June 30, 2006

Superman Returns

Superman Returns is the most subversive superhero movie I've ever seen. The leads may be young, but this movie emphasizes change and maturity in a genre that values by stability and youth. Indeed, the marvel is that these characters still intrinsically feel like the ones I remember in a story that places each one in a position they've never been before. Some new characters get more screen time than established favourites. Jor-El's lines of exposition from the 1978 film serve as emotional sign posts along his son's journey, until his original prophecy, that "the son becomes the father, and the father the son," is realized in a unexpected and resonant way. A way that finds real emotional truth out of dialogue conceived originally to forward a Christian allegory.
That beat, which I'll cover at the end, is even more revelatory in a movie that transforms that Christ allegory into a rather extreme and literal parallel. Superman: The Movie was a celebration of Superman as a Christ-like figure of hope. Superman Returns treats its hero's calling as a burden rather than a blessing. It spends almost too much time mourning our hero's sacrifices and — after the first big action scene — little to no time celebrating his most visually epic accomplishments. This will be a deal breaker for many; its the most radical thematic break from tradition. After seeing what the movie gave us instead, though, I decided I was okay with it. The victories this film gives instead are smaller and messier but more meaningful. Being responsible for the whole world is abstract and grandiose. Being responsible for people, for a family, is unglamorous but tangible; since mistakes on this level won't destroy civilization, you have to live with them when you wake up the next morning. What a strange truth to find in superhero movie.
Each and every cast member is perfect and unfailing. Routh's Superman, so awkward and gawky in stills, inhabits the role with grace and natural believability. All he had to do was save a spacecraft and an airplane, and I never really questioned him in the tights again. It's not a matter of a good performance or a bad one. He simply is Superman. Bosworth, whom I've never liked in anything else, makes a better brunette than a blonde and straddles perfectly the line between fearless reporter and mother. She didn't remind me of any other Lois, so much as conjure my collective memory of all of them. Sam Huntington fleshes out the gag of Jimmy Olsen into a cohesive manner of being. Frank Langella, faced with J.K. Simmons's powerhouse J. Jonah Jameson, ventures out in the opposite direction. As the world falls to pieces around him, he confidently and casually rides the wave, keeping his headlines up-to-date all the while. Langella remembers that Editor-in-Chief is a job as well as a mouthpiece — and his Perry White is damned good at his job. Eva Marie Saint isn't given much to do as Ma Kent, but she does it with professionalism and class.
Then there's the bad guys. Spacey's Luthor was the character I was most scared about. He ended up unquestionably one of the highlights of the movie. Definitely in the lineage of Hackman's goofy take on the role, Spacey departs to the character's gain by imbuing the role with real menace. Lex's collection of wigs was a fun gag in 1978. The wigs are no laughing matter after spending some time with Spacey's Luthor in 2006, because like the cry of a wolf they're a sign that danger is near. Parker Posey's Kitty Kowalski is Miss Tessmacher with a dangerous streak: dumb as she is, unlike the latter I could actually believe her handling day-to-day living with a criminal mastermind. One of Lex's thugs, in guarding the prisoners, also standouts in one particular scene.
Then there's Lois's fiancé, Richard White. Given more to do here as a mortal than as Cyclops in the X-Men series, Marsden has created a strong emotional antagonist. It would have been easier on everybody if he'd made the character a prick, but his Richard is decent down to the bone. We'd all be cheering if Superman swooped in and saved Lois from a prick. Instead, we like him almost as much as our hero. On some level, even Superman respects Richard if he doesn't outright like him. The family that Richard and Lois have created is functional and warm. It would cheapen the character of Lois Lane if it were anything else. It would cheapen the character of Superman if he allowed himself to be a home wrecker. Yet Superman and Lois Lane, more clearly than ever before, are meant for each other. And so Superman Returns asks questions that no other superhero movie, perhaps even no other superhero story, has asked before.
Bosworth's Lois is guarded, the eagerness of Routh's Superman is tempered by concern. The love of each for others, and especially for each other, is deepened as a result. Lois wouldn't accept Superman back easily. Superman wouldn't get Lois back easily. Lois, always the awestruck schoolgirl alongside damsel in distress before, now faces a real emotional journey of her own. Accepting Superman back into her life, allowing the emotions she has for him — and perhaps more importantly the trust she had in him — to seep back in is a more elusive and more rousing victory than the most astonishing and exhilarating rescue.
In order to discuss Superman's victory, I have to spoil it all; his victory comes not up on the figurative pedestal of an adoring crowd, not set to rousing up tick in the score, not soaring victoriously over the fields of battle. It's found sitting on a bed in a small suburban home, watching the sleeping form of his child for the first time, seeing through his father's eyes, repeating his father's words, and finally understanding what it means to be part of something and not alone. ()


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