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The Man of Steel plays it safe July 12, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Media.

Reimagining stuff is very popular these days.  While some may disagree strongly on how many (if any) of these ventures are successful, it seems to be a bug that’s going around Hollywood.  I’ve always been a fan of retelling old stories in new ways, be it “remakes” or “reimaginings” or just called “West Side Story”.  I like seeing what a director or a writer considers the “essence” of a particular story, be in characters or plotline or just mood.

For Superman Returns, though, Brian Singer wants no truck with such a thing.  For all the ways in which Batman Begins (to pick another recent revitalization of a DC hero) changed how you look at Bruce Wayne and his deranged attempts to clean up Gotham, Brian Singer wants you to remember how great it felt when Christopher Reeve spun the Earth backwards.  Superman Returns is faithful to what came before, almost too much so for my tastes.

Almost, I said.  Because regardless of postmodern redereconstructionist cyncism about the classic comic heroes of yore, Superman can still hit you in just the right spot and evoke an innocent, wide-eyed sense of wonder.  Amazing, visually impressive feats of strength and speed are the locus of Superman’s exploits, and Singer knows that’s where the strength of his movie lives.  Catching a plane, stopping a bullet, lifting a…..well, it’s big.  Really big.  And it’s all great.

When we’re not focusing on Superman’s heroics, though, things feel kind of flat.  The thing that’s always put me off Superman is that he’s always seemed a little too perfect.  He’s a paragon – he always saves the day, and never compromises his principles to do so.  The Clark-Lois-Cyclops (I’m sure has a name in this movie, but I never cared) love triangle is clearly supposed to add much-needed depth to the story.  Everyone else loves Superman just as much as before, it’s almost as if he never left – except for Lois, who has moved on with a child and fiancee and a Pulitzer-winning editorial called “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman”.

Except it never seems to click.  Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh don’t seem to have any real chemistry.  Their big scene together, an aerial tour of Metropolis where Superman explains why he left and came back, works as a theorical meditation on the internal conflicts of Superman – but not as a conflict, an argument, between two people who deep down want to be together.  A twist late in the movie finally locks this conflict into place – but it’s almost too late to matter, although it gives hope that the next movie will offer some better human conflict.

By no means is it a bad movie.  It’s a good movie, almost the very definition of a feel-good movie.  It’s just….unambitious.  Much like his hero, Brian Singer seems to want the franchise to return without missing a beat, just as it was before.  Nothing says you have to bring something new to the table, and after the death-march that WB went through to get a Superman project to theates, I can understand the impulse to play it safe.  But it still feels like something of a letdown.



1. his-regard - July 12, 2006

Dude. It’s a bad movie. When the best plan Superman’s arch-villian can come up with after being handed the Encyclopedia Galactica is to throw it away, there’s a problem.

Granted, Singer handled the iconography passably well. Also granted, not making Cyclops a bad person and/or part of Luthor’s plot was a welcome departure from Central Scripting. Those things may be sufficient to lift Superman Returns out of the depths of Aeon Flux/Elektra territory, but still are not near enough for me to wish it hadn’t been flung into orbit.

2. Mike S. - July 13, 2006

When the best plan Superman’s arch-villian can come up with after being handed the Encyclopedia Galactica is to throw it away, there’s a problem.

Not, I think, if it’s a sort-of sequel to movies in which the same character made the same dumb choices. Granted, it would be fun if that Luthor got a look at the Evil Overlord’s Handbook, and I’d rather see Elliot S. Maggin’s Luthor than the Donner/Lester/Hackman version. But given the context Singer chose, I think it’s legitimate to keep Luthor the same monomaniac with ridiculous plans to acquire real estate (with resources that might be better used otherwise) that he was in the first movie and the second.

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