Wednesday, July 05, 2006

MOVIES: Superman Returns

Spoilers ahead.

So, it's well past time I talked about Superman Returns. I saw it on Friday with Dorian, Ian, and Kid Chris, who have all already posted their fine thoughts on the film.

I liked it. I did. There were parts that were incredible eye-candy -- everybody's already talked to death about how great the airplane rescue is, but seriously, it is frickin' amazing. One of the best action scenes I've ever seen. Several subsequent action moments were also impressive, but none could match that high point. And there was plenty of good acting. I thought Brandon Routh was great as Clark/Superman; he really captured the spirit of Christopher Reeve's iconic performance, down to the voice, he was goofy and innocent in some ways and full of steely determination in others, and of course he just plain looked like Superman. (I'm not wild about the costume; I guess someone thought it would be a neat touch for every inch of the suit to be covered in miniature Superman S's, but I just kept thinking, damn, did he make poor old Ma Kent sew that for him? And come on, just let the red bits be red, not maroon or whatever the hell you want to call that color.) Kevin Spacey was sporadically great as Lex Luthor; even though he was in a lot of the film, I still felt like he was underused, especially in that he didn't have enough classic lines. I love Parker Posey without reservation, so there you go on her. Sam Huntington brought a lot of life to the film as Jimmy Olsen. And as for Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane -- okay, her, I wasn't wild about. She wasn't awful, but she lacked a spark and charisma that, yes, Margot Kidder had; she lacked fire and spunk as Lois, and came off instead as moody and petulant and kind of dumb.

And the music. Oh, man. I know Mike had some reservations about the use of the John Williams score from the 1978 original, but I loved it. From the age of 8, I have equated that music with superheroics, and every time they struck up his music I was practically bouncing out of my seat with glee. Sing along: "Dah-da-da-da-daaah, daaah-daaah-daaah, dah-da-da-da-daaah, Superman!!"

There was a lot to like. But I also had a lot of problems with it. I say I like the film as is -- and I do -- but if they had thrown out everything but the plane rescue and done a page one rewrite, I think they would've been much better off.

The tone of the movie, for most of the running time, is wrong. There's so much moping about. Everybody's so hurt and jealous and sad and confused over their love lives, and it got tired pretty quickly. I can watch Gilmore Girls for that. I like the attempt; I like that the writers wanted to add emotion and dimension to these comic book characters. But I feel like they laid it on a little thick, went a little too far into soap opera territory. And the actors, especially Bosworth and James Marsden as her completely uninteresting love interest, Richard White, don't have the weight to convey that emotional baggage without sounding flat and whiny. And Bosworth (not to pick on her -- much) -- again, I just don't see that charisma in her Lois Lane that would explain why Superman is in love with her anyway. It's no fair to make the audience do the lifting here, to make us remember Reeve and Kidder and say, oh, yeah, that's why Routh cares about Bosworth.

Also, the story is just a big misstep. So, Superman's been gone for five years? He just bailed out without saying goodbye to anyone? We're supposed to buy that he's that colossal of a heel? (A superheel, if you will.) Then, he returns on the same day as Clark, and no one makes the connection? And Lois has a kid? Who thinks Richard White is his father? Does Richard think he's the father? If so, he was making time with Lois PDQ after Supes took off, because of course Superman is the real baby daddy. And if the conception of the baby is meant to have been shown in Superman II, when Superman gave away his powers to be with Lois -- didn't he later erase Lois' memory of their time together?

Some of that is nitpicking, I guess, but just that one thing alone: Lois and Superman have a baby? All wrong. I know, Singer wanted the kid to represent a draw for Superman back into humanity, blah blah blah. But it just throws the whole dynamic of the Lois/Superman relationship out the window. Again, I appreciate the attempt, but it didn't work for me. And now, you're stuck with the damn kid for the sequels! What are you gonna do, have Superbaby flying around in Superman Returns Even More?

Another big story flaw: Lex Luthor's big evil plot is really kind of dumb. The land baron thing worked in Superman and Superman II, because Hackman's Luthor was more of a comic foil than Spacey's darker, meaner Luthor, but to have him still obsessed with land the way he is in the new film seems petty and shortsighted. He's gonna kill a bajillion people to create his new, ugly, spiky, basically uninhabitable continent, and he thinks, what, people will really want to build mansions on it, that he will be allowed to sell this property, instead of the American government dropping a few dozen missiles down his throat? The earthquake in Superman, he could've gotten away with (presuming he could've been bothered to watch Superman die, instead of leaving him with his untrustworthy female sidekick); as over-the-top as it was, it was still, basically, a viable plan (in a supervillainous kind of way). But building a new continent in the middle of the Atlantic, and then selling property on it? How in the world does he think he's gonna escape suspicion on that one? "Gee, I wonder how this landmass got here. Ah, never mind, let's just pay Lex Luthor a million bucks for a corner lot."

Again, probably it's nitpicking, looking too closely at a supervillain's evil scheme. But come on. It's just dumb.

I agree with Dorian on another point: I don't care for it when a superhero is responsible for a bad guy's death. That's unheroic. In this film, Superman's destruction of Luthor's new continent topples a giant pillar that squishes most of Luthor's gang flat. Unintentional, yes. Unforeseeable? Maybe. Unheroic? Definitely. Also, Superbaby flat out kills a dude by smushing him with a piano. He was saving mommy, but still: a five-year-old KILLS A MAN in this film. Messily. That's not cool.

And my final complaint about the film is one I honestly didn't realize until Kid Chris pointed it out afterward. He said it jokingly, but I think it's a valid drawback to the film: Superman doesn't punch anybody. That's putting it as simplistically as possible, but seriously now: what do you want from a superhero movie? You want awesome fight scenes. Superman Returns has great action scenes, but absolutely zero fight scenes. Unless you count a bullet hitting his eyeball as an eye/bullet smackdown.

And unless, of course, you count Luthor and his gang kicking the holy snot out of Superman on Kryptonite Island. I didn't find that sequence too dark, as I believe Mike did; I think that for a superhero to really show what heights he can reach, having him hit a truly low point first is necessary. That Luthor brings him so low, literally driving him face-first into the mud, that shows you just how bad Luthor is, and just how far Superman has to rise for his eventual triumph. That he kills some of Luthor's henchmen in the process, that he somehow finds an immunity to all that Kryptonite sticking out of the rock for long enough to fling the landmass into outer space, that he uses his brute strength rather than outthinking Luthor -- in those ways, I found his triumph lacking. But it still looked pretty sweet.

But I was talking about fight scenes. Superman never engages anyone in combat in this movie. Sure, there's a reason for that -- when he's fully powered, he'd kill a guy by blinking too hard at him. But when he's saturated with Kryptonite, he still can't throw a punch to defend himself. (In that way, I agree with Mike about that scene.) Superman needs an opponent he can just freakin' punch. Like in Superman II, with General Zod and his gang. That's one reason why the Spider-Man movies have been so great -- villains with roughly equivalent strength to the hero, which result in tremendous fight scenes. I get that, in having Luthor as the bad guy, you've got the classic brains vs. brawn scenario. The thing is, Superman can outthink Luthor (although you wouldn't know it from this film, the way he just drops right down onto a giant Kryptonite-filled island to confront Luthor), so there's really no ultimate threat there. What's more, to quote Kid Chris: "If you're battling the same villain for five whole movies, you are not a good hero."

I said I had a lot of problems with it! I swear, I did like the film. But it was still so flawed. Maybe my expectations were too high; I expected perfection, I really did, and I thought Singer and crew could deliver it. I'll probably wind up seeing it again, possibly in the theaters with other friends, definitely on DVD. I'll be curious to see how my impressions change on a second viewing.

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