Monday, January 14, 2008

Superman Returns

You'll Believe a Man Can Float

Driving home from "Superman Returns" in 4-story IMAX and 3-freepin'-D on Wednesday night, I was listening to KIRO Newsradio. Thousands were evacuating, fearing the cresting of the Delaware River. Andrea Yates was convicted (again) of killing her kids. A public official was lost in the Olympic Forest.

"Man!" I thought. "We could really use Superman. "

I knew I needed him. It had been a rough week of moving furniture and hauling myself from The Island to The Redmond. I was swamped at work and I had to take Tuesday off for the transfer of our big stuff from The Place What We're Selling to the current domicile, so my Wednesday started at 4 am (just in time for the sunrise) to get started early on due assignments. After all this, I was looking forward to seeing friends I hadn't ages, and seeing the new Superman movie. I was really looking forward to that. I've been pretty discouraged lately, and a new Superman movie...well, that seemed just the ticket. The previews for it were great.

So, how is it?

Good! Not as good as "Superman: The Movie." Better than "Superman II" (which I've never liked) and it's Shakespeare compared to the moronic "Superman III: Wasting Richard Pryor" and the incompetent "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" ("You'll Believe a Movie Can Stink to Highest Heaven!").

But everyone will be comparing it to the first one. As well they should. "Superman Returns" should be called "Son of Superman" (*ahem* cough!) as it's so closely tied to the first film. It recycles Marlon Brando as Father Jor-El, and recycles whole sections of the first film's Mario Puzo/Robert Benton/David Newman/Tom Mankiewicz script, including my favorite Lex Luthor line: "My father always told me..." "Get out!"

But, "Superman: The Movie" was really three films: The deadly earnest Krypton section ("This is no fantasy" intoned Brando at the beginning); the equally serious Smallville/Fortress of Solitude section (with Glenn Ford's last great performance, and a farewell to Ma Kent scene in a seemingly endless epic wheat field); and finally, the Metropolis movie, with its antic screwball comedy pace (brilliantly achieved, by the way), it's cartoonish villains ("Otis-burg? O-TIS-BURG???!!!") with their absurdly successful attempts at stealing nuclear missiles, andat its soul the "Superman Meets Girl" romantic comedy storyline. I've always felt that lurching shift in tone was a bit out of step with the rest of the film (though you could make a case for showing that stalwart Superman is needed in such a crazy, zany world). Now, I'm not so sure. Because "Superman Returns" keeps the earnest tone of the first couple sections of the original throughout its considerable length. More cohesive it may be, but it's not more entertaining. In fact, it tends to bog down the proceedings, which consists of "regrets and things unsaid" which would have made Richard Donner's "His Girl Friday" pacing inappropriate. Which only points out how large the gulf is between that first film and this one. Donner's "Superman" was a frothy entertainment, that, in the days of disco long sideburns, and flaired pants, winked at the concept of heroics. This one is heavier, darker, meaner and less entertaining. There's less joy to it. And it takes its heroes deadly seriously. You think a guy like Spiderman has great power, thus great responsibility? Hell! Try being "Superman!"

Donner's flying scenes in the first (with a lot of credit going to licensed pilot Christipher Reeve) showed the joy of flight--the freedom of it--the grace. Who wouldn't want to fly after "Superman?" "SR's" flights are rarely graceful, and powered by stress. This Superman is always in a hurry. He doesn't stop to smell the up-drafts or do a lazy roll through the clouds. He's making a bee-line from one emergency to another. There's another quality to the "SR" aerial scenes--isolation. Superman is often seen as a small speck in a big, empty sky with life going on far below him. He's not a part of this Earth, and Singer drives the point home again and again. It's no fun being Superman.

I'll bet audiences have a problem with that: if they were Superman, of course, they'd enjoy it. It brings to mind the Superman scene I'd like to see. Howard Chaykin, of "American Flagg" comics fame said in an interview how he'd like to start off a Superman comic. Lots of panels of ordinary Metropolitans going about their day only to have them interrupted by a blue-red streak going by their window. BOOM! Another about to sip his coffee. BOOM! A couple more of those until you get to the "splash" page: Superman, over the ocean, wearing a pair of shades, and popping his fingers, listening to "I Believe in You" (from "How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)) on his Walkman. "You have the cool, clear eyes /of a seeker of wisdom and truth." Yeah. I'd love to see that Superman.

But despite "Returns'" seriousness, there are joys. Brandon Routh looks and sounds so much like Christopher Reeve that it doesn't take a big leap (or a single bound) to accept him in the role. He exhibits a bit more life as Clark Kent than the more stalwart Superman, breaking into a goofy grin at the slightest provocation, and restraining the klutz routine (he doesn't constantly punch up his glasses the way Reeves' CK did). I also like the fact that his performance doesn't have the same "I'm sharing a joke with the audience" quality that Reeve brought to the role. Kate Bosworth is damned cute as Lois Lane (as a blonde, she barely registers on the screen, but here, her hair darkened brown, she seems to have a bit more depth) and has little of the Margot Kidder neuroticism and (here's a plus!) I don't remember hearing her scream once. I do miss Kidder's whiskey baritone cracking on "Clark!," however.

There could be a bit more life to Frank Langella's Perry White and Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor. Spacey's Luthor is self-contained malice and only sparks to life during a confrontation scene with Lois. Gene Hackman expertly tred the mine-field of jokes in the first film, but it was tough to buy him as a real threat to anybody but his cronies. Spacey's Luthor is a villain who does bad things...and enjoys doing bad things. Unfortunately, here, you mostly see him prepare to do bad things, and so there's no real pay-off for the character until 2/3 of the way through the film.

There is one cracker-jack sequence involving a doomed airliner that shows that it's pretty darned hard task to stop a plane in free-fall. It's note-perfect, right down to showing the skin of the craft buckling from a lurching halt. The movie has a good bead on the concept of heroism, too. There are a lot of heroics in this film (not just from der Ubermensch) where people who could take the easy way out, go against their better judgement and do What Must Be Done, despite the jeopardy it may put them in. It makes a statement that heroism doesn't come from powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. It comes from the heart, the conscience and the will.

Good movie/bad movie? Thumbs up/Thumbs down? Hard to say at this point. There are some movies that are merely okay while you suffer through them, but are better in memory ("Napoleon Dynamite" is one of those films: I can laugh at parts of it in retrospect, but I'd have to be kidnapped and a gun placed to my skull to watch it again). "Superman Returns" was just the opposite: enjoyable while sitting through it (though I was aware of just how long it was, I didn't quite get to the point of checking the time), but the farther I get from it, I remember what's wrong with it more than what was right. If I had my "druthers," "Superman Returns" would be lighter than the "Batman Begins," the "X-men" films, "Spiderman," certainly lighter than Ang Lee's "Hulk." At least it wasn't as frivolous as the "Fantastic Four." My opinion of it is evolving, and that brings up another issue.

I've noticed an interesting trend in on-line reviews over the weekend. Initially, they're scathing, criticizing every aspect of the film..and harshly, to a ridiculous , often hysterical level. Second viewings produce a more favorable response, even admiration. I suspect that folks go, expecting to see the first film or worse yet, their idealized memory of the first...or second film. In that regards, this one will fail, but it can't help but fail. You can't fight a cherished favorite, or the memory of a cherished favorite. My advice: Go, expecting "Superman IV." I know I'm going to see it again. Through the double exposure of the 3-D glasses, I couldn't tell whether the cribbed...sorry, the "homage" shot of Superman flying up, up and away past the audience had its Superman smile benignly at the audience. Like the George Reeves wink at the end of some of the tv shows, and Christopher Reeve's shared smile, it would have been nice to see it in this one. The fact that I didn't disappoints me, and makes me wonder why a decision not to include it, was made. Don't we want Superman on our side? I'll have to see it again.

My favorite sum-up is by The Stranger's Andrew Wright who grumped: "For a movie featuring a hero who can conceivably give God a wedgie, there's precious little zowie to be found." "Zowie!" as in Adam West clobbering Ceasar Romero "Zowie?"

* And, sad to say, there is no smile on the final fly-by of 2006 Superman. He merely scans the audience with his eyes on the way past, ever vigilant. He probably isn't smiling because of the relatively few bodies he sees in the seats. And the ones that were there are already heading for the Exits. Not exactly what a super-hero expects when he sets out to "watch your back."

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