Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Truth, Justice and the Fanatical Way Postscript: SUPERMAN RETURNS reviewed

After writing five different pieces about the anticipation of Superman Returns for MTV.com, it seemed kinda silly that I wouldn’t follow them up with my thoughts on the film after actually seeing it (and since some of you have asked)...

I’ve now seen Superman Returns twice and the short answer is I liked it. But not as much as I’d hoped I would. I have some major quibbles (of course, in light of what COULD have been, they seem minor, but still, they remain...).

First, the Good:

The entire film is beautiful to look at. From the production design by Guy Dyas to Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography to the effects (by a thousand workhorses), Superman Returns is dazzling from the gorgeous flying scenes to when it’s just characters sitting in the Daily Planet. And, as I'd hoped, the costume didn't bother me in action (although that 'S' could've been a tad higher).

The airplane rescue is everything you could possibly hope for in a live action Superman movie. It’s a white knuckler that makes you wanna stand up and cheer at the end. The only mitigating factor (as Dave C pointed out) is that you’d think maybe a few of the reporters might look a little more banged up (especially Lois, who apparently has the power of invulnerability herself).

In fact, I found all of the Super action pretty spectacular. I wish they wouldn’t have used the eyeball bit in ads because it’s one of the film’s big money shots (I envied the guy behind me who obviously didn’t see that trailer in advance, as he whooped in amazement). The machine gun scene was great with one problem: We should’ve seen Superman destroy the gun, walking up and crumpling the barrel with his hand. Still, that’s nitpicking (er, excuse me, kryptonitpicking).

I thought the humor was perfectly balanced and genuinely funny, never falling into camp. The surprisingly sad tone of the film didn’t bother me. John Ottman’s score was rousing, and perfectly integrated John Williams’ iconic themes.

For the most part, the casting is terrific. Brandon Routh does seem to channel Christopher Reeve at times, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. He’s charmingly dorky as Clark, majestic but humble as Superman. Kevin Spacey is a fine Luthor. Frank Langella and Sam Huntington were absolutely delightful as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen (in a bow tie!! Yes!!!). Hmmmm, am I forgetting anyone? Oh, yeah...

Which brings us to the Bad:

Kate Bosworth wasn’t quite as distracting as Katie Holmes in Batman Begins, but she’s still too much of an inconsequential Hollywood pretzel stick to pull off a believable Lois Lane. When Clark says to Jimmy, er, Bo the bartender (Jack Larson) that he never thought she seemed like the type to settle down, he’s RIGHT. Granted, having a child changes everything (as those annoying Johnson & Johnson ads so patronizingly inform us), but Lois needs to retain an edge that’s lacking in Kate.

It’s not so much Bosworth’s age, since she’s actually playing a decade older. In films like this, which are designed to be franchise tentpoles, the leads have to be young enough to still seem about the same age if it takes a decade to complete the series. Fine. But there are lots of actresses with more substance who are a few years older than Bosworth’s 23. How about Evangeline Lilly? Amy Adams with a brown wig? Eliza Dushku? Zooey Deschanel? Maybe Laura Prepon? I think comedian Jessie Klein would be a perfect Lois Lane (although it hasn’t been established if she can act or not).

The Christ imagery was too heavy handed for my taste (although I’m not bothered by the idea in and of itself.... I believe in Superman far more than I believe in God). And I gotta say, I’m not real keen on the idea of Superman using his powers to spy on Lois and her family.

And while I can’t believe I’m saying this, I thought there were just a bit TOO many tips o’ the hat to Superman: the Movie. Structural symmetry is one thing. But entire lifted lines of dialogue at numerous points in the film were just distracting. I did love the predicted final shots that recreated Reeve’s goodbye in all four of his films, though.

There’s really no other way that they could’ve gotten rid of New Krypton other than how they did, but it’s still a bit of a stretch to imagine that Superman could lift the whole thing, laced with Kryptonite as it is. What makes this plot hole so aggravating is there’s an easy fix they could’ve done.

Let’s say they established earlier in the film that the gray pod suit Kal-El wore for his return to Krypton was made of a lead-based material that blocked kryptonite radiation. As Superman regains his strength in Richard’s plane, he tells Lois, “I have to go back.” Lois pleads for him not to, telling him that he’ll die. Superman says, “Never lose faith, Lois. I just have to make a quick stop and get something first.”

And then Superman, wearing the gray pod suit, separates New Krypton from the ocean floor and lifts it into space, still struggling, still fighting the effects of the kryptonite laced throughout the land, but believably accomplishing the feat, and NOT nearly dying in the process. True, that would’ve meant the climax would’ve had Superman out of the iconic red, blue and yellow costume, but they could’ve added another scene after that (perhaps getting Lex and Kitty off the island?). Anything but lying near death in a hospital.

The entire “Superman is Dead” sequence could’ve been excised to the film’s benefit. I suppose Supes in the hospital was done so Lois and Jason could visit him and tell him about his fatherhood (more on that in a second), but it seems completely unnecessary. They could’ve figured out another way to clue Kal-El.

But that brings up the biggest problem with Superman Returns. I really hate the whole kernel of the film, the notion that Superman and Lois have a child. Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” aside, I don’t think Superman should be a parent for the same reason he shouldn’t be married (as he is in the comics to Lois): The Superman story needs to be rooted in the notion of SACRIFICE. Kal-El has chosen to use his powers to help mankind, and to that end, he has sacrificed what he wants most, a normal life.

But Singer and his screenwriting team needed to bring something new to the canon, and there’s really not a lot of uncharted territory after almost 70 years. Still, accepting the idea, there are still some questions. If Jason is the product of the canoodling in Superman II, wasn’t Lois’ memory of that little incident, um, erased? And when that copulation occurred, Kal-El was temporarily human, having FOOLISHLY given up his powers for the love of Lois. Wouldn’t that have made his DNA temporarily un-super? So, unless Superman and Lois Lane were doing some superbooty knockin’ between Superman II and Superman Returns, Lois must be wondering how she ended up with a super powered kid (omigod, he really IS faster than a speeding bullet!).

It’s unclear whether Lois knew about her son’s powers before Jason tossed the piano at Luthor’s thug (and why did it have to KILL him? Sheesh). My interpretation is that she didn’t know until that moment, but it could’ve been played better.

Anyway. The film’s a hit, although not the smash WB was hoping for. I was happy that the crowd cheered and clapped at numerous points the first time I saw the film. I was worried that Superman would be deemed irrelevant in 2006 and apparently that’s not the case. But I do think Bryan Singer, his heart in the right place, could’ve done a few things to make this relaunch more super.

Singer, Dougherty and Harris may have shot themselves in the foot off the bat by using Lex Luthor as the villain of the piece. In serialized fiction like comics and TV, Lex Luthor can build as a simmering, evil force in the Man of Steel’s life. But in film, you have to have a spectacle, and Luthor’s not the most dazzling baddie. There’s only so much you can do with him. If they wanted to establish fresh territory, maybe a different foe would’ve served the movie better. In fact, every single other Superman villain remains untapped on the big screen. So let’s talk sequel.

Now, it’s true that Superman’s rogues gallery pales in comparison with Batman’s or Spider-Man’s, but it’s not as weak as some have suggested. Yes, Brainiac has been reinterpreted numerous times (as has Luthor), but the boiled down essence is certainly workable in a film: Alien android collects civilizations around the universe.

Of the other Superman foes, the Parasite (who draws the life essence, including powers of anyone he touches) is a formidable foe, as is the immortal would-be world conqueror Vandal Savage. Bizarro could work very well, and could be a creation of Lex Luthor, allowing for two enemies in the film. Mr. Mxyzptlk is more of a pest than a villain, and Toyman is inherently silly, but with a revamp, the idea of a villain who uses lethal toys might work, even if he couldn’t carry a whole film (perhaps a pre-credits action sequence, ala James Bond films). I never liked Metallo, the half-man, half-android with a kryptonite heart, and don’t even get me started on Doomsday.

It does seem as if an alien adversary would be the best way to go. Perhaps Maxima, the sexy dictator from the planet Almerac, who wants Superman to deign to become her mate (and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal). Or Lobo, the intergalactic biker thug could wreak havoc in Metropolis (actually, that would be another pre-credits bit, not a whole film). And then, of course, there’s always Darkseid.

Jack Kirby’s über-villain Darkseid, ruler of Apokolips, would have to be dramatically reworked for a movie, since the complex Fourth World background (so adeptly adapted in Superman: The Animated Series) is a trilogy unto itself. But the notion of an alien despot bringing an army of parademons and super powered baddies to conquer the Earth sounds like a film to me. If I could pick the villain for the next film, Darkseid would get the nod.

As for the Phantom Zone villains, well, if Superman II fits into the continuity of Superman Returns, then we have to assume that they died of hypothermia at the Fortress of Solitude. So, no General Zod (just as well.... I prefer the notion of Kal-El being the SOLE survivor of the planet Krypton).

At this point, Singer hasn’t even hinted what the sequel will contain. I just hope that they don’t reverse the ambiguous ending of Superman Returns, where Supes and Lois acknowledge their connection, but remain apart. The odds are, however, that by the end of Superman Sticks Around, they’ll again be a couple. Aside from Jason dying of Krypto-asthma (highly unlikely), we’re stuck with the kid, so I have to deal with that.

So. Superman Returns hasn’t taken the place of Superman: the Movie in my geeky black heart, but I never thought it would. Still, while I have my problems, I have to say that overall, Bryan Singer and his team have done good. They’ve added to the rich legacy of the world’s greatest superhero (shut up, he is) with care and respect and for that, I am one grateful geek.

POSTSCRIPT, November 2010
As with Tim Burton's BATMAN, I think I convinced myself I liked SUPERMAN RETURNS far more than I actually did. Oh, it could've been much worse, but in the end, as I noted in an open letter to Christopher Nolan earlier this year, the movie was just... off. And I also decided that Kevin Spacey wasn't that great of a Lex Luthor.

Now, Singer's out and the next Superman movie, THE MAN OF STEEL is going to being directed by Zack Snyder from a script by DARK KNIGHT writers David Goyer and Jonathan Nolan. As of this writing, nobody's cast, nothing's done, but supposedly the movie is going to focus on Clark Kent deciding to become Superman (something SMALLVILLE's been doing for a decade now). To that, I say ARRGH. Again, nobody seems to be taking advantage of the fact that everyone KNOWS the backstory. Give us a big, giant story!


It was just announced that Amy Adams has been cast as Lois Lane in the Superman reboot. Nailed it!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great blog. I still think Zooey Deschanel is the #1 Lois non-pick. Still, Amy Adams could be cool. She has an edge to her that might translate to a strong, quirky Lois. That brown wig'd better look good, though.