Thursday, June 29, 2006

Superman Returns

I don't know what it says about your film when the best thing about it is the font in the opening credits. The font is very 70s, but in a really cool way and I loved the way it zoomed right into the camera. You just don't see that pop a font used in most of today's films. And, I believe the only reason it was in this one was because it's the font that was used in 1979's Superman.

My big issue with this movie is that it doesn't function as a standalone film. Now, I don't know that it'd be a good idea to do yet another take on the Superman origin story, but, having seen the Donner film roughly ten years ago, I definitely felt like I was missing something here. There's not much character development here, the film just drops you into the world that was created in the Donner films and moves from there. Now, we get all the basics, but emotionally, there's no particular reason to care about any of these people.

The primary issue with any Superman story is that he's an invulnerable superhuman. This is a guy who can lift a whole crystal island into space, there's no way that anyone can hurt him, other than with kryptonite, so there's very little tension for most of the film. Because Superman can't be hurt, you have to build tension in a way other than the threat of physical violence to the protagonist. They attempt to do this through his relationship with Lois Lane, but I had no real emotional stake in whether they got together.

Another major issue is Lex Luthor, who's definitely the most fun character in the film, but also feels totally disconnected from Superman. His evil plan is so ridiculous, and the way it resolves is not particularly involving. He's just sort of defeated and then the movie ends. Luthor and Superman only have one brief scene together, again, Singer seems to be relying on our foreknowledge of their relationship rather than what's actually present in this film.

If this film is meant to be a sequel to the two Donner films, that's cool, but it's been 25 years, and those films weren't exactly great to begin with. The film reminds me a lot of King Kong in that the director lets his childhood love for a film get in the way of making something that's fresh and accessible to new audiences. Singer may dig the Donner films, but do we need to what a 2.5 hour homage to that love. If 25 years have passed, your film needs to stand on its own a bit better than this one did.

Superman is a writer's worst nightmare, because his powers remove the tension from nearly every narrative situation. The attempts to build tension, such as the piano scene and the drowning scene, felt totally stock, and my awareness of the attempt to build tension removed any tension from the scene.

So, when building a Superman movie, you've got two options. One is to focus more on the villains, sort of like Batman Returns. That was a film about how people defined themselves in opposition to Batman, and in that one film, we got three fully developed characters who are infinitely more complex and entertaining to watch than anything in this movie.

Alternatively, you can explore Superman as a God among men. It's absurd that this guy would even bother to have a secret identity, let alone work a full time job in a newspaper when he could be out saving people. The various Superman knockoffs, such as Miracleman or Supreme, are infinitely more exciting than the man himself because they are more open to commentary on what it's like to be a god. That's the difference between Superman and a Batman or Spiderman, this is not an ordinary guy, it's someone way beyond human, so don't try to tell stories about how Superman is just a regular joe with the same problems as you or I. This film was clearly inspired by the Spiderman relationship dynamic, but it lacked the emotional pull of that film, where we got to see a person who's a man first and a hero second. Here, we see someone who can do anything, and doesn't seem to really care whether he winds up with Lois.

Of course, my reading of this film is colored by Morrison's work in Seven Soldiers. Seven Soldiers is all about the gritty underbelly of a superhero world, and it's a lot more exciting to examine that than to watch this film. I was expecting the film to feel too long, but it didn't, it actually felt like there was barely anything in it. We were at the conclusion before the story seemed to really get going.

There are a few great moments, such as Superman in the stadium, taking in the cheers, and Superman up in the sun, but other than that, it was the font that was the real highlight. Plus, you just sort of have to accept it, but it seemed totally ridiculous that no one would realize that Clark and Superman returned at the same time, then look at a picture of the two of them and piece together that it's the same guy. They jokingly nod to it, but it was just so ridiculous it distracted from the film.

I feel like blockbusters lately have been shorn of all their edge, focus grouped to carefully appeal to all sectors of the market and provide inoffensive fun that doesn't make you think too hard. I feel like the only artistically notable summer blockbuster of recent years is Revenge of the Sith, a film that has such scope, both narrative and visual, it really does feel like watching a galaxy tear itself apart. This film strives for the visual and emotional majesty that Sith reached, but doesn't even come close.

But, I suppose this is a film that's primarily about letting people relive their love of the Donner movies. So, if I was a child of the 70s, instead of of the 80s, perhaps I'd be loving it. All I know is if there's one superhero series that had two good films then went horribly awry and deserves a real third movie, it's Tim Burton's Batman films. It's absurd to make a sequel to a 25 year old alright movie, when a series that just 15 years ago provided the definitive film take on its character is totally ignored.

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