I recently saw the coolest thing that I’ve ever seen on a screen. On the bluish monochrome of a display I was watching a live feed beaming from an exciting location – the inside of my wife’s stomach. The camera pauses on a little peanut shaped thing with a flickering in its centre: his/her heartbeat.
I think I smiled so hard and beamed in a way I felt that if I’d knelt down and planted my fist to the floor that the earth would have vibrated and hummed like Superman before he takes flight. In that moment, bathed in the sunshine of my wife’s smile and that flickering jellybean from the monochrome monitor, I felt impervious to anything that the world could throw at me. And of course, faced with the thrill, the responsibility and the task of fatherhood, I looked to the screen.
When examining screen masculinity, we would be remiss to exclude the issues of screen fathers. And I was not thinking that I’d be so directly facing the fear of becoming a father while writing this series, but I may as well take the plunge. The enduring cultural definitions and precepts of masculinity and “manhood” are passed like a torch. The focus of this column is squarely on the father figures here, but I want to qualify I’m not omitting the women who crafted these men, just focusing on the Y of that XY chromosome pairing. The topic of fatherhood is key. I don’t pertain to know anything about fatherhood, yet, but I know about being a son.
From the potentially endless discussion areas in the rich rivers of screen fathers, I’m going to pan for the nuggets of gold in destiny – fulfilled or denied. There’s something so implicit in a father’s desire to see their wishes fulfilled via their children’s potential being realised. There are three films up for discussion with this topic that see the different ways (both figuratively and metaphorically) fathers set the path for their sons.
One could easily argue that the seminal example of cinematic wish fulfilment for fathers imprinting and influencing their son(s) is Richard Donner’s “Superman”. Jor-El (Marlon Brando), scientist, political figure as fearless and courageous as he’s intelligent. Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford), a role model for post-war, Middle-American values when the ‘Bible Belt’ wasn’t a slur. It’s befitting that a ‘super’ man is the product of just one but two great men. While I think Superman is a character that is perfect for this discussion, I do think Donner’s films are ultimately flawed in their perfection. That perfection is best exemplified in the “reset to default settings” time reversal.
The Superman of Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” on the other hand is a character that has incited a plethora of negative discourse. However, within “Man of Steel,” especially housed within the film’s third trailer, there is a concentrated dose of projected future perfection – one unrealised in the finished product. There is possibly no better demonstration of how the hope of one’s creation can be perverted into a disappointing reality. When young Clark Kent runs through his yard with a red towel tucked into the back of his pristine white shirt like a make-shift cape billowing in the breeze – it is spine tingling. It’s a pure and undiluted image of hope. The same hopeful images flicker through my mind as I imagine the future dreams of my unborn child.
In order to cross examine Donner’s perfect realisation of “Superman” against Snyder’s flawed “Man of Steel,” it’s best done through the prism of the Jor-El’s (Brando & Crowe) and the Jonathan Kents (Ford and Costner) of the respective films. These father figures are just as much an influence in death as they are in life. The Krypton of “Man of Steel” is one tearing itself apart through insurrection and induced ecological collapse rather than wilful ignorance of an impending astronomical disaster.
Other than almost everything that Crowe’s Jor-El does in the trailer, he’s a waste of a character. Terrence Stamp’s Zod and his cries of vengeance toward stoic Brando’s Jor-El, as the latter is left with no choice but send his son across the void, reverberate through you. Contrast this with the overt death of Crowe’s Jor-El at the hands of Michael Shannon’s Zod, a manoeuvre with the dramatic subtlety of an A-Bomb. “Man of Steel” cheats Cavill’s Clark/Superman out of a thorough intergalactic education from his Kryptonian father. The messianic poetry that creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster infused into the genesis of the greatest of all superheroes is mutilated here with a vengeance.
The death of Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent also significantly alters the course for Cavill’s Superman. In Donner’s film, Ford stumbles through the yard, falling to his knees as he suffers a fatal heart attack. Clark must come to terms with the fact early on that his powers are profound, but life is fragile. Superman isn’t going to be able to prevent the natural course of life (at that stage in any case). In “Man of Steel,” Jonathan forces Clark to watch him die instead of using his powers to save him. The lesson is not the same. It’s not about inevitability of life coming to an end, it’s about identity, secrecy and panic. That’s the moment that both haunts and defines him. When he’s sent off to his gap years, using his powers in secret for good and petty reasons, he’s actively wrestling with how to undo that moment.
Losing a father for me has no such gravitas; and yet like the Clark of “Man of Steel” I’m plagued by the echoes of him within me. I define much of myself in opposition of him. In my case there was no earth shattering event that ruined the relationship. I was a petulant, stubborn, smart mouthed teenager built with the same pigheadedness that I inherited from him, my adolescence was as unstable emotionally as Krypton was geologically. We had a strained relationship during my youth for a plethora of reasons, many a direct result of his selfishness and choices which almost drove me and my sister from the house.
The final straw that forced me to excise him from my life was a depressing comedy of pathetic childishness that I’m ashamed of even mentioning. Manipulated by his present partner at a time when our delicate relationship was in a cycle of repair, a false accusation became the paltry catalyst that blew things up. In the wake of him jumping to conclusions and a lack of belief in my word, being made not just manifest but abundantly clear, I instructed him to both lose my number and to go f-ck himself.
Plenty of films tackle lives lived in defiance and divergence from a father, such as the recent Robert Downey Jr.-led “The Judge”. Downey plays hotshot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer who is drawn home for the passing of his mother, and shackled to stay beyond paying respects when his father and town Judge (Robert Duvall) is accused of murder. Stepping up to his old man’s defence, he’s required to face his family’s demons in order to clear his name.
The final sequence of the film could be one of the most devastatingly poignant final strokes of a film that I can remember – and that’s even before Willie Nelson’s weathered and regretful cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” plunges into your chest and wrenches out your heart during the end credits.
In this final sequence, underscored by the choral tones of Bon Iver’s great “Holocene,” Hank takes a breather from his father’s wake and walks across town to the hallowed courthouse that his father presided over; a place that formed the battleground for his legacy and their strained relationship. Downey stalks the empty courtroom with balletic grace, petting a pew as he makes his way to the vacated perch of his father’s chair.
Spinning it like it’s the wheel of his future fortune, he assays the turf. Hank tore his father down on the stand to get to the truth. He made the man face his mortality, question his fallibility, and face the emotional devastation that drove him both away and toward him. “The Judge” gets that clinch and manoeuvring with such clarity. The chair spins, the echoes of the decisions to leave town to escape the haunting and grievous mistakes of youth, or to stay still and face his past – attempt to turn the tides of fate.
Moving back to my home town has been much of the same wrestle, the times of the past failures of relationships with family, past loves, and the very worst parts of yourself have stained and graffiti’d the town in ways even those closest to me don’t know. Like many men though, I now face the proposition of having to change myself on the fields of battles where I lost. Hank’s challenge of his father’s legacy, clawing back respect before they’re faced with life’s punctuation mark, is something I can’t envisage in my future. Yet I can’t curb the impulse for it either, even though there will never be reconciliation with my father.
He iced the irreconcilable differences cake with a pithy comment on social media very publicly insulting my wife and I on our wedding day (a wedding I might add that he wasn’t invited to). Reeves’ Superman is the junction of the wisdom and values of Brando and Ford’s Jor-El and Pa Kent. Cavill’s Superman must overcome the fear of Costner’s Pa Kent and attempt to grasp the colossal power and responsibility bestowed by Crowe’s Jor-El. Downey Jr. outwardly rallies against his father Duvall for the harsh judgements he bestowed; which resulted in them intrinsically being drawn towards a shared destiny.
My father is a man without hope for my future. As a substitute I’ve become like Dr. Frankenstein, stitching together a monster of father figures and role models. Former bosses, fathers of friends, older cousins, sporting coaches and my nearest and dearest (non-biological) brothers are now the men who inspire me. All of these men accomplish wonders and give me an ideal to strive towards. They race behind me, support me when I stumble, catch me when I fall… and one day soon, they will join me and my child in the sun. Welcome to being a man, a son, a father.