Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bird. Plane.

(Those of you just looking for a friggin' Superman review can see Stephanie Zacharek make many of the same points in a far less pseudo-analytical fashion here, see David Edelstein find the film an interesting failure here or see Dana Stevens load on the snark here. Those of you who don't care can watch Turk from Scrubs dance to "Poison" by Bel Biv Devoe here.)

(I warn you the following is unusually personal. If I talked about my various health problems, it might even feel like Ain't It Cool News. So this is your last chance to bail and click on one of the links above. There but for the grace of God go you, should you go to the next paragraph.)

That first teaser trailer -- the one with that silouhetted S curl and the blatant Christ parallels in the Brando voiceover -- made me more anticipatory for a film than I've been in a long, long while.

And I didn't know why.

My education in criticism has been one of gradually placing myself in a position where I could walk into anything just jaded enough to turn on something and just open enough to love it (with reservations of course). I hadn't anticipated a film since my freshman year of college. To look like you were looking forward to something, much less a superhero film about the most boring superhero of them all, well, that wasn't COOL, man.

But I wanted to see Superman Returns. More than almost anyone I knew.

So I thought back. I plumbed history I had essentially forgotten.

There was a cupboard in my grandparents' house that was too big to be a cupboard, too small to be a closet. The doors swung open and the thick smell of dust flew out at you. It was full of things my uncle had owned when he was a boy, much younger than his other three brothers. Board games and toys and a few books and photo albums.

And a small box of comic books.

I wasn't a kid who was in to comic books. When I was a child, there was a very real fear among many parents that comic books would promote ultra-violence, bad reading skills, sexualities other than the hetero variety and the New Age movement. Most comic books were out, in that case.

I didn't care anyway. I was way more interested in reading real books, plowing my way through pulpy boys book after pulpy boys book, seeking that perfect sans serif sugar high.

But that box of comic books at my grandparents' house was an exception. You had to pull yourself up into the cupboard, but there was just enough space for a kid to nestle, the box secure on his lap. Most of the comics in that box were pretty lame TV show ripoffs (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart are the two I remember). There were a few of the classic Carl Barks' Donald Duck comics in there (I only learned how classic they were when a friend pointed it out to me in college), and those were fun for a while, as was a Bugs Bunny comic I can still remember some of the panels from in detail.

And, at the bottom, Superman.

I'm not going to pretend that I had some sort of awful childhood. I had a pretty idyllic one (lack of comic books notwithstanding). I grew up on a farm, surrounded by friendly dogs and kittens. I had a pretty good group of friends. My family was loving, and I fought less with my sister than most siblings fought with each other (I'm sure my mother would dispute this claim).

But there were bad things. I cried easily, something bullies everywhere could sniff out. All of the talents I possessed were of the variety that did not impress those in my small town (if only I could have been good at basketball). And I was adopted, something that was simultaneously cool and frightening (and an instant show and tell display in a pinch).

And so, in one of my least original moves as a young boy, I devoured that lone Superman comic book. He could totally smack around the bullies. He would be impressed by my piano playing. And he, too, was adopted.

This last one, I have been surprised to find, was not an unusual feeling. As I peruse the Internet, I find story after story of adoptees who latched on to Superman, impressed by his outsider nature, his need for an origin myth, an origin myth we all cried out for, even if we didn't know it. I was searching for my own Action Comics #1, the crudely drawn panels that kicked off my life. And they were too.

I read that book over and over. It was, somehow, just what I needed.

I didn't start reading Superman comic books, curiously, but I did seek out the Superman movies, forcing my other grandmother to sit through the one with Richard Pryor in it. The total sum of my boyhood cinematic experience could be best summed up by a film about Indiana Jones and Superman joyriding in a time traveling DeLorean (wasn't allowed to watch Star Wars -- thanks for thinking of me).

And for a boy who was often obsessive about what he was interested in, I never really went to extremes with Superman. I'm not sure the other people in my life even really KNEW about it. My parents watched the movies with me, but I think they just thought it was because the movies were on TV that night. And I never really learned anything about the guy beyond that one comic book and the movies. TO THIS DAY, I would have to Google Brainiac before I could tell you who, exactly, he was.

The television series. That's what killed my fascination. Nick at Nite aired the George Reeves television series at that time, and even then, I knew it wasn't the best (my first true critical assessment?). And when I was a teenager, I saw a few minutes of the first movie on TV again and realized it was kind of cheesy. I also realized that Superman was kind of a lame-o.

And so I just. . .forgot that any of this was ever important to me.

But that's what we do. We forget.

I got older. I grew up. Puberty was not kind. I finally found out my own origin myth, and it was so prosaic that it made my head hurt, my mouth dry up. I wasn't the last son of Krypton. I was just the product of scared kids, doing what they thought was the right thing, sending their baby off into a world without superheroes.

Growing up, to a degree, is all about learning that there is no Superman. Being a child is about trusting the safety of narrative, of knowing that if there's a beginning, there will be a middle and an end that logically follow from that. Growing up is about disabusing yourself of that notion (it's why so many of us try to write screenplays the Syd Field way). If you plant the bomb in act one, Superman will not always be there to stop it. But the bomb will go off nevertheless.

I don't want to make it seem like I'm some sort of pessimist, but I think there's a truth to this. Childhood is about learning to dream. Adulthood is about learning to be disappointed, to keep yourself grounded, to cling more firmly to what you know is possible. A screenplay, a comic book, a novel -- the story goes up and up and up and then it reaches a point and then it falls down quickly. And, unless you're Schopenhauer, who once said that an examined life will appear like a novel, life doesn't always work that way.

We fall in and out of love. People we know die. Things explode. More things fall apart. And that's the way it is.

September 13, 2001. We just learned a few days ago that my grandfather, the one of the cupboard with the comic books in it, has brain cancer, possibly inoperable (in a few months, it will claim his life). I sit in a hospital waiting room. On the television, New York City is in tatters. But I'm 20 years old now. And the easy solutions of childhood remain just out of reach. Just across the waiting room, a boy reads a Superman comic book, and the whole impossible gulf of who I was and who I've become yawns open before me, laughing. The weight of a life crashes around my shoulders.

And so here we are again. Another Superman movie before us. While the other contributors to this site are encouraged to review it, I will not be, even though I will be seeing it. In this one case, I wish to be unobjective, to allow myself the room to love it or to be TREMENDOUSLY disappointed by it. To climb back in that cupboard for two-and-a-half hours and walk out into the nighttime air and let things settle back around me, slowly, like the feeling of water when you're sitting on the bottom of the pool.

I'll see you at the theater.

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