Friday, January 27, 2006

'Super' is a tad generous

Bryan Singer's upcoming Superman Returns supposedly owes a great deal to 1978 and 1980's Superman and Superman II: it's being placed as a direct sequel (ignoring Superman III and the one I always liked as a kid, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace) and will reportedly feature a cameo by Marlon Brando, reappearing from beyond the grave as Jor-El, Superman's biological father.

I'm not a huge fan of Superman as a character, and I wasn't particularly wild about Richard Donner's Superman as a kid, so it's been quite a while since I've seen it. I thought I'd check it out to see why, exactly, Singer is so intent on building a connection to it instead of pretending it doesn't exist and trying to replace it as the definitive cinematic statement on the character (which is essentially what Christopher Nolan did to great success with last year's Batman Begins, a vastly superior take on the Dark Knight than Tim Burton's decent-but-overrated fifteen year old version). Granted the original Superman was a huge hit. Granted, it's remembered fondly. Granted, it had a smart marketing campaign ("You will believe a man can fly"). But how can anyone see this movie for anything more than what it is: a bloated, awkwardly structured string of decent moments and good performers without much of a narrative drive?

As a kid, I never noticed how blatantly Superman rips off Star Wars, particularly in the first fifteen minutes, with its endless title sequence (Glenn Ford never had such a grand onscreen credit) and Death Star trench-esque Krypton. Even the ghostly presence of Brando's regally accented Jor-El (who pulls a Gwenyth Paltrow-on-Anthony-Hopkins and calls his home "Kryp-tin" instead of "Kryp-ton") imparting wisdom from beyond the grave carries echoes of "Use the force Luke!"

The opening hour of this 150 minute marathon is mostly a big pile of bullcrap. Young Clark (played by Jeff East beneath a really bad wig) has to "go away" for reasons neither he nor we understand, and he goes to the North Pole with a green crystal (not kryptonite, apparently, since it doesn't hurt him when he handles it) and he throws it away and it magically creates the Fortress of Solitude. Then he goes inside and Brando's holographic image appears and then he gives him a planetarium slideshow about his home and says something about "By the time this projection concludes you will have aged 12 earth years" and, sure enough, suddenly its Christopher Reeve and he's in his Superman costume.

There is no way you could make that sequence less logical, less dramatic, and more reliant on expository dialogue than it already is. One wonders why they felt compelled to use the Fortress of Solitude in the first place, since it only appears in a single other scene and plays no major role in the character or the story. How the hell does Clark Kent explain where he's been for twelve years? How does he explain it to Ma Kent, who is presumably still alive and desperately concerned about the whereabouts of her son? When Clark first gets his job at the Daily Planet he tells Perry White to send half his weekly check to his mother in Smallville. Shouldn't he at least call her on the phone to let her know he's alive first? She hasn't heard from him in a dozen years, now he's gonna start sending her checks?

What Donner's Superman, and what Singer's simply won't be able to recreate no matter how faithful it is to the earlier films' spirit, is Christopher Reeve, who embodies both Clark Kent and Superman with preternatural skill. In the scenes where Reeve blurs the barriers between the characters, flying off as Superman and reappearing at Lois' door as Clark, he is so convincingly distinct as both that he makes you believe that the people around him wouldn't notice that his sole disguise is a pair of glasses. With voice, gesture, and posture, he crafts as good a dual performance as there is in movies. Astonishingly, he was just 24 when they began shooting the movie. Yet he brings a weight and a maturity (not to mention a subtle masculinity, even in tights) far beyond his years. The new Superman, Brandon Routh, looks about a decade younger than Reeve in the role, but according to IMDb, he's actually a bit older than Reeve was when he made the first Superman.

Though thankfully not as campy as some super-hero adaptations, Superman is also not very lively. Its stabs at comedy simply aren't funny; and, even worse, they turn the film's only villain, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) into a completely hollow threat. He spends the movie in an underground lair getting the business from a sexpot girlfriend and his odious, doofy sidekick, Otis (Ned Beatty). No super-villain should ever associate with anyone named Otis. It is beneath them.

I don't even want to talk about Superman flying around the Earth and travelling back in time to save Lois' life. I am just going pretend it doesn't exist. It is dead to me.

By connecting itself so intimately to this movie, Superman Returns is already in trouble. The only thing the movie has going for it is the one thing it couldn't possibly recreate. My fingers are crossed, by my spit-curl's not holding its breath.


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