Superman — Superstar

Jesus Christ
Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?

Requisite spoiler note: If you haven’t seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice yet and don’t want to know plot twists, read no further.

I am not one of the minority (29%) who gave Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but only because my review was posted at 1More Film Blog rather than Christianity Today. (Only when I review at the latter site does the Tomatometer take notice.)

I’ve also never assumed that the correctness of critical analysis is determined by majority vote. I have a healthy enough self-valuation to believe one can be in the minority and still be right. Plus, with criticism, there may not be a “right,” in the narrow sense. There will always be art that works for some and not for others. When the majority reaches a certain mass, however, it can be instructive (both for oneself and others) to contemplate where those differences of opinion might come from. It’s certainly more likely to be a productive enterprise than the sort of name-calling and insinuation of motives that often accompanies debates about high-profile movies. (Critics have been paid off by studios! No, they are elitist snobs who were prejudiced and didn’t have an open mind!)

What makes me keen to be a little more introspective about Dawn of Justice is that unlike some other instances where I was swimming against the critical current, I really do understand (or think I do) and empathize with those who come down on the other side. Heck, even when I usually perceive my analytical side and my emotive side to be in conflict, I usually resolve that in favor of the left side of the brain. What’s different here?

Some answers to that question coalesced as I found myself revisiting Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time in many years and realizing that I had a similar response to Norman Jewison’s film as I had to Zack Snyder’s. Objectively I have many of the same complaints: a tweaking of well established figures that borders on literary blasphemy, a twisting of the narrative to make it comment on the political/cultural moment rather than emphasizing its timeless themes, and a dependence on set-piece spectacle often at the expense of character development or nuance.

On the flip side, though, both films still pack an emotional wallop for me. Mock if you must, but I think the films recognize the emotions that many of us who hold these narratives dear have, even if they seem at times to be clueless about what in them engenders and feeds those emotions. That can often make those of us who hold something dear angry: because something powerful in us is being manipulated by a bull in a china shop. Having Snyder describe killing an iconic character as having some “fun,” having Jewison give us the resurrected body of Judas but not Jesus…that’s a little hard to take.

Before I make some broad comparisons, a caveat. And an important one. There are some rough parallels in the narratives themselves that will make some comparisons inevitable. I am less interested in these archetypal/Jungian/Hero With a Thousand Faces exercises in myth criticism than I am in how the films work on me emotionally. Still, the line between Formalism and Reader-Response is never concrete.

Perhaps an example would make this caveat less abstract. When Jesus is being tried by Pilate, he says, “Any power you have, comes to you from far beyond.” That’s an echo of the passion narrative in the New Testament. And yes, it makes me think, in an ironic way, that Luthor’s power to kill Superman comes to him from “far beyond” (i.e. a Kryptonian ship) and is, in fact, given to him by the son’s father. That sort of clever elements-of-myth parallel isn’t as interesting to me as the ways in which these two films chose to tell the myths. [Editor’s note: by “myth” here I mean, narrowly, a story with mythopoeic power; I do not imply that the Biblical narrative is fictional.]

JCSUPERSTAR 1
My mind is darkness now My God I am sick I’ve been used

An example of a parallel that does interest me: the dominant emotional characteristic of Carl Anderson’s Judas is misplaced anger; the dominant emotional characteristic of Ben Affleck’s Batman is misplaced rage. That’s not to say that no other iteration of these characters has acknowledged that emotion, but the way these tellings foreground it rather than sublimate it has radical, sometimes disturbing, effects on the way we conceive of these characters and understand their actions. As my colleague Anders Bergstrom pointed out on Facebook, Batman hasn’t always eschewed violence…or even guns. When he has, such a stance has been tied to the death of his parents. Thus, to be in ever-increasing danger while trying to avoid using certain kinds of power evidenced not only a tactical skill but a near-superhuman emotional differentiation.  It’s no surprise then that seeing an emotional Batman is almost as jarring to the senses as seeing a punishing one. How jarring can be seen in the inability for some critical interpretations to admit that Batman struggles with or against that anger at all. (He does not, for example, brand Luthor at the end.)

There is a weird structural similarity, too, in thinking of Batman rather than Luthor as Judas’s parallel. Here again we see plot parallels–Judas provides the information that is necessary to arrest Jesus; Batman provides the actual weapon that is used to kill Superman; both figures express remorse after the fact for their role in the deaths of the heroes–but we also see important structural/formal parallels that greatly influence the movies.

Batman v Superman 4At the risk of stating the obvious, although Snyder’s film has “Superman” in the title, it is really Batman’s movie. Although Jewison’s film has “Jesus Christ” in the title, it is really Judas’s movie. Granted, this is much more overt in Superstar, where Jesus is seldom onscreen without Judas present (at least until the passion). Snyder’s film indifferently checks in on Superman or Clark Kent from time to time, but appears to me much more interested in Bruce Wayne/Batman. (As an aside, one of the more obvious Superman/Superstar parallels is the way that inability to have a normal love relationship with a human woman alienates and sets apart the hero figure. This may be one reason why Kal-el’s repeated prioritizing of the Lois relationship over the Superman role feels more like an abdication of his powers than an elevation of his love–God isn’t supposed to love one more than another. I’ll come back to that point at the end.)

I don’t think the decision to focus on Judas or Batman is wrong. In fact, I think Webber and Rice intuit that Judas is a more interesting character than Christ precisely because he is human. (Even an artist as talented as Milton had a hard time making omnipotent goodness as interesting as flawed humanity or malice incarnate.) But it was important to reminded myself that both films seem far more interested in giving us mediated heroes (or g/Gods) than direct observation of experience with them.

Jewison feels more directly aware of this, and it is visually striking how often Jesus is distanced from the observer who is singing about him, especially in the first half of the film:

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All of these shots remind me of the opening scene of Batman v Superman where Bruce Wayne tries in vain to save those he is close to from becoming collateral damage in a cosmic battle. His one glimpse of Superman is that of a god far-off, his relationship with him based less on any sustained discernment of his character but anger over his his seeming absence in the face of human suffering and obliviousness to the pain he has seemingly caused.

At the risk of arousing suspicions of being inadvertently autobiographical, I will say, too, that Jewison’s film may (inadvertently, I think) tap into a deep reservoir of Christian pain, echoing the one-time believer’s  inability to restore the closeness and intimacy that were once hallmarks of his/her relationship with the perceived divine. It is not that God is absent or evil that is so maddening and painful; it is that He is distant and inscrutable:

When he’s cold and dead
Will he let me be?
Does he love me too?
Does he care for me?
Ohhhhh…

[….]

Don’t you get me wrong Don’t you get me wrong
Don’t you get me wrong, now Don’t you get me wrong
Don’t you get me wrong Don’t you get me wrong
Don’t you get me wrong, now Don’t you get me wrong

Only want to know Only want to know
Only want to know, now Only want to know
Only want to know Only want to know
Only want to know, now I only want to know

The opening of Jesus Christ Superstar also reminded me of something that struck me about the prologue of Batman v Superman. Both films employ devices that hint (or overtly point to) the material’s origin in other formats.

I suggested in my initial review of Snyder’s film that it there was a panel-like feeling to way the camera held tableau vivant shots that immediately made me feel like I was looking at a breathing comic book. What I didn’t think as much about is that this style changes (tableau vivant shots are still present but not as frequent) as the film goes on. By the time we get to the final battle, there is much more movement and I found it much less satisfying.

JCSUPERSTAR6Jewison’s film starts not with the Biblical characters but with the actors on a bus driving to the location for the shoot. It is impossible for me to see such a device and not immediately think of the prologue to Henry V in which Shakespeare (through the chorus) pleads with the audience to look past the lack of production elements and fill in with their imagination that which cannot be represented concretely. In other words, this is a theatrical convention, and Jewison’s use of it reminds the viewer of the material’s existence in other forms and the inability of any single telling to capture the full scope of the story.

(If one were inclined to let Jewison off the hook for not filming the resurrection, one might argue that the film’s final shot, returning from bus to cross in the setting son consciously reminds us that the story and the production are two different things–and that the story continues after the production has concluded.)

If I can circle back now to my main point–that these are stories not about Superman/Christ but people wrestling with their experiences of (and ideas about) Superman/Christ–I do need to conclude with what I also perceive to be both film’s biggest weaknesses. Both films attempt to humanize the God (or godlike), and in doing so diminish their own efficacy.

Jesus Christ Superstar falls just short of insisting Jesus is not divine, the film’s dodging of the resurrection question notwithstanding. But it is undeniable that the image of Jesus it presents is, at best, deeply problematic (at worst sacrilegious):

Then I was inspired, now I’m sad and tired
Listen, surely I’ve exceeded expectations
Tried for three years, seems like thirty
Could you ask as much from any other man?

But if I die
See the saga through and do the things you ask of me
Let them hate me, hit me, hurt me, nail me to their tree

I’d wanna know, I’d wanna know my God
I’d wanna know, I’d wanna know my God
Wanna see, I’d wanna see my God
Wanna see, I’d wanna see my God

Why I should die?
Would I be more noticed than I was ever before?
Would the things I’ve said and done matter any more?

I’d have to know, I’d have to know my Lord
Have to know, I’d have to know my Lord
Have to see, I’d have to see my Lord
Have to see, I’d have to see my Lord

If I die what will be my reward?
If I die what will be my reward?
Have to know, I’d have to know my Lord
Have to know, have to know my Lord

Why should I die?
Why should I die?

Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain
Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die
You’re far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why

My colleague Steven D. Greydanus said on Facebook (cribbing from his own review) that Snyder’s depiction of Superman is ultimately much more troubling for fans than his portrayal of Batman: “That’s my biggest beef with Snyder’s two films: He’s so eager to establish that ‘Superman was never real’ that we’re never allowed even to the illusion that he ever was.”

For those of us most troubled by Superstar‘s Gethesmane scene, it is hard not to hear echoes of it (and perhaps of Last Temptation of Christ) in Kal-el’s return to Kansas where his mother encourages him to be whatever he wants to be because he doesn’t own this world (which is not his own) anything. That Superman ultimately says to Lois Lane that she is his world, that he appears not so much to embrace his human half as to try to wish away his other half, is only really palatable if we can constantly remind ourselves that there is a difference between tenor and vehicle, between Christ figures and Christ.

Ultimately, then, the best thing that rewatching Jesus Christ Superstar might have done for me was not help me understand better why I was able to appreciate and admire Batman v Superman despite its flaws. It might have been to give me a little more empathy for those who couldn’t. Looking at characters from a different perspective is one thing. Fundamentally altering them is something else.

 

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