Superman Returns

I considered reviewing any of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and decided against it.  My reasoning in this is that telling me you liked the Christopher Reeve Superman movies is like telling me you liked Field of Dreams, or Terms of Endearment, or Howard the Duck.  People talk about these movies and perhaps it informs others of their tastes and biases, but the fact is those are completely different movies.  Rex Reed brings this to the forefront in his Man of Steel Review.

“Here is an overproduced $225 million comic book with delusions of grandeur that was better made in 1978 and a lot more fun. Although he came from another planet, Christopher Reeve was a suave, all-American crusader for apple pie, the American Way and the good of man.”

If you liked the first two Superman movies, awesome, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Man of Steel or even Superman Returns as much as Bryan Singer might wish otherwise.  Those movies were campy and I’ve never been able to like camp.  Its comparing apples and Soviet Aircraft of the 1950s.  The comparisons are inevitable, but I think there’s a wider gulf there than between, say, Burton’s Batman and Nolan’s Batman.

As for my own bias, I really liked Watchmen, 300, and Dawn of the Dead.  I place Watchmen next to the Star Trek remake in terms of quality.  I like the movie, but I can completely understand the people who get really mad at those movies.  I like them and refuse to defend them.

I think a part of your enjoyment out of any Superman movies, Reeve, Routh, or Cavill depends on your opinion of Superman, character and franchise.  There are Golden Age fans out there, there are people like Rex Reed who like camp and have no friends, and there are those who can say with a straight face that the angsty Nolan Batman never pushes its “gritty realism” pastiche too far.  I think the character can be boring and the universe too bloated for its own good.  When it comes to intellectual properties my grandparents could’ve enjoyed, I tend to favor one-shots rather than continuity.  I love Superman the Animated Series because there are some great episodes there that don’t get up their own ass with the Superman Universe.  Far too often, to read a Superman comic is to be reminded of the 947 comics you didn’t read with a parade of side characters I don’t know jack about.

But because I am a modern man, I favor the darker more realistic side of Superman rather than his campy predecessors.  People keep coming out against superhero origin stories in movies because we’ve seen them a dozen times before.  I’d agree with this in the case of characters like Batman and Spiderman.  But for Superman, the origin story is the most compelling part of the character in my opinion.  I could never get into Smallville because again, it got up its own ass.  Does Smallville need to transform into a town of tens of thousands to accommodate a story?  I’ve said it before and will say it again, if you need Brainiac or General Zod to tell a story about Superman in high school, you fucked up.  He’s going through the same shit everyone else is, but he has superpowers.  That’s compelling.  Superman Inc, great one shot.  It’s an alternate universe where Superman is never found by the Kents and instead grows up traumatized after his flying around the house causes his foster mother to fall and break her neck.  In this universe, “Dale Suderman” instead becomes the world’s greatest athlete and media mogul while mental trauma blocks out his more unnatural abilities like flight and heat vision.  It’s a compelling story that ends when Superman puts on the cape and adopts the mantle of world’s defender, much like another great one-shot, True Brit where Superman grows up in the English countryside.  Red Son is probably the most famous “alternate universe” story and my favorite, where Superman lands in Soviet Ukraine rather than Kansas.

Recently I started reading the “Superman: Birthright” comics which are said on Wikipedia to be the inspiration for the new Man of Steel movie.  In it, a Clark Kent in his early twenties works as a roving journalist in war torn Africa knowing that he’s personally in no danger.  That’s brilliant because it’s a pragmatic realistic look at what someone might do if they were invulnerable.  It’s not about being dark.  It’s not about being grim or bleak or angsty.  It’s about being believable and grounded.  Lex Luthor is easily the best part of Superman Returns because you can understand his grievance.  Lex Luthor wants Superman death because he will never be number one in a world where one man can fly.  You can put yourself in the character’s shoes.  Lex Luthor grew up to be the world’s richest smartest man but he will never be like this other man, this invulnerable being who was born into everything that he has.  He is a Prometheus lording his superiority over the insects and that is goddamn compelling.

But these are notes for the pending Man of Steel review.  Instead I’m weighing in on the disaster that brought us here, Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns.”

Superman Returns is so painfully and obviously a love letter to the original films that I think an honest review might be impossible.  It uses the original style open credits and music.  If I made a science fiction movie and used the music from Star Wars and scrawling text you would think I was making a parody.  But because Singer’s making a Superman Movie, we accept this.  Well, actually the movie was judged to be bad so, we didn’t accept it.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor owns this movie.  Part of you agrees with him.  That’s the mark of a great villain, one you agree with.  Yes he’s a genocidal mad man but he has a point.  Someone out there stands above mankind and he’s not sharing, rather he’s appointed himself the final line in law enforcement.  To quote Superman: Birthright, “Conflict exists, it thrives each time men anywhere are allowed to believe that some of them are somehow superior to others.”  Except, like Magneto and Shaw say in X-Men, they are the superior men.  Superman is a member of a race gifted with extraordinary powers on Earth, superior technology off it.  One thing Singer held over from the original movies is Lex Luthor’s goon squad.  Realistically, Lex Luthor is the kind of person who would have goons.  But they’re morons.  They were worse in the original but they still kind of piss me off here with Parker Posey as Lex’s girlfriend.  Fortunately, that one guy with the skull tattoo actually manages to create a threatening scene.

 

Everyone complained about the casting in this movie.  We’re told it’s been five years since Superman left earth.  It does strain the credibility a bit.  Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane look like they would’ve been in high school five years ago.  Not professionals with established careers.  But I don’t think it’s the dealbreaker others claim.

One issue this movie does have is the same problem I found with Death to Smoochy is I despise the lighthearted approaching camp musical score.  It’s very swooping and melodramatic.  The visual style is also different.  I find that really hard to describe.  It’s not the overblown Burton style found in Batman, but there’s something fundamentally unrealistic about it like you were watching Art Deco on steroids or something.  This I actually like though, I think it fits the movie they wanted to make.

About an hour in, we get to the bank heist scene.  I think this is where the movie starts to go wrong because its actually pretty good before this.  I pick on this scene because its completely unnecessary.  It was for the trailers.  Someone had an extra few thousand dollars to blow in effects.  It doesn’t make sense any other way.  Then later you have the car scene.  I find this overindulgent but this makes sense because its necessary for the story.  It’d be a better explanation if say, Lex had orchestrated a series of bank robberies (by goons) around the city to distract him from the museum heist.

I think the highlight of the movie has to be where the henchman and Lois’s kid play the piano while Lois tries to send a fax.  It’s a tense scene that I really didn’t see coming.  It’s a sophisticated blend of action and suspense that really plays hell with the viewer.

I think this movie has the same problem as Spielberg’s AI.  It’s well made, well acted, clearly made with love, but the story is just boring.  It’s like Arthur’s House or Sens-O-Matic Tea from Hitchhiker’s Guide.  It’s almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.  This movie is almost good.  Borders good.  Good bits.  You can see good from the window.  But its not good.  It wallows in the melodrama and nostalgia rather than its better parts.  It’s like when the movie was being made, they didn’t know which parts of it were actually good.  And I don’t mean to say that it’s the action that’s good.  That bank robbery part is shite.

The origin bits when Superman doesn’t know what he’s capable of, when he’s scared, anything with Lex, the moments of tension on the boat, anything but Superman the invincible hero and Superman the lousy boyfriend which are sadly too frequent.  Even if Superman can’t die, he can still lose and that’s the important thing that can make him a compelling character.  Think of a video game for a moment, like an old school side scroller.  When you can’t win because you have god mode and can’t reach the end, its frustrating.  When you can’t win because you have god mode and the end goal isn’t worth having that’s brilliant.

Really where this movie falls apart is the end.  Superman doesn’t do endings well because there’s no ultimate test, no increase in effort.  Superman does the same shit he always does and the problem goes away.  Lex Luthor is never bested, he runs away.  When Batman has to win he uses a new gadget or learns a lesson or something like that.  Superman just chucks the big rock into space.

I’m also sick of the Superman as Christ allegory.  What does it even mean?  Superman is Jesus.  Good for you, want a cookie?  Does it change the story if Superman is Bertrand Russell?  What if Superman was George Clooney?  Salvador Dali?  The allegory means nothing in and of itself.  It’s like in the Avengers when Iron Man calls Hawkeye Legolas except instead of calling he’s calling him Jesus.  It doesn’t inform the audience about the character and it doesn’t aid the plot.  It’s just there.  I think this might be my 3rd least favorite cliché ever following “Inexplicably Well Equipped Small Town” and “Gratuitous Tit Shot.”  I think if you really think hard you’ll find that 99% of symbolism sucks the root.  In English class your teachers slobber all over the sacred cow of “theme” without actually asking if it improves the story, you know, what’s happening.

If you want good symbolism, look at Watchmen.  Rorschach’s black and white Rorschach mask, The Comedian as Captain America, this is good symbolism because it tells us something about the characters without exposition.  Inception as allegory for filmmaking is meaningless but it can provide the viewer with a new way to enjoy the movie.  Hypothetically another work could put a Scarlet Letter on a character to tell the audience without having to actually tell us that the character is being persecuted unjustly.  My point is that the symbolism has to actually tell us something within the context of the work itself.  Otherwise you’re just watching a movie where the characters happen to be named after Greek philosophers as a meaningless coincidence.

I think now we’re ready for Man of Steel.  Avoid the stupid Christ allegories, avoid the romantic melodrama, and give Superman something he can’t fix with strength and speed and you got yourself a good goddamn movie, hopefully better than the average Superman Returns.