In Conversation with… Sabian Wilde

Marketing Lecturer. Writer. Music Bod. Claims to have coined 'Perthonality'

SUPERMAN RETURNS — Spoiler free

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Current Music: Depeche Mode — Everything Counts
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Superman Returns
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Parker Posey, James Marsden and Tristan Lake Leabu

Let’s get this straight off the bat, so to speak — there are two types of comics geeks, the Batfans and the Supergeeks — and in the fight of good versus bad, there will always be some who prefer bad versus badder. Superman Returns isn’t for them.

One of the key pitches about this film prior to its release has been, ‘Superman returns to Earth after five years to find a world that doesn’t need him’— and even if you’ve never been that interested in the big blue (and red) boy scout, it’s a great premise.

A lot has happened in the 19 years since ‘Supes’ last graced the big screen, and given the supposedly unending litanies of terror that dog world politics, you have to wonder what role one man with near limitless powers could play — the short answer from this film is… not much.

Director Bryan Singer is fast becoming to the film world what Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly) has been to television — a guy that can make being a geek uber-chic.

His success with the X-Men franchise was so complete that even die-hard fans of the decades old comic series accepted 6’2½” Hugh Jackman as arch anti-hero Wolverine — a little bundle of 5’3” fury in comic form — and that’s the sort of thing that normally causes mass-burning of movie merchandise in public spaces… or would, if the laws against congregating in public and arson weren’t so strict these days.

When the news broke Singer was abandoning mutantkind for a shot at the ultimate crossover comic book icon, there were hopes that his innate understanding of both comics and films would result in a great retelling of the Superman myth, reinvigorating the legend for modern times.

Instead, Singer has crafted a very clever, well-made film that is a little too respectful of the Superman legend, and X-Men 3 ended up being a disrespectful dog turd directed by Matrix offsider Brett Ratner, pissing off a whole world of fans.

Having said that, while the lost opportunity to make Superman relevant to the world we actually live in will probably sting the more intelligent customers and staff at Quality Comics, Singer’s respect for Superman’s 1978 and 1980 movies has been tempered with some very nice touches indeed.

Although he completely ignores the existence of Superman movies III and IV (and let’s face it, apart from Richard Pryor and the question of where all the half cents in our pay packets go, they were forgettable), the opening sequences of Returns manages to tip some very knowing winks to the fans while reintroducing Superman to the doubtless hordes of people who know him as an eternal presence in pop culture rather than as a character.

These people will make this film a lot of money, and deservedly so.

After a fruitless five-year search for other survivors from the destruction of his home planet, Superman (newcomer Routh) commandeers a Kryptonian spaceship and crash lands in Smallville, middle America, to be found by his mother Martha Kent — exactly the same way he arrived in the first place as a baby.

Superman announces his return to the world by catching a falling plane containing Lois Lane (Bosworth) — exactly the same as the first time he met her — except this time the plane has a space shuttle strapped to its back.

None of these deliberate déjà vus interfere with the story, in fact, they’re kind of cool. But after that, it gets a bit messy.

Here’s why — Superman doesn’t return to Earth appalled at all the violence humankind does — he returns to his job as a journalist at the Daily Planet as his naive, goofy alternate persona Clark Kent.

Then he flips out when he finds out that sassy, successful and supremely selfish journalist Lois Lane (who ‘loves’ Superman and ignores Kent) has won a Pulitzer for an article on why the world doesn’t need him.

Worse, she got herself knocked up, and now has a kid called Jason (Leabu) and is living with the editor’s nephew Richard (Marsden).

What does Kent/Superman do then? Does he work off his anger by capturing Bin Laden (and then protecting him from the US government)? Use his heat vision to generate enough solar power to end the global oil/energy crisis? Fly a million tonnes of McDonalds five-minutes past its sell-by date to the starving kids in Africa and India?

Or…

Does he go to a bar with faithful sidekick Jimmy Olsen and wait for Lois to get trapped in a falling plane… again?

Go on… guess.

Thank God for Lex Luthor, huh? You can always count on the villains to never throw in the towel or write poetry (or emo songs) about why girls just don’t understand them.

Lex has another plan for global domination through superior real estate marketing, and from there it’s the Superman formula through and through — with a transgenic twist that adds the one new and comfortingly feel-good element to the Superman legend.

Kevin Spacey is great as Lex, and delivers an entertaining performance in a decidedly two-dimensional character, literally stealing one scene while brushing his teeth.

Although Bosworth is no match for Margot Kidder’s Lois, Routh is actually more than good as both Kent and Superman, and has the looks and the charm to carry off a new Superman franchise.

While Singer was able to do great things with the complex X-Men characters despite the limitations of packing more than twenty years of characterisation into just over 100 minutes, the interaction between them filled in the gaps, while Superman always appears to be alone, even when he’s Clark Kent.

In the 68 (!) years since Superman was first published, many of the best stories about him have dealt with his future, where his impossible virtue finally cracks under the strain of cleaning up humankind’s mess over and over again, just to watch us make new ones.

Alternately, Superman’s 1993 death (and eventual rebirth) in the DC comic book series raised some great questions about the icon’s relevance in today’s world, and what kind of man Clark really is.

Unlike the symbolism of Batman, a story about the pinnacles of human achievement, with a hero who wears two masks — playboy industrialist and Dark Knight — Superman is a story of idealism.

Perhaps it is exactly this which makes Superman Returns disappointing — although it’s great as an entertaining box-office flick, can any movie really live up to such an impossible ideal?

If nothing else, perhaps we’ll get to see Routh face off against Christian Bale some day in the future, realising a different unfulfilled dream — watching Batman kick the living bejesus out of the man in red underpants. Bring it on.

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Written by Xab

Thursday, June 29, 2006 at 5:58 am

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