Up, Up and Straight Up My Ass – Superman Returns: To Be Boring

by

Look, up there in the sky! It’s a reboot! It’s a sequel! No… it’s another tepid Superman movie.

AT LONG LAST

Superman was in limbo (or the Phantom Zone, if you prefer) for almost two decades after the world at large recoiled from Superman IV in disgust after waking up from a decade’s worth of coke-filled binges which are the only explanation I can think of for Superman’s Pryor prior success. All we were left with was a steaming crater that was filled by the worst television series ever. After Burton swooped in a few years later and reinvigorated the idea of superhero movies and a collection of sweaty-palmed DC editors decided to kill off Superman in the early 90s, the cogs were set in motion for Superman’s eventual big screen revival.

Burton, the superhero “it” boy, was originally approached to direct a movie supposedly titled Superman Lives! written by Kevin Smith. The nitty gritty of how doomed this venture was is best detailed by Smith himself in An Evening with Kevin Smith, but a few gems polar bear mentioning. Burton wanted to basically turn Superman into a sci-fi space opera with Superman (played by Nicholas Cage?!) wearing a redesigned, futuristic suit and fighting against the monster Doomsday on Krypton. And somehow this would all involve giant spiders and a Superman that never flew.

Fortunately, that project collapsed. And so did the myriad of rumored attempts between that and what eventually became Superman Returns. There’s no real way for me to know what really did go down, but IMDB listed fauxteurs McG and Brett Ratner as directors that made it into pre-production. Most of the scripts apparently dealt with Superman’s death and return, because he isn’t already enough like Jesus. The most cockamamie thing I heard from this period was that J.J. Abrams had been tapped to write a script that involved Superman and Kryptonian civil wars and Lex Luthor would be an FBI agent that was secretly a fellow Kryptonian or some nonsense like that.

After all that failed, WB asked the one guy that seemed to have the best track record with superhero movies at the time: Bryan Singer, the man who had built X-Men up into a respectable franchise. Although Singer was already committed to X-Men 3, who could blame him for abandoning ship and choosing to tackle Superman instead? Superman’s an ICON. You don’t get a crack at interpreting Superman every day and he’d already made two successful X-Men movies, why bother making a third? I’ll always have to wonder, though, what kind of world we’d be living in if we’d gotten the Singer-directed X-Men 3 and Ratner had followed through on Superman. Because what ended up happening was just tragic for everyone.

In space, no one can hear you bore

Superman Returns starts off by explaining Superman to us in a few paragraphs and saying that he went off in search of remnants of his homeworld for some irrelevant reason. And we travel to a mansion where a man is holding the hand of a dying elderly woman. We learn that she fell in love with him while he was in prison and started a correspondence that led to a relationship after he was let out. The man comforts her and she thanks him for all he’s done to take care of her, and that he deserves to have everything she owns. A contract gets whipped out and she starts to sign, but halfway through the woman sputters and dies. Unperturbed, the man, whose face we haven’t seen, grabs her hand and finishes signing her name for her. He opens the doors, behind which the woman’s family was protesting loudly and we finally see the man’s face. Then the most awesome thing happens: he pulls off his hair and hands it to a little girl who starts shrieking. YES! It’s Lex Luthor! And he’s a fucking badass!

DUN DUN DUNNNN
Rois Rane?!
Lex, you're ADORABLE
}=O

That’s possibly the best scene in the movie, right there. And it’s one of the first. Superman Returns suffers from a number of things, and the first one is that every scene that doesn’t have Lex is pretty dull. Kevin Spacey is just perfect as Lex Luthor, and even though this version’s a bit more serious and less of a huckster than Hackman’s interpretation, he’s still got some fun bits. I always go {:3 when Lois boards his yacht and he says, “Lois Lane?” with a toothbrush in his mouth. And the way he trills the “r” in “kryptonite” at the end! And the “WRONG!” that became the stuff of Internet meme legend! The only thing in the movie that can stand up to Spacey is Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski, his Girl Friday. She does a great job of not being just a set of tits in a fur coat like some OTHER Luthor sidekicks I could name and has some of the best lines in the movie. But that shouldn’t be surprising since Parker Posey has the ability to turn any role she has into gold. I recommend Blade Trinity solely on her performance as the villain because god knows nothing else in that movie is worth anything.

Oh god...
I really regret cashing that check...

But the rest of the movie, sheesh. It purports to be some kind of classic return to form after the hideous sequels, and lets us sort of pick and choose what kind of continuity is in this universe. There are several pseudo-connections to the previous movies, such as Lex somehow knowing where the Fortress of Solitude is and a picture of the old actor for Jonathan Kent in Martha Kent’s house. Most seem to think Superman Returns is supposed to come after Donner’s cut of Superman II, which makes the most sense given what comes to pass in this movie. So if the point of all this malarkey is to give us back the Superman we know and love, why, why in the fuck would you saddle Superman with the sort of awful moral and ethical dilemma he eventually finds himself in?! The movie’s going fairly well (better than the earlier ones, at least) and then BAM.

Superman has a fucking son.

Hahaha we're so happy and normal

Yeah, you heard me. He has a child. And it’s Lois Lane’s. Superman comes back from his cosmic walkabout to find Lois engaged to Cyclops from X-Men (almost literally) and a mother to a sickly little boy. This could actually be interesting if played the right way. After all, a big question going into the movie is “Has the world moved on from Superman?” Lois sure seems to have. She’s even written a piece titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” that’s getting a Pulitzer. But why in the name of all that’s good would you make her kid’s father actually be Superman?! Did Singer KNOW what that entails?! It meant that when Superman took Lois with him to the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II, he knocked her up and then erased her memory. Superman will fuck you and then make you forget about it? What a fucking awful message for a hero that’s all about classic values. Where’s the TRUTH in keeping the whole thing a secret from Daddy Cyclops, who’s blissfully unaware? It bothers me that James Marsden is playing another clean-cut dope who has no chance of keeping his woman because she’s being wooed by someone way out of his coolness league. Oh, and before I forget, this kid ends up killing someone with his powers. Yeah, he’s a bad guy, but that kid’s a killer now. It’s gonna haunt him for the rest of his life. What the FUCK, Singer?!

Crystalsssssssssssss
It's so... roomy!

This unfortunate plot development almost single-handedly sinks the movie, but Luthor’s plot also sort of helps it to its destination. His whole thing is to steal Superman’s Kryptonian crystals and use them to make a giant landmass in the middle of the Atlantic and to sell the real estate to the highest bidder. He even makes the same speech about land that he makes in the first movie. (The fact that it would destroy billions of people in the process doesn’t seem to bother him.) And to top it all off, he figured out a way to make it all out of kryptonite! Except his plan doesn’t seem that hot when you see the land at the end and it’s all dreary, wet rock. OH YEAH, LEX, WHEN CAN I MOVE IN?

Forgive them, Didio. They know not what they do~
Ahhhh, take it more slowly, Lex~ *heart*

Then there’s the incessant allusions to Superman as Jesus. Yeah, an only son sent to Earth to become our savior. Jor-El 3:15. Superman even goes through his own Passion in the climax of the movie, being beaten and humiliated by Lex and Kumar and getting stabbed in the side with a piece of Kryptonite. After he lifts the big boulder into space, he floats in zero-g for a few moments in a crucified position. Then he’s taken to the hospital where after three days, he RISES again! They even have a nurse go in and notice he’s missing from his tomb bed. Everyone is so fucking obsessed with killing/reviving Superman. I do think it’s possible to honor Superman without likening him to a religious icon.

Lookit me, I'm liftin' things! Wowee!
Here I am lifting more! Gee whiz!
I'll be watchinnnnnnnnnn' youuuuu

And the action is typical boring Superman stuff: fly here and there, lift this and that. Thankfully it spices it up a little with more varied powers every now and again, like the cool shot of Clark’s eyes following Lois up the elevator with x-ray vision or using his freezing breath to stop a fireball. The CGI goes a LONG way to making this the most believable Superman on film. The space shuttle rescue at the beginning looks amazing.

derp
This is my acting face
Oh my god this zit on your face looks disgusting

Too bad the effects can’t make Brandon Routh any more charismatic. Uuuuggghhhh. I mean, he’s handsome and all, but what a vanilla bean. Whereas Reeve was able to have Superman be wholesome AND charming, Routh’s Superman is just a bland Boy Scout. I’m sure that by casting a virtual unknown, they were hoping to come upon another Reeve, but they missed the mark. Still, I suppose he’s better than a lot of the other rumored actors that didn’t make the final cut. (Brendan Fraser?!) Kate Bosworth is a step above Margot Kidder as Lois Lane but that’s like saying a wounding is better than being brutally murdered. And no one cares about the rest of the cast. I must note how odd it is to see Parker Posey’s and Kal Penn’s names flying at you in space.

WHOOSH

It’s not like this movie isn’t a huge improvement over the rest of the franchise, because it is. Singer’s positive influence is evident in how he keeps things from turning into a repulsive carnival sideshow and grounds Superman in a (fairly) realistic representation of our universe. He tries to focus on character development and emotions, which is a good idea. But at the end of the day, Superman Returns is the best Superman film on a technicality. It’s the least embarrassing of them all, but none of them are “good.”

EPIC FAIL

So how DO you make a “good” Superman movie? How on earth do you bring back a 70-year old icon and make him relevant to today’s audiences? Superman represents an era that’s been passed by, an era where our heroes are pure and chase down the occasional bank robber with the clearly-marked $ bag and mad scientist in a lab coat and big rubber gloves. Superman was born in a time when heroes didn’t HAVE to be deep or conflicted. He’s just a straight-forward happy guy who does what’s right. Where’s the drama in that? He’s an ideal in an age where we want our heroes (and their movies) to be grittier, darker, more realistic. Hell, even Warner Bros. is taking its The Dark Knight nest egg and putting it into supposedly ANOTHER Superman reboot, only this time following the “gritty” path, whatever that will mean. Some people do prefer Superman for his purity and goofy, shallow personality, but those people are in a (vocal) minority that liken Superman to an inviolable national institution.

Any picture here ring a bell?

There have been occasional attempts to make the character of Superman a bit deeper and more three-dimensional. It usually focuses on Superman’s status as an alien living amongst humans, or god among mortals. The only incarnation of Superman that I’ve felt at all connected to was the one from the late 90s DC animated universe by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. He had all the classic Superman characteristics, but for some reason he felt the most like a person. Perhaps it’s because the movies focus on Clark Kent as the mask Superman has to wear and his outlandish extraterrestrial origins. In the cartoon, Clark was the real person and Superman was a persona he had to use in order to keep his identity secret. He was a real person with real wants and needs, even if he did have to put on a klutzy air to make sure no one suspected. In Kill Bill Part 2, Bill goes through a monologue about how Superman’s alter ego of Clark Kent was a facade and how it really showed how he thought human beings were: stupid and weak. I think this is the incorrect conclusion to come to, however. I think it’s Superman that’s the facade, and Superman is the hero that Clark thinks people deserve. The Superman that saves plummeting space shuttles and cats in trees.

A new beginning!

In the comics, for a long, long time Superman’s true identity was Kal-El. He considered himself an outsider and Clark was his disguise and there was a big focus on his alien gadgetry and ridiculously overpowered abilities. This all changed after DC’s big Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover in the mid-80s where the publisher’s multiverse was condensed into a single universe. All the comics relaunched and Superman was now humanized into his Clark Kent role and given drastically reduced powers. Hell, he even ended up consummating his relationship with Lois by getting married and revealing his true identiy to her. That’s a Superman I can get behind and that’s a Superman that DC’s been backtracking from ever since. With the passage of time, Superman’s powers have been growing and growing and his origins finally got retconned back to one that’s very similar to his Silver Age story and Lex went from being the president to a mad scientist and so on and so forth.

Why the steps back? That Superman should be left in the past, and his last hurrah was actually one of the best Superman stories ever told, in my own opinion, and came right before his modern reboot. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?,” penned by legend Alan Moore, is framed by a world where Superman hasn’t been seen for years, and through flashbacks we witness, essentially, the final stand Superman takes against his rogue’s gallery and the difficult choices he has to make in order to keep the world and his loved ones safe. It’s a brilliant swan song that manages to pay homage to nearly everything that was beloved from his Silver Age and gave us a glimpse at a possible ending to Superman’s story. This is a huge deal considering Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men… these are all properties that will still be putting out new stories 50 years from now, I’d bet anything on that. They’re stories that don’t end, either because of reader demand or because of pure name recognition. To actually have a semi-canon ending to the tale of Superman, and to have it be THAT good, is a triumph.

So really, that’d be my idea for a Superman movie. The END of Superman. We’ve seen his origin a billion times, but not his end. And it’d have just enough grit for the post-TDK world of superhero movies. The big hurdle to doing so is that the story, in its current form, is about 30 years of Superman canon that the audience would need to be caught up with, which is impractical. But it would hit all the right notes: it’d be action-packed, it’d have romance and be on an epic scale… and we’d get to see Superman humanized, brought down to our level of emotion and weakness, which makes him a much better character. Even “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” says Superman is too self-important. I always felt it was a bit cruel of Superman to tag along with something like the Justice League when everyone knows he could replace every single member on it. Superman (just like Batman) needs the wind taken out of his sails every so often.

.
..
...
!
?
?!
=3

And here we must leave Superman, humbled and on the mend from countless shitty adaptations. Are we living in a world that really DOESN’T need Superman anymore?

~sakura~

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7 Responses to “Up, Up and Straight Up My Ass – Superman Returns: To Be Boring”

  1. kevin Says:

    i agree that luther was fun. but maaan i hated superman returns. how many times can you watch superman catch something or lift something? i think my limit is twice per every hour and a half.

    superman returns destroys that ratio.

  2. maxieg18 Says:

    John Mora, sorry to write a comment that has no relation to this post but I did not know where else to put it. I thank you very much for your recommendation of the two movies, especially ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie’ in my ‘End of Evangelion’ review. But I was wondering this: is ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie’ a retelling or a sequel to the ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’ TV series? Please tell.

    Thanks.

    -Max

  3. John Mora Says:

    The movie is a sort of thematic, symbolic retelling of the TV series. If you loved the movie, you’ll definitely like the TV series as it gives the cast a lot of psychological depth.

  4. Rick Says:

    The best part of this movie, next of course to Spacey, is Lois Lane getting uber-pummeled in the plummeting jet thing. The rest of it is a bunch of boring Superman bunk.

  5. John Mora Says:

    Glad others agree~

  6. maxieg18 Says:

    Right, so I don’t need to watch the TV series in order to see the film, right?

    Also, I agree with what Rick said about Spacey.

    -Max

  7. John Mora Says:

    Right.

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