Sunday, July 02, 2006

about superman returns

I saw it Friday afternoon -- the wife and I have been a little nutty for Superman since we got on a kick to watch all the old Reeve movies a few months ago. Then we got into Smallville. I thought all this buildup would climax with Superman Returns... But it didn't. We're into season 4 of Smallville now, and despite a seeming return to 'freak of the week' episodes, I'm on the whole much more interested in the Smallville plotlines than I was in Bryan Singer's take on Superman. A few reasons follow... and, warning, spoilers ahead.

. After the second Superman movie back in 1980 (where this one is supposed to pick up from), Lois knows that Clark is Superman. I can forgive this movie for taking license with the particulars of 'what happened' in a movie from 26 years ago, but I think going back to a state of ignorance about Clark/Superman between Clark and Lois was a mistake. We have a missed opportunity here to explore a really weird, kind of creepy, distinctly post-human relationship between these two. If you'll recall, Clark loved Lois and Lois loved Superman. Superman couldn't love Lois, and Lois didn't love Clark. It's a love triangle between two people. This movie could have dug much deeper into the weird mechanics of a superhuman and secret-identity love affair, and taken us deeper into what it means to love an alien who can't love you back (an alien that's also pretending to be a human who does love you very much)... but it just sort of left things at blah between them. Although I thought the attempt to show Lois' conflict (being in love with two great guys) was good enough, I sure thought it could have been more complicated, and in a good way. We could've handled it.

. Brandon Routh was an adequate Superman. But I agree with the reviewer who said he didn't really bring anything new to the role. The wife said he looked perfect, "like a doll" -- and he was certainly likeable enough. But we, as a culture, have had some 74 years now to metabolize Superman, and we're ready for the tougher stuff. At least I am. Show us how odd his life is, how much he struggles to be like us, show us his ambivalence toward his powers -- show that he feels disdain and disappointment towards humanity more often than we (humans) would want to know about. Cough up some ugly (or at least alien) feelings now and again. We've been waiting for that for a long time, and we still haven't gotten it. Maybe it's more a problem with this concept of Superman, or with the script, than with the actor -- but I think he could have made his Superman less conventional if he'd tried harder, even with such a safe script.

. Which brings me to the deadest lines Routh delivered in the movie -- sitting on his sleeping son's bed, telling him how life was going to be... This moment should have been emotional (painful for him, really) and full of conflicted feelings (like: oh no, I didn't raise the boy -- oh no, Richard did -- oh no, is a child able to handle knowing who I really am? -- oh no, doesn't he deserve to know that he's Kryptonian? -- oh no, I can't raise my own son! etc.). But instead the scene is cardboard. It was a cardboard sandwich with a side of glue and some paperclip salad. That was Routh's big chance to get us, and he dropped the ball.

. Lex wasn't as complex as he needed to have been. Maybe it's because I've been watching Rosenbaum on Smallville and he's set such a high bar -- but Kevin Spacey just didn't play the Luthor I wanted to see. I needed more of the "gods are selfish beings who fly around" attitude to be turned into some kind of "therefore I'm going to rid the world of Superman forever -- for the good of us all" action in order to sympathize with him. I really could have sympathized with a villain who believes he has everyone's best interest at heart. I sympathized with Cosmo in Sneakers, you know. I can't sympathize with a simple evil dude. Spacey (or the writers) could have made Luthor into more of a Lex we know from Smallville -- someone who becomes "evil" because he tries too often to do good and has his face put in the mud for it over and over again. Even the just-plain-scary stuff Spacey tried to do, like when he goes from polite super-villain banter to a crazy shout-down of Lois on the ship, didn't really affect me. I wasn't, like, real scared. I'm a little bit beyond the pg-13 view of 'good vs evil' and I wish the makers of this film had been too.

. All that said, the movie had plenty of good about it. The good stuff is pretty easy to see, so there's no need to lay it out here. Superman returns (and man, I wanted to cheer) when he saves that plane. Perfect. But next time, let's go for something a hair more mature, huh? Superman deserves it and so do we.


Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, at the end of Superman II, Superman makes Lois forget that he's really Clark Kent (using yet another undisclosed power) because she's so depressed about having to keep it bottled up. Of course, Lois shouldn't remember having sex with Superman, yet she isn't surprised that Jason is really Superman's child. Then again, nobody is surprised that Lois is like 23, has a five year old kid, and a Pulitzer. The mind reels.

I agree with most of the other stuff. There isn't much one can do with an invulnerable hero except make him (yawn) slightly less invulnerably temporarily. It would be neat to see Superman be ambivalent about saving humanity from itself.

Anonymous said...

Superman was raised by humans -- on a Kansas small farm, no less -- so he wouldn't have the "disdain for humans" you suggest. Deborah Levine was spot-on in this regard; he thinks of himself as Clark, as one of us. Superman is something he does; Clark is who he is. Part of Superman's charm is his idealism, even naivete. He honestly believes humanity can be better. He really does think of himself as just "a friend".

FWIW, yours is the first description of Smallville that explains its popularity to me; I've never bothered with it because it seemed to be designed simply to hook every demographic it could; X-Files plotline leftovers enacted by "angsty 90s teen" stereotypes with their "typical teen issues", Green K special effects (on humans, yet!), barely-legal eye candy, and excuses for Clark and Lex to hint their potential gayitude with soulful looks, spawning an enormous amount of badly-written slash. - Jay

Anonymous said...

re: disdain.
C'mon Jay.
Every time Superman has to save another selfish human from another self-created, greed-originated emergency, his disdain for humans grows.
That's why his continued belief in the good of humanity is so poignant and important. His view of us isn't naive.
His identity isn't human -- he was born Kal-el, raised a Kent, and became his own thing, an amalgam of the two worlds.

Anonymous said...

You said almost the exact same thing about Spacey that I said to Jared after we got in the car on the way home from the movie. I haven't watched Smallville yet and I'd only just seen Superman 2. I didn't have a lot of specific expectations, but out of all the reasons the movie disappointed me (I guess I was comparing it to the complexity and fun-to-watch quality of Batman Begins), Kevin Spacey's treatment of Lex Luther was the one I just couldn't shut up about. That was some bad stuff.


Anonymous said...

Came across this from a friend's blog.
Had to say the following:
Lois was made to forget Superman's identity as another poster had said; but the memory erasing thing isn't complete. In the comic it was only used a handful of times and at best it confused the memories, not erased them.
As for Lex Luthor... he is evil, always has been. Lex is EVIL and there is nothing redeeming about him. That is what makes him the complete nemesis for Superman.

I know your understanding of Superman may be in the movies and TV show; but from a comic book perspective I think the movie got it right.
At the very least, it is a good interpretation.

Anonymous said...

Liz -- I know! Don't you just want something better from a villain? Despite some comments on this post which have the attitude of "oh just shut it and let Lex be evil, man!", I think re-interpretations (which is what this is -- a re-interpretation of many comics and movies) should work harder to make us care more about the characters! Including the frikkin "evil" ones! -- WE

Anonymous said...

May be late, but I thought I'd add my two cents in as well.

A quick (though undeserved) defense of the movie: it was, from the outset, meant to be a sequel to Superman I and II-- two very flawed movies written by Mario Puzo (of Godfather fame), who knew very little of the source material-- and was successful in that it is a continuation of that Superman and his Lex Luthor, etc. Despite how mornonic Luthor's plan was, it was in line with how the charcter had been portrayed in those two films: "beachfront property" and "Australia!"

Still, not my Superman. I went to see Bryan Singer's Superman, not Bryan Singer's Richard Donner's Superman.

Quick point: the "memory-wiping kiss" used at the end of Superman II has indeed been used in the comics themselves, but not for several decades. It is a vestige of the so-called Silver Age of comic books and even the most embedded fan-boy of today will roll his eyes after seeing it.

Of the mulitple problems I saw with this movie (and I won't bore you by giving you a blow-by-blow), far and away the largest was the treatment of Lex Luthor. For all of Routh's boring interpretation of another man's interpretation of Superman, there wasn't much that went against type there. He was selfless, strong, that connsumate boy-scout through and through. Bad actor, bad script, not-so-bad Superman.

For the poster who wrote that Luthor-as-evil was true to the comic: you're just plain wrong. While it's certainly true that Luthor's past has typically been villainous, he's been since John Byrne's much publicized revamp in 1988, a far more complicated character, one that it's almost hard to not sympathize with. Smallville's interpretation of Luthor is mainstream media's closest representation of the changes that character has gone through: a man, born with extraordinary intellect and resources, brought to a criminal life through a sometimes-earned, sometimes not xenophobia and jealousy. If young Kal-El had never reached Earth, it's most likely that Luthor would've been one of mankind's greatest champions. Several stories over the last twenty years have shown as much. The only line that from this new movie that felt "true" to Luthor was the line that Woody already mentioned, the one of gods being greedy and unwilling to share. The contemporary Luthor is a man who sees Superman as interfering with a)the natural progression of mankind and b)Luthor's role in it. He has allowed jealousy to pervert and grossly exaggerate a debate that most comic readers are aware of. The World Doesn't Need Superman? I might not think so, but there's one hell of an argument there.

What's great about Smallville, what's worth slogging through those necessary "freak of the week" episodes is the relationship of Clark to Luthor. It's heartbreaking to see what should be an amazing friendship become an amazing enmity. And in the falling out between these two, Clark is as often wrong as he is right! It enriches the story for a longtime fan as myself and adds necessary depth to a character that is ever in danger of becoming obsolete. This is what should ever be the core drama between these two. Anybody else, Superman punches things really hard. That, in retrospect, is why I had remembered Superman II in such a favorable light and too often forgive the last Matrix fight scene.

Luthor isn't the anti-Batman, but he's cool for the same reasons that Batman is. He's humanity as it's hightest potential. He's just a guy and continually gives Superman trouble.

I might post more about Superman and Woody's idea about disdain once I've given it some more thought.


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