Monday, July 31, 2006

Superman Returns

A change of tone if I may. As a comic collector of many decades, I thought it time to air my thoughts about the new Superman movie. As with many other people, my views have altered considerably after having time to think it over, and I feel like exploring them here.

In short it's an entertaining movie. It's clearly a tribute to what's gone before, and on closer inspection very nearly a remake; similar plotline, often the same dialogue. Even Marlon Brando's Jor-El is back, providing the continuity link to the Reeve films which this follows on from. Yet stating that Superman Returns follows on directly from Superman II is perversely the film's greatest flaw. Brandon Routh has Christopher Reeve to live up to (probably impossible for anyone), Kate Bosworth has Margot Kidder to live up to (she fails) and whilst Kevin Spacey's Lex is far and away a better Lex than Gene Hackman's, it's largely because this film realises that it has to respond to a different audience in a different age. So it's trapped from the outset between trying to emulate what's gone before but 'move it on a bit'. And with compromise after compromise, despite frequently astounding CGI, the film is spiritually dead. For a Superman movie this is unforgivable.

The film explores themes about moving on, legacy, generational change. And with an entirely new cast inhabiting the same characters it's clearly something they and Bryan Singer felt that the audience would need to go through in trying to clear the franchise of the ghost of Christopher Reeve. Clark moves on through his son, emulating his own development from Jor-El in Superman I, Lois moves on through shacking up with James Marsden, yet this worthy exploration masks a fundamental failure of both the franchise and of Singer's understanding of the character. It's been said that the novelisation retains the original beginning to the plot, where Clark travels to what he believes are the remains of Krypton - it's a deception by Luthor to get him off planet, discredited, leaving him free to escape from jail. All we learn in the movie is that Clark is gone for five years - he just up and left. With the values he was raised with, Clark would never do that - he would never leave his Ma, Lois, all the people he cares about who depend on him. Yet this is what we are led to understand he did. And when he learns that Lois has moved on, he essentially tortures himself and her for two hours' worth of footage before claiming no longer to be bovvered. Again - Clark would do this? I don't think so.

We have a continuity fudge of Lois clearly knowing (Singer has alluded to this) that she slept with Clark/Kal-El in Superman II, yet her memory was supposedly wiped of his secret identity at the close of that film. Did she fake that sequence? We don't know. It would explain Lois' fury at being abandoned, yet fury seems too strong for this film. Apart from Lex noone appears to feel anything at all. Clark broods relentlessly, seeming to have a messiah complex not previously shown in this franchise. And this opens up another flaw: if he is emotionally disconnected throughout most of the film, the closing sequence with his son should have restored his connection. It doesn't happen.

Since Superman II America has changed from being seen as a champion of social values to a defiler of them, and it's no surprise that a Superman movie in the 21st century would try incredibly hard to abandon these associations. Truth, Justice and the American Way become Truth, Justice 'and all that stuff'. Superman's closing fly through in space no longer has him holding an American flag, and it is at that point more than ever that the film falls flat. Christopher Reeve made you feel good about yourself and gave more vigour to the character before or since, just with a smile. He had effortless charm and authority in equal measure. Whilst Brandon Routh might, he isn't allowed or encouraged to, leaving a film of good intentions but weak execution, loaded with miscast characters and wasted opportunities. It was Christian Bale's job to brood, not Brandon Routh's. It was the X-Men's place to be dark, not Superman's. I was moved by the retention of the theme and opening credit sequence, but by nothing else. The film's poor box office takings in the US suggest I'm not alone, and in the film's most important market to boot.

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