Monday, March 31, 2008

Superman Returns - Take Two

Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) There have to be reasons other than money to film a remake of a very successful movie because, in some ways, it's a zero sum game: the audience is familiar with the product so you don't have to do so much to establish it, on the other hand, if you don't bring something new to the screen, there's not much incentive for people to come to see your movie. In the case of Superman Returns, I might guess that Bryan Singer wanted to take advantage of the advances in technology that could bring a whole new look and a desire to bring a new slant to a character that is embedded in our culture. In doing so, he has produced a much more somber movie than those of the Reeves franchise; less comic strip, more graphic novel.

He focuses on the allegorical nature of the Superman story and lays it on thick. It's like he is channeling C Day Lewis at times. We begin with the voice of Marlon Brando as Jor-El (from the first Richard Donner movie):

"They only lack the Light to show the way. I have sent you, my only Son".

As the man himself says:

Singer: Well, yeah, that's true, so I guess it's going to come up! (Laughs) I think that it [Superman as Christ figure] is kind of a natural evolution, because he began as kind of a Moses figure, of the child sent by the parents down the river to fulfill a destiny.

And that, obviously, translates into these kinds of allegories, Christ being a natural one, because Superman's a savior. And even more so in my film, because he's gone for a period of time, and then he returns. For me to say that those messianic images don't exist in the movie would be absurd

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In other words, if you want to, you can read all kinds of stuff into the movie. Superman (Brandon Routh) struggles with his role as savior:
Superman: Listen; what do you hear?
Lois Lane: Nothing.
Superman: I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.

He is captured, scourged and left to die.

Some of the scenes seem almost shot to resemble a medieval painting:

And then, guess what? He rises again.

But, maybe, it is not a Christian allegory, after all. Maybe it is a movie about father-son relationships, about inheritance. In this version of the story, Superman has returned to Earth to find that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is now a mother though with a partner, Richard White (James Marsden), she feels ambivalent enough about not to have married. The movie teases us about the possibility that Richard is not the father of Lois's child, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). If not he, then who? You guessed it - however, this is one of the weakest parts of the movie - we get hints: coy glances between Clark Kent and Jason, a suggestion that Jason can see the resemblance to Superman that supposedly everyone else always misses, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) suspects a reaction to green kryptonite, and then there is the matter of the grand piano. How could a child who we have been clearly told is not in great physical health to begin with and is now having an asthmatic attack as he watches his mother being threatened by one of Luthor's thugs, how could he have the strength to push a piano across the room unless ..? It's not like Singer doesn't know what he is doing here - otherwise why does he turn the whole idea into the best joke of the movie when Jason, trapped with Lois on board Lex's boat, moves ponderously to a locked door and pulls at the handle only for the door to open - because his father(?) is on the other side at that very moment unlocking it. Yet, he can't resist teasing us again with the kiss that supposedly resurrects Superman in the third reel. So is he or isn't he? Would it be the greatest irony that a son of Superman should be such a weak child? Or is his weakness because he is the union of a human and an alien?

Even Lex Luthor gets into the act with the father-son stuff:

Lex Luthor: Kitty, what did my father used to say to me?
Kitty Kowalski: You're losing your hair.
Lex Luthor: Before that.
Kitty Kowalski: Get out.
Lex Luthor: He said: You can print money, manufacture diamonds, and people are a dime a dozen, but they'll always need land. It's the one thing they're not making anymore of.

and later:

Lex Luthor: Crystals inherit the traits of the minerals around them - kind of like the son inheriting the traits of his father.
Much as he tries to meld the psychological themes into the action, it feels like the movie is made of two disconnected parts. On the one hand, we have all the stuff going on between Superman and Lois and then there is the small matter of Lex Luthor's plot to take over the world. There is little enough contact between Lex and Superman - one big scene really. Even when Superman defeats Lex, there is no face to face showdown. The effect of shoe-horning the family plot into the movie seems to be the crowding out of the other players. Whatever happened to Clark? OK, Singer makes the point that he has been away, that no-one really cares about him anymore but this is Clark Kent - star reporter for the Daily Planet. Would Perry White (Frank Langella) really only give him his job back because someone on the staff has died? And, talk about a lack of chemistry. There is zilch between Lois and Clark though maybe it's because of the way that Routh plays him. Clark has to be the counterpoint to Superman - he is the exaggeration of human weakness as Superman is the epitome of strength. To make him plausible, Reeves played up the goofiness and made him attractive in a Cary Grant kind of way (remember Bringing Up Baby?). Instead of Reeve's wry smile and practiced clumsiness, Routh's Kent is just bewildered and lost. No wonder Lois blows him off so easily. As for Perry White, what has happened to the cigar-chomping tyrant? Where is JJ Jameson when you need him? Langella plays White like an accountant - muted and reasonable. Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) has grown up too and he seems to be in the movie more to provide exposition than anything else.

This mutedness comes out in Superman too. He seems almost embarrassed to be a hero. He doesn't interact with anyone whose name isn't on the movie poster. When he emerges from the jetliner having saved the day, we don't even get a wave:

After saving Kittie (Parker Posey), the crowd just stand and watch, taking photos on their cellphones:

Many of the shots of Superman show him small against the background. Singer has gone big for the technology and sometimes, it seems more important than the Man of Steel. Yet, it is the subtle things that grabbed me - like hearing and seeing Superman's cloak rustle in the wind. To me, that is better than the supposed show-stoppers:

So if you are not in the mood for some 'up, up and away', then this might be the Superman movie for you. Maybe it captures the mood of the times more.

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