Monday, July 17, 2006

Just Super Enough

Leaving the cinema after Superman Returns I was hit with various conflicting responses. They included, in no particular order:

- Loved Kevin Spacey

- Why does Lex Luthor hire such utter goons?

- Brandon Routh (Supes) is incredibly likeable

- Christ, Superman is just the blandest hero in comics

- Kate Bosworth (Lois) looks terrific, but...

- She's too young to be Lois. And nowhere near tough enough.

- When a villain literally changes the map, it's really disturbing to look at

- How come nobody really misses Clark during his Superman-sized time away?

- Actually, they don't notice he never does any reporting, either.

- And why write your hero and villain only meeting once?

And so on. It's no mean feat for the kind of super-strong guy I'd usually hate/resent/wish I was that I actually really took to Routh in the part. It's a shame they've mangled him to be half-hero, half-stalker for the new movie. He only gets one set of emotions to play - those of being super-miffed.

Bosworth is far more hugable than Margot Kidder, but she's far less acerbic. I always liked the interpretation of Lois as overly-tenacious, to the point of danger - something Teri Hatcher would also mange pretty well in the TV series. That's given lip-service here, but you never FEEL it.

Spacey, meanwhile, lights up the screen. Funny, a little scary, he sees himself as noble David to Superman's Goliath. (Huzzah for a villain with motivation!)

Spacey scenes tend to be filmed a little more in wide shots, and group framings. Letting Kev, Parker Posey and others play a little, find their own rhythm. It works a treat - and it's a hangover from the style of Richard Donner's scenes from films one and two - but highlights the fact that this ISN'T happening among the good guys.

Whether inside the Daily Planet building as Clark, or on top of it as Superman, none of the other players are afforded this chance to act. It's all done in the cut, the score, close-ups and specific gestures.

Not to lob any aspersions, but this is, traditionally, how a director will cope with actors who aren't living up to the promise.

Which I'm not suggesting must be the case here. Usually, even when you cut around outlines this heavily, the real shape still shows. (George Lazenby as 007 is a prime example.) These two are endearing leads. Chemistry? Who knows. Too often it's played in individual close-ups; they could be playing their lines to a roll of gaffer tape.

Watching Christopher Reeve (yes, I did it, I made the comparison, I didn't intend to, but here it is anyway) bumble around the Daily Planet was like a silent movie. Postitively Buster Keaton-esque. Our new Clark plays his clumsiness in CU of suitcases, CU of table being bumped, CU of person going 'ow'. Is Routh any good at comedy? I dunno. His editor seems to do okay, though.

Still, after a nostalgic but slow start, the movie has a decent lick to it. It doesn't feel over-long during the body of the film - only at the end, when a coda becomes a fourth act, does Superman Returns outstay its welcome. Action is solidly staged (though never with the 'gasp' factor of the great action movies; Singer's never really nailed his action scenes for me), FX generally excellent. Blah blah.

Oh, the film is shot on the Genesis digital camera. Mistake. Night scenes are shot through with grain. Elsewhere, Singer's photography goes again for dark, muted colours - an odd thing to do when your hero wear nothing but primary colours. (Suit looks great, by the way. Dark, but nifty...y'know, for tights and a cape.)

Still, all this whining is missing a lot of decent stuff. Lex's plan has huge scope, but still fits with his continued craving for land and property. Jimmy Oslen (who has way too much screen time at the start) is another likeable guy in a film full of likeable guys. And there's no denying the emotion brought up by using old motifs, familiar designs and the classic Superman theme.

Great nods to the history abound, too. My favourite? Perry White has pictures of Superman taken on a kid's cameraphone. He describes them as iconic. One is the classic 'carrying damsel' stuff - cover of any number of comics - the other shows Supes holding a car over his head, putting it down front-end first.

That, my friends and web neighbours, is the Action Comics cover pose for Superman's first ever appearance.

Very cool.

In my Pirates 2 write-up I praised the details in the film. How much stuff was in there to reward a second viewing, a DVD purchase. Some stuff was better than the stuff you were focused on the first time.

Superman Returns has the opposite effect. Everything you're meant to see, feel, notice is front and centre.

You can claim that this shows a director with focus and I'd happily agree.

Or you could say that the film is a little one-note and shallow. And I'd accept that, too.

We have the usual Christ subtext, of course (heavily hit when, towards the end, Supes falls to his 'death' in a crucifixion pose, only to rise again three days later*), constant waffle about Earth needing/not needing a savior. Oh, and some strictly textual stuff about how people move on when you go away. But that's kinda it.

No, the problem with repeated viewings is just how many holes open up in the story.

Clark returns, Superman returns. They left at the same time, reappear within hours of each other, then Clark vanishes while Supes is in a coma. Nobody notices. Even though the Planet covers Superman stories constantly.

Superman is stabbed with a Kryptonite shiv. (Great stuff, this by the way. Making you wonder why Supes and Luthor weren't handed a great deal more shared screen time.) He's on a part-Kryptonite island and is rendered essentially mortal by it.

Later, he is able to LIFT the island that renders him mortal.

Look, it either drains him or it doesn't. You can't change that to suit the story. Also, it's made even MORE unlikely when you find that he STILL had a fragment of the broken-off shiv in him at this point.

I get the feeling that next time I'm going to wonder just why Clark gets his job back. He never does any work. I'm going to wonder why Lois is hogging a TV interview when she's a print journalist. I'm going to wonder why Lex and Supes didn't get a proper series of face-offs. Why they dragged that conclusion on so long. I'm going to wonder whether all this skulking around Lois is really fair; it feels more like another example of Superdickery.

Sorry, sorry, ranting away without saying that yes, it's a decent movie. It's fun, sad, exciting, funny. It's also going to come and go in a blink. And, sadly, it seems that the box-office has spoken - no sequel is looking likely.

I really, REALLY would like there to be one.

*N.B. Might not have been three days. Felt like it, though.


At Tue Jul 18, 08:02:00 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watched one of those waffle-packed 'Making Of Superman' docs on Sunday. Someone noted that The 'Man has been off the pop culture radar for about 5 years now, conveniently ignoring Smallville. Not only that, but it would be more interesting if his dark side was explored a little more.

At Tue Jul 18, 08:52:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

I dunno - making him a stalker feels pretty dark to me...

He's still my Mr Dull of Superheroes, though. A big boyscout, too powerful for anything but bits of his own planet to be a problem.

I like that Spiderman, Batman, the X-es...they could get hurt (mostly). Even by something as simple an unseen bullet.

In any literature, heroes are at their most powerful when they've just been taken to their weakest. To its credit, this movie does manage that.


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