Film

Superman and the War Against Anachronism

Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel (2013)

The impulse is to "update" Superman, to make him "relevant". But what could be more deadening than making an enduring cultural icon "relevant" to passing trends?


Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe
Studio: Warner
Year: 2013
"Is virtue a thing remote? I wish to be virtuous, and lo! virtue is at hand."

-- The Confucian Analects

Sometimes even a mild-mannered retro pop culture scribbler like Retro Remote is spoiling for a fight. It's usually not hard to arrange. When a conversation turns, as it so often does, towards comic books, there's one sure-fire way to piss people off: "Oh, my favourite superhero? That'd be Superman."

That used to be a slightly defensive admission, but over time I've taken to enjoying the anticipation of the reactions, which usually range from instant dismissal to accusations of fascism.

Superman, it turns out, is boring: he's always good, he has too many powers and is invulnerable, he's a stooge for the American government. How can you have a decent story about a guy like that? Batman is cool and dark and deep; Superman is childish.

Fair enough, I suppose. Nobody has to like the big blue boyscout. But it's strange to hear that you can't tell a good story about a character who has appeared on TV, in cartoons, on radio shows, in audiobooks, in movies, in newspapers, in comic books... for nigh-on 75 years. Shouldn't somebody have pulled the plug by now?

Plenty of great stories can show that Superman isn't boring, but he is out of fashion: something even the most ardent fan would find difficult to deny. But his status as a cultural anachronism isn't something we should turn away from. The very fact that Superman seems to represent such an entirely different set of social values to those sought after by mainstream superhero fans is exactly what should, at the very least, make him somewhat unique among the relatively interchangeable roster of superheroes generally on offer on movie screens at the moment.

The impulse, of course, is to "update" Superman, to make him "relevant". What could be more deadening that making an enduring cultural icon "relevant" to passing trends? If Superman is a walking anachronism in opposition to (certain) modern values, then why not meaningfully explore exactly what that tension means? It's a shame that the usual response to anachronism is to iron it out and remove those idiosyncratic wrinkles which provided the resonant identity in the first place. It's not that updating something is intrinsically bad; but it's miserably dull when iconic figures are resurrected only to conform to mainstream values rather than to confront them.

Just take a look at Spock in the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek franchise: the very thing that made Spock such a resonant figure – his commitment to rational, logical, careful thought – is the first thing that Abrams abandons for the passing benefit of a cheap character "arc". The problem is not that he's changed an iconic figure (change can be fine), but the fact that the change is the most insipid, mediocre one possible: a cheap grab at relevance rather than engagement with actual difference.

As a character with a clearly-defined approach to thought and action (rather then generic "genius") Spock is one of the few overtly philosophical images in mainstream pop culture history. As critic A.O. Scott writes of Abrams' reluctance to move too far from standard models of action: "Hardly one to boldly go anywhere, he prefers to cautiously follow and skillfully pander". ("Kirk and Spock, in Their Roughhousing Days", The New York Times, 15 May 2013)

Though the idea of an emotional character arc is ubiquitous in online discussions, this is one clear example where it is far less sophisticated than the lack of an emotional character arc. Some characters, like Spock, like Superman, are not served by short term shifts in temperament and character, and are not designed to have their values and perspectives shifted over the course of a three act structure. To see this as a flaw in the characters' ability to be interesting is a view that limits drama to a simple film-school understanding of a formula story.

The idea that drama and character require a clearly-defined arc of development is trendy and marketable, but it's also frequently shallow and somewhat shortsighted. After all, the "arc" is usually simply a way of pulling slightly divergent characters into uniformity. Characters like Spock, like Superman, find their identities in "knowing themselves": their emotional development is not of interest, their perspectives and decisions in a variety of circumstances are, as is how various creators understand and portray these perspectives and decisions.

Most of the reasons for Superman being inherently boring are actually pretty easy to question. Retro Remote has had an epic essay about Superman mentally brewing for about a decade, but a few nutshell points will have to do for now. Incidentally, there is no Superman, of course. That is to say, there's no single version of Superman. It's impossible to talk of a single Superman (and, of course, there are plenty of bad, boring stories), but we can perhaps offer some general thoughts on the most dominant traits of Superman at his best.

First of all: "He's always good". The important distinction here is probably good as opposed to right. Being always right is one of the primary characteristics of just about every mainstream hero, Batman being one of the most notable examples. Nobody gets one over on ol' Bats. All those infinitely-knowledgeable, smugly-certain, steel-trap minded detectives run riot over mainstream screens; sure, they have flaws, but being "wrong" is rarely one of them. Those flaws are usually fairly predictable: drugs, sex, angst, alcohol, arrogance... The kind of flaws that mainstream viewers actually tend to find fairly desirable and comforting rather than confronting (judging from how frequently these "flaws" are part of the advertising). It's nice to believe that having these basic hedonistic flaws (as we all do) make you "deep".

Now, Superman's not necessarily immune from being "right"; but that hardly isolates him from the crowd. Actually, I'd argue that Superman has much less opportunity to be smugly, consistently right, if only because a certain degree of uncertainty is required to keep a narrative involving a (mostly) all-powerful character like him ticking (but more on that to follow...).

Being "good", on the other hand is a much more complex issue; the kind of issue that's propelled philosophical thought on the proper way to live and act for... well, ever. I'm not suggesting that Superman comics offer substantial philosophical meditations on the nature of the virtuous life, but we should see the idea of a character who is – by his very nature – consistently good, to be a challenge rather than a drag. What the hell does consistently good actually mean, anyway? Superman may not provide the answers, but does provide plenty of opportunity to discuss that question.

Which leads to the second point: that Superman is too powerful, which gets in the way of telling an interesting story. Again, this seems to rely on an incredibly narrow view of what a narrative actually is. If a narrative is purely about a hero overcoming a variety of physical obstacles, then I guess that's true. But that's actually known by a slightly different name: a stupid narrative. (Yes, yes, "Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey...", I know...).

Again, Superman's power should be seen as a challenge rather than a flaw: writers can no longer rely on the tired devices of physical constraints to keep the narrative going. Confident writers should embrace Superman's power as something that places him above mere physicality: when the limitations on action are removed, the ethics of action still remain. The real dramatic struggles are those of ethics and inter-personal communication, not punching. (For those writers not up to that task, then there's kryptonite.)

This is also a confusion of character fantasy and character function. While Batman is frequently offered as an example of a "human" hero, there's little doubt that he's just as superpowered as Superman in just about any narrative context: the fact that Batman might clench his teeth and make a "nnnggghhgghghgngh" noise when he does something amazing, or perhaps take a moment to think something like "good thing I did all those push-ups yesterday", doesn't really make him any less "super". The fact that Batman has this human "out" means that he's been able to be easily embraced by fans as the most dominant force in the superhero universe (just check out any Batman comic from the last couple of decades). Batman is now beyond needing to justify his actions or abilities. An extraordinary Bat-action: how did he do it? Duh, he's Batman.

Thirdly: he's a fascist stooge for the government. Well, sure, that "American way" thing isn't exactly my favourite part of Superman mythology; but it's also a bit simplistic to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that might seem to be connected to historical patriotism. Superman may have baggage, but that doesn't mean that his stories are inevitably tied to rigid notions of conservative government. If anything, Superman's something of a free-wheeling peacenik compared to the modern image of Batman which increasingly tends towards militarism, martial law, parochialism (MY city!), and righteous aggression. Part of the joy of Superman is the fact that, where Batman's method is control through intimidation and fear, Superman usually tries to start things with a chat. You don't actually need superpowers to give that form of conflict resolution a shot, y'know.

Sure, for plenty of fans Superman is a fantasy of unbridled power. But for plenty of others, Superman is a potent image of kind, open masculinity that is socially aware, self-assured without being arrogant, self-aware without being self-obsessed, who maintains a sense of perspective, smiles easily, values kindness and humanity, and avoids violence wherever possible. As Batman drifts further into insularity and self-obsession (nngghghh, so much darkness!), it'd be nice to see Superman keep a sense of perspective when the new film version arrives.

Now, more important than any single interpretation of a character like Superman is the opportunity for multiple interpretations of a character like Superman. Comics usually allow this quite nicely, whereas film doesn't, which is part of the reason why there's so little meaningful variety in superhero films. But how did the sell-out, fascist, small-minded, irrelevant version of Superman become the dominant cultural image?

No doubt there are all kinds of reasons. I'm inclined to believe that it's part of a shift in the understanding of what makes "relevant" drama (personal angst rather then broader issues, apparently) and also the lack of real-world political opportunities for change. Everyone needs to assert their status as an outsider when we're increasingly trapped into political and cultural uniformity: a fantasy of being a well-adjusted member of society doesn't hold much stock compared to the fantasy of the feared and misunderstood hero of infinite depth and complexity (take that, society!).

The other reason is probably Frank Miller.

Miller obviously played a huge role in elevating Batman into the cultural phenomenon that he is today: a serious (sometimes too serious) player in dominant cultural narratives. Unfortunately, Superman ended up being turned into something of a (super)strawman example of conformity in order to make Batman's persona of resistance and defiance really work.

Batman pummeling Superman in
Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns

Ever since Miller's classic The Dark Knight Returns, superhero fantasies have been trying to recreate and repeat that stunning scene of Batman pummelling Sumerman into a mass of bloody Kryptonian mush. But this often tends to overlook the more subtle and nuanced relationship between Batman and Superman in Miller's original work. Miller hadn't yet forgotten his sense of fun (and perspective) when he wrote The Dark Knight Returns: Superman might have represented retreat and disillusionment here, but he wasn't simply portrayed as an idiot in a cape.

In fact, Superman is mostly portrayed to be as heroic and thoughtful as ever – his near death battle with a nuke is driven and engaging – but he's slipped into a kind of disengagement. Batman, similarly, begins in the same position, dissociated and needing rebirth. Superficial readings tend to present it as Superman having "sold out", while Bruce pursuing his own personal death wish is somehow a superior, profound decision (huh?). The two characters are in conflict, but only as potential extensions of each other. Batman's propulsion towards self-destruction isn't exactly viewed without suspicion.

When Miller returned to the topic in his sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, he'd descended into cheap parody of himself; for all its visual spectacle (Miller's much-maligned photoshop grotesques look great), it's a ranting narrative that simply hurls unmitigated abuse at Supes for being a sell-out conformist. The interaction between Superman and Batman that many fans had initially misread and simplified had been reflected back into to the source.

Miller ends The Dark Knight Strikes Again with a recreation of that classic fight scene, but piles on the abuse, milking as much as possible out of the original joy of seeing powerful Supes getting the kryptonite-coloured snot beaten out of him. The panels are filled with dialogue telling us just how stupid Superman is and always has been. It's a far cry from the tense, emotional and nuanced brawl that erupts in the climax of The Dark Knight Returns. To put it in Miller's terms, the original was an operating table, the sequel just a mudhole.

Far from deconstructing or analysing Superman's image, Miller now just delights in beating the hell out of him: a pent-up conservative and militaristic rage that now fuels Miller's somewhat tea-party like approach to narrative (and the world). In book three of The Dark Knight Strikes Again Superman basically abandons his own identity and agrees to be Batman's slave and we're supposed to think that's just a great idea, neatly sidestepping the ethical conflicts in Batman essentially adopting the status of global dictator.

As if this solipsistic vision of global self-righteousness wasn't enough, Miller summons Superman yet again for his ridiculous All Star Batman and Robin series: this time Superman is dumber than ever and Batman is more than happy to tell him so. (The rest of the series is basically Miller demonstrating that Batman is smarter than everyone everywhere: a ham-fisted but disconcertingly accurate portrayal of certain facets of the Batman fantasy.)

Superman is far from a perfect character. Too often he's portrayed as exactly that simplistic strongman that many people criticise. But Superman has the ability to transcend that and has, from time to time, done so over nearly three quarters of a century. Blame the writers, blame a culture with rigid views on character and drama, but don't blame the character.

From Grant Morrison's All Star Superman

Superman as anachronism will always be the character's greatest legacy: a throwback to impossible ideals from a past that never existed that, for that very reason, always carry the opportunity to be a challenge.

Superman asks us to think of ourselves as powerful rather than deep. For many pop culture fans in first-world countries, with opportunities and resources scarcely dreamed of throughout much of the world, it's true.

It's no surprise that one of the most cherished moments of Superfandom is a scene in Grant Morrison's loving tribute All Star Superman. It's a simple scene of Superman comforting a suicidal young girl, reminding her: "You're stronger than you think you are".

Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Return gave us a pouty, sulky Superman and it looks like Zack Snyder's upcoming Man of Steel won't stray too far from the silly-but-marketable "dark" hook. But let's hope sometime soon that a portrayal of Superman will embrace his greatest point of terrifying, confronting anachronism... and have Superman smile.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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