Sunday, June 23, 2013

"Man of Steel"

I recommend “Man of Steel,” which offers a darker take on the Superman story than audiences have seen in the past.  Combining traditional elements of the mythology with the more serious tone of post-9/11 comic book films, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan have banished the memory of Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” (2006), reinvigorating the franchise.

Like the original “Superman” (1978), the film begins with the depiction of Kal-El’s leaving Krypton as an infant.  With the planet crumbling, Jor-El, played well by Russell Crowe, puts his only son on a ship to Earth.  After Kal’s departure, the evil General Zod (“Boardwalk Empire’s” Michael Shannon) kills Jor-El and declares that he will find his son.

Jor-El’s act of sending his son away to save him echoes the story of Moses from the Old Testament and Kal-El means “vessel of G-D” in Hebrew (Tye, 65-66). As I noted in my previous post on Superman, two Jewish American teenagers from Cleveland created the character during the 1930s and the influence of their religion and immigrant experience pervades the tale.  The destruction of Krypton can be seen as a metaphor for the Russian pogroms that forced Jews to leave Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries or for Europe on the eve of the Second World War. Once on Earth, the Middle American Kent family adopts and raises Kal-El as Clark Kent and he tries to assimilate into humanity, but is not truly one of them, an experience shared by many immigrants who came to the United States.  Indeed, Kal El’s biological mother fears humans will see him as an “outcast” and a “freak.”  For more about Superman’s history, see

Like “Batman Begins” (2005) and “Amazing Spider Man” (2012), “Man of Steel" is a much more cynical examination of its protagonist than previous incarnations.  Gone is the whimsy and humor of the Christopher Reeve films of the 1970s and 1980s, replaced by humanity’s fear of the alien other.  In the beginning of the movie, Clark Kent is working a series of odd jobs, quietly helping people on the way and then quickly moving on, much like David Banner in the “Incredible Hulk” TV show.  In a series of flashbacks, we see his adolescent struggles with his powers, which are far more traumatic than those experienced by Tom Welling’s Clark on TV’s “Smallville” (2001-2011).

As I’ve noted before, most film franchises have become more serious since 9/11 and one of the problems with “Superman Returns” was that is so consciously echoed the sensibility of the original films.  Not so with “Man of Steel.”  Indeed, the climactic action scenes eerily echo 9/11 as we see people fleeing dust and falling buildings. The contrast between Henry Cavill’s Superman and Christopher Reeve’s from the late 70s/early 80s is almost as stark as the difference between Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Roger Moore’s from the late 70s/early 80s.  For more, see>

Overall, I very much enjoyed the film, though Snyder could have cut one major action sequence to make the story tighter.  At the end, Clark begins his traditional job at the Daily Planet, providing a nice conclusion to the movie and giving us hope that newspapers will still exist when the sequel debuts.

Larry Tye, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, (New York, 2012)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Superman's History

With the premiere of “Man of Steel,” the latest iteration of the Superman legend, it is an appropriate time to analyze the history of the character on his 75th anniversary.  Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, two Jewish-American teenagers from Cleveland, created Superman during the Great Depression, with DC Comics publishing Action Comics 1, the first comic book to feature Superman, in 1938. Many have interpreted Kal-El’s (Superman’s given name) flight from war-torn Krypton as a metaphor for the American immigrant experience in general, or perhaps for Jews trying to escape Europe during the 1930s.  Clark Kent’s sense of otherness as an “alien” in Middle-American Kansas can also be seen as an expression of the challenge of assimilation for the immigrants who arrived through Ellis Island between 1882-1924 and their children. During the depression, Superman reflected the politics of the time, acting as a proto-New Dealer, taking on corrupt landlords and businessman.

During the 1950s, Superman again reflected the ethos of his era, emerging as a champion of “truth, justice, and the American way,” during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  This phrase, now closely linked to the character, first became central during this time (though it had been used briefly during World War II.)  The first Superman television show, the Adventures of Superman, premiered during this decade, starring George Reeves, from 1952-1958.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Superman re-emerged with the Christopher Reeve films, which became the most famous and influential depiction of the superhero.  The success of the films can partly be attributable to the fact that director Richard Donner portrayed Superman as an incorruptible hero in the aftermath of the cynicism wrought by Vietnam and Watergate.  The film also served as a template for most of the comic book movies since then, clearly influencing Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, as well as Sam Raimi’s Spider Man series.

The TV show “Smallville,” which premiered in 2001, can be seen as a 10-year prequel to the Christopher Reeve films and became the primary representation of the Superman myth for Generation Y.  Exploring Clark Kent’s coming-of-age in Kansas, which is only partially examined in the Donner film, “Smallville” shows the young Superman discovering his origins and learning to use his powers.  

After the failure of “Superman Returns” to revive the movie franchise in 2006, it appeared that the character might disappear from the big screen. With the strong opening box office for “Man of Steel,” however it seems likely that the character will continue to endure in films and other aspects of popular culture for the foreseeable future.

Sources: Bradford Wright, Comic Book Nation, (Baltimore, 2001)
Erik Lunegrad, "Truth, Justice and (Fill in the Blank), New York Times, June 30, 2006

Friday, June 14, 2013

"Mad Men," Season Six, Episode 10, 'Favors"

The Vietnam-era draft moved to center stage on “Mad Men” in  “Favors” as Mitchell Rosen, the son of Don’s ex-mistress, is in danger of being inducted into the military and sent to Southeast Asia in 1968.  Don tries to help, assisting Mitchell in a way that ends with mixed results.

Universal conscription prevailed during the World War II-era as the draft provided no exemptions for men attending college or graduate school.  In order to avoid a national debate over Vietnam, the Johnson Administration allowed for deferments for those in higher education during the 1960s.  As a result, most members of the American upper middle class did not serve and a smaller share of the population bore the burden of the conflict than in the Second World War.  According to the historian Christian Appy, 20 percent of the American soldiers who served in Vietnam were poor, 55 percent were working class, and 20 percent were middle class (though a larger share of the country participated in Vietnam than has served in the all-volunteer military of the post-9/11 wars).

Once out of school, young people with means often found ways to avoid the war.  Some used creative tactics to fail their physical, such as losing a tremendous amount of weight in advance.  Others found a friendly doctor to give them a medical exemption.  Finally, 30,000 people left the country altogether and journeyed to safe haven in Canada.

Mitchell Rosen is contemplating that path and Megan, herself a Canadian, considers helping him. “He can’t be on the run the rest of his life,” responds Don, no doubt thinking of his perpetual post-Korean War fear of being exposed as a fraud and deserter.  Instead, Don tries to find a way for Mitchell to gain another exemption.  Though a student, Mitchell sent back his draft card in protest and has been classified as 1A, or available for service.

Don tries to see if his new clients at General Motors will help, but like many Americans, they express disgust toward those who try to avoid the draft.  Even Arnold Rosen, a Korean War vet himself, seems conflicted, saying that he and Don were lucky to live in this country and that “Service is part of that bargain…sacrifice…We knew that.”  In an interesting twist, Ted Chaough comes to the rescue and contacts a pilot friend of his in the Air National Guard, which will likely become Mitchell’s salvation, just as it did for the young George W. Bush in 1968.  While members of the guard and reserves have served multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, Lyndon Johnson refused to call them up throughout the Vietnam War, fearing it would provoke a wider debate over the conflict.  As a result, many young people with connections, like Bush and Dan Quayle, found their way into the National Guard.

History aside, this season of “Mad Men” has picked up momentum in the last few episodes and seems to be a late bloomer.  It will be interesting to see how Don survives his current escapades.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Mad Men," Season Six, Episode 9, "A Tale of Two Cities"

“It’s a revolt,” declares Pete Campbell regarding the internecine machinations at Sterling Cooper as antiwar protestors battle with police in Chicago during the infamous 1968 Democratic convention.  In a strong episode, the divisions between the old and new members of the firm mirror the schism in the country over the Vietnam War.

Early in “A Tale of Two Cities,” the Democrats are delaying the debate over Vietnam at their convention.  Megan tells Don there is no way Humphrey can win if the Democrats don’t come out against the war.  “Against Nixon,” responds Don quizzically.  Indeed, Nixon had been left for dead by many after his close loss to JFK in the 1960 presidential election, which was followed by a defeat at the hands of Pat Brown (father of Jerry) in the 1962 California gubernatorial race.  “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” snarled the former vice president to the press afterward.  Most pundits presumed his political career was over, but Nixon campaigned hard for the GOP in the 1966 midterms, receiving a great deal of credit for the Republicans’ success that year, which was much needed after the Goldwater debacle in 1964.  Still, Megan was partially correct, as the failure to adopt a stronger position against the war alienated the antiwar left from the Democrats, with many of them staying at home rather than voting for LBJ’s vice president.

The convention plays on television throughout the episode, reminding us of a time when there were only three networks and the quadrennial rituals revealed major national debates as opposed to the stage-managed infomercials the country watches today.  The antiwar movement descended on the proceedings and marched toward the convention hall, only to be met with harsh resistance from the Chicago police of Mayor Richard J. Daley.  Of course, public opinion was divided over the police beatings of antiwar protesters and that is reflected in the episode.  Megan and Joan are horrified while Don seems sympathetic to the police.  In the end, a majority of Americans seemed to side with the cops, despite their brutality, a sign of how the only thing more unpopular than the Vietnam War was the antiwar movement.  In the end, the disorder surrounding the convention doomed Humphrey, paving the way for Nixon’s victory in the fall.

The next day, Roger and Don meet with some executives from Carnation.  One official believes that the Democrats are not only done for 1968 because of Chicago, but could be finished for good.  While that was a slight exaggeration, the legacy of the divisions surrounding the battles of 1968 and 1972 weakened the party for years, leaving them with a reputation that liberals were outside the national mainstream.  Between 1968 and 1988, the Democrats only won one presidential election, Jimmy Carter’s narrow post-Watergate win in 1976.

The CEO of Carnation arrives at the meeting and express his anger at the “long haired fools,” but is also unhappy that the Republicans will likely nominate Nixon the next month, calling him an “opportunist.”  He prefers “Dutch Reagan,” a reference to then California Governor Ronald Reagan, who had been elected in 1966.  The “Gipper” would make his first attempt to win the presidential nomination at the GOP convention in Miami Beach, falling short in part because the party bosses believed he was too conservative for the country.  Nixon adroitly bridged the divide between the Rockefeller and Goldwater wings of the party in ‘68, but Reagan’s emergence reflected the rise of the New Right that grew out of the reaction to the 1960s.

By the conclusion of “A Tale of Two Cities,” Pete is frustrated that the business is changing and seems to give into the cultural changes of the time, borrowing a marijuana cigarette from Stan.  Meanwhile, the divide between those from Ted Chaough’s firm and the old guard from Sterling Cooper seems as profound as the divide in the country as a whole in 1968.