Thursday, December 28, 2006

Culture Shock 12.28.06: James Bond gets real, but Superman returns as a phony

Two icons returned this year, one with renewed relevance, the other creaking under his own pretensions.

Strangely, James Bond, the character who shouldn't work divorced from his Cold War origins, showed new energy. Meanwhile, the supposedly timeless Superman, remained as stiff and lifeless as ever, not so much the Man of Steel as the man of rigor mortis.

Daniel Craig's steely eyed Bond in "Casino Royale" is as close as the movies have come to capturing the ruthless, flawed character of Ian Fleming's novels. The new Bond is lean, mean and rough-hewn. He fits in comfortably with the threats of the 21st century.

The clear divide between East and West, communist and capitalist, is gone. The good guys won, and, apart from Cuba and North Korea, even the communists are capitalists now. The new map is a fractured landscape of terrorists, crime syndicates and rogue states. You have to be nimble to keep your footing, and Craig's Bond shows us that he is — both literally, during the movie's foot-chase sequence, and figuratively, by actually growing as a character.

Superman, however, never grows. Officially, he is the champion of truth, justice and the American way, however vaguely defined. But in practice, he is the heavy-handed enforcer of the status quo and the Establishment. He started as the poster boy for the New Deal and, later, 1950s conformity. In the 1980s, writer/artist Frank Miller realized this and cast Superman as a puppet of a corrupt government in his graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns."

This year, as played by Brandon Routh in "Superman Returns," Superman is an uneasy combination of underwear model and savior. Director and co-writer Bryan Singer sees Superman as a divine figure. He especially goes overboard with a scene in which Lex Luthor's henchmen beat the Kryptonite-poisoned Superman nearly to death in the mud. It's all shamelessly reminiscent of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ."

Singer leaves no doubt that he thinks Superman, the strange visitor from another planet, is way better than us mere humans. While Miller distrusts authority and gives us a Superman degraded by his close proximity to it, Singer gives us a morally superior overlord. Miller has faith in humanity, while Singer puts his faith with the gods on Mount Olympus.

After the failures of Iraq and Katrina, Singer's faith in the great leader seems quaint at best and dangerous at worst. Worse still, his Superman is a cipher. You can read into him whatever values you like, but that doesn't mean you'll be right. Superman is like a politician who gives pleasant speeches utterly free of content. He's Barack Obama.

Dressed up as an ennobling figure, the Superman of "Superman Returns" is really a cynical reflection of everything wrong with the world — a pretend savior who can't deliver.

Meanwhile, the James Bond of "Casino Royale" may be a cynical killer, but he is honest about who he is. He is a blunt instrument in a messed-up world — an everyman hero, but cooler. His way of fixing things isn't pretty, but it's better than waiting for Superman to save us.

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