I caught a late-night showing of Superman Returns with some folk last night, inclement weather having ruled out our usual Tuesday practice of sitting out back playing cards. Haven’t really sorted my reaction out yet, but some preliminary thoughts:
- This is a pretty, pretty movie. A flashback showing a young Clark Kent racing through the Kansas cornfields, then launching himself into the air (though, at one point, failing to totally clear a moderately-tall building with a single bound) conveys a wonderful exuberance that’s only possible when they’ve managed to make you suspend your consciousness of the FX that go into creating the scene.
- I like a lot of the little easter eggs for fanboys. In one scene, for instance, Superman has just stopped an automobile careening out of control. In the next, the Daily Planet staff are looking at photographs of the rescue, in one of which Superman is lifting the car above his head, in a perfect recreation of the cover of Action Comics #1. It’s dense with stuff like that, and it might be worth seeing again just to catch the ones I missed if it weren’t so goddamn long. But the film’s overriding obsession with paying homage to the first Superman film actually becomes something of a hindrance at some point. The use of archived audio of Marlon Brando as Jor El is a nice touch at the beginnign, but you get the feeling that Brian Singer uses it again later more because he can than because the material they have is dramatically appropriate. The constant echoing of dialogue from the first movie (“You really shouldn’t smoke, Miss Lane,” “I hope this experience hasn’t put any of you off flying. Statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel,” “So long, Superman,” “What was it my father always used to tell me? — Get out?”) is cute at first, but gets to be a bit much.
In fact, even though unlike Batman Begins (a reimagining that discards the previous films), Superman Returns is a straight sequel to the first two movies (pretending, as I think we’d all like to, that the third and especially fourth installments never happened), it often feels like a remake. We have Superman rescuing a troubled aircraft early on to demonstrate his power. We have Lex Luthor with a grandiose and cataclysmic scheme to make money on real estate. We have Lex’s dim female companion who develops a sort of crush on Superman. And it’s ultimately too bad, because like the Kryptonian crystals that play a central role in the plot, this has the seed of something strange and novel and wonderful in it, but seems tied down by Singer’s compulsion not just to slyly reference but to attempt to recreate the earlier film. Unlike it’s protagonist, it never quite escapes the gravitational pull of Superman.
- While his Clark Kent is a reasonable facsimile of Christopher Reeve’s (though, again, how interesting is it really to keep relentlessly echoing the original?), Brandon Routh looks just a little too emo to be convincing as the “ultimate Boy Scout.” In fact, I couldn’t help thinking throughout that he bore a striking resemblance to Jason Schwartzman, if someone had trimmed the monobrow and zapped him with a supermodel ray.
- This is a thematically coquettish film: You think they’re on the verge of getting into some interesting exploration of what it means—both for Superman and the rest of us—to have a demigod living among us, and—wham!—subtext interruptus. Lois wins a Pulitzer for an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” It’s an intriguing idea, and the question keeps getting raised, but it never goes anywhere, nor do we get much hint of what the argument might be (though you can presumably imagine some pretty good ones). Luthor rails against “selfish beings who don’t share their power with mankind”—and there is quite the stash of Kryptionian tech in that fortress of solitude. Could there be something to that? But the idea vanishes after Luthor’s monologue.
Singer also surrenders to the lure of allegory, overstuffing the movie with allusions to the parallels between Superman and Jesus. The opening shot zooms down from space to the heavens above Earth as Marlon Brando intones that he’s sent humans his “only son” because they need “light” to show them the way. Superman looks down on the earth from high above, literally listening to the “prayers” of people in trouble all over the world—and just in case you didn’t get it, he responds to Lois’ claim that “the world doesn’t need a savior” with the observation: “I hear people calling for one every day.” (This, incidentally, brings to mind Tyler Cowen’s recent post about the efficient allocation of Superman’s time. Early in the film, a troubled Clark, fresh back from space, watches scenes from the war in Iraq. Shortly thereafter, the news informs us that he’s been hard at work… foiling deli stick-ups.) Later still, a weakened Superman (without giving too much away, let me note that the flick is drastically inconsistent about how well the Man of Steel holds up to kryptonite) plummets from the sky in the classic crucifiction pose. In light of all that, Luthor’s comparison of himself to Prometheus (the “light bringer,” for the Latin buffs out there) takes on a somewhat more sinister cast. And all that’s just lovely: Superman died for your sins—and he’ll even rise on the third day. But so what? You do one or two of these things if you want us to make a simple connection, as a commentary on the Superman plot. You do all of them and you’re flirting with allegory, at which stage you’re expected to be making some larger point… which I’m not sure there is. The movie ends up being less than the sum of its parts—lots of good individual scenes and shots that don’t add up to anything greater.
- Speaking of Luthor, Spacey’s take is one of the film’s main attractions. For one, unlike Gene Hackman, he actually shaved his head for the role—which I think is important both as the characters most recognizable and iconic visual feature and because that exposed cranium highlights the opposition between Supes’ unbounded physical power and Lex’s ruthless intellect. Now, as fanboys know, there have really been two Lex Luthors in the comics. The original is the mad scientist Luthor, decked out in green stretchpants and a purple top replete with mandarin collar and bandoliers across the chest, hoping to achieve world domination with his latest gadget. The post-Crisis reboot Luthor is a bespoke-clad CEO beloved (until recently) by most citizens of Metropolis, a behind-the-scenes manipulator more in the tradition of Professor Moriarty. (This is the Luthor we get in Lois and Clark and the more recent animated adaptations.) Here, we get something of a hybrid. Since this is technically a delayed sequel, this is nominally the “same” Luthor as Hackman’s, but the used car salesman outfits have mercifully been discarded in favor of something closer to the newer comics-Lex’s sartorial spiff, and while something of Hackman’s flamboyant con-man take remains, Spacey shows the genuine menace lurking just below the surface where Hackman’s was merely foppish.
The uneven, jerkily paced denoument reminded me of a Wired essay by Neil Gaiman and Adam Rogers, where the authors write:
Compared to most A-list comic characters, he has almost no memorable villains. Think of Batman, locked in eternal combat with nocturnal freaks like the Joker — or Spider-Man, battling megalomaniacal weirdos like Dr. Octopus. For Superman, there’s pretty much only bitter, bald Lex Luthor, forever being reinvented by writers and artists in an effort to make him a worthy foe. Superman’s true enemies are disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, jet planes tumbling from the sky, enormous meteors that would crush cities. Superman stands between humanity and a capricious universe.
One convention of the superhero movie I wholeheartedly approve, for all its triteness, is the dramatic confrontation between the hero and his nemesis, the former turning the tide just as it looks like he’s beat and all that. And we do, of course, get that narrative arc, but we don’t get it as a confrontation with Luthor: Superman’s final victory is over catastrophe, not his human enemy. Since they’re obviously setting up a sequel, let me suggest that Singer (or whoever else directs it) limit his mimicry of the original Superman II to this: Let Luthor act as a catalyst for the emergence of some other villain more capable of going toe-to-toe with Big Blue. Much as I’d like to see Darkseid, that might be unweildy (insofar as it would involve introducing an entire alien civilization), and while Mxyzptlk is fun, he really works better as a kind of one-off villain, rather than the center of a two-hour feature. (Unless they decide to film Emperor Joker, which would be awesome, but I’m not holding my breath.) So my vote is for Braniac—they could have him attracted to earth by the hunk of Kryptonian material that departs earth at the end of this movie, maybe even merge with Luthor as occurred in one Justice League Unlimited storyline.