June 28, 2006

Oh yeah, Superman

20 minutes of commercials at the beginnning + over two hour running time + late show = I'm not entirely awake today, so I remembered I saw this only just now.

Anyway, Superman Returns review, below the fold. There may or may not be spoilers, so read at your own risk.

I've never been all that interested in Superman, at least compared to other DC headliners like Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash (and, more recently, Green Arrow). This is a genre in which the dramatic tension is usually driven by the physical danger that threatens the protagonist, and the only thing that really threatens Superman is kryptonite. So bad Superman stories are pretty much forced into a set mold: Lex Luthor (or whoever) acquires kryptonite and threatens Lois Lane; Superman rescues Lois, goes back to fight Lex, is weakened by kryptonite; Lois gets Superman away from kryptonite; Superman, with strength recovered, grabs doomsday thingy and throws it into space.

The last 60 minutes or so of Superman Returns falls into this formula, so the denounement borders on the tedious. The pacing is also weird -- we get fifty minutes of increasingly dire threats, and then Superman literally just grabs a huge chunk of kryptonite with his bear hands and flies it up into space so the movie can end on time. I suppose it's better than him killing Lex, but it was still abrupt and dissatisfying.

But between the tedious final hour and slow-paced opening thirty minutes, there is a strong section that attempts to explore the Angst of Superman. Superman is almost unique among DC characters in that the blue and red suit is who he really is; Hal Jordan is not his ring, and Barry Allen is not the red spandex outfit, but Clark Kent is the disguise Kal-El, Last Son of Krypton, wears to get by in this world of fragile, helpless humans. As Superman -- and particularly in the context of this film, where he seems to be the only metahuman on Earth -- he has no friends, just an adoring public who regard him as a celebrity and savior, not a person. Lois Lane is probably the closest Superman has to a real friend, but even then there is a vast gap.

It is this remarkable isolation and loneliness, and Superman's desire to surmount it and genuinely connect with the people around him, that make up much of the middle third of the film, and I was most excited when I realized what the filmmakers were up to. But, too soon, Lois is turned back into the helpless maiden tied to the train tracks, and Superman is reduced to flying around, catching heavy things and blowing shit up with his heat vision.

The acting is pretty forgettable. Kevin Spacey manages Lex's mood swings and megalomania quite nicely, though he never quite gives the scenery the thorough chewing you'd expect from the world's foremost evil genius. Kate Bosworth is rather bad -- her Lois Lane is about as aggressive a journalist as Barbara Walters. Still, she's a hell of a lot better than Halle Berry's miserable Storm. I have mixed feelings about Brandon Routh's Superman, though his Clark Kent was wonderfully awkward and self-conscious. Both Bosworth (23) and Routh (26) are way too young for their roles, and it makes for some incongruous moments. But I suppose that's the price we pay for closeups so tight you can literally count the actors' pores.

All in all, Superman Returns is no Batman Begins, or even quite X-Men, but it's worth the price of a student admission or matinee.

4 comments:

MosBen said...

First things first. Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite as well as magic and telepathics. In fact, given the relative rarity of kryptonite in the DC universe, Supes is much more likely to be faced with magic wielder or a telepathic person than a chunk of his home planet.

And really, the "physical peril" stories are a weaker subset of all superhero stories, it's just that writers seem more inclined to tell them in a Superman book.

I actually thought the end was great. The action actually resolves itself pretty much completely with 20-30 minutes left in the show, which to me reenforced the fact that it wasn't the fight that was the focus of the film. Indeed, I don't think this was really much of an action film, but rather a drama about Superman dressed with some action scenes. And I also think you push the damsel in distress bit too far. In fact, not five minutes after a big Superman saving, the tables are turned around completely. I thought one of the films best strenghts was showing not only "Why The World Needs A Superman", but "Why Superman Needs The World".

While Bosworth wasn't anything special, I thought both Spacey and Routh really held their roles well. Spacey, of course, I expected to be good, but Routh managed the two (arguably three) different personas really well.

Noumena said...

Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite as well as magic and telepathics.

True. I should have qualified by saying that I am much, much more familiar with Superman as portrayed in teevee shows than from actual comics.

Archgarth said...

I saw this last night (Friday) and I'm still a little unsure of how I felt about the movie as a whole. I probably put it on the same level as X-Men 1, which I had similar feelings for after watching it the first time.

First of all, a little background about Superman. For the last twenty years of Superman comics, since the event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths which effectively restarted the entire DC comics cannon, Superman has not been the primary character in the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy.

Pre-Crisis, Superman was the primary identity, and "mild-mannered" Clark Kent was the disguise. Since Crisis, it has been flip-flopped, and the personality of Clark Kent is regarded as the true manifestation of the character, and Superman is the disguise he wears when he's in the tights. In contrast, the character of Batman is the true manifestation of Bruce Wayne, as his foppish, billionaire playboy persona is just a front.

I felt that the movie treated Superman's duality through the Pre-crisis looking glass, which may be because it is intended to be the sequel to the first two Superman movies, which occured Pre-crisis. I felt that Routh's performance as Clark Kent was well done, but a little awkward, because it was the disguise Superman wore in public. I think the movie would have had a much deeper connection with the characters if we were to see Superman as a man, who is Clark Kent.

We see this in the show Smallville, which for those who do not know, is a re-imagining of Clark Kent's beginnings. Something that the show accomplishes well is that Superman is not defined by his actions alone, but by his character, which is a direct result of his upbringing and of the type of person he is. For example, Clark Kent is afraid of heights, but as Superman, he suppresses these fears. This is a fact that is not only established in Smallville, but also the comic cannon. In fact, as anybody who has read Kingdome Come can attest too, when Superman forgoes his human identity and suppresses it, he becomes too detached from the world.

Sorry for the mildly rambling post, but I'm tired ;)

MosBen said...

I'm with you Brandon, except that I'm not sure the current continuity establishes as primary identity for Supes as it does for Batman. You're right, Batman is definitely the primary identity and Bruce Wayne merely a cover, but I tend to think of Superman as more of a split personality than one or the other. Indeed, in an interview I heard with Routh he talked about getting to play three characters, Clark, Kal-El, and Superman, and I think this is probably the best way of doing it. On the one hand, Superman has had a loving family all his life, has friends, and a job, all of which very much make him a part of this world. On the other hand, deep down he will always know that he's different from everyone he knows. He's the last man from Krypton and that will always set him apart from the world, and likely lead to him feeling very alone. Somewhere between Clark and Kal is Superman, a god walking among men. Both a part of the world and apart from it. He's nearly universally loved and yet all alone.

Moreover, while all Bruce has to do to maintain his cover is go to a few parties, Kal/Clark must always be on guard because he can never lose his temper and he must always be ready to drop everything he has for the screams that he always hears. He's all of these men, but never just one of them, which I think is what makes Superman so interesting. In a certain regard he's like Data from TNG; in so many ways better than humans, but always wanting to be one.