|via Flaming Skull|
for Mock Squid Soup
Everyone hotly anticipated Man of Steel two years ago, and loved everything about it, until they saw the film itself. This was what happened to Superman Returns in 2006 as well. It figures that I love both of them.
Bryan Singer had been known as the director of The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men movies. While Suspects gave him considerable film geek cred, it was, particularly, in X2: X-Men United where he gave superheroes an entirely new level of social commentary, marrying the outsider status of mutants with the ongoing struggle for the LGBT community to find acceptance.
The year prior to Superman Returns' release, Christopher Nolan had just delivered the first installment of his Dark Knight trilogy with Batman Begins. Marvel was still a few years away from launching its hugely successful Avengers franchise. Audiences were still hot for Sam Raimi's popular Spider-Man movies, which helped set the stage by proving how dynamic superheroes could look in the modern era.
Perhaps "playful" is the more optimum descriptor. Superman hadn't been on the big screen since 1986 (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), although many viewers considered the climactic duel between Neo and Agent Smith in 2003's The Matrix Revolutions to be what it would be like to see the Man of Steel in a real cinematic fight. Superman Returns didn't have anything like that, and it wasn't playful, either.
More like contemplative. Now, I personally love contemplative. The more contemplative the better. My favorites movies are always like that: Alexander, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, even The Truman Show. One of the things Singer clearly set out to do was update the classic Christopher Reeve version of Superman that for a decade had completely defined superheroes at the movies. Superman Returns was billed as a sequel twenty years in the making. Except, of course, it had an entirely new cast.
The only link was archival material featuring the late Marlon Brando, who had been featured in 1978's Superman as Clark Kent's Kryptonian father, Jor-El. He'd been meant to reprise the role in Superman II, which in 2006 Richard Donner was finally able to present a facsimile of his own vision using a combination of test footage and computer trickery to round out an experience his successor, Richard Lester, had dramatically altered in the original release. Lester heavily favored comedy, an approach that broadly defined the next two releases in the series. Finally, Singer would bring back the idea of reverence for the material.
Wait, reverence for superheroes? In a way, I think this has always been a problem for audiences. Anytime superheroes are taken too seriously, they shy away. Superman tends to bring this side out in filmmakers, a character so emblematic of the whole genre that even when Richard Pryor is hijacking the story, Reeve still spends all his time in dire problems of his own (literally battling himself in Superman III).
The idea of updating Reeve's Superman was in some respects something that Singer used mostly as a nod to his predecessors. Superman Returns is very much its own statement on the character. Tellingly, Lois Lane wins a Pulitzer for an article suggesting, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman."
Lois herself, as embodied by Kate Bosworth rather than Margot Kidder, looks years younger, as does Brandon Routh's Superman. According to the story, Superman has been gone five years. If the leads look this young after five years, how much younger five years earlier? Arguably the real connection to previous continuity is the presence of Jason, the son Lois had with Superman, presumably after their tryst in Superman II. It's also the meditative representation of the saying Brando's Jor-El imparts on his own son, and which Superman later whispers to Jason: "The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son."
Hey, and by the way, what does that even mean? It may be the key to the whole movie. The story of Superman is really about about loss and what can still be gained. Jor-El saved his son from the destruction of Krypton, and of course Earth becomes a welcoming new home. Unless you're Lex Luthor. Kevin Spacey's version is brilliant. Everything I always wished Gene Hackman's would be. Menacing, still bothered by lesser minds around him. Spacey's is very much a counterpart to his hated opposite number, wondering where his inheritance has gone. Everything's displaced in Superman Returns, looking for realignment, just as Superman's story has been about all along. Looking for acceptance. Not being an alien. Except with Superman, who as the ultimate superhero seems to have gotten that acceptance without much difficulty. To find the alienation again, Singer takes everything away. And gives him a son.
In a broad sense, you can probably figure out how one generation leads to the next, growing into and passing on responsibility. In the case of Superman, it's trickier. Lois struggles to admit it, but she was devastated when Superman left, all the moreso because of what he left behind. Jason seems like such a frail boy, but during the course of the movie, he begins to exhibit his own great abilities. Like Superman, and certainly Singer's Superman, the mild manners usually ascribed to Clark Kent are held as part of Superman's nature, a humbleness and protective instinct that belies someone who otherwise is completely vulnerable. And it's telling that the only fight Superman gets into in the movie, he gets his (pardon my Kryptonian) ass kicked. This is a vulnerable Superman indeed.
And I think audiences hate seeing that. The consistent criticism against Superman in the modern age is that he's too powerful to be truly relatable, and yet for two movies now, he's been both powerful and relatable, someone just trying to fit in, find acceptance. In a weird sense, Singer played that hand so overtly with mutants, that when he did it again with Superman, it seemed out of place, and even when it was done deliberately, in Man of Steel, suddenly, because everyone now had adjusted to superheroes as fish out of water, they wanted that archetype, Superman, to be the one superhero who was totally adjusted, who was everything every situation needed him to be.
To be a paragon. That's Superman, right?
Singer's Superman has a streamlined physique, a swimmer's body contrasted with his well-documented savior complex. He's posed so often in the movie, whether with his arms stretched out or placing the globe of the Daily Planet safely down, the idea of the character becomes a challenge all over again: we're asked to consider him as more an idea than action hero. He's only just recovered from a terrible beating and near-drowning when he realizes he still needs to save the day, and after that, crashes down to Earth and needs rescuing from ordinary paramedics.
Anyway, I can't watch this movie without being impressed. Christopher Reeve was Superman for an entire generation. I don't know that Brandon Routh ever had a shot at replicating that. But his Superman is one that yearns. Much like all of us. He might fly around in a red cape, but at heart he contemplates his place in the world. He lost one he never even knew, and confirmed for himself as no longer existing. He comes back home, and wonders if that term is still appropriate. Superman Returns concludes with the idea, as Jor-El originally suggested, that the hero in question will always have another chance. Maybe it's disconcerting to even think of Superman himself admitting to audiences that no matter how iconic he is, the story isn't really about him. It's about fathers and sons, parents and offspring, one generation to the next, embracing the great and mundane challenges of life. It's not about what Superman can do, but who he is. And what he is. He is not alone. And there's still plenty to learn. His son will help him with that.