Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Superman Returns and The Difference Between Theme and Messages in Subtext

Awhile ago I talked about my love for subtext, and how narratives of all types use it to convey messages about the world outside the limited scope of the immediate story. But, not all films want to say something definite about the larger topics they touch on - in fact that is one of the beauties of narrative as an instructional tool: it need not make a clear statement about something. Filmmakers often talk of their stories as an "Exploration of <insert broad topic here>." By meandering through a topic, and connecting the audience emotionally to the many realities that inspire it - without focusing the entire effort of the film on a single message - many films feel more emotionally rich, and help the audience connect to the story because the story arouses real feelings that we have felt toward the universal theme that is being dealt with.

Yep, I said it, I call these themes. Themes are a type of subtext in a film, but point to something more vague than the underlying messages I've discussed before. Themes are the most common type of subtext, because they evoke an emotional or intellectual response based on the audience's experience with that the realities (outside the film) that theme represents (within the film), rather than using the story to make a clear statement about life. Themes can include things like loss, betrayal, unexpected joy, willpower. They are real life realities briefly represented in film narrative and form.

Let's quickly compare and contrast two children's films exploring the same real world issues to distinguish between themes and messages in subtext.

Message: Fern Gully
Fern Gully wants us as an audience to care about the environment. The villain is made of pollution, the heroes are protecting trees. At the end of the film, during the emotional climax where the tree grows, the narrative uses the emotion we experience because of the drama surrounding the characters to connect us to the message that the earth is the source of good and healing, and humans just destroy. No matter how you feel about the situation of Earth's rainforest, if you care about the story you feel the emotion.

Theme: Wall-E
Contrastingly, Wall-E paints a realistic picture of a world "destroyed" by pollution, and clearly imagines the damaging consequences of humans living a limitlessly hedonistic life on a deluxe cruise ship for generations. These are details that are sometimes necessary and sometimes unnecessary to the main story, but have nothing to do with the main message. Instead, they are a theme that the movie touches on by trying to paint a situation true to reality - and then we fill in the emotional part by our reaction to it. (In fact, so true to reality were these themes that it turns out a lot of people missed the main message altogether.)

The difference is that a theme is only meaningful to us if what we see on screen matches our previous experiences and current perceptions with that theme. Themes present a fictional reality that is true to aspects of reality we experience and we fill in the emotion. Messages use the plot, characters, actions, and consequences make a definite point by directing our attention, thought, and emotion toward a single statement.

Which brings us back (as most things do) to superhero movies, and specifically Superman Returns.

After his very first appearance on screen, Superman saves lives in a way only he could. What other superhero could face this situation without any casualties or additional property damage?

Hero and superhero narratives have always been about themes and subtexts - they are a way for man and woman to marvel at the things that they have, can, and will accomplish. As far as I can tell, central to every superhero story is the idea that men and women somehow have more power within themselves to do good than the world or outside forces have to put them down. These stories are born of real-life heroes that amaze us - single mothers raising 8 kids, men lifting tractors off of trapped loved ones, or teachers shielding children from falling debris with their bodies - and then we take those stories and we stretch them, retell them, and reinvent ways to feel those feelings. But at the core of every superhero film is this theme that they(heroes) somehow find a way, and have within themselves the ability, to do good in this world - even when it feels impossible. That's why I'm fine when superheroes do things their powers say they shouldn't be able to - that's just the story being true to its central theme.

But its the themes outside the central theme that create the great variance in superhero characters. And because we go into a superhero movie having already bought into the central theme, we tend to focus on the secondary themes more - because they provide more of the detail and emotional difference between superhero films.

 I could write a full post about each superhero individually, but for us the big question is, what are the themes behind Superman as a character? What makes him the kind of hero that he is, and a different hero than Batman or the X-Men?

Superman Returns
If you were here, we could discuss what Superman is really all about, and what connects him to reality and makes us interested in him as an audience - but you're not here so I just need to tell you what I think, and hope you agree.

Just sayin' I'm not the only one who noticed.
I think Superman is about perfection. He is the embodiment of all that can be accomplished by a man without mortal weakness. Like Beowulf before him, Superman is an archetype of the perfect man according to the ideals of the age in which he was conceived - able to do anything except lie and unwilling to accept the evils of the world around him. So incorruptible is he that we can't even believe he is human; his story requires he be made of better stuff than we so that we can suspend our disbelief that such a hero could exist. It's also the source of the countless Superman and Christ parallels that have been pointed out before.

These days, it has also resulted in a new theme - alienation and loneliness. It used to not exist in Superman movies and comics, but todays society finds it hard to believe that kind of man can exist among us without sticking out like a Powerpuff girl at a goth convention. So, now we see him as an alien outsider keeping to a moral code we can't access or understand. But he used to be the ideal, the ideal man.

Superman Returns taps back into that original ideal version of Superman, rather than changing his morality or the appropriate theme to match other modern movies. Even the old Superman films sometimes did that. At this point I should probably let you know that Returns is my favorite of all the Superman movies. And, at the end of the day, the thing that I like the most about it is the thematic elements. Sure, it has some major flaws, but its greatest strength is that it recognizes the theme of perfection in Superman stories and makes a strong decision to stick to it. Where other Superman films ignore or intentionally depart from this theme, Returns doubles down on it - making every detail in the story, form, and production conform to that theme. Curious what I mean? Here are some thematic elements that maybe you missed:

  • Returns was supposed to be a remake, but Bryan Singer was a huge fan of the original and didn't want to depart from that aesthetic and narrative approach, so he convinced the studio to make a sequel. "Updates" to the character were then removed from the project or minimized.
  • Superman's blue is the most pumped up color in every frame and every shot in the movie. The colorist isolated it and made sure it was the purest and brightest color on screen at any given time - bluer than both the sea and the sky. 
  • Brandon Routh has blue eyes, but not blue enough. He still had to wear contacts so that Superman would have perfectly clear, brilliantly blue eyes in every shot.
  • While he is bested several times because of his goodness and naivety, Superman never makes a real mistake in this film. 
  • Superman's character does not change in any way in this film, it is not part of his arch. Instead, the rest of the world needs to change in order to accept him. 
  • There are no innocent injuries or casualties in this film. 
  • Even though Lois is in love with and engaged to a wonderful man who is helping her raise her child, she never really gets over "you-know-who."
  • Superman is repeatedly bested because of his good intentions and need to save/protect people.
  • Superman willingly chooses to die rather than let evil continue to be. 
Had enough? If you haven't noticed yet, I have a high tolerance for heavy-handedness, and this movie has it in spades. But that's exactly why I love it - it bets the entire house on a theme that was passe even back when it was released, and it makes for a better superhero movie that way. By embracing the thematic elements that differentiate it as a franchise, rather than trying to turn everything into Batman, it is elevated to a point where Superman is a real character with real meaning.  

I wish more superhero films did this - but instead most of them ignore the thematic elements that made the characters interesting in the first place and chase after popular film trends/tropes of the time. I guess at least that way they can keep rebooting them for the rest of eternity; this way ensures no one will be making any timeless classics any time soon...

Disclaimer: I should also add, before I go too much further that my true favorite Superman movie has not been made - and I haven't been 100% happy with any of them. But Returns is my favorite because it makes some bold and unpopular decisions to forward the character and the story as they were originally conceived and written. Though I'm really not a fan of that little boy...

P.S. Also, don't forget Returns is the only Superman movie to evoke the imagery of Superman with the world on his shoulders. 

No comments:

Post a Comment