Monday, July 31, 2006


We seem to like our myths about the battle between good and evil relatively clear cut, but we also like our heroes vulnerable, sometimes even indulging in various sorts of guilty pleasures, while supposedly being ‘at heart good persons’. ‘Superman Returns’ is a quite interesting and lovingly crafted update of the Superman saga. Superman in this telling has been away for a while looking for the remains of his home planet, only to discover there really wasn’t anything left. He returns to earth once more, to encounter a much aged Mom Kent (played quite fetchingly by an over 80 Eva Marie Saint no less), and a world which has moved on beyond Superman. Superman’s sometime girl friend Lois Lane has even won a Pulitzer for her story on ‘Why the World no longer Needs Superman’, but methinks she protesteth too much (trying to exorcise the demon of her love for the man marvel). Brandon Routh does a marvelous job walking into the shoes of Christopher Reeve, even to the point of recreating the crooked smile of Clark Kent, and much of the apparel of the characters in this movie seem to have been brought out of mothballs from an impossibly old Goodwill store. However, crime has not been sleeping or become obsolescent, for Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor has every up to the minute techno gadget one could want at the cusp of the 21rst century. It is this juxtaposition of old and new which makes this movie both comforting and unsettling in different ways.
Superman of course is super once more, and up to his old tricks of fighting crime, rescuing damsels in distress, and even taking on his old arch-enemy Lex, who in this incarnation of the tale almost does in Superman by attacking him with shards of Kryptonite. What makes this telling of the tale interesting is that even Superman needs rescuing once in a while, and unlike Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane who could not get his friends to watch with him in his darkest hour, Superman is actually rescued by Lois and her boyfriend through various acts of daring do. And oh yes, there is a little Superboy as well in tow. Seems Superman had not been entirely successful before running off to his home planet in keeping his Super-knickers up. But then Lois always was quite the girl. America increasingly likes their heroes flawed. It makes them more approachable, brings them down to earth a bit, which takes some doing in Superman’s case. Maybe this is why in a sin-riddled era so many people find it hard to find Jesus even approachable much less identify with him. He is just too good to emulate, too good to be ‘you’ (or me for that matter). The cry now seems to be not merely for a believable savior, but one who behaves more like us—even marrying a Mrs. Jesus perhaps.
If ‘Superman Returns’ is quaint, fun, and raises only a few ethical dilemmas, what then should we make of Michael Mann’s recreation of his TV blockbuster--- Miami Vice? First one has to say, that the cinematography in this movie is stunning, and much like some of the best episodes of the TV show, although we are spared the art deco tacky side of Miami culture. Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Fox) in this incarnation dress in basic black and white. Once again we are placed in the seamy and unseemly world of under-cover cop work against the drug lords, and are asked to ponder the question whether it is o.k. for cops to do wrong in order to serve the greater good of preventing major crime. The movie reminds one of the script of perhaps the most famous of the television episodes which also starred Glen Frey (yes the Eagle) getting involved in a Columbian drug bust. Missing in action from the movie is a soundtrack like the one the TV show used to have. Rock and roll has been replaced in the opening scenes with some hip hop, rap, and club music, betokening the change in the music culture and industry since the time the TV show aired. Clearly Rock and Roll isn’t what it once was, in terms of being a creative force and dominant music form in American culture. Rock and Roll may not be dead, but it is on life-support when the only rock tune in this movie is a retred version of ‘In the Air Tonight’ in the trailer, especially when rock and roll created so much of the ambiance of the TV show.
While Farrell and Fox both play their parts well enough the discrepancy in acting ability becomes all too clear when these two are juxtaposed. Fox is expressive and brings life to his character. Farrell is mostly deadpan, and while looking the part of a vice cop, seems like someone sleepwalking through the part. Both men have difficulties with their women of differing sorts. The supporting cast in this movie is strong, but for those of us who love the AFLAC duck commercials, it is hard to erase the image of those commercials from one’s mind when the lead Fed in this movie is the African American man who plays the lead in those commercials!
Not that this movie could not have used some comic relief. The action is taut, there is no filler in this drama, but there are also few, if any, memorable lines either. The bad guys are thoroughly believable, and the good guys have only a modicum of redeeming features—one of which is the loyalty of Crockett and Tubbs to each other and to their difficult tasks. There is not only an effective graininess to the film texture. This is also the case with the lives being portrayed. But the question remains about these cops--- do the ends really justify these kinds of means, including getting in bed with the crime lords in order to expose them--- so to speak? Perhaps we should take the title ‘Miami Vice’ as a double entendre. Who better to dabble in vice, then a vice squad which is so familiar with its practices?
And in the end, the thing these two movies have in common is that the good guys seem to win, for a time, but in the case of Miami Vice, not without the heroes sullying themselves in the process. And with them the audience--- it was rather chilling when the audience in the theater here actually laughed when one of the bad guys got blown to bits by an uber-gun. Have we really become so inured to violence that we can laugh when human life is brutally destroyed or exult, for instance, over the revenge taking of Israel which involves destroying so many innocent lives?
The subtext of a movie like Miami Vice is of course that in violent times one must fight violence with violence ‘by any means necessary’. But if we do this, do not we become what we despise? ‘Superman Returns’ cosmetizes the violence and makes it palatable. ‘Miami Vice’ doesn’t and yet the audience seems to get vicarious thrills in watching the bad guys ‘get what they deserve’. As it turns out, it is not just public discourse that has become coarse in our culture. So has our entertainment, and unfortunately that tells us a great deal about the direction our culture is listing towards. It was an inspired writer who warned that ‘those who sow the wind, will reap the whirlwind’. I fear that the storm warnings for our culture are all too evident--- especially when it even surfaces in our summer blockbusters.


mmm said...

Reading this, I couldn't help but to relate it to my thoughts about the way media (I guess mainly TV shows and movies) sets the standards for all kinds of things, which is why so often anything godly or Christian is seen as strange and ridiculous. The makers of movies give audiences what they want to see, and it just so happens that what most people like to see nowadays is any material that fulfills selfish, sinful desire. I dunno...I guess that is what makes the world the world but having a 4.5 year old niece that I live with, her behavior is being shaped by the shows and movies she watches. The smart-aleck statements and bad attitudes that she learns from TV is already causing problems. This reveals to me what actions I will take as a parent trying to raise a child into a life where godly things are the standard and the worldly ways are strange. I'm not sure of your blog had much to do with this subject but it sure did spark these thoughts in me. It probably did because I'm afraid that if my little niece saw someone destroyed like you saw in Miami Vice, she would laugh, too.

Reel Fanatic said...

Agreed that Foxx outshone Farrell in every frame, and that it could definitely have used more humor .. still and all, mostly because of the cinematography, I found it to be very entertaining

Brian said...

Superman seemed more to me like a cross between the Passion and the DaVinci Code.

Was I reading into it too much?

RC said...

ah...superman, i wish he wasn't so stinkin' powerful.

it's kind of funny you open up these questions because i opened the same questions yesterday on my blog as well after seeing pirates of the caribbean:

Strange Culture: Are We Born Pirates or Do We Become Pirates?
Strange Culture: Are We Born Pirates or Do We Become Pirates?

I think you'd find some of the comments very interesting. I'd love for you to add your own as well.

--RC of

Ben Witherington said...

The Superman movie was by and large a retro event, but it reminded us that it is actually possible to make a reasonably entertaining movie that does not have to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Rev.Kev said...

I was channel surfing yesterday while I was feeding my daughter & I saw the African American AFLAC front man in an old episode of Buck Rogers!

I love your blog Dr. Ben. God bless you all!