Monday, July 10, 2006

Superman Returns - A Review

SPOILER WARNING – I’m going to talk about details of the film, so if you haven’t seen it, don’t read any further.

NITPICK WARNING – I’m going to make a lot of picky comments about the movie, so if this kind of thing bugs you… be warned.


Story: C
Effects: A+
Characters: C-

I enjoyed the film. It was okay, not great, not epic, not iconic, just okay. I think Singer made a mistake in trying to follow the Donner film. As good as it was at the time, it doesn’t play well as a modern movie. As a result, Singer was saddled with way too much baggage to make a great movie, since most of the problems stem from that baggage.

Things I Really Liked:
The effects were fantastic. You really can believe a man can fly (a quick nit-pick, though. Flying is incredible, floating has all sorts of problems. Has to do with Supes looking lighter than air. Way too much floating…)

Sound editing was absolutely fantastic. Effects and Sound make this movie worth seeing no matter what the story.

Lex Luthor – As much as I love Gene Hackman, his Luthor was the pits. He was an egotistical clown who showed no menace whatsoever. Somehow Kevin Spacey took the same approach and made it work wonderfully. This was baggage turned into art. I wanted a better reason to have Kitty around, but at least there was no Ned Beatty this time.

Jimmy Olsen – This guy deserves an award. No one has ever made Jimmy work, in my opinion, but this guy makes him the most likeable character on the screen.

Heart and Soul – When the kid starts plunking this out, you expect that at some point in the film Clark will take up the other half. Having a bad guy do it was even better.

The costume – Routh is too skinny, and the cape needed a yellow S on the back, but I liked it anyway (except for the S’s on the heel of the boots. The belt, okay, cool, but the back of his boots?)

Where to begin? It’s going to sound like I hated this film, which I didn’t, but the problems! Oy!

It’s clear from the Kansas scenes and the New Krypton stuff that Singer was going for an epic feel. Unfortunately, he failed. Maybe the extended version will make that work. Singer doesn’t understand “epic” obviously. The shots of Kansas were beautiful. New Krypton was expansive. That’s scope, though, not epic. Singer tried to use silence to indicate great depth of soul and character, but all he got was a stiff Superman. We should have started on the graveyard of Krypton (a reference, which while evocative, doesn’t make much sense. The place blew up, what was there to return to?)

Let’s examine Story for a moment. Any story is constructed of story points. A story point is vital packet of information that you need to go onto the next story point and so on and so on. How a storyteller conveys that information, ideally with power, imagery and creativity, makes a story art. Singer skips over the first story point entirely (the information that Superman still considers Krypton “home”) and only alludes to the second point (Krypton really is dead and now Superman KNOWS that Earth is his home, which should make it a whole new ballgame, baby! Only it doesn’t). The third point is that Superman Returns! And that’s where things fall apart.

(Another nitpick while I’m there: Jor-El says he’s been dead for “thousands of your years” meaning he shot baby Kal-El off thousands of years ago, but Superman gets from Earth to Krypton and back in five years. ????)

The way it should have worked is Superman is back, he’s finally ready and excited to really take part in life on Earth so the very first person he should have sought out was Lois, expecting a joyful reunion… only to get a slap in the face (no physical pain for him, but tons of emotional pain, not to mention breaking Lois’ hand…). Wounded emotionally, he discovers that people who used to revere him are angry that he left. Then he discovers that Lois kicked it all off with her Pulitzer Prize winning article. That drives him back to Kansas and his mother where he finds the fortitude to go back and win what’s his.

Only that’s not what we get. He lands in Kansas first. Avoids him mom for awhile and remembers his boyhood (which was cool, but what was the point????).

The whole Lex Luthor thing was great (despite Kitty the ditz. Why did he have her around again?)

Then we have the constant problem of Clark Kent. Who is Clark? Is he the real thing and Superman the mask or is Superman the real thing and Clark the mask? He’s too bumbling to be the real thing, but isn’t Clark who he is to interact with the world on a human level? Even sticking to the Donner story, he had the perfect excuse to come back from Lama land as a new guy – he “found himself” on the mountains. No, instead he’s still lame, and while he gets his job back on the strength of former employment, he never DOES anything. He doesn’t research the story he was assigned. He doesn’t do ANYTHING but moon over Lois. And I don’t know about you, but if my former immoral girlfriend from five years ago has a five year old son, the investigative reporter should probably have some alarm bells go off. Man, LEX figures it out before Superman even wonders (and why didn’t Jason react to Kryptonite?).

Lois. Yeah, whatever. If she bounces from Superman to Richard quick enough that no one suspects it isn’t his kid, then she’s got some issues, doesn’t she?

Richard. Same actor who does the X-Men’s Cyclops. He was okay, I guess.

The kid. Good job. Liked him. Not sure I’m thrilled about Superman and Son in the sequels.

Superman. I bet Brandon Routh is a good actor. He managed to capture the essence of Reeve’s Superman well, but he didn’t have the chance to actually do much besides play on wires and grimace when he’s in pain or lifting New Krypton. My complaints are with Singer’s choices. Superman and Lois had an intimate relationship and he’s distant and cool with her when they first meet (yes, a great homage to the Donner Lois/Supes interview, but we’re talking story here). Sigh.

The problem with Superman is always going to be how do you have anyone menace him? When a machine gun – while pretty to watch – presents no conflict, where can you go?

The dramatic question was “Does the World Need Superman?” Five minutes after the question is posed, the answer is graphically answered “YES!” and the movie is over five minutes into Act Two. After a night like that, the question then becomes “How Did the World Survive WITHOUT Superman?” and that’s never answered.

The whole Lex thing was fun to watch, but New Krypton didn’t look like such great real estate. Who wants to live on a crystal? Further, if Superman was so moved by the graveyard of Krypton, shouldn’t there have been something there about the difficulties of destroying the last vestige of his homeworld? That would tie it into the epic theme of home that this film should have embraced.

Another question is “Is Superman a Cad?” Answer: Yes. He just takes off to Krypton without telling anyone (re: Lois) why or what he’s doing? Because it’s too difficult. Wimp. Clark, meanwhile, tells everyone he’s off to Tibet but still comes back unchanged. Then Superman finds out he has a son, does some peeping and takes off. Lois wants to know if they'll ever see him around. “I’m always around.” I guess there has to be something for the next movie, but come on! Superdeadbeatdadman

So, Lois and Clark – non-starter
Lois and Superman – Cold and distant
Lois and Richard – Doomed
I could go down the list, but not a single relationship is in any way resolved. Superman is adulated again, but has no friends or loved ones and he’s leaving the two who need him.

It’s as if the director really doesn’t understand real relationships… oh, wait. It’s Bryan Singer. Silly me. Of course he doesn’t…

Still, go see the movie. It's pretty, it's a good ride, just a poor story.


dawn said...

Brilliant analysis, Siskel.

Yeah, some serious plot inconsistencies, the most notable being the whole "wait - the kid's five, and Supe's been gone five years, but everyone's convinced it's Richard's son, even Richard himself...gee, Lois, didn't mourn the dissappearance too long, eh?"

There's also the question of why he was able to lift New Krypton, with all its glowing spikes of kryptonite erupting around him, when a few minutes before that he couldn't even hold himself upright on its surface.

And where was the tsunami that should have wiped out the eastern seaboard when New Krypton erupted out of the ocean floor? I think we all heard about water displacement in middle school earth sciences or so...