I saw Superman Returns this week with two friends. I didn't have high expectations for the movie; I've never been much of a Superman fan, preferring Batman and Marvel's X-Men and Spider-Man, who always seemed more "real" than Superman.
Think about it: Batman is a formidable avenger, not for truth, justice, and the American way, but because of inner turmoil and self-guilt caused by his inability to prevent the death of his parents. The X-Men are outsiders, born different and with both extraordinary and superior traits -- and their presence upholds evolution. (Blasphemy!) Spider-Man is another genetic wonder: bitten by a radioactive spider, which infects Peter Parker's DNA and introduces arachnid traits into his own primate constitution, he has to balance the roller-coaster life of a young-adult-slash-super-hero whose motto comes from his late uncle's advice: "With great power there must also come great responsibility."
Superman? He's an alien from a technologically advanced but doomed planet, and our solar system changes him molecularly, making him nearly invincible, subject to harm only from rare radioactive pieces of his home planet. He's also highly intelligent, having been taught by artificial-intelligence versions of his parents in the Fortress of Solitude, but unlike Peter Parker, never seems to worry about money, aging relatives, or anything, really. I don't know what made Superman qualified as a newspaper reporter, but he's sitting comfy at The Daily Planet, again unlike Peter Parker whose photographer stint at The Daily Bugle is left to the whim of a bi-polar J. Jonah Jameson.
As an introduction to Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, I'm going to quote from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2:
An essential characteristic of the superhero mythology is: there's the superhero, and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When he wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic that Superman stands alone. Superman did not become Superman, Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S," that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the glasses, the business suit, that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak, he's unsure of himself -- he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race.I believe these reasons are why I've never felt drawn to Superman. He's also too nice: Bruce Wayne has a hard personality from growing up in crime-filled Gotham, and Peter Parker is a born and bred Noo Yawker, but Clark is a good Kansas boy who'd never hurt a fly, has the chivalrous heart of a medieval knight, and persists in the Sisyphean feat of winning Lois Lane's heart. Yet he already has it -- as Superman, of course. Why is this guy a sucker for punishment?
Needless to say, I had low expectations for the film. I loved Bryan Singer's X-Men but didn't like the flavor of his follow-up X2. There's a saying that the best kind of story is when there's an opposition between two rights, not a wrong against a right. By beginning with Magneto's separation from his family in a concentration camp in the first film, Singer made the villain's logic reasonable. However, in the sequel, William Stryker doesn't have the luxury of a backstory, and you know he belongs to the dark side when he steals children from their beds. (How bad can you get?) And there were other problems in X2 that were minor but added up: I thought most mutants' mutations were awakened during puberty, yet most of those kidnapped by Stryker were, in fact, kids; and the pace was off -- Cyclops is gone from most of the movie, then suddenly appears, and Jean and Storm appear inconsistently.
X2 did have great moments. Any Wolverine scene is made great by Hugh Jackman's enormous muscles, er, talent. Mystique's many transformations are genius (I especially liked Rebecca Romijn's cameo, sans blue paint). The movie's brilliant ending, which begs for a sequel focusing on Phoenix, made nerds like me scour the Internet for X3 rumors. Anyone familiar with Marvel's Phoenix Saga knows it's a key story that needs an experienced, respectful supervisor to ensure that a film version lives up to the legend of its paper equivalent.
Actually, I think X3 was part of the reason why I didn't want to like Superman Returns. Singer left the X-Men-movie franchise to direct Superman, and Twentieth Century Fox felt betrayed after his departure to Warner Brothers. Thus, X3 was helmed by a mediocre director, and though the movie begins with such potenial for greatness -- evoking the original movie's beginning in the past, X3 began with Jean Grey's first meeting with Xavier in her childhood and with Angel's hatred of his wings in his childhood -- it soon falls apart from its own grandeur. The "real" moments, like Magneto glancing at his tattooed identification numbers from Auschwitz when Senator Kelly demands mutant-registration legistlation or Wolverine fumbling with a cellular phone, were lost. Instead, fans are greeted by a Magneto who's great thanks only to the actor's talent and a mostly comic-relief Wolverine (when he's not pining for Jean, of course) who, when fighting a mutant who instantaneously regenerates limbs, kicks him below the belt and sneers: "Grow those back."
Thus, it was a disappointed heart that I entered a packed movie theater on Superman Returns's opening day. More often than not, I read as many reviews as I can before seeing a film, and everything I read praised the movie. The New York Times mentioned that Bryan Singer takes a page from Christopher Nolan's book from Batman Begins and "reworks the legend against a vaguely modern, timeless backdrop that blends the thematically old with the technologically new." No, I thought, it can't be anything like the perfectly cast, perfectly paced Batman Begins, a movie that re-invigorated and re-darkened the Batman franchise that was ruined after Tim Burton left. The cinematography was gorgeous, and my friend and I were too busy playing a game of Find Christian Bale's Sexy Neck Mole to mind Katie Holmes's misguided presence. (We unfortunatey lost count of neck-mole sightings when Holmes's erect nipples appeared near the end of the movie and distracted us.)
Having never seen the original Superman, many of the references to the movies starring Christopher Reeve were lost to me. However, I knew I was in for a good time during the opening reel, which I knew was set to a score by John Williams, leaning heavily on pomp and playfulness. (What I find amazing about his music is that everything sounds similar [I always confuse the Olympics theme with Jurassic Park's], but one would never confuse a handful of notes from Raiders of the Lost Ark with a handful from Star Wars.)
As Williams does, Bryan Singer hits every note perfectly. Sure, Parker Posey was annoying, but who pays attention to the lackey when the villain is wonderfully evil, apathetic to everything but his own greed, and when the hero is stunningly good, empathetic to everything from his aging adoptive mother to his indifferent love interest, from an airplane full of people that's heading to catastrophe to a cat stuck in a tree?
Singer made me care for Superman, making me wonder: Who cares for Superman when he's too busy saving the world? Who's there to nurse his heartbroken heart, living everyday knowing that the love of his life ignores him when he's "normal" and loves him when he's wearing red underwear on the outside? And in five years she's given birth to a child, becomes engaged, and wins a Pulitzer Prize for an article denouncing him -- yet he persists with romantic banter! After returning, Superman invites Lois to fly with him. She replies: "My financée's a pilot and takes me up all the time," to which he cannily counters: "Not like this."
I always like it when movies can make fun of themselves. For example, when Charles Xavier introduces Logan (the aforementioned Wolverine) to the X-Men, he names the team with both their real names and code names (Storm, Cyclops...), Logan questions: "What do they call you -- Wheels?" In Superman Returns, a machine-gun-wielding criminal shoots Superman in the eye. Picking up the flattened bullet, Superman wryly smiles with a sparkle in his eye, as if to say: "Did you really think this was going to hurt me?"
Other parts of the movie struck me. I grew up knowing that Superman was "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" and that his morals included "truth, justice, and the American way." However, this new movie omits "the American way," and Lex Luther compares himself with power-hungry civilizations: road-building Rome, sea-taming imperialistic Britain, and atomic-bomb-building America. In the five years that Superman has been gone in the movie, in the thirty years since the original movie was made, in the seventy years since Superman's inception, has America truly changed, transforming from an optomistic world leader to one paranoid of losing its power? Is Singer suggesting that Superman, the epitome of all that is virtuous, was perhaps right to leave such a changing country? Is Superman himself subject to a similar negative transformation?
These questions are too deep to end the post, though.
The next day, Cinemax showed the first two Supermans back-to-back, and I fell in love with the character all over again. When Lois is mugged and shot at, Christopher Reeve catches the bullet and looks at the camera -- like Brandon Routh's smile. When Superman searches for a place to change, he double-takes after realizing that public telephones have lost the privacy of a booth. It's unfortunate Singer couldn't duplicate this scene, as pay phones have almost completely disappeared. (I'm also surprised at how many modern movies make cellular phones a key prop, yet the iPod's iconic white earbuds are nowhere to be seen.) And the first movie was shot in Manhattan, so I enjoyed seeing a mugging on Pike Street and a foiled robbery near the red lower-case "e." I was completely horified, though, of the second movie's Manhattan-cum-Metropolis, which looked nothing like Manhattan at all but appeared to be the "Manhattan" of Disney-MGM Studios. Oh, and for some reason I always pictured Metropolis as Chicago instead of New York. Isn't Chicago more newspaper-y? And real Noo Yawkers are already faster than speeding bullets when it comes to getting where they need to be.
Nevertheless, now that I've seen the two movies that provide a vague background to the new one, I could retort comments made by reviewers. The New Yorker's review observes: "The latest actor to don the cape is Brandon Routh, who -- whether on his own initiative or not -- offers not so much his personal interpretation of Superman as his best impersonation of Christopher Reeve playing Superman." I must disagree; Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent endlessly pushes up his glasses and awkwardly fumbles everywhere he goes. Alternatively, Brandon Routh plays Clark with a pinch more confidence; he's still shy around Lois and stammers some words, but he's not getting his jacket caught in bathroom doors or tripping over bearskin rugs.
It's difficult for me to pick who's better, though. Christopher Reeve's portrayal was such a spaz, making it feasable that no one ever saw Superman wearing spectacles when eye-ing Clark. Meanwhile, Brandon Routh acts so low-key, ordinary, and shy that one would imagine Superman's alter ego as a tad more impressive.
Perhaps that's why I've now fallen in love with Superman; he's more human than I had anticipated. Bruce Wayne's endless river of money can't buy him the happiness that left him the night his parents were killed. A mutant's extraordinary powers render him or her powerless in a society that shuns differences. Peter Parker's already tough life is made infinitely harder by the responsibility of choosing to do what is right over what is easy. And as much as Superman is invincible as the secular savior of the world, even he needs to be rescued at times by everyday heroes -- his friends.
Peter Jackson's King Kong got it right, and it's a shame the movie wasn't the box-office blockbuster that everyone expected it to be. I really think Superman Returns deserves the Best Picture Academy Award because I couldn't peel my eyes from the screen, and when the movie finished I immediately wanted to see it again. (The last time I felt both ways about a movie was Batman Begins, and the last time the Academy agreed with me was when they nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) If those qualities aren't the marks of a Best Picture, I don't know what is. Gay cowboys, perhaps?