Friday, June 30, 2006

Second Coming: "Superman Returns"

[Note: It's been a while since my last transmission -- access to blogs in China is regulated, so I wasn't able to finish my entries, but I am back stateside with all my notes, and will be filling in the blanks over the next few days. In the meantime, I heartily recommend my friend Jocelyn's accounts of our adventures (even if they're not 100% accurate -- actually it was my colleague in Taipei, not my old boss from Beijing...).]

Superman Returns (2006, Dir. Bryan Singer)

"Does he still stand for truth, justice -- all that stuff?"
-- Perry White, Superman Returns

Some might poo-poo the idea of a new Superman film; in the current age of Marvel-inspired madness (Spider-Man, X-Men, and their ilk), in which our heroes are never too busy saving the world to spend a moment brooding about their depressing existences, a film about a goody-two-shoes protagonist with little in the way of angst (Superman Agonistes if you will) would be decried as flat, two-dimensional. Of course the irony is that all comics are two-dimensional, both in physical layout and emotional range -- and we love them for it.

That's why Richard Donner's first Superman movie still holds up remarkably well nearly three decades later. It's far from flawless, and it's dated by the soft-focus photography and fashion disasters of the period, but it remains a milestone in comic-book filmmaking. Like the best comics, the movie zips along, reveling in context rather than subtext. Donner relied on a simple but engaging premise: The alien from another world is a better representative of good old-fashioned, wholesome American values than the current denizens of our planet. He also had the good fortune to land Christopher Reeve in the title role. In his interpretation, the Man of Steel's resolute squareness could draw a chuckle, but it also had depth, substance, and even a hint of sexiness to it. There was room for character shadings even on this colorful canvas, as in the breezy bit where Superman nearly comes out to Lois Lane with a hestiant removal of his glasses -- a throwaway moment that speaks as loudly about the essential loneliness of the character as mounds of touchy-feely dialogue would in our current self-confessional climate. The film is a relic of the days when it was actually fun to be a hero, and spells out the difference between classic Hollywood moviemaking and today's Method-over-Matter handwringing.

Alas, we live in different times, and Bryan Singer's attempt to revive the Superman franchise has some Herculean problems to overcome. Consciously shackled to the past while it sits uncomfortably in the present, Superman Returns is a curious experience. On the one hand, we are meant to take it as a direct sequel to the first two Superman movies in tone and intention (plot beats and dialogue are stolen whole-cloth from the original), and on the other we are meant to see it as a modern update, taking its introverted cues from the current cycle of it's-tough-to-be-different superhero traumas. Superman Agonistes, indeed.

One thing that cannot be argued is that this Superman is the best yet when it comes to special effects. Usually, CGI is an intrusive presence, but here it is deployed with delicacy: the scenes where the caped one takes flight are highlights, including a space shuttle-aircraft rescue that is nigh-perfect in its brevity and execution. Just as impressive are the grace notes, such as when Superman breezes silently over a street at night, pedestrians startled and gazing upwards, as if they have just missed a shooting star. It is moments like these that walk the line between realism and magic, and walk it well.

But Singer wants to pull the curtain back and reveal the man behind the magic: Superman (Brandon Routh) has been away from Earth for five years (for reasons which are explained but never effectively dramatized), and returns to his adopted planet to find that it is wracked by violence and evil, as it has always been. What's worse (or at least what's worse in this film's estimation), the jilted Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has shacked up with Richard White (James Marsden), nephew of the curmudgeonly Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White (Frank Langella), and sired a mop-top lad with an asthma problem -- or is the kid more than he appears to be? Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) lurks in the shadows, plotting yet another get-rich real estate scheme. And so Superman must once again find his place in the grand design of things, ruminating about being the "other man" who might end up wrecking Lois's happy life with Richard even as he mourns his lost chance at family life and bears the Christ-like responsibility for caring for all humankind (it's not for nothing that the word "savior" is bandied about).

The Passion of the Superman? Fortunately, it doesn't go quite that far, although the movie crashes with an overlong coda in which the comatose Man of Steel must go through his own Good Friday (and an "empty tomb" resurrection). Symbolic overtones and comic books aren't strangers -- indeed, Singer's X-Men films are thinly veiled allegories for the gay civil rights movement -- but when the Christ parallels are as impotent and logy as they are here, they're usually not a good idea. By the time Superman recites his "the son becomes the father, and the father the son" speech (lifted straight from Marlon Brando from the original film), one realizes that this film is a collection of poses and tones: some pretty, some lifted, all of it subtext without coherent context.

Superman Returns sits in a no-man's land -- in its references to Donner's Superman (which are nevertheless too glancing to give us a clear connection), it yearns to give us a similar sense of fun, while in its half-hearted exploration of Superman's psyche, it purports to give us something more real. But it's a slippery slope when you tangle Superman with today's life and times -- it leads to niggling questions about how he would be treated in the "real world" (i.e., ours) after such a long absence ("Where were you when we needed you?"), as well as the usual fanboyish preoccupations about the parameters and limitations of his powers. Thus we get muddled, politically correct tension, such as the quotation that opens this essay (no more "truth, justice, and the American Way"). This is one wizard who might be better off behind the curtain.

Singer has proven himself to be a competent craftsman with his X-Men films, and he's a sure-footed director of actors: even though none of the characters get more than a glimmer of life in Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris's script, no one embarrasses themselves. Fundamentally miscast as Lois, Kate Bosworth acquits herself well, and Eva Marie Saint is a welcome presence as Grandma Kent (even though she is limited to three brief scenes). Routh and his slightly nasal accent aren't quite a match for Reeve, but he proves to be a engaging performer, relying on liquid silences and gazes rather than histrionics. Surprisingly, Spacey proves to be the most problematic actor of the bunch. Deprived of a clear direction for his character, he falls back on his standard shitck, seething one moment and mincing the next, like Gene Hackman's Luthor hopped up on Keyser Söze -- the performance might be entertaining from moment to moment, but like buckshot scattered about, it doesn't exactly hold together.

It's clear that Singer is at the mercy of his screenwriters (or his screenwriting instincts). Christopher McQuarrie's script for The Usual Suspects and David Hayter's script for the first X-Men movie were chock-full of mordant wit and elegance, and Singer transferred those qualities beautifully to the screen, as if he was chewing the dialogue as much as his actors. But while the bigger-budget X-Men 2 was more critically acclaimed than the first, it is now apparent in retrospect that Singer's slide started there; while Harris and Dougherty's script was workmanlike, it lacked the poetic juice of the previous film, and the finale was a muddled mess, ladling on bathos instead of catharsis. The problem only worsens in Superman Returns -- for a story that revolves around a man who can fly, much of the movie has a hushed, mournful tone that is at odds with the wonder of the special effects, as if it is being strangled by good taste. As Freud might say, sometimes a man in tights should be just a man in tights -- even in this era of deep, dark heroes.