Friday, August 04, 2006

Superman Returns

Krrrryptonite! Mwaugh-haw-haw!From its opening shot, as a cascading camera surfing John Williams' 1978 Superman March follows Kal-El's flight through space from Krypton back to Earth, Superman Returns is a truly gorgeous film to watch. Director Bryan Singer, cinematographer Thomas Sigel and everybody involved in the art design deserve the highest praise for the look of the movie, and for the sheer visual style of thing, from Clark Kent's better tailoring to Lex Luthor's overpowering tailoring, from Superman's new, quite balletic landing technique to the almost chiaroscuro effect of Lex Luthor's ugly new continent, you may safely say that you have seldom seen a movie look quiet as well as Superman Returns. The lessons of Tim Burton's Batman, Sam Rami's Spider-Man, and Singer's own X-Men pictures have been learned, and learned well.

Miserably, the lessons of Joseph's Campbell's Hero with a 1,000 Faces have been learned less well. It's a book as over-rated as it is hideously written but Singer and his team could have done with a glimpse at the Cliff Notes version to find out more about the nature of the hero, because Superman himself is very difficult case for treatment.

In some ways, of course, Superman is a man past his time. You can still see traces of how dated the whole idea is, in that ridiculous rig-out in which Bryan Singer dresses Jimmy Olsen, just as Richard Donner dressed his Jimmy Olsen before him. The fact that Lois still works for a newspaper - in this day and age, she'd be a CNN gal. And is Clark Kent the last man in America to still wear a trilby hat to work?

The notion of a man of steel, faster than a speeding bullet, is a little passé in our popular culture now. Superman is just there, while Spider, Bat and X-Men seem to have that much more going on under the hood. While Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne are struggling with duty and responsibility, Superman is off making sure that kids are eating their broccoli and reminding them, in the immortal words of Springfield's Mayor Wilkins, "there's nothing uncool about healthy teeth and bones."

Superman is, in a word, boring. He can't be otherwise. He is super, and that is his alpha and omega. If Campbell is right, and all heroes are picaresque by definition, what is the nature of Superman's journey? If it's Tuesday, it must be preventing the train crash, Wednesdays are explosions at the nuclear plant. The nearest to conflict that Superman comes is whether or not he should take a serious pop at snapping Lois Lane's garters (and doesn't Richard White have a rough one here with the Joseph the Joiner role?), but of course, he declines. Like a super man would.

In the absence of substance at its centre (and isn't it fascinating how Brandon Routh's Clark looks real while his Superman seems so wooden, while with Christopher Reeve it was the other way around?), Singer at least realises that he's got to plug the gap by making the peripherals as interesting as he can, and he gets extremely lucky with Kevin Spacey as his Lex Luthor. Spacey was a bit player before he won an Oscar in Singer's The Usual Suspects - take a peek at his role in Outbreak to see how that man suffered to make some screen time - and in Superman Returns, Spacey is outstanding as Lex Luthor, hamming it up like he was entered in the Pork Butchers' Championship of the World. Spacey's Luthor is just as OTT as Jack Nicholson's Batman, but underneath his flash (and outrageously tailored) exterior, Spacey gives us a glimpse at the hex of Lex, and it's not too pretty. Think of the scene when Superman confronts Lex on the new continent, and wince.

The rest of the cast are fine, for what they're worth. Kate Bosworth's Lois isn't as sassy as Margot Kidder's - although they both share the same terrible spelling - while Teri Hatcher's Lois on TV was in a different genre, really, and defies comparison in that sense. Lois Lane isn't an easy role of course - what is she but a plot device to be imperilled and then rescued? - but Bosworth does give her Lois a dimension as a woman who had a man run out on her without ever telling her why. There are very few ladies who care for that sort of thing, and it's hard to blame them. Bravo, Kate, but shame on Lois for not getting her kid a haircut. That kid will grow up funny if she doesn't watch it, you know.

An Spailpín enjoyed Superman Returns, but ultimately left the theatre disappointed. There's just not enough there for a substantial night-time feed of cinematic candy. And who-ever has to write the sequel is really going to have his or her work cut out - if Superman Returns is about Superman and Lois coming to an understanding about his sudden exit five years ago, what little conflict the Man of Steel has is now resolved. Where do we go from here? Maybe he'll renounce broccoli, and start talking up beer and chips instead. It's time someone did.

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