So, I went on Tuesday night to see Superman Returns. The highlight for me was stealing a Pirates of the Caribbean drinking vessel from the cinema immediately beforehand, which should give you a rough idea about the tone that follows in my review of Bryan Singer’s latest effort.
Watching this movie was a very interesting experience, because it was one of those rare movies where you can see the Oscar categories operating on different levels. When you watch most good or bad movies, you might think that the acting, directing and script are all good or bad. When watching, for example, the Prats 1, you might think that the acting (how Geoffery Rush escaped getting an oscar eludes my understanding) was pretty good, the script was light and sparkling, the pacing and shot selections were good, and so on. Not so in Superman Returns.
It’s hard to know exactly where to begin. I think that Bryan Singer is a genius. He took what has always been a lacklustre product and I think he took it further towards being an enjoyable outing than most directors could have. We all sat through the absolutely appallingly bad Superman III and IV for example. Even the original movie was clunky, and while Superman II had a few brief shining moments… it was rubbish. Well, despite my criticism of this movie, it was actually at least watchable, and a tiny bit suspenseful in one or two places. The way the scenes were laid out, the timing of the script’s deliveries, the shot selection, and the differing tones and emphasises in various scenes were as good as you could possibly get given the material.
Now, to a large extent, the director’s main limitation will come from the actors. Bad actors almost invariably leads to a bad movie. So the first thing that Bryan got right was to select a cast who were up to the challenge. Brandon Routh as superman was exactly the Superman I expected and remembered from previous movies and the comics. He was frighteningly similar to Christopher Reeve too in many scenes, especially as Clarke Kent. Kate Bosworth tried really hard to bring life to Lois Lane as the plucky and determined reporter who nevertheless exists in a kind of daydreamy and surreal world. Even the kid failed to especially annoy me, though Bryan did his utmost to limit your awareness of the child despite his reasonably important role in the character development of Lane and consequentially, Kent.
Well, this all sounds pretty positive so far, and that’s without my original glowing report on just how great Spacey was in the role of Lex Luthor (though I still prefer the Superman Animated take on early/mid Luthor). Unfortunately, the good bits are now over. Let’s start with the plot.
More than any other comic book movie of recent times, this movie felt like a comic. That is to say: the mechanisms and purposes of the plot events were almost completely naked. From the opening scene of Lex cuddling a dying old woman, to the scene of Lois on the test-flight of a new method of intercontinental travel, to the casually dropped line that Lois’ new husband was a pilot. It was like watching dominoes: however impressively long the string might be, once you’ve seen the first one go off successfully, there’s not a lot of suspense. Some movies take this idea and turn it into a virtue, for example High Noon offers very few surprises. Of course Gary Cooper’s gonna be hung-out to dry by the town, and then win the big fight at the end… but each successive stage of inevitability feels proper. In Superman Returns, you get instead a simple denial of probable outcomes to serve necessary story shape. The grievously wounded and dying Superman recovers within minutes because it is vital that he do so in order to save the day. And so on. In other words, the script writers (which included Singer) stepped into pretty much every comic book cliche with their eyes open and expected modern movie audiences to lap it up. Where was Singer’s careful subversion of the canonical aspects of the X-Men? To me, it felt like the movie built up tension into a series of anti-climaxes… there was no moment where you could stand up and cheer the glorious victory of light (see for example, the moment when Jack Sparrow breaks the curse and the redcoats literally cheer out on the ships.)
The other problem was that it was hard to get a handle on just what you’re supposed to care about. The Kent-Lane-Superman triangle, with it’s now enhanced complication of Lane’s husband is hinted at several times, but seems to be submerged into the more standard comic plot of “save the world”… and then the movie continues on for twenty hour after the world is saved to try and at the last minute come back and make that relationship the emotional centre. It’s too late!
This kind of lazy and sloppy plot construction is bad enough, but what made it worse was that some of the characters tried to exist at a level beyond the comic book fantasy. Old Mrs Kent, for example, is painted as the suffering widow and almost disenfranchised parent. She is the kind of character that would accrue serious pathos in a serious drama. Her pain jars with the tone in the rest of the movie: you are not allowed to disregard her or forget about her, but Singer does nothing with her, and the other characters remain blissfully ignorant of her plight. James Marsden’s Mr White is left dangling as the potentially cuckolded husband, struggling in a subtle way to retain his sense of partnership with his wife. Again, the other characters are left largely ignorant that potential, and Singer doesn’t explore any of the consequences that can arise from being in such a position.
The other difficulty with a return to such a patently comic-feeling mode is that audiences have been trained to expect a more-or-less rational and scientific world for superheroes to inhabit, but there were lots of moments where the science in Superman just made me go “WTF?”. In a cartoon, or a movie without Mrs Kents or Mr Whites, a movie like the Fantastic Four, you can easily forgive bad science. In Superman Returns, it becomes another, albeit minor, jarring note.
The greatest failure though comes almost inevitably from the nature of the Superman myth and character. Superman has always been deployed as the unstoppable and unbeatable foe against which your only weapon is Kryptonite. That is really boring. I asked whether this had been addressed, and he waxed lyrical about the kryptonited Superman having the crap beaten out of him by three ordinary goons. What he didn’t tell me was that within 10 minutes he’d be lifting the whole kryptonite-laden island and throw it into space. WTF? Now we have a superman against whom even Kryptonite is ineffective!
Ultimately I wanted this movie to force Superman to take a good hard look at the emotional wreckage he leaves behind him with his grandstanding and quick-fix approach to everything. Instead, despite strong hints of this as a potential motif, Superman is allowed to run rampant through the movie in his typical bull-in-chinashop approach to being a hero. In short then, I simply return to ‘s take: after 2 hours of setting up characters and scenarios, I wanted Singer to actually have done something with them, rather than go through the motions with his one-dimensional plot-device characters and fail to deliver any real spectacle.
(1281 Words, 57 minutes)