I saw Superman Returns last night and although I thought it was well-done overall, I came away feeling that it was missing something integral. Not sure what it is yet, but I have theories. I'm going to go ahead and deal in SPOILERS, so take note.
First, let me say that I thought Brandon Routh was perfect as Superman -- it did take a little convincing for me to believe that Routh wasn't just a soap actor who got lucky, but after the jetliner sequence, I was sold. Routh is Superman. I don't think anyone will ever trump Christopher Reeve for sheer Supes perfection, but Routh is as close as we're going to get, and that's fine with me. What was most surprising about Routh was how much he often sounded like Christopher Reeve. He could have been a voice double. Also, Kevin Spacey was great as Lex Luthor -- though I don't think they gave him a whole lot to do -- I guess I feel the same way about Spacey's Luthor as I did about Hoffman's Mission Impossible villain. Both movies would have been much improved had they been given more screentime.
The only real casting misstep for me was Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Bosworth's very much a girly girl, and I think the role of Lois Lane calls for more of a woman -- I think of Margot Kidder's Lois back in '79 and I compare her with Bosworth's Lois in '06, and they could still be mother and daughter. What's sort of peculiar for me is this: Bryan Singer wants me to believe that Superman, who could have any woman he wanted in the whole world, is still hung up on this mousy girl with the limp-curled brown hair and the anorexia-stretched skull-face? Didn't buy it so much. Part of the reason for this (aside from unfortunate hairdo choice and Bosworth's obviously overrestrictive diet) is that Bosworth is only 23 years old. According to the film's backstory, she and Superman are supposed to have romantic history (the first two Reeve Superman films are supposed to be a part of this film's narrative continuum) -- he left 5 years ago and now he's back. So Lois was already an intrepid reporter at the Daily Planet at 18? And an unwed mother to boot? Where did she find the time to raise her kid and win a Pulitzer all before she was done being a teenager? Maybe I'm quibbling here, but this is, to me, an instance where Hollywood's youth-centrism has gotten out of hand and has found a way to undercut one of the most expensive movies in history. I think Singer made a real boo-boo here.
I also noticed patterns in the movie that, sad to say, got tedious for me. Once Superman officially returns in the film, the action seems to hinge on whether Superman can fly fast enough or lift something that's very heavy. The objects get increasingly larger and unweildy, but Superman's always up to the task. Ahem. OF COURSE he's up to the task. He's Superman. Which probably touches on the primary difficulty in making a Superman story interesting. He's invincible. He can do pretty much anything. The fun comes in watching him be invincible and doing stuff that no one but an all-powerful alien could do, and watching him try and hide all of that talent beneath the nerdy Clark Kent disguise. The ace in the hole that all Superman writers have used (and have had to overuse), is Kryptonite -- it never fails to make Superman vulnerable and, thusly, interesting. So when Singer and Co. introduce Kryptonite in Superman Returns, everyone prepares for some new complexity in the plot. Well, not quite. When Supes gets his first taste of the green stuff since the end of his 5-year hiatus, he gets beaten to hell and nearly drowns. And even though he has a Kryptonite shiv broken off in his back, he manages, somehow, not to drown. This puzzled me. I always thought that Kryptonite made him mortal -- if he's got some of it literally lodged in his body and he's underwater for too long, doesn't that mean he'll drown like any other human would? Apparently not. Later, when he's lifting the trillion-ton rock from out of the Atlantic, there are giant shards of Kryptonite sticking out all around him. Supes has got some big worries now. He won't be able to keep lifting all of this weight when there's Kryptonite so close to his face he could lean forward and kiss it, right? Well, actually, he can keep lifting it. Why? Because Bryan Singer says so. The Kryptonite doesn't effect him so long as the plot requires the giant rock he's in the process of lifting be carried off of our planet. And then Superman gets it out of orbit, then he falls, lands in Central Park, people think he's dead, but then he's not, and I'm thinking, "Huh?" and everything kind of stops making sense. Not to say that Superman Returns necessarily has to be cinema verite and all the rules that have ever applied to Superman must apply perfectly to this new incarnation, but I would expect a little consistency from one reel to the next. Compare Singer's disregard for these basic tenets of the Superman story in Superman Returns with Goyer and Nolan's reverence for the central tenets of the Batman story when they did Batman Begins and the comparative quality of these two films becomes somewhat more stark.
As for the Christian overtones that some of the critics have been talking about (I think Time magazine referred to Singer's "savior complex"), I noticed them, and I thought in some cases they were overt and more than a little calculated, but by and large I wasn't bothered by them. The mythology of Superman was inspired by the Jesus myth from day one. Jor'El sends his only son, Kal'El to Earth to serve as humanity's Protector. Fairly straightforward substitutes for God and Jesus. It's kind of a take it or leave it thing because the Christian themes are so inherent in Superman's backstory. So when Luthor's thugs are beating Kal'El in what felt like an indulgently drawn-out fashion, either intentionally or unintentionally mirroring parts of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I thought Singer's sin was that he didn't more fully explain Luthor's seemingly limitless (and irrational) rage towards Superman, not so much that he borrowed liberally from stock Christ imagery. (I'm not sure, but did Singer want us to watch the original again so we could remember how Hackman's Lex Luthor came to hate Superman? I don't remember Gene Hackman's Luthor to be a quarter as sadistic as Spacey's Luthor, so the rage really seems to come from nowhere).
It was more than obvious that Singer was intent on playing up the similarities between the Superman mythos and the Christian mythos -- at their core, both are about (as Kevin Smith once said) battling superheroes -- and I do think he let it get away from him a few times. First, when Superman flies up above the atmosphere after seeing Lois with her new family, he has this extended moment where he "hears everything", and when he hears something bad about to happen, he bolts earthward to save the day. This is, I imagine, not too far off what many Christians imagine Jesus does. Not that he's necessarily hovering above the Earth answering prayers, but that he's always there, listening, prepared to act. The scene reminded me a little of Bruce Almighty, which isn't a good thing. And then later, near the end, when Superman is sitting on the bed beside what turns out to be his 5-year old son, and says, his face beatific and saintly, "The father becomes the son, and the son becomes the father," I thought it sounded fishy. I get the second part as it relates to the story -- men who have children become fathers where before they had been only sons -- but the first part sounds suspiciously like a nod to some of the more devoutly Christian moviegoers, something designed to allow them a knowing and self-satisfied nod at the true meaning of this phraseology (something about the Holy Trinity, I don't know). But these are the only moments when I think Singer's and Warner Bros.'s intent is nakedly calculated to win the hearts and minds of the Born Again demographic, but otherwise this film only borrows, usually subtly, from the Jesus story. Superman Returns is no Chronicles of Narnia.
The main thing Superman Returns does is shake the dust off the character as it exists in the minds of most people -- as those old Christopher Reeve movies from the 80's -- and makes it viable and relevant again. Though Superman stories rarely make for compelling drama owing to Superman's usual invincibility, they're perfect for high-stakes, big-budget, special-effects laden popcorn movies with loads of spectacle and mindless entertainment. And if a Superman movie allows us to reexamine our need for heroes (or "saviors", as he's called), or even lets us look inside our capacity to mindlessly rally around a leader we view as "good" and "pure", in other words our capacity to embrace fascism (Frank Miller, for example, has always viewed Superman as a fascist character), which Superman Returns does, then all the better.
As for the 3-D aspect of Superman Returns: The IMAX Experience, I give the 3-D a definitive thumbs down. I don't know much about how the 30 or so minutes of 3-D footage came to be in this movie, but I know that I've seen much better 3-D in other films and I expect that if James Cameron and George Lucas are so excited about 3-D that they think it's the future of cinema, then they're obviously talking about something different from what I saw last night. When it came time to put your 3-D glasses on, a set of green 3-D glasses appears at the bottom of the movie screen -- this means you have about 3 seconds to get those things on your head before the screen goes all blurry. The 3-D effects were blurry and streaked here and there with inexplicable shards of white transparency, as though I was somehow able to see through the projected image to the blank screen behind it. Very disconcerting. Each time it was a relief to go back to the regular image. The trailers were also shown in 3-D, but the 3-D effects on the CGI animated trailer for Open Season were pretty great -- which made the 3-D sections of Superman Returns all the more disappointing.
I'm seeing it again at the drive-in on Saturday, so if my opinion changes on a second viewing, I'll let you all know, because, of course, you all are dying for my opinions.