Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
It's remake, homage, pastiche, sequel, imperfect, clumsy … and sublime
WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Read a different perspective on Superman Returns here!
Some movies go together. Maybe you put them on the same shelf. Maybe, back in the quaint, halcyon days of “analog” technology and “VHS” tapes, you put certain movies on the same tape. Maybe you put The Goonies and Big Trouble in Little China on the same tape because of their goofy, off-kilter, Indiana Jones flavors. Maybe you have a few guilty pleasure tapes from the 80s filled with right-wing action flicks like Rambo II and Commando.
Bryan Singer’s passionate Superman Returns belongs on the same shelf and on the same mix tape as one other deeply affectionate collaboration that spans decades: AI: Artifical Intelligence. Granted, Richard Donner isn’t dead, but Bryan Singer brims with such affection for Donner’s original – he himself said it was one of the movies that got him into movies – that while he was making a sequel to it and Superman II, he wound up remaking Donner's film at the same time he was paying homage to it and generating a pastiche of the Superman tradition.
But to fully explain why I love this movie so much, I have to go through all its imperfections, because Superman Returns is many leagues from being perfect. It’s too long by 45 minutes, and of the three leads, one is miscast, another isn’t quite right. Only Kevin Spacey brings everything to Lex Luthor that was needed, though he had a far better written Luthor to play than Gene Hackman had in the first two movies.
The other two leads, unfortunately, are more probematic:
Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. She’s easily the weakest link in the cast, though she exceeded my expectations (which were pretty low). In her defense, though, the very nature of her performance best illustrates the weird cinematic creature this movie is: Bosworth wasn’t just another actress playing Lois Lane; she was playing the same Lois Lane, in the same timeline, with the same background and the same baggage as the Margot Kidder Lois Lane we saw in the first two movies. Singer fills his movie with dozens of loving nods to the original movies, but regarding Lois he goes so far as to mention by title her scoop interview with Superman (“I Spent the Night with Superman”), and remind us that Lois is a bad speller with a smoking problem. Again, Singer made very clear that he was ignoring Superman III and IV from the 80s and was treating his movie as the defacto part III. This is a great, bold move all the way, but it saddled Bosworth (and any actress playing Lane) with the weird task of not only continuing the character that Kidder started, but also making her performance fit into the design and tone of Singer’s movie. Both Superman and Superman II – the first two movies in the trilogy that Singer “completes” – take place in the late 70s and early 80s, and they look it, complete with Luke Skywalker hairdos and leisure suits. Singer’s movie, by contrast, ostensibly takes place five years after the events in part II, but in those five years, all of the architechture in Metropolis has matured into beautifully designed art deco, and everyone’s wardrobes have retreated to the 40s, especially the women. Bosworth’s performance isn’t bad, but it only left a neutral impression with me. Her only real misstep comes when she delivers one line like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and I couldn’t help but snort and think, “Is that what she was getting at this whole time?”
Brandon Routh’s Clark Kent/Superman is the first portrayal of this character to bring Kent’s third identity to life: Kal-El, the alien from Krypton. Now, I will concede that I might be looking for ways to give Routh’s low-key performance more purpose, but Routh did say in some interviews that he got to play this third, more alien incarnation of his character, and the extended DVD release of this movie will apparently include extra footage showing Kent’s/Kal-El’s voyage to the ruins of Krypton. So with this in mind, let’s consider one of this movies chief themes (if not its chief theme): alienation (no pun intended). Kent spends this whole movie out of step, and I’m not referring to the bumbling that Kent does to protect his identity. His Superman persona is out of step, too, searching for ways to reconnect with Lois and the world he ditched.
The result for Routh is a far more subdued and alien Superman (I’ll deal with his Kent in a moment). Routh’s Superman smiles less and generally takes less pleasure in his superheroics. One great detail: Upon returning to earth and performing his first Olympian feat (a midair rescue of a crashing jetliner), Kent goes on a saving binge, righting wrongs large and incredibly unimpotant. For this Superman, rescuing people and fighting crime is therapeutic, not pleasureable. Another nice detail: Routh’s Superman often floats where Reeve’s Superman would walk – up small steps, for example. True, this probably has more to do with flying effects being easier to do now than in 1978, but it fits. Routh’s Superman feels further removed from his Kent persona and more like an earthbound god. Singer directly pays homage to Lane’s rooftop interview with Superman in the first movie with a parallel scene in Returns where Superman carries Lane high above the city and explains, “I can hear everything.” Routh plays this whole scene with unblinking intensity, delivering his lines from on high. The closest Reeve ever got to finding this energy was in Superman II when he begs his father to return his powers, but even then he was crying out as a man desperate to do right by his adopted home.
Unfortunately, Routh doesn’t really know what to do with Kent. His Kent feels a lot like Bosworth’s Lane – neutral, inoffensive and unextraordinary.
There are other problems that I’ll address, but let me proclaim here that Singer’s love for the source material trumps the mistakes he and team make. Singer has a huge agenda with his movie, and he accomplishes most of it. Besides dumping the original part III and part IV from the chronology, he also seeks to revive this specific franchise in full-on Star Wars or Lord of the Rings fashion, right down to the uniform openings and closings. Hard is the heart that won’t swell at the sight of Superman smiling into the camera before flying offscreen at the end, or the amped-up, retro, opening credits sequence and its lively trip through the cosmos.
Looking back at the three movies, however, I find that the grim thematic structure of Returns would have worked better as the middle chapter in this trilogy, if we’re going to follow the Empire Strikes Back formula for trilogies that places its darkest chapter in the middle. An alienated Superman struggling to rediscover his place on earth would have worked better as a lead-in to the soaring triumph of part II, in which Kent finally consummates his relationship with Lane and defeats three Kryptonian foes.
But in any event, the big twistola in Returns – that Lane and Kent bore a son – promises an interesting sequel, considering that Kent wiped out Lane’s memory of their tryst at the end of part II.
OK, that was a cheap shot, especially considering how powerful I found Superman’s recitation of his father’s words to his own son at the end of Returns. Granted, I’m a sucker for father-son stuff in movies and books, but I adore how strongly Singer respects the mythology laid down in Donner’s original. True, this adoration causes him to include about a jillion nods both goofy and clever to the original movie, but structurally and stylistically, quoting Jor-El (Superman’s father) worked well in the first movie, and it works well in Returns.
The other reason why Returns works so well, oddly enough, is tied directly into one of its shortcomings when compared to the Donner film. Donner and Singer bring very different things to the material.
(Side note about Superman II: Superman II doesn’t really fit into this part of my analysis. Even though I like it better than Returns, I think it’s the worst-directed of the three. No surprise, considering that they switched directors midstream and wound up with the combined visions of two directors, two cinematographers and two production designers. It veers wildly in tone from the brutal realism of Donner (best seen in the diner scene where Clark gets his ass kicked) and the dipshit broad comedy of Richard Lester. By the way, I’ve seen Lester’s “classic” The Three Musketeers. It’s fucking unwatchable.)
Let’s break down what they offer.
Donner: Workmanlike, solid direction, but he sometimes lacks visual flair and artistic insight. He does, however, know how to perfectly render an iconic moment. Witness how perfectly he executes Superman’s first mighty act — his rooftop rescue of Lois Lane from a plummeting helicopter.
Singer: Remember the artistic insight Donner lacks? Singer has that in droves. He takes then time to show us moments like Lois hanging in zero-G when her out-of-control jetliner careens into space as well as the smoldering glimmer of the clouds as Superman uses his heat vision to burn a path through them.
Superman Returns is also largely a remake, touching on many of the same moments and imagery seen in Donner’s original. We see Ma Kent (a past-her-time Eva Marie Saint) discover a crater that holds her son. We see Kent running through the Kansas corn. We see Kent arriving in Metropolis. We see Kent save Lois Lane from avionic disaster. We see Kent grant Lois Lane a rooftop interview. We see Lex Luthor try to pull off a cataclysmic real estate scam (though I wonder how Luthor expected a continent of irradiated Kryptonian crystal to support any agriculture).
I’m sure many people will fault the remakiness of Returns, but I admire how Singer pays such loving homage to Donner’s film while merging Donner’s imagery with such beautifully conceived, timeless design. Singer reintroduces us to the Superman world that Donner helped bring to life and fills it with timeless images, from a rendition of Action Comics number 1 to the immortal image of Superman holding aloft the Daily Planet globe – one of the character’s many clear nods to Greek myths.
But Singer just doesn’t know how to build an iconic moment the way Donner does. Superman’s first rescue of Lois’ crashing jetliner should have been just as perfect as the helicopter scene in Donner’s film, but it isn’t. Singer fails to sync any of the action with John William’s classic theme, and the first shot we see of Kent ripping open his shirt to reveal the red S underneath is out of frame.
That said, though, let me stress again that Singer’s elegant touch matters. Like Frank Miller, he treats Superman like a force of nature and relishes scenes like when Superman flies up to the sun to revitalize himself.
And Singer loves this material. Loves it. He loves it so much that he’s apparently willing to downplay his own artistic style to reinvent a world that Donner so expertly built. As I said before, it’s a collaboration that spans the decades, filled with love and affection. It makes for an unusual, thematically complicated, deeply imperfect and utterly satisfying movie. Yes, I kinda hope they cast someone else as Lois Lane next time around, but I’m delighted that Singer loves Donner’s classic movie as much as I do, maybe more.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.