Superman returns: but why?

I had a chance to see an advance screening of Superman Returns a couple of weeks ago.

There are several ways to approach the review of a sequel. The obvious one is to compare it to the original movie. I won’t spend much time on that, other than to say I am a big fan of the original. I was glad that the musical score borrowed heavily from the original, which was amazing and which I still remember almost thirty years later.

Being an aspiring writer, I tend to focus on story. Perhaps the aspiring part makes me a bit jaded, hypercritical and cranky. I don’t know. But the story itself was remarkably weak, in my opinion. While I thought that most of the actors turned in good performances — in particular, I thought Brandon Routh made a good Superman — this only revealed some superhuman strength in the face of a kryptonite-like script. {SPOILER ALERT: a few key plot points will be revealed below…}

What the story lacked was attention to character motivation. In many scenes, characters did things without a good reason, or at least without a reason that was clearly communicated to the audience. And I don’t mean minor things. For example, Lois Lane commands her fiancee to turn a plane around because they need to retrieve Superman from danger. How does she know that? And how does she know where he is? Another glaring example: Superman returns after a five year absence. Since this is the title of the movie, you would expect some attention to why he was gone, what brought him back, etc. We don’t get much information, other than a few throw-away lines to his mom and the simple fact that he misses Lois. But does he? I mean, you have a scene where Lois and Superman have a flight together, but it’s not a really pivotal moment in their relationship. You don’t get the sense that the stakes are very high… because you don’t know what Superman wants, you don’t know what Lois wants, and the only thing that is really different at the end of the movie is that a few physical disasters have been averted. Now nothing kills a movie more than not knowing what the characters want. I mean, maybe that works in Good Will Hunting, where that’s the point of the story, but it doesn’t work here. The audience can’t invest in characters — want and hope things with and for them — when the characters are not clear about this themselves.

Bryan Singer put together a movie that feels like an afternoon in a kid’s play room. The characters are taken off the shelf, put through a few episodic danger/rescue situations, and then placed back up on the shelf, just as they were at the beginning. Sure, Lois is intended to have a character arc: When Superman appears, she has just won a Pulitzer for an article about “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (clever and subtle way of revealing character!), and by the end of the movie, she has changed her mind… but then again, she doesn’t seem too upset at the end of the movie when he doesn’t hang around, just after he learns that her five-year-old son is his son too. From this point of view, Superman feels a bit like Peter Pan on steroids — he has returned for one last flight with Wendy/Lois, for nostalgia’s sake and to try to get Lois to understand him and how tough his life is. So now we have a film that makes absentee fatherhood heroic. Brilliant. The icon of the film is a bit detached, disconnected… masculine in a sort of Marlboro-man / I-don’t-need-to-be-close-to-anyone / I-can-fix-anything-except-my-relationships kind of way. Especially in the wake of the well-written television series Lost, with its nuanced portrayal of Jack as the doctor whose ability to take charge reveals both heroic strength and crippling weakness, this movie’s portrayal of Superman seems rather superficial. And movies like Spiderman 2 and Batman Begins have taken the superhero genre into a more psychological dimension, which seems beyond the interest or capacity of this film.

Superman himself is experiencing some kind of angst — mostly the angst of being different from everyone else. That could be interesting, but somehow it’s not. He dutifully does the things he was sent to do, but it doesn’t have much pathos behind it. (And I don’t fault Routh for this. He was handed a stinker of a script.) This is especially striking given the blatant Christological references — moments when the character of Superman extends his limbs in cruciform, or his “empty tomb” scene with an empty hospital bed, etc. If the Da Vinci Code gave us an all-too human flavor of Gnostic Jesus, Superman Returns gives us the not-very-human variety: Docetism.

There’s some great sound design and decent spectacle to make the time pass in this three-hour movie (not the most believable CG on the market, but cool to look at, nonetheless). However, the spectacle also creates some story problems. For example, at one point, it looks like the whole city is crumbling, but Superman intervenes in the case of one building, and suddenly harmony in the entire metropolis is restored.

The movie will do well, I’m sure. As with the Da Vinci Code, the sheer appeal of the franchise will ensure the ticket sales. But it’s not a great superhero movie in the way the original was. My recommendation? Rent the original. Or Superman 2. These are movies in which story and character have equal footing with the spectacle.

For a completely different (read: opposite) review of the film, take a look at what Steven Greydanus over at Decent Films has to say.

One thought on “Superman returns: but why?

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more about this movie being a failure! First of all, Superman is NOT supposed to go around sleeping with Lois Lane. Superman is supposed to have more class than that! And who is Lois Lane–she slept with Superman, she’s living with another man she is not sure she loves, she puts her child in harm’s way, etc. Furthermore, her son, Superman Jr., has asthma. Isn’t that a little crippling for a super hero? At the end of the flick, after meeting his son, all Superman can do is tell his child’s mother that she’ll “see him around”. They should have called this movie “Deadbeat Superman”. Finally, what ever happened to patriotic Superman? No American flags. No working with the President. I think Lois should get a blood test. But, then again, I’ve always been a Batman fan.

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