Friday, February 13, 2009

Superman Returns

Here's my side of an email exchange I had with a friend about Superman Returns:

1.It’s a middling film: not great and not terrible. It has its moments. One moment is when Superman takes Lois on a little night flight over NYC. Another is his freefall from heaven to earth.

2.One problem is the built-in limitations of the Superman character. He’s basically a juvenile fantasy: what every little boy would like to be like, or every adolescent who’s been bullied at school.

Superman is godlike: virtually omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. That doesn’t leave much potential for character development.

Making him vulnerable to kryptonite is a way of giving him an Achilles heel. But that’s a limited plot device.

Likewise, you can try to accentuate his social isolation, as an alien outsider and loner.

3.There are some potential avenues that a screenwriter could explore. What about the temptation to abuse his powers? His potential for evil?

Or you could have him kidnap Lois and try to win her affections by tempting her with all the goodies that his superhuman powers can lavish on her.

4.In this film, the character of Lois isn’t very appealing. A career woman with no time for the men in her life. Not the ideal love-interest. Who’d want her for a girfriend? She’s married to her job.

5.In this film, the character of Lex Luther was also a failure. Comic book villains are supposed to be enjoyable in a perverse way. Have a wicked sense of humor. A flair for the dramatic.

This time around Lex Luther simply comes across as mean. Spacey is a fine actor, but maybe he’s too naturalistic to ham it up and play a melodramatic comic book villain. He can’t chew the scenery.

6.Also, the save-the-world theme is a tired dramatic convention. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used. But it’s so overused that it requires a lot of imagination to breathe fresh life into that dramatic convention.

Likewise, having Superman restrain muggers and bank robbers and so on has limited dramatic potential. It’s all fairly interchangeable.

7.Finally, there’s an incomplete feeling to the film. I think that’s because directors like to hedge their bets on action films. They need a stand-alone story line. But they also want to leave room for a sequel in case the film is a blockbuster. So you end up with action films that are a dramatic compromise. They aren’t quite satisfying on their own terms because the directors wants to leave the door open for a sequel.


  1. It's interesting to note that Superman was originally conceived as a villain. The character's creator submitted a story to a sci-fi pulp magazing about a "superman" that attempts to take over the world with his fantastic powers. That's a pretty interesting would the world react if it was threatened by one-man army?

    Anyways, I think another fair criticism of "Returns" is that it borrows way too much from Donner's efforts. If you've seen Superman I and Superman II, then a lot of Returns will seem a little too familiar. Singer seems to be a little too in love with the source material to be able to divorce himself from it. It's true that the character is too powerful to easily make him interesting, but he also has a very colorful and amusing rogue's gallery that could provide interest if they didn't try using Luthor all the time.

  2. Superman was not god-like in his original 1930s iteration. Sure, he had abilities beyond those of mortal men, but within definite limits. He was faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, but not able to fly through outer space, for example. No heat or X-ray vision, either.

    The original concept was closer to Spider Man than the Superman of more recent years. Even a mild-mannered, white-collared office drone like Clark Kent might be a champion in a colorful spandex costume underneath that gray flannel suit, just waiting to rise to the occasion.

    What happened was that over the long history of the comic strip, each generation of writers tried to top the previous Superman stories with more amazing adventures and maintain Superman as the "flagship" hero in the growing DC lineup of costumed superheroes. His abilities were constantly augmented and new abilities introduced on the fly. Periodically a plot device like kryptonite was invented to reestablish some uncertainty about the outcome of Superman's battles, but the handicap was always temporary.

    Then in the late 1970s, director Richard Donner took the religious subtext that had developed (with Superman saving the entire world on a regular basis) and ran with it in his classic film.

  3. I enjoyed Kevin Spacey's deliciously sarcastic Lex Luthor, but I agree that the film was patchy. Lyrical and beautiful, but it didn't really go anywhere - and the acting by the two leads was very ropey. Whose idea was it to cast Kate Bosworth in the role? She was far too young and not nearly as feisty or intelligent as Lois was meant to be.

    I did find the filmmakers' take on Superman interesting, though. Most Superman media have either taken the position that he's 'really' Superman (who pretends to be Clark Kent) or 'really' Clark (who adopts the Superman persona a la Batman). This film suggested he was 'really' Kal-El: fantastic from a Messianic iconography point of view, but not so great in terms of relating to the character. It made the whole film pretty distant and was ultimately a mistake, perhaps, but it's still cool someone tried it.

    Then again, Singer threw X-Men 3 to the wolves in order to make this film, and that's unforgivable.