Friday, October 30, 2009

Restoring the Awe in the Summer Blockbuster - Superman Returns

I popped in Superman Returns the other day. I was curious if it still held up, three years after I saw it in theaters (repeatedly) and really quite loved it. It's funny how memory can betray you - through years of watching the public opinion of the film turn from "meh" to "but we all remember what happens when you try to ______. You get Superman Returns," I always held that the film was much better than people gave it credit for, but I never spoke about it with the same conviction I had upon exiting the theater. Sometimes the accepted ruling on a film - positive or negative - can bolster your opinion, and sometimes it twists it.

The latter was certainly the case with Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, but watching it again revealed exactly the film I'd found the first time, only now even more so. A flawed but monumentally ambitious film, Superman Returns is ultimately very moving, and quite wonderful. Like The Dark Knight, the flaws are in the dialogue, which has characters reciting lines that are far too on-the-nose, far too much of the "this is who I am and this is what I'm thinking about and these are my concerns and worries." But like The Dark Knight, the cumulative effect of these moments do nothing to detract from my immense respect and adoration for the film.

I've never understood the central problems people have with it. As I said, there are flaws, but all too often complaints went something like, "oh, man, there's a KID?" or "what, now Superman has feelings?" or "there's no action!" Superman Lifts Things became a sort of joke title. It's this kind of thinking, this sort of whining about a film not being "exciting" enough, that's holding back summer cinema. What Singer was going for here, and what I think he accomplished, was restoring the amazement that one man can even DO the kind of things Superman can do, and furthermore, that he decides to do these things to help people.

The film so often takes my breath away, in Superman's casual use of his powers, his intrinsic knowledge of right and wrong, how that carries through to such mundane moments as when he says "Goodnight, Lois" (God, Brandon Routh is so good in this movie), and the sacrifices he has to make to maintain that righteousness. The familiarity with which Lois approaches Superman before their flight, and the very tangible knowledge that their lives for the past five years have not been what they dreamed they would be. The immense regret that fills both their faces, Lois' especially, every time they part ways; she's all too aware he may go away forever. How speechless she is in their last scene together.

I love Lois' central conflict in this, how sharply written she is and how vibrant the character becomes in those ocassional instances when Kate Bosworth rises to the challenge. She connects to me almost as deeply as Ilsa does in Casablanca, in no small part because she has to make the same decision between a man she is unavoidably drawn towards who has been away for a long time, and a man she's been with ever since, who treats her well and is just as good, if not better a man.

When The Dark Knight came out, a lot of people commended the fact that Batman makes mistakes throughout the film, and fails to live up to his mission. Nobody gives credit to Superman Returns for making that the entire thrust of the film. Not only did Superman abandon Lois without notice; he abandoned the entire world he was dedicated to protecting. He wasn't there in court to testify against Lex Luthor, thus making his release from jail all the easier. Superman's greatest mistake has already been made, and the whole film is about how we deal with those mistakes.

This is why I never understood why anyone would complain about Superman having feelings. If I made a decision that deeply hurt the person I loved, and I suddenly realized she'd been living with that pain for five years, I'd be a lot more bent out of shape than Superman is in this film.

That a film of this budget, based on such a property as Superman, came out the way this did is staggering. How many summer blockbusters put this little emphasis on the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist? In this film, thematically, Lex Luthor is there to show us how Good Superman is. What other love stories are made for over $200 million? What other summer blockbusters are so infused with melancholy, loss, and regret? How many since the golden age of Spielberg have had as many moments of pure awe? How many films of any kind are as sharply composed as this? This willing to linger on the image of something truly amazing? There's a moment in the film in which Perry White and Jimmy Olsen are going through some photos of Superman, and Perry says, "These are iconic." If nothing else in the film gets you, surely the imagery must.

Too many summer films these days use the camera in such a way to make, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it, the fantastic mundane. They'll go handheld, they'll use lens flares, they'll even add dirt to the lens in post production, anything to make it seem more "real." Superman Returns restores the luster to these fantastic images, the camera so often bewhildered and astonished at the sight of the man who could fly.

To say nothing of how damned well constructed the film is, especially from the aiplane crash/rescue scene onward. That scene is still one of the most thrilling of any superhero film, easily going toe-to-toe with the elevated train sequence in Spider-Man 2, and there's a scene on Lex's boat between Lois, her son Jason, and a nameless henchman that is as tense as anything out of Hitchcock. To say nothing of everything that transpires right before Superman finds Lois, Richard, and Jason on what's left of the ship.

I don't necessarily go to summer films to escape or to think. I don't go to the movies, any movie, with a mission, other than with a vague hope to be affected in some way. I let the movie give me a reason to be there. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. Superman Returns gave me, and continues to give me, so many reasons.


b said...

its pieces like this that make it so easy for me to just co-opt your opinions and advice on movies and make them my own. i am not sure if that translates as i mean it to, but yeah, in scott i trust. also, great pulls, the shot of him streaking past the airplane window sends chills even as a still. great great moment.

mike weber/fairportfan said...

I wasn't all that impressed with "Superman Returns" in the theatre.

Nobody's made a really good Superman film yet - and in its recycling an incredible number of the dumber ideas from the Donners' "Superman", this one is prettier but no better than the rest of the pack.

"Batman Begins" was a classic example of the "after he pees in it, he likes the flavour better" school of adaptation and direction. Using the name of tentpole characters and then creating something completely different out of whole cloth is a Bad Idea.

And "The Dark Knight" carries that to extremes - without the huge sympathy vote after Heath Ledger's death, i doubt that ut's mis-conceived "re-imagining" of the Joker would have been so hugely touted.

The Batman villain they did right in "Knight" is Two Face - and they killed him off.

"Spider-Man" is the closest thing to a superhero adaptation done well - and it has its flaws.

Scott Nye said...

Mike - I...sort of agree. I'd say no one's made a really good translation of Superman as a feature film (the Fleischer shorts are quite wonderful, though), but I would argue that Superman Returns is a really good Superman adaptation. Just as Stanley Kubrick radically changed The Shining to create his own vision, Singer and Nolan have made superhero films filtered through their own worldview. And being something of an auteurist, I'm more than happy with that, even though the former comic book fanatic slightly resents it.

It's sort of like...and if you're a comic book fan, you'll know exactly what I mean...but Batman Black and White was a tremendous miniseries that allowed some really great artists to let their imaginations run wild and totally reimagine the world of Batman.

I tend to appreciate comic book adaptations the most when they take this route, rather than remaining totally faithful to the canonical version of the character. As someone who's consumed thousands of pages of that version, the deviations tend to interest me more at this point.

mike weber/fairportfan said...

Mentioning "Batman: Black & White" reminds me that it's my opinion that the *best* Batman comics of the last fifty or so years (since i began reading it, basically) were the "Batman Adventures" comics - the ones based on the animated series.

There are stories in there that can still bring a tear to my eyes...