similar thing happens with the confusion about powerful women: Am I in love with Ann-Margret or do I want to be her?

Curious, isn't it, that gay men seem to be attracted to power of one kind or another: physical, sexual (as we've seen in some cases, but hopefully not often, political power). Yet for me, the appeal of Reeve's Superman was also the vulnerability, the sadness, the withholding, and of course, as has been written on extensively, the double identity. It is a double identity that one yearns to reveal--as Superman yearns to, and eventually does, reveal to Lois--to the people one is attracted to, or to one's parents, or to the world. But the specialness of that secret, its secretness, is always sexualized as the it grows closer to its revelation. It is a tease in the movie--and a self-tease in life, as you struggle to not tell your high school best buddy that you love him, of which it reminds, whether you know it consciously or not--when Clark starts to tell the dazed Lois, just after her interview with Superman, that he is Superman. In these movies, Clark telling Lois his secret is exactly telling her that he loves her. This little piece is what differentiates the Superman films from your garden variety romance films. Can gay men identify with the players in a straight movie romance? Of course they can and do. I do, and this is despite the repugnance I feel at having heterosexuality shoved down my throat by almost every fucking movie that Hollywood produces. Hollywood enshrines a straight love story in nearly every product it puts on the market, whether an action picture, a historical narrative, or, of course, a chick movie. In grad school, studying film theory, I learned this useful bit: it's called "the heterosexual embrace," and this occurs historically at the end of almost any film you can look at, but especially those in the Hollywood mold. Keep an eye out for it. Is the last or the second to last image of the movie an embrace or a kiss between two lovers, two would-be lovers, or two soon-to-be lovers of different sexes? It's as though it were a government directive. It's as though this were so ingrained that moviemakers don't notice they're doing it and movie watchers don't even see it as unusual. The trend is changing slowly, but this still goes on almost all the time. Now, let's ask, do straight audiences identify with either figure in a homosexual embrace in a film? If Brokeback Mountain is any example, the answer is starting to become yes, at least for some straight female members of the audience. As for the heterosexual embrace, neither of the first Superman movies ends with this. It is true that Superman/Clark kisses Lois near the end of both films, the first when she is dead, the second to make her forget his secret and their love affair; and those kisses seal the forbidden nature of their relationship. Whether the times have a-changed enough for gay kids nowadays, or even gay adults, not to feel that same ache is not for me to judge, but the bittersweet denial is what appeals here and, I believe, continues to appeal. To tell the person you love your secret is to tell him you love him, even if you don't tell him the second part. It hides just behind the teeth, this secret, when you are with the one that you love. Gay men and lesbians do not have a lock on this phenomenon, everyone has the experience at some point of wanting to tell the secret of their love to the person they love, with that fear of rejection attached. But for gay folks, queer folks, and bisexual folks there is this layer, this barrier, for much longer than only the most shy or the most different-seeming of the straight fold (I am not insensitive to the fact that heterosexual people can be too "fat" or too "ugly" or too "old"--whatever those sad, mean words are supposed to convey), where revealing one's secret identity and secret love will alter or end forever the relationship one treasures. Superman can take it back with a kiss, we can't.

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This isn't the scene, but I love this pic.
What is all this about? Yes, the erotics of wanting to be like someone else are, if not clear, then acknowledged--and the proper term for this in psychoanalysis is, of course, identification. What's left is precisely something to be desired. I think there is an ethics attached to the image we desire and somehow desire to be like. I think it's usually easy to discern the difference between people who wanted to be like Superman and people who wanted to be like, to choose someone related to a very different kind of super-man, Ayn Rand (see Alan Greenspan, see Hillary Clinton) at some point in their formative years. Superman represents kindness, justice, and power that helps those in trouble or danger, and Superman implicitly sets an example. What would the world be like if more people acted like Superman instead of Ayn Rand? Yes, what would Superman do?

Behold: Ayn Rand!
We'll table that and all the other questions of power and responsibility that Rand evokes for a now, because this post is really about Superman as embodied in Superman, the Movie, and that means as Christopher Reeve. It is Reeve's depiction of the Man of Steel that captured my fascination--and while the man and the character have to be somehow separable, you can't have one without the other. It was Reeve as a handsome, sexy, slightly-dorky, truth-telling, puppy-dog, super-powered Boy Scout of Integrity that lit the fire inside; and a nine-year-old could do a lot worse for an example, for an exemplar. What I've realized as I've thought about this over the last few weeks is that there will always be some unconscious part of me, whether I want to or not, that's checks in with Superman, that draws some kind of character from there, because the earliest things we use to build who we are will always be the most powerful. And in this case, as terminally geeky as it sounds, I wouldn't have it any other way.


Scott said...

*Excellent* piece, dude. Count me as one of the 4.

Demo said...

Saturday mornings in front of the television set watching “Hall of Justice” with my little brother; super hero Halloween costumes; towels or sheets tied around our necks flapping behind us as we ran around the house; pajamas with feet; peanut butter scooped up with those long chocolate bars they made us sell to raise money for the school; boy scout uniforms and badges and medals; the crest on the chest pocket of my blue school blazer; camping; other boys; secrets shared and held with other boys; loyalty; the scent of wood and dead leaves and sweat; honor; trying to stay warm during a freezing January weekend in a lean-to all of us looking like mutant chrysalises; dirt; mud; erections; the bitter sweet smell; the bitter sweet taste; being a boy; becoming a man.
Let’s here it for Superman!
People wonder why I don’t do gay pride.

GayProf said...

Though I enjoyed the new Superman movie, it seemed like they really expunged some of his queerness. Or maybe I just hate children. Whatever.

ohnochriso said...

I think the Wonder Woman TV show was for me what the Superman movies were for you. At least in terms of the fascination with a secret identity and the idea of wanting to be someone amazing underneath all the hiding and feeling outcasted for difference. It was totally similar to the "Do I love Ann Margaret or want to be her" kind of thing.

Stefany Anne Golberg said...

The biggest problem with the new Superman movie--excepting a couple of great scenes between the always-ridiculous Parker Posey and a delightfully bald Kevin Spacey--is that (sorry, Luciferus) Superman's just ultimately not a great character. He's basically the bland Midwestern alien (literally) in the evil and corrupt city, a good, clean middle American ready to stamp out urban yuckiness. He stands in great contrast to, oh, I dunno... SPIDERMAN, who is a truly great character: an unlikely hero, really just a poor kid from Queens who falls into superheroness. A geek, a loser twerp who ends up in some pretty great adventures, as opposed to a superslick dude from outer space who playacts at humanness. Oh, someone please put me into a coma until May 4, 2007, the date of the opening of Spiderman 3. The preview for this film, seen before the Superman film, was the most exciting part of my recent movie experience.

Luciferus said...

I can't help it, Stefany, I like Midwestern farmboys in the big city, especially when they are alienated gods. I like the Spiderman-loser paradigm just as well, but not enough for me to give up on the operatic sadness of Superman. Interestingly, much of what animates both Superman and Spiderman as characters is the angst they feel about the safety of their loved ones--that and their outsider status. The deliciousness of Superman as an outsider though is that he checks off all the boxes that should make him an insider: good-looking, powerful, an icon, yet he remains isolated. It's just a matter of taste, I suppose....