I’ve never been happy with the Man of Steel’s celluloid incarnations for the same reason cited by all the comics industry pros: the damn Boy Scout is a real chore to write, and a stone cold bitch to write well. Years of previous (mis)conceptions about just who and what he is don’t help. Neither does the fact that his world (by which I mean the 1930s) has moved on.
First there’s the Conflict Problem, both Internal and External. Superman’s external conflicts are often hilariously one-sided, while his internal ones have none of Batman’s brooding insanity, none of Peter Parker’s conflicting loyalties…he can’t even match Tony Stark’s problem with intimacy, since it’s not like Supes doesn’t have plenty of opportunities to get some. He appears, or is often written to appear, as a whole and hearty individual in-and-of himself, apart and above the other tortured souls populating his multiverse. And that seems to be okay for everyone involved with creating his adventures, including Bryan Singer.
I find all this trite and annoying because it makes for stories that are (at best) formulaic and (at worst) boring, or ri-goddamn-diculous. I’m not saying Superman Returns is either of those, but it only escapes by the skin of its teeth and the photo-realism of its special effects. I’m honestly happy to see Clark Kent back on the big screen. I only wish someone, somewhere, would have the courage to do something with him.
My city’s free, indier-than-thou weekly paper, the Willamette Week, called Superman Returns, “an entertaining bit of bombastic filmmaking, balanced with enough character depth to deliver the sort of goods that should be expected from summer blockbuster fare.” As Kevin Spacy’s Gene Hackman impression of a Lex Luthor says, “WRONG!”
Here is how I’ve described the film to all and sundry over the past week: The thing opens with Clark (Brandon Routh) returning to earth after a five-year hiatus. He grew a ship in that damn fortress of his (I assume) and went off to find Krypton. Or whatever’s left of it. We don’t actually see him discover his world’s grave site. We don’t actually see him morn the loss of his home planet, birth parents, or native civilization. The trip seems to have affected him about as much as the average hollow point slug, and hardly matters to the film in any case. The entire five-year hiatus is nothing more than a plot contrivance, an excuse. After all, how could Superman return if he’d never gone anywhere? And where the hell else in the universe would he go?
I can ask that question from my cynical perch in this freakish parallel dimension. (Lord help the Anti-Monitor that comes tearing through our world’s walls.) Everyone in Superman’s life has, predictably, stopped asking questions and moved on, including one Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Lois filled the last five years of her life (a) raising a child, while (b) dating her boss’s nephew and (c) winning the Pulitzer for her article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”
(Certainly not because he is far too often mistaken for a fascist, totalitarian upholder of the all-too-unfair status quo…that can’t be it, can it? Geeze, if it were, you think the artists charged with his continued creation would put a little more effort into improving his image.)
I’m honestly not sure what the impetus was behind recasting Lois in the role of as a more-or-less-single Mom. Homage-paying to Murphy Brown cannot be discounted…but, really, all her child does is complicate the continuing non-relationship betwixt her and the Man of Steel. After all, how can she and Clark have their stereotypical happy end when she’s got a nominal relationship with the boy’s supposed father? How can they have any happy ending? It’s not as if the comics have resolved their relationship.
Oh, yeah. That’s right. They have. Years ago. Over a decade ago by now, thank you very fucking much. Lord knows what kind of film that story would make. Would it be more interesting than this one?
Almost certainly, as we’ve all seen Superman Returns before. The title is really a misnomer. Clark’s actual return takes less than twenty minutes. He secures his old job at the Planet (somehow), shares a drink with the ageless Jimmy Olsen, and flies off to save a floundering space shuttle…and a certain reporter who just so happens to be aboard.
Big red-and-blue deal, right? Cool to look at and all, but nothing we haven’t seen before. I was hoping that Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, who’s always suspect) would rescue me from idle tedium with an elaborately brilliant scheme to destroy the Man of Steel, possibly whilst simultaneously taking over the world. But no such luck. Luthor’s scheme (if it can be called that) is almost identical to the Great California Land Grab of 1978. Stolen Kryptonian technology replaces that movie’s commandeered nuclear missiles, but the basic elements are so similar I ground my teeth to nubs with plain irritation. Here I am after five seasons of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Justice League cartoon…five seasons of watching Lex Luthor come up with plan after plan for world conquest and/or Superman’s ultimate destruction. He’s Lex Fucking Luthor: evil genius extraordinaire. His god-complex is only exceeded in size by those chips on his shoulders. He doesn’t care about money, except as a means to power, and power is only good for ruling the world or killing Superman or both.
But I suppose I expected too much. This is no character study. No searching exploration of its Hero’s (or a Villain’s) motivations. This is, for all intents and purposes, the fifth film in a franchise that went moribund during the 80s thanks to excess, derivation, and general silliness. Nobody in Hollywood has learned a damn thing in the interim. Sure, Superman’s not traveling through time or suddenly gaining telekinetic vision or pushing the moon out of orbit anymore…but neither is he any more of a three dimensional character. Chris Reeve was a great actor, no doubt, and Brandon Routh is certainly good at channeling his spirit…but neither one of them, for my money, make a decent Superman.
Both of them miss the crucial point (or the filmmakers worked hard to edit this part out…or the screenwriters never put in in the first place): Superman is only Superman in the papers, in the public eye. No matter how fast he flies or how many planes he catches, in his heart he’s just Clark Kent. No one, apart from a handful of industry pros who’ve worked long and hard with the character for interminable years (Roger Stern, Mark Waid, Paul Dini, just to list a few) seems to get this crucial point. There are times when Superman Returns betrays a glimmer of this understanding…but there are those previous four films in the series. The makers of Batman Begins took the hard road, started from scratch, and came out ahead. They were being courageous enough to say, “Hell with it. We’re beginning again from the Beginning.” Director Bryan Singer and his screenwriters, Don Harris, and Michael Dougherty, didn’t have their fortitude.
As a result, Superman Returns feels like a two-hour homage to the Donner/Newman/Reeve pictures. Hell, most of the key scenes and all of the quotable dialogue bits (“Mind over muscle, Miss Lane,” “I’m always around,”) are just that. This picture’s even dedicated to Reeve, peace be upon his name. With luck, that’ll be good enough for some, because I hope the proposed sequel (set for ’09) goes through. [Edit from future Dave, dateline 2010 – It didn’t. No surprise.] Only through continuance can we have any chance of anybody doing anything new and different with the Last Son of Krypton. We can only Xerox Donner’s movie for so long.
So the movie’s weighted down with its own continuity, replicating the missteps of earlier pictures. Routh’s Clark Kent is all-too obviously Reeve’s: the bumbling, clumsy dunce you wouldn’t hire to cover a sock puppet show, much less the Story of the Century. It’s the David Carradine, Kill Bill vision of Superman: Clark Kent as an absurd parody of humanity. Now, Quentin Tarantino’s one smart cookie, but he’s absolutely wrong on Superman. (Or, rather, Bill the Snake Charmer is wrong.) Clark Kent is no parody, no disguise. Clark is nothing more or less than Clark, the boy from Kansas. The kid who pinning for Lana Lang. The kid who never got sick. The kid who couldn’t go out for sports thanks to the off chance he might accidentally/on purpose break of few jock bones. The kid from Kansas who left home wanting to be a journalist.
Kinda funny, considering we never seen Clark write, research, fact check, or do anything even remotely journalistic. In the comic books, Clark is at least a respected pro in his field, if for no other reason than his uncanny talent for landing exclusive interviews with Superman. Hell, in the comics, the cartoons, everywhere but this One True Mass Medium, Clark is actually given the respect he deserves and allowed to be a character…as opposed to a place holder, stand-in, or side-show attraction.
I didn’t like much about Lois and Clark (Lex Luthor with hair? Are you fuckin’ kidding?) but at least Dean Cain knew enough to know that Superman spent (at least) twenty years of his life as Clark Kent. Twenty long, hard, formative years. I’ve got plenty of problems with that piece of shit show Smallville (Metropolis a stone’s throw away from middle-of-nowhere Kansas? You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding)* but at least Tom Welling knows enough to know that Clark Kent is a human being, no matter how his DNA reacts to our yellow sun.
[*Alternative parenthetical aside #1: Its working title was: Pretty White Kids with Super Problems. #2: Nice show, but I liked it the first time…when it was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And didn’t suck.]
I think I’m going to blame the 1940s radio serials for getting us into this mess. As far as I know, they’re the ones responsible for the following, inaccurate portrayal of the character “disguised as Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for The Daily Planet” A better understanding of Superman’s psychology (achieved through years of supplementing my comic book reading with non-pictorial books) has led me to believe this is fundamentally inaccurate. After all, it’s not like Superman needs the disguise. He’s frickin’ Superman. All his relatives (well…there’s Kara…and the people of Kandor the Bottle City, but never mind), indeed, his entire planet is dead. He’s got nothing to hide.
Clark Kent, on the other hand, has a mom, dad, friends from high school and various colleges, professional colleagues, and an unrequited Love Interest to boot. He’s no “strange visitor from another planet.” He’s a straight-A student from Rats-Ass, Kansas, raised by old-time Populists and who, disguised as Superman, strange visitor from another planet, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, etc., etc.
Ignore that at your own peril, movie makers. At worst, Superman’s been portrayed as the kind of aloof God/monster that inspired Alan Moore to create Dr. Manhattan. At best, he’s fitted the mold Tarantino seems to think he occupies. The later is what I feel Brandon Routh gives us in his performance. And don’t even get me started on Lois. Poor, maligned Lois. Always falling out of buildings, getting menaced by the heavies, never rising to save her own ass or make her own damn decisions. I don’t want to start another sentence with, “In the comics,” but the screenwriter’s leave me no choice.
They saddled Lois with that kid, either to place her in a more traditional role (the better to form a nuclear unit once she dumps the boss’ nephew and gets with a real Man of Steel) or to shore up her role as the Ultimate Working Woman. (Raised a kid and won a Pulitzer. How’s that sit in your craw, Dan Quayle?) In the comics (damnit) Lois is afforded the same courtesy as Clark: she’s a professional for god’s sake—a journalist. Her real-world counterparts may have forgotten what that means but, I assure you, she hasn’t.
Maybe her writers have. Maybe they (like the rest of us) are so immersed in the twenty-four hour Newstainment Complex that we’ve forgotten how hard-nosed, crusading newspaper reporters are supposed to look, feel, and act. Not all that surprising, considering we live in an age when Bob Woodward keeps the president’s secrets and a TV pundit gets snatched off Fox News to become the Press Secretary to the President of the United States.
I’d hate to see Lois recast in the mold of those vapid Talking Heads who appear like banshees every night at 10 to shriek out the news. I’d hate that almost as much as I hate Lois’ super-child. Both are crutches: short-hand used by lazy artists in place of actual characterization. We’re supposed to accept Lois as a mom and leave it at that. Hell with Lois the character. Who cares when (as in this film) she exists solely to get rescued…and to rescue Superman in turn?
But I’ve spoiled enough of the movie for one review. And it’s not like it matters. The masses are flocking to see it one way or another because it is Superman, after all. As I said several hundred words ago, better to line everyone’s pockets this time around. Otherwise, Warner Brothers might just get another bug up its ass and decide to wait twenty years before it green lights the next one. A film that should be made, mind you, and soon. After all, without it, what could I complain about in the meantime?