Oct 29 2013
Confession: I’m not much of a horror movie expert, especially not by the standards of this site. But even though I’m woefully out of my depth when Halloween rolls around, I still wanted to find something that at least kinda fit the occasion.
And then I saw an entry in my pitch list: Superman Returns. For one reason or another I never got back to this subject in the wake of Man of Steel, but you know what? I’m gonna roll with it. I’ll say it fits the season for a couple of reasons. One, the movie is about a guy dressed up in a silly costume and two, some of you might think my take on it is a little spoooOOOOOooky…
Ahem. Meet me below.
One of the biggest problems Superman poses to film adaptations is the sheer sense of scale the character has. This man is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive… you know the drill. Onscreen adaptations of the character for film and TV have repeatedly tried and failed to hit this lofty goal. Most recently, Zack Snyder took a shot at it in Man of Steel. His approach? To manifest the degree of Superman’s powers in scenes of wanton destruction, set alongside a movie full of Malick-lite images of small-town Kansas.
Sorry. I’m really not writing this as a hit piece on Man of Steel. But it irked me when folks were looking at the trailer for that movie and declaring it to sort of… like, capture something about Superman that we hadn’t seen before. Especially because Superman Returns captures the joy and beauty of the character better than any other feature film to date.
Truthfully, most of the things that Superman Returns was criticized for are the very things that I loved about it, like… oh, let’s start with the tone.
Strangely, Returns was slapped with accusations of being mopey and “emo” at the time of its release. I don’t get it. I mean, yes, there are scenes where Superman is quiet; where you genuinely feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, but tonally the movie is pretty freakin’ positive.
I love the “moments” of this movie. Superman hanging in space, listening to the pleas of everyone on earth. Or flying above the clouds to drink in the restorative golden light of the sun. Or Lois Lane catching her first glimpse of his red cape in flight. This movie practically worships the character and his capabilities. Mopey? No. That sadness you sense in parts of the movie is Superman’s sense of responsibility and loneliness; both totally fair game for a movie about this character.
Especially since when not being contemplative the movie is frequently hilarious. Superman Returns is one of those movies that goes out of its way to find little gags and moments in scenes that don’t strictly need them. It’s not over-indulgent like the recent spate of improv-heavy comedies have been, or like the jokefest of Fantastic Four. Rather, Superman Returns is thorough. Each beat is played in a specific and often clever manner. Think of the cannibalistic Pomeranian, or Lex Luthor brushing his teeth. Or pretty much anything Jimmy Olson does.
Superman Returns is aggressively against the sort of gritty, realistic storytelling that’s come into vogue since Nolan-mania struck. It’s old-fashioned and throwbacky, unafraid to grin and crack jokes and have absolutely ridiculous villains helped by moronic henchmen* in one moment, and then be completely sincere and sentimental in the next.**
It also exudes positivity because this is one of the rare superhero movies that doesn’t get off on the level of screen violence it can conjure. Like the first two Raimi Spider-man movies, the action is more fun than visceral; there’s a sense of specificity and flow to the superpowered feats that we rarely see these days. This movie even goes one further and completely eschews man-on-man violence.
Sharp-eyed viewers noticed this, though many of them treated it as a criticism that Superman doesn’t throw a single punch in this movie. I… guess? It’s less a criticism and more like just something that happens. It’s not like the movie lacks heroics or anything.
I mean… right?
I’ve been over this, but while seeing a super-powered being fight can certainly be thrilling, the character of Superman is good for so many things that aren’t violence. (Also let me remind you that there’s not a punch thrown in the first Donner Superman movie, and that’s the SECOND-best Superman movie to date, so… yeah.) Many of Supes’s great qualities are on full display in Superman Returns. This movie, more than any other onscreen rendition of the character, comes closest to embodying this fantastic quote:
“You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl… and curse… and finally — they will join you in the sun, Kal-El.”
By the way, you can find this quote in All-Star Superman,*** which for me is sort of the definitive text on the nature of the character. As are most books by Grant Morrison, for most of the characters he writes.
But even if we get past the lack of violence, the length, and the tone — and the acting, which… okay, let’s just deal with this. Kate Bosworth is fine; she’s a little weak but she doesn’t make any grave missteps. Everybody else — Routh, Spacey, Posey, Langella, Huntington — is pretty much good to great. And an extra-special mention for James Marsden and his character for being a genuinely likable “other guy” when it would have been much, much easier to just make that character a douchebag.
Anyway, once you get past all the surface-level criticisms people offer up, there’s still the elephant in the room. This movie is a direct sequel to the second of four Christopher Reeve movies, that ignores the other two and also serves as a bit of a reboot. It’s a strange place for a movie to be.
I’m okay with that. In the end, it’s the difference between having a slightly strange movie that I love or ignoring all of the thing Superman Returns does right because it’s a bit awkward. A lot of fan criticism takes on shades of “the movie I would have made;” essentially, people criticize a movie for the perceived flaw of it not doing what they specifically wanted it to do.
It’s not uncommon. IMO, this is a large part of the negative reaction to Ang Lee’s Hulk, the Star Wars prequels, or even something trite like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It’s tempting to get stuck on an idea of what a movie should be instead of trying to take it on its own terms.****
Part of loving Superman Returns is making peace with the slightly awkward creature that it is. A sequel to a movie made over 25 years earlier, that actively ignores two other sequels and basically serves as an apology for Superman.
Because that’s the ultimate point of Superman Returns. It means to remind us what is good about Superman.
The much-maligned Christ symbolism fits here, by the way. The parallels have long tagged along with the character; Superman Returns simply chooses to embody them fully. As with many other aspects of this movie, the Christ allegory is thorough as opposed to simply indulgent. In other words, there is a point to all of this.
I talked about loving the “moments” in this movie. I neglected to mention Superman holding the whole world on his shoulders when it could be crushing the people on the street. That’s who Superman is — to me anyway. That particular Superman still has something to show us, still has some worth, even if we forgot about him while he was gone.
When this movie came out, I went to see it “just because.” I didn’t get all the fuss about Superman, the character or the old movies. I felt like I didn’t need Superman. Which means that Superman Returns was directed exactly at someone like me.
And what can I say? It worked.
*Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, by the way, gives one of my absolute favorite “I am surrounded by idiots” performances in this movie.
**Lex Luthor’s much-maligned grand scheme, while admittedly a bit daft, is only maybe one shade more bizarre than his plan to blast California off the map with stolen nuclear missiles.
***That’s where Goyer/Snyder found it, too.
****Admittedly, this is part of my frustration with Man of Steel: It simply isn’t about the Superman I care to see. I would personally argue that it also fails at the movie it wants to be, as I was genuinely interested in the setup proposed by the movie’s opening. Unfortunately, it pretty much fell on its face from a dramatic standpoint so all I’m left with is an ineffective take that I don’t agree with in the first place. Anyway.
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