Friday, July 07, 2006

Hey, Lois Lane had to wait five years, okay?

If I'd tried to write something right after seeing Superman Returns for the first time, my review would've looked something like this: "M-m-meh... f-f-flying... good! Routh... g-good! M-m-music... good! Story... well... kinda... weird." And then I would've passed out while holding my Superman blankie. So I needed a second viewing to cut through that "geek fog," as Mis Hooz calls it.

After almost 20 years since the last Superman flick (and at least 10 years of waiting for this current project), I couldn't wait to see somebody in blue tights and a red cape fly across the screen. To be honest, as soon as the first few notes of the theme song kicked in, they had me. And using similar opening credits to the original Superman: The Movie was a nice nod to nostalgia. But more on that later.

The special effects were spectacular. After watching Neo fly his way through the Matrix sequels, I thought there was no way a new Superman movie could top that. But this does. I don't see how it could've looked more realistic. He floats. He turns. He follows the air currents. And when he accelerates, it's not just the backgrounds moving faster. Superman really looks like he's turning on the jets. It's amazing to watch.

Something else I liked about the flying was how effortless it looked. Superman ascends and descends quietly. And gracefully. It's actually kind of beautiful.

And to me, that was one of the pleasant surprises about this film. It's really quite... elegant. Not what you'd expect from a Superman movie? Me either. That's not to say it doesn't deliver the action, either. Because it does in a big way. But there's a beauty in watching Superman soar through the sky, above all of the hustle and bustle, away from all of the world's chaos. You can see what exactly rocks Lois Lane's world when they go for a night-time flight, and not in the cheesy "Can you read my mind?" way Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder did it 30 years ago.

Yet for all the special effects, Bryan Singer really tries to humanize Superman, too. And does almost too good of a job with it. I said yesterday that the tragic, lonely side of Superman is what made him appealing to me. And that is all over this movie. He's awkward, and not just as Clark Kent. The man disappeared for five years, and is now trying to find his place in the world again. The new guy, Brandon Routh, captures that perfectly. There are a couple of scenes where Superman just floats above it all, looking down, and listening. And there were a couple of points where I thought it was the saddest thing I'd ever seen. He seems so alone. And only when she's floating up there with Superman does Lois seem to understand his greater responsibility to the rest of the world. Not the stuff that makes you jump up and down outside the theater, I suppose, but I loved it.

(And when I say Singer did "almost too good of a job with it," I mean that if you look at some of this stuff from a humorous angle, Superman seems kind of, well, creepy. Like Peeping Tom, Eavesdropping, Stalker Superman. But c'mon, he has the best of intentions, right? He's Superman. Who can see you through walls. And hear you from miles away.)

Lois? Will you come with me and continue reading the rest of this geekily epic blog post?

There's also a tremendous amount of iconography in the film. And I don't just mean all of the Christ imagery and allegory that other people have mentioned (though it's certainly there). One shot invokes the myth of Atlas. Another recalls Icarus. My favorite is an homage to the cover of Action Comics #1. You get Singer's point. Superman is the stuff of mythology.

Yet I thought Singer missed on one particular iconic pose. It's the first time Clark Kent rips open his shirt to reveal the "S" underneath. You know how it looks when he's about to change into Superman. Close your eyes; you can picture it. Yet what's in the film doesn't look like that. It's too quick, almost a throwaway shot. Singer (or his cinematographer) blew it rather badly, which is surprising, given how much attention he gives to such images throughout the rest of the film. If there was one shot you thought he'd have nailed lovingly, it would've been that one.

And that kind of sums up how I felt about this movie. For every two or three things that I loved, something else kind of bothered me.

I appreciated how reverential Singer was toward Richard Donner's original film. As I said, the opening credits are virtually the same. The set design is similar in a couple of scenes. Marlon Brando makes a posthumous appearance. Routh's performance seems to channel Christopher Reeve's at various times. And the story takes many of its cues from the first movie. But to me, this is both the blessing and curse of Superman Returns.

Yes, any Superman fan holds Donner's film in high regard. A new version would surely be compared to it. Singer's version skews heavily to those memories, and I'm impressed that he shows that much respect to the fans. He's obviously one of them. In many regards, this could be seen as both a sequel and a remake, if that makes any sense. But after I watched it for the first time, I wondered if Singer takes something of a shortcut by cashing in on that nostalgia. Maybe he was a bit too reverential.

I felt more strongly about this after another viewing of Superman: The Movie. In several places, the new story follows the old one. Superman finds his role in the world again, has something of a courtship with Lois Lane, and then has to thwart some madly diabolical scheme of Lex Luthor's. (That scheme, by the way, gets more ludicrous the more I think about it.) And there are a few lines which are taken virtually verbatim from the original script. A tribute? Probably. Amusing? Definitely. But some of the gloss was taken off Singer's film after I watched Donner's version again. And I can't imagine that was his intent.

I'm not saying this should've been Batman Begins, because that can be seen each week on the WB CW, and most everyone is familiar with Superman's origin nowadays. Singer obviously didn't feel a new interpretation of the character was necessary, because Richard Donner got it right the first time. I don't disagree, but it would've been interesting to see a different take on the character, too, with someone sticking their arms in, deconstructing the whole thing, and figuring it out for a new audience. Yet maybe Superman's too much of a cultural icon for that kind of treatment.

If I ever doubted that, those questions were answered when I left the theater. Just outside was a little kid with his mother, jumping up and down in the hallway, trying to propel himself into the air. But he couldn't stay up there. I know exactly how he felt.

I haven't been able to get my mind off Superman Returns since watching it. I can't quite say that Adult Ian loved it, because something just didn't click for him. So many aspects of its story seem like set-up for future sequels. But Young Ian thought it was a really damn cool movie.