Friday, June 30, 2006
Why the World Needs (Another) Superman (Movie)
Lots and lots of spoilers below:
Saw Superman Returns last night and liked it a lot more than I expected to. I went into it kind of wondering what the point is. If you're going to use the same designs as the Christopher Reeve movies, and the same music, and hire an actor who looks and acts like Christopher Reeve... well, as much as I miss Christopher Reeve, I've already seen four of his Superman movies. Why not do something different?
Now that I've seen it, I appreciated the homages: Clark's clumsy and geekish uneasiness; Lois' smoking and inability to spell; Lex's delicate balance between legitimate menace and dramatic ham; the tension between Lois' overt sexual attraction to Superman and his hesitant reaction to it. Roger Ebert claims that Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth lack the chemistry that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder had. I'm not sure I agree with him, but my not noticing a lack of chemistry may be because I was superimposing Reeve and Kidder's performances over Routh and Bosworth's. That may be cheating on the filmmakers' part, but it worked on me. Besides, I disagree with the premise of Ebert's review.
Ebert asks, "When the hero, his alter ego, his girlfriend and the villain all seem to lack any joy in being themselves, why should we feel joy at watching them?" He's right about the fact that this is a gloomier Superman movie than we're used to, but who said it had to be joyful? Actually, I can probably answer that. It would be the same folks who think that superhero comics are only for kids and shouldn't be allowed to tell stories with dark subject matter. But that's not me.
Superman Returns isn't a dark movie, but it's contemplative. We get a profound sense of how lonely Superman must be. People worship him (more about the "Superman-is-Jesus" theme below), but he has no close friends. I got the feeling that his clumsy Clark Kent persona was a chore for him to put on. The only person who really knows him and loves him completely is an old woman on a farm in Kansas, and everyone knows that it's wonderful to be loved by your mother, but it doesn't take the place of being accepted by your peers. The closest friend he has as Superman is Lois, but she's moved on while he was away. It's a tragic story and it's no wonder that Superman flew into near-orbit several times throughout the film for no other reason than to get above everything and renew his perspective on what he was supposed to be doing. As Ebert says, "It's no fun being Superman. Your life is a lie, there's nobody you can confide in, you're in love but can't express it, and you're on call 24 hours a day." The difference between Ebert and I is that I respect that take on him. It's not the Christopher Reeve take. There were elements of it in Reeve's movies, but you always got the feeling that deep down he was having fun with it.
Something else that Superman Returns does differently from Reeve's movies is that it adds something to the overall mythos. Assuming that everything you see and hear in the movie can be taken at face value, Superman now has a son. I didn't initially like the idea of Lois' having a kid, but for some reason, I like it better knowing that the boy is Superman's. That probably says something horrible about me as a person, but there it is. Time will tell if the "Son of Superman" is a good idea or bad, but it could be good, so I'm not going to be upset about it. The only thing I don't like about it is the feeling that they threw it in there so that they could have a line about Superman being both the Father and the Son -- another Jesus reference.
I didn't much care for the Jesus comparisons, mainly because I don't see the point. Superman saves the world by giving up his own life and falls to Earth with arms spread wide. Then he lays in the hospital with a flatline for what I imagine must've been about three days before a nurse comes in and discovers the empty bed. I expected two Kryptonians to be sitting at the foot of the bed explaining, "He is not here." It's a clever analogy, but again, I don't see the point of making it beyond showing that someone was clever for coming up with it. What does it say about Superman? Or Jesus?
Back to the Son of Superman, though. I don't really think they threw that plot element in for the Father/Son line. The Jesus/Superman analogy had already been good and beat into the ground by that point. Without Lois' son, she doesn't have an excuse to dump her current boyfriend at the end of the movie and run into Superman's arms. The relationships are a lot more complex this way and I like that.
So, as much as Superman Returns may look like a fifth Christopher Reeve movie on the surface, it's not. They did something different. There was a point to making it after all.