Don't read any further if you don't want to read spoilers.
Films made about comic books are a genre. This means we have certain expectations. Perhaps the most formulaic of genre films is the romantic comedy. In a romantic comedy, there's the would-be couple. They meet. They fall for each other. They fight and break up. They get back together again. Once you see the pattern, you'll wonder why you keep falling for this formula. The reason? It works.
Comic books about superheroes used to be about superheroes like Superman or Batman that fought bad guys. Their alter egos typically got along well. Clark Kent was a newspaper reporter. Later on, when they needed to modernize the character, he became a television reporter. What more obvious way to get in the public eye as two characters than that?
Marvel Comics, the rival to DC Comics, which made Batman and Superman, decided to go in a different angle. They dealt with superheroes that had problems, and lots of them. Peter Parker could barely pay rent. He was late to class. He was the bookworm. He's a lowly photographer to make ends meet. This is in contrast to Kent who's supposed to be a good reporter.
Life's tough for Parker. Being Spiderman doesn't seem to help him out of the messes he gets in. He's bright, but somehow not bright in a useful way that makes him money. In a modern world, he'd be a programmer or researcher and make some bucks that way.
When a filmmaker wants to make a film about superheroes, he (or she) has to ask himself what kind of superhero to portray? Should the superhero be flawless, or one of these guys who needs to see a doc to deal with his oversized emotional problems?
Superman was created at a time when people didn't really talk about their issues. He was, after all, meant to be super.
Bryan Singer did X-Men, one of the most popular comics in the Marvel Universe, to Superman. The question is: what kind of Superman should he portray?
Here's the problem: on the one hand, Superman is supposed to be in love with Lois. On the other, he's supposed to be a kind of savior for the Earth. What does he pick? I don't think Singer knows the answer to that. It's made worse. Lois has abandoned Superman for the nephew of the editor. There's analogies made to Superman. He flies planes. He's successful. But, he's no Superman. Is Lois the kind of woman that would sacrifice her marriage for Superman? After all, he is Superman?
Then, there's the big secret. Her son. The often-sick moppet who seems the opposite of super. Well, what do you know. He's Superman's son.
OK, back up. His son? OK, how does this not get mentioned? Did Lois happen to go to bed with Superman, and somehow she doesn't realize it's Clark, who, by the way, disappeared at the same time as Superman? And when she sees Superman, she somehow manages to not bring it up at all. No histrionics. No "How could you leave me? How could you leave your son? How?". Indeed, she never mentions it to him.
Which then begs the question. If Superman knows he has a son, why does he not tell Lois? Why doesn't he say "I have to leave to find my people. But I promise I will return. I don't know how long it will take. But I will be back." True, he might decide that he really needs to stay on Krypton (were it not destroyed).
Even when he returns back, things go on pretty much as normal. He's been, presumably, flying in space for years and years and years. He's dealt with no one, and when he gets to where he's going, he doesn't find what he's looking for, so he heads back. So why? Because he has no other place to go (although, in the original Superman, there is some sense that there are other populated worlds he could go to--and Earth happens to be the most promising). Is he coming back to the only place that needs him? Is he going back for his son? Is he going back to save the Earth?
This question is never answered. It might have said something if he confesses to his mother (well, Ma Kent) that he was out there for long periods wondering what he'd find, with great hope, even as he was leaving all he knew behind. Then, the sheer sense of defeat. We need some sense of why he comes back.
I'm reminded vaguely of the film Lucas. Lucas is played by Corey Haim. He longs for a girl that's just a little older than he is. She, on the other hand, likes Charlie Sheen. Charlie Sheen isn't a bad guy. Indeed, Lucas has helped his character out being a tutor. Then, there's Winona Ryder, the gawky girl that likes Lucas. In the end, there's no bad guy. There's Lucas trying desperately to impress, and of course, he is a geek, and he is young, and therefore he doesn't get the girl. The film doesn't know what it wants to do, and therefore it gives him some kind of victory at the end, but not the girl.
Superman Returns has this problem, but even worse. Even Lex, who's made out to be darker, isn't quite as passionate or passionately angry, except when he's trying to kick the crap out of Superman. It's not quite explained why he hatches his plan when he does. It seems like he should be in prison, but because Superman wasn't there to testify, they let him go (not that that makes much sense). But five years go by, and Lex waits to hatch his plan only when Superman returns? Does that not seem like a bad idea? He had all this time that Superman was gone, and he laid low? Kind of amazing, right? And they make no exception, because, well, gee, we're a country of law, and even a man like Lex Luthor can be let go to do what he wants.
Minor kudos to Singer to remember that in Superman the Movie, the kryptonite was found in a meteorite in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Mr. Luthor, Mr. Luthor, are we going to Addis Ababa?).
Everyone seems to know kryptonite makes Superman weak. Dangerously weak. So, um, why doesn't Superman find this stuff and get rid of it? Oh, no, it just sits in a museum that Luthor happens to know about, but no one else does. He's a genius, after all. So Superman's not ready to handle Luthor.
And, then there's this crystal business. Drop it in water, and it makes huge islands. Why is that? Who knows? Oh Jor-El told him. Why? Because he's indiscriminate. The superrace can't tell who his son is, even in crystal form.
In the end, Superman is a real cipher. What does he believe in? Does he really love Lois or not?
The end scene is a bit odd, and it reminds me of the second Spiderman film. Recall that Spiderman is trying to stop a train that's going out of control. At some point, Spiderman is injured, and somehow his mask is removed. The passengers on the train says "he's just a boy" (nice there's no camera out to record the event).
Similarly, Superman appears to be dead, but hmm, let's take him to a hospital so we can treat him like, er, a human. And you're in a hospital, so gotta take off the costume, which raises the question that Lois raised in the original movie...I assume all bodily functions are normal? Excuse me? Er, to put it delicately, do you....eat? Yes, yes. When I'm hungry. And it coincides with rumors that Superman's manhood (well, Brandon Routh's) had to be digitally altered to make it less noticeable (the reality is that he was wearing a codpiece).
It's an odd scene, though it's almost effective, because you could see Singer wanting to create an ending where he kills off Superman. And for a moment, there's doubt. But what revives him? I suppose it might be his son. But their relationship is never established that strongly. I'd almost opt for a creepy kid who's silent and always looks into the distant. It might give it away sooner, but the kid's almost too 1970's cute to be effective.
There is a moment, when Superman is flying over the earth near the end where you begin to sense a joy that's lacking in the film. This joy might have made more sense if they could have pushed the theme of loss and belonging more. However, they didn't play up the loss that much. I know it would have probably stretched the film even longer. It runs surprisingly quick for the two and half hours it runs, but it almost needed to run another half an hour or so.
If I were to redo it, I would perhaps play back his leaving more in flashback, even working out the journey, letting it take minutes as he flies in his ship, then as he reaches his destination, realizing nothing's there, and then, seeing his dead planet, crying. Something.
There should be a strong sense of loss once he returns, and then something that captures his sense of purpose, of why he's back, of why he returned.
I know that heavy exposition is not considered wise, but comic books often have melodrama in it. They're often more soap opera than soap opera. Singer sidesteps melodrama, but ends up with something rather bland in its place.
Even the moment of realization, that he is a father doesn't quite come across so well because the kid is played a bit wrong. You want to duplicate the sense of alienation that the father would have gone through.
And that's another part that's difficult. Does Lois know that the kid is superpowerful? At one point, she asks him if he can help mommy. You think he's going to do something heroic. Somehow save them. But, again, Singer decides that maybe that's too corny. How do you show he has superpowers, but not let it be too distracting? And somehow, he is perhaps not quite immunte to kryptonite, but more so than dad?
This film isn't nearly as awful as the last two Superman films, but neither is it something you can embrace either. The characters are so distant emotionally. What's missing is all the history of Lois and Superman and how she adjusts. We're left to fill in those pieces, and we can't.
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