Thursday, June 29, 2006

Jesus Christ SUPERstar

Here it goes. I've seen Superman Returns twice. I thoroughly enjoyed it. While it didn't blow me away the same way Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings reduced me to blubbering mess, I thought it was a completely wonderful film worthy of seeing more than once. One of my friends mentioned that she would've wanted to see more action, and not just Superman fighting a big mass of land. Spoiled by the new generation of action and fantasy movies, she might have a point. Superman Returns wasn't as action-packed as, say, X-Men or Spider-Man (the teaser's out, by the way). There weren't any spectacular fisticuffs, meaningless bullet-time kung fu scenes, or flashy Class 5 power displays. But that's what makes Superman Returns a super-hero movie in a class all its own. The closest super-hero film in recent years that comes close to it is Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, which treated the source material with equal reverence. Superman Returns isn't your regular super-hero movie. It couldn't be. It had to be more than that. It was, in Perry White's words when he chided Jimmy Olsen for losing out to a boy with a camera phone, "iconic".

Had Superman Returns, the first film about the Man of Steel since 1987's much-maligned Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, been an ordinary super-hero film with flashy displays of power and a menagerie of villains, it might not have been as powerful. I actually saw that awful film at a sold-out (for real, this time) SRO (standing room only) Harrison Plaza cinema back when I was a freshman in high school. I digress. The point is, Superman Returns is a powerful piece of film. It was meant to be. The whole fact that there were no other super-beings in the film (with the exception of one -- you guys will have to watch to find out what I mean) served to emphasize the fact that Superman is one-of-a-kind. There's noone like him. Or is there? I'll explain further in a while.

Here's where Superman Returns takes a turn for the theological. For me, I love Superman Returns because it's a very powerful Christian allegory. Whether Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris (the two screenwriters appear in a cameo during the museum break-in, a variation on the Hitchcock-ian theme of filmmakers - or in this case, scriptwriters - appearing in their movies) intended for it to be such a theological piece is debatable. Personally, however, it's what drew me to the film, and ultimately, it's what made Superman Returns a movie that rises above others on many levels.

Superman symbolizes Jesus Christ. This is basic, overt, and relatively easy to discern. A god among men sent to Earth as a savior, with the resonating words of the digitally-reborn Marlon Brando, "I have sent them you, my only son," echoes Jesus' repeated reference to having been sent by His Father (e.g. John 6:38 "For I have come down from Heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent me"). There will be arguments from Jewish camps, and with much merit, that Superman, who was created by two Jewish boys Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is a representation of Moses (a son spared from certain doom in order to save a people when he becomes an adult), not Jesus. Bryan Singer himself is Jewish, and draws parallels between Superman's exile from Krypton on a rocket ship and Moses' trip of survival down the Nile in a basket. This is perfectly fine. There's no argument to be made here, only reinforcements to the idea that Superman draws from classic story motifs which also happen to be in place in the Bible.

That said, there are many elements in Superman Returns that reinforce the Christian allegory. Visually, there is the scene after Superman essentially "saves humanity" (in that aforementioned "battle" with a mass of land) and falls to Earth in a pose reminiscent of Jesus on the cross. Thematically, that Superman took that pose after he had saved the day, giving his all - sacrificing himself, essentially - is strong Christian symbolism. semi-spoilers (highlight to read)
Lex Luthor, using a shard of Kryptonite, pierces Superman's right side, which echoes Longinus' piercing Jesus' right side with a spear to make sure he was dead. Superman, several scenes after the aforementioned symbolic crucifixion pose, also flatlines, dying for short while, only to live again, or resurrect, just as Jesus did. While these may be interpretational stretches, the allusions are very easy to identify.

However, what ultimately spells Superman Returns as a truly meaningful Christian allegory for me isn't Superman himself but Richard White, Perry's nephew and Lois' beau, who is quite possibly my favorite character in the film. Denied a meaningful role by the insufferably inept Brett Ratner in X-Men 3, James Marsden gets a remarkably beautiful part in Bryan Singer's (who directed the first two X-Men films in which Marsden played Cyclops, incidentally my favorite X-Man) Superman Returns as the heroic (in every humanly possible way) Richard White. He is the subtle lynchpin which raises the Jesus Christ-Superman allegory to the next level. Allow me to explain.

While I may get some protestations for saying this, in my opinion Christ's dying on the cross wasn't how or when He saved us. Certainly it represented, on a deep spiritual and universal level, His immeasurable love for humanity, but it wasn't the summation of Jesus' salvific act or nature. This is how Jesus saved us: Jesus paved the road for our salvation when He became a man and showed us the way. Ultimately, Christ's message of salvation is to follow in His footsteps, to become Christ-like. We are saved when we become like Christ. He came to Earth and showed us the template of how to live and die, showing us that a life of compassion is attainable even by creatures like us. This is where the character of Richard White represents the fulfillment of the Christian allegory: he was as Superman-like as can possibly be. The presence of a super-powerless (but far from powerless)
human who was every bit as heroic as the God-like Superman in the movie was a brilliant storytelling element that cements what is, in my view, the Christian allegory. We have it in each of us to become a Richard White, a Superman, a Jesus Christ. Jor-El emphasizes it when he tells Kal-El how humans "are a great people," and that "they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way." The disembodied voice continues how human beings' "capacity for good" is the reason why Superman was sent to Earth. That "capacity for good" is fully realized in Richard White, who embodies every remarkable thing about humanity. On the flip side, Jor-El later in the film also says how humans are also capable of being remarkably base and twisted. Lex Luthor represents everything despicable about humanity. That chiaroscuro, that polarity in human nature, is represented by Richard and Lex. They are the two extremes which humans can ultimately pursue. Superman symbolizes the example, the template, the Jesus Christ which we can all aspire to be or turn away from.

It is in this way that I love Superman Returns. It is no mere Super-hero movie, it is THE Super-hero movie. There is one scene in the film where a son comes up to his father's big shoes, which one could interpret to mean "following in the father's footsteps" or having "big shoes to fill". In a way, it says that following in Superman's (or following my allegorical bent, Christ's) footsteps or trying to fill his shoes is a really tall order -- but it's achievable. You'll understand what I mean when you see the movie. I will be seeing Superman Returns again, probably two or three times during its run in the cinemas. There are many other reasons, this time fanboy ones, why I love Superman Returns. It is a great movie but ultimately, what makes it dear to my heart is that it's a strong contemporary statement representing humanity's potential for heroism (or being Christ-like). And that's super.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The IMAX Experience

Saw Superman Returns this morning on IMAX 3D. I have to say it was somewhat of a disappointment. Not the movie, which I enjoyed immensely, but the IMAX theater itself. Apparently, SM Cinema management gave out tickets to the first day first showing (which I had bought tickets to) to the press, making the whole thing a press engagement replete with camera crews and reporters and their families. While not so bad in itself, I was expecting to watch the SOLD OUT (technically not true, since most of the tickets weren't sold at all) screening with true fans who made their way to the cinema on a work week during morning rush hour. Instead, I saw it with people who got free passes. This is kind of like seeing a concert with people who got complimentary passes and are likely just there because they got free tickets and not because they liked the music. That said, there was a healthy smattering of Superman die-hards in Superman tees and got the good seats by virtue of actually paying for them. I know I've been sounding somewhat stuck up with that, but I had high expectations of the crowd I was going to be watching with.

There's a different energy watching it with the right crowd. I remember watching Episode II on two different occasions. One was an advance screening with a lot of geeks and fanboys, and the other was some snooty high society screening in Greenbelt attended by people who mostly appear on Maurice Arcache's column. In the former, during the scene where Yoda turned on his lightsaber for the first time, the crowd went absolutely nuts! There was cheering, whooping, clapping... there was a real thrill from people who remember the Frank Oz's cantankerous puppet. On the other hand, the Greenbelt 3 screening had exactly two whoops from the audience when that scene came on -- from me and my friend Kristine. Oh, and it was more of a who- than a whoop since we cut ourselves short when we realized that none of the high society snobs were going to cheer for a tiny green man with a glowstick.

Anyhow, the SM Cinema IMAX showing was something like that. Furthermore, the IMAX theater stank. It smelled like carpet adhesives and old cloth. Mall of Asia's IMAX also seems to be in violation of the National Building Code of the Philippines... there were exactly two aisles, one at the beginning and one at the end of the row. With over thirty seats per row, it threatened certain doom for people in the middle of the rows if a fire broke out.

Lastly, the IMAX experience was marred by an SM executive prefacing the screening with a nervous speech. And when the credits rolled, the lights came on and the exec went on his mic and asked us if we enjoyed the show. Not quite, but thank you. The movie itself was a real pleasure. The 3D scenes were real cool, too. I don't think it was as amazing as the trailers for The Ant Bully, Happy Feet, and T-Rex, but being the first full-length live-action film to have IMAX 3D scenes had its moments. It might have been a humongous visual experience, but the sound was awful. In one scene where Superman goes up to the thermosphere to listen to the sounds on Earth, the sounds he was hearing were vastly underwhelming. I watched Superman Returns in Glorietta 4 that same evening, and that scene in THX was so much richer. Overall, I enjoyed the film, despite the subpar theater (the non-contour of the huge IMAX screen created rippling effects from certain angles during 3D scenes; the IMAX theater in Singapore reportedly has a more immersive screen), the lackluster crowd (the Glorietta crowd cheered more and laughed at the right scenes), and the unwelcome commentator. You gotta go run out and see Superman Returns. IMAX entirely optional.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Superman soon...

Well it's officially Tuesday. In about 33 hours, I'll be sitting at the IMAX theater in the Mall of Asia (which has its own Wikipedia entry) trying to stop myself from having a heart attack. I'm really excited about the film, and I'm not quite sure if I'm setting myself up for a big disappointment. Although I'm fairly confident that Bryan Singer did an awesome job (Harry Knowles seems to think so...), I might have set my bar of expectation so high that I'm afraid I'm going to hate myself for it. But... I think I'm easy to please. I need to get myself a new Superman shirt for the movie. My friend Karen told my girlfriend Aila that she tried to get tickets for the 9:00am showing of Superman Returns on the first day, and it's SOLD OUT. I think that's just awesome. It'll be a really amazing screening, since only nutjobs like myself will make their way to Mall of Asia, which is at the end of the perpetually congested EDSA, before 9 in the morning just to see a film. These are gonna be fans. I bet I won't be the only one to cry. Which is just as well, otherwise it'll be like a deja vu of the time I watched My Girl or The Joy Luck Club, where I was the only grown man crying (or had difficulty hiding it). I'm so macho. Like the Village People. Anyway, here's one last look at the trailer before we all go see the film when it opens on June 28. If you don't have tickets yet, get the hell out of here and call the cinema to reserve seats. Shoo.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

I Have Sent Them You, My Only Son...

You know what month it is? It's June. You know what that means? It means it's Superman month. Bryan Singer, the director who made X-Men 1 & 2 such excellent superhero movies, passed on directing the third installment of X-Men (so in a way, it's his fault that X3 stank like pig feces) to bring back Superman to the big screen. Superman is my favorite hero of all time. Despite my exposure to pretty much every kind of super-hero imaginable, Superman remains my one, true inspiration. Superman is the reason I thoroughly loved and enjoyed the vastly underrated Brad Bird opus, The Iron Giant. It is arguably the best non-Superman Superman movie ever made. I cry every time I see it. This isn't saying much, considering I cry at movies all the time. Heck, I cry at trailers. Speaking of trailers, the teaser trailer of Superman Returns makes me misty-eyed every time I play it. I love this trailer because it embodies pretty much why I love Superman. Of course, Joe Kelly's Action Comics #775 "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" also explains why I love the big blue Boy Scout, but the voice-over in the teaser trailer hits the nail right on the head.

"Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them. They could be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son."

You can replace "Kal-El" in that monologue with "Jesus", and it would work just as fine. One reason why I love Superman so much is that he embodies the "super" we all aspire to be. He has, despite his near limitless power, the most human heart. He's the Jesus Christ of comic books. To avoid getting into a whole string of theological meandering which I'm inclined to do at this point, I will just say how absolutely and utterly excited I am about the movie coming out. I already have tickets to the first showing on the first day at the IMAX theater at 9am, and I think I won't be able to sleep. I'm really stoked about it, and I feel it's like the first day of school. I know I'm going to cry. I don't think I've been this excited about a film since I saw the first Lord of the Rings trailer. Probably more. At any rate, it's June. It's Superman month. And it's less than a week away.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Da Vinci Cud

The Da Vinci Code has come and gone, and it left Manila without so much as a fart of an impression. All the brouhaha and panic that the Catholic church went through prior to its release served only to drum up interest in an otherwise uninteresting movie based on an otherwise ordinary book. It's publicity money can't buy, and the Catholic church was more than happy to give it. This is the problem with the Catholic church nowadays, which can't seem to buy good press with all the gold in the Vatican. On the heels of the Da Vinci Code, a movie which was pitifully incompetent compared to the already ordinary writing of the book, the CBCP issued an official statement to answer of its claims. The unfortunate thing is, the CBCP didn't have to. The movie felt like cheap fiction, and was forgettable as it was controversial.

The CBCP serves up several points to counter what was written in the Da Vinci Code, the most sensational one being that Jesus Christ was (just) a human being who married Mary Magdalene and whose Divinity was a fabrication of the First Council of Nicea in 325. The CBCP counters the statement with a statement, "Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human," and a paragraph later, concludes, "The Church does not manipulate revealed truth. It serves the truth." Right. Uh-huh.

The problem with Faith and modern theology is that the old methods of delivering gospel truth (pun intended) no longer work. The Church's citation of Bible passages and concluding with statements like "(we serve) the truth" are woefully inadequate in a modern society where information is available and easily accessible. Today's youth (mostly youth, anyway) ask more questions. They're more skeptical. They have more choices in food, clothing, lifestyle, and yes, even religion. And contrary to what many conservatives feel, that's a very good thing. An embrace of Faith in the midst of contradictory arguments and perceived evidence is the most remarkable thing.

Jesus was completely and unapologetically human. That may be the coolest thing about Him. He was one of us, a human being, which means he can be imitated. That he was completely and perfectly Divine isn't in any way challenged by the suppositions of Dan Brown and his referencing of the Council of Nicea. Christ's Divinity isn't explainable by history, and it shouldn't be! Acceptance of Christ's dual nature is a matter of Faith and attempting to explain it in human terms is unnecessary and futile, like attempting to explain quantum physics to an amoeba. Speaking of quantum physics, while we're at it, Christ's dual nature is Schroedinger's Cat -- humanity and divinity aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, and this is what upset many theologians and church leaders at the time, Christ's existence suggested that humanity and divinity may actually be mutually inclusive. His message, should it be lost in all the controversy, is that we are ourselves divine by virtue of our capacity to love.

In the most simple terms, Jesus Christ was 100% human and 100% divine because He had exercised His capacity to love in the fullest sense. We become more Christ-like (i.e., divine) when we love more. Whether Christ exercised that love with Mary Magdalene, well, you can serve that up to the conspiracy theorists.

Buddha Bless You.

My nanay and tatay got married on June 10, a day after my father's birthday, in 1973. In 1998, on their 25th wedding anniversary, they got married again (renewal of vows) in the same church, in a ceremony replete with Filipiniana in the heart of Intramuros. Yesterday, 33 years since the first time they said their 'I do's', they got married again. It was different this time, though. It was held at a buddhist temple along N.Domingo St. in San Juan. The whole thing started from my dad's promise to my mom that they would renew their vows at different churches (of different religions!) every year during their anniversary, beginning with this one.

We all drove down from Tagaytay at 6am and, after a breakfast stopover, got to the temple at around 7:30am. We were welcomed by a tall, gentle man (not to be confused with gentleman, although he was one) named Anthony who taught us how to perform the simple ceremony. We had to walk in pairs carrying, in this order, our parents' wedding rings placed in tiny Chinese wedding baskets weaved from rattan and painted black, red, and gold; two fruits, a pear and an apple which, for the Chinese, represent a woman's fertility and a man's support for the family respectively; flowers whose meaning I forgot; and lamps to, I'm vaguely recalling, illuminate one's path in life. There were monks clad in brown robes and beads, their heads shaved, milling about with smiles and demeanor that was infectiously serene.

The wedding ceremony itself was short, lasting about fifteen minutes. It was just part of a bigger ceremony, though, and was followed by an hour-long sutra accompanied by the rhythmic pounding of gongs and bells. I struggled to stay up throughout the arcane chanting, even though Anthony told us that should we be unable to stay with the sutra, we could bow deeply three times and excuse ourselves to sit down. It got better near the end when the head monk led the congregation through what seemed like a human version of snake around the temple. Afterwards, the temple treated us to a vegetarian lunch with the monks and other visitors. It was a rather interesting way to celebrate my parents' wedding anniversary, to say the least. Maybe a hindu temple next year?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Death to the Death Penalty...

I read something in the papers today that disturbed me. After Philippine Congress had OK'd the repeal of the death penalty law, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) issued a statement regarding its continued espousal of the death penalty. The PCEC's Bishop Efraim Tendero was mentioned as pointing out that their stand had biblical justification. The article mentions that the PCEC believes that the Bible authorizes capital punishment as stated in Genesis 9:6 (New American Standard Bible) -

"Whoever sheds man's blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God

He made man."It resonates lex talionis. What's bothersome about the statement is that it hints at a fundamental failure to grasp Christ's message and mission of redemption. It also betrays a potentially dangerous, immature interpretation of the Bible. The Old Testament is a portrait of a disciplinarian, jealous, and wrathful God. In almost every instance, New Testament verse supersedes the Old Testament. As per Hebrews 8:13 (NASB) -

"When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete
But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear."

It bothers me that the PCEC quotes Old Testament to justify a stand on modern law when the New Testament provides a more current reference.

In the article, Senator Aquilino Pimentel describes the death penalty as "the cruelest punishment that could be imposed by the state because it takes away life." What isn't overt in the statement is the manner by which capital punishment is cruel. To end the life of a convicted felon is to take away all hope of redemption. That, more than the mere cessation of physical existence, is the more cruel aspect of the death penalty. It is in this manner that capital punishment is fundamentally against Christian beliefs. A truly Christian approach to modern penology should focus on redemptive rehabilitation rather than punitive, retributive measures. Had the statement come from an individual, it wouldn't have bothered me so much. However, this was an official statement from the PCEC, a Christian organization, and their statement reflected what is, in my opinion, a flawed interpretation of Christ's teachings. In their Vision/Mission, the PCEC states:

"We envision PCEC as the Christian evangelical movement that unifies churches toward the discipling of our nation where Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord."

Salvation is embraced by, never forced unto, a person. The acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is an act of will, a decision made with conscious thought. There are two key points that Christian proponents of the death penalty must understand. One, if a convicted felon is put to death, this removes all known avenues for the acceptance of Christ. The person can no longer, at any point in time, decide or try to reform, feel remorse, or experience the joy of Salvation.
The person is dead. Two, if such a convicted criminal does reform and even, for the sake of pushing the Christian argument, embraces Christ as Lord and Savior, is it then right to put that person to death? There simply is no logical or theological basis for supporting the death penalty if you are a Christian.