Written by: Jost Goggins, special to CC2k
It might just be me. I haven't been thrilled by a movie-going experience for a very long time. Maybe it's because I'm getting older. A friend suggested that our perspectives begin to shift the older we get. When you're six years old, Back to the Future feels like the Best Movie Ever. But after 22 years of watching movies, you begin to realize that there are a lot of good stories out there, and suddenly you're forced to choose between Lawrence of Arabia and Pootie Tang for the top spot on your All-Time Favorites list.
It might just be Bryan Singer. The Usual Suspects is a great film by anyone's standards, and rightly so due to a great script and top-notch actors. As a director's picture, however, it lacks style. Apt Pupil is a forgettable film, also lacking in style, but a superior Stephen King adaptation. X-Men 1 and 2 work only because they're not horrible films, but as comic-book translations feel more like character studies than action extravaganzas. Singer's focus on the pathos of these characters seems to take precedence over their duties as action heroes and mythological beings. The Greeks didn't feel the need to psychoanalyze their heroes, so why do we?
It might be Richard Donner, who for all intents and purposes, gave our generation the quintessential Superman film. There's something about Superman: The Movie that feels real and honest and above all – original. In fact, Superman: The Movie lays the groundwork for the Superman character so completely that any contemporary Hollywood screenwriter would be hard -pressed to come up with new material that doesn’t simply retread old territory.
Which brings us to Superman Returns.
There’s a predilection amongst artists to recognize the work that has come before, and even at times, to pay homage to the art and artists that inspire them. Bryan Singer, rather than simply choosing to acknowledge the work of Richard Donner, chooses to embrace the already established interpretation of the Man of Steel, and goes one step further to borrow music, dialogue, and even Marlon Brando for his 20-plus years in the making sequel. So how could this not be a bad thing?
Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris take Superman Returns beyond homage and sequel, and have simply remade Superman: The Movie, all the while billing it as a new take on the character.
Superman’s reunion with Lois aboard a doomed aircraft, Lex Luthor’s real estate swindle, the female sidekick with a soft spot for Big Blue, the kryptonite, and the performing of a deed of almost unimaginable strength, all take place point for point in the same order, on the same time table in Superman Returns as they did in Donner’s original film.
Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a problem with a formula that works, but for god’s sake, if you’re going to blow $300 million on a Superman movie, couldn’t the filmmakers at least try to give their audience something they haven’t seen before? It’s frustrating enough living in Los Angeles with ticket prices being as high as they are, without having to walk into a theater expecting something fresh and original, to instead be served up with a movie I could’ve as easily stayed home and watched on DVD.
Friends I’ve talked to have argued that Singer is creating a bridge between the old films and a new audience, as well as for characters within the story itself. I think it’s more of a cop-out. Singer, Dougherty, and Harris seem so intent on recalling the essence of the first two films that they completely ignore what happened there. If they were paying attention, we would’ve gotten a much different film.
A key example is Clark Kent/Superman’s constant pining for Lois all throughout Returns. It’s like they forgot about Superman II, where Superman makes a conscious decision to not be with Lois Lane, going so far as to erase any memory of their time together from her mind. Shouldn’t it be a load of his mind that she’s with someone new? It’s a little unbelievable that after five years of self-imposed exile in the vacuum of space, Superman would return to earth still torn up over a girl. Superman/Clark Kent isn't an idiot. He had been gone for five years – why would he expect nothing to have changed?
For all intents and purposes, this is the new Superman III. It should seem as though he’s been at this for a while, but in Returns we get a Superman who feels green and seems preoccupied with things that shouldn’t matter. I know there’ve been arguments all over the Internet contesting the Christ-metaphor in Returns, and the man-god angle is just another element of that argument, but as David Carradine’s Bill points out in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2, Superman is a god who masquerades as one of us, not the other way around:
“Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red 'S,' that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the glasses, the business suit, that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.
Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak, he's unsure of himself … he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race.”
I would expect a certain amount of introspection from a character like Bruce Wayne, whose personal issues and psychological damage helped create the Batman persona, but as a human being I also want to know what it’s like to be all-powerful. What kind of problems do you have when you can fly, palm bullets out of the air, or shoot laser beams from your eyes?
Paul Dini and Alex Ross offer up an excellent example of such a dilemma in the Superman: Peace on Earth graphic novel. It’s a simple story that takes place on Christmas Eve, and Superman finds himself alone in Metropolis. Moved by the plight of the poor and less fortunate, he decides to provide relief to starving third world nations by making withdrawals from America’s grain surplus. Unfortunately the regimes controlling these countries make the offer of aid more difficult than it ought to be. In the end, Superman realizes that the greatest gift he can offer humanity is the strength to fight for themselves.
Singer’s most distinctive homage to the original films is a quote by Marlon Brando’s Jor-El, used in one of Returns’ earliest trailers: “They can be a great people, Kal-El; They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you … my only son.”
Jor-El never meant for his son to be a hero his whole life. Jor-El meant for his son to show the world that they didn't need him after all – and that's where Singer and Co. really miss the point of the first two films, and of Superman in general.
And that’s why the world doesn’t need a Superman Returns.
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