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Thursday, June 29, 2006

 

Decent

Fundamentally decent hero, decent film.

Yesterday afternoon I left work early to join Anne, Theo and Abe (in his homemade Superman suit, of course) for the first matinee showing of Superman Returns. Tim O'Neil will undoubtedly hate its self-important ponderousness (it's as sure a thing as the sun rising tomorrow.) Nevertheless, I had a good time. And yes, I did tear up more than once, particularly toward the beginning, when the Williams score kicks in and at Superman's first public appearance upon his return. The casting was surprisingly good--even Kate Bosworth as Lois--and the script had a satisfying sense of thematic logic, resolving all of its major points in visually clever and satisfying ways. (I particularly like the irony of Luthor's final fate, considering his goals.) Further, I really appreciated the willingness of the filmmakers to follow through on the set-ups of the first two Donner movies, even if it meant straying, perhaps irrevocably, from the traditional Clark/Lois/Superman relationship formula--if such a thing could even be said to exist anymore given Lois and Clark's long-standing comic-book marriage. By the end, this movie has certainly taken a very different path than the comics, something I can't discuss any further without...

Spoilers:

Many critics find nonsensical Superman's decision to abandon Earth for a quest to revisit the remains of his birth planet, Krypton. I'm not the first to say this, but they obviously don't have close experience with adoption. Many adopted children feel compelled to return to their birthplaces, to seek out some connection to their original home, to understand why. Of course, in Superman's case, the reason why is both more grandiose and more clear-cut than it is for most adoptees. Jor-El and Lara felt that they were incapable of raising their son, not because of economic hardship or social stigma, but because, to be blunt, their planet was exploding. While I hope I never find myself in Ma Kent's shoes, wondering if my son will ever come home, I fully understand that someday Theo, whom we adopted from South Korea at 6 months old, might need to make his own journey. Director Brian Singer, also adopted, uses his simple comic book movie to show how emotionally complicated this can be. Superman doesn't find what he's looking for in the dead remains of Krypton; he screws up nearly every relationship in his adoptive home by leaving; and finally, he casts out Luthor's New Krypton, definitively hurling a heavily symbolic chunk of his birth planet into space--without solving any of his problems back on Earth. Instead he chooses to simply accept them as problems he must live with.

Aside from the adoption issues, consider that at the end of Superman 2, the hero had just sacrificed his best chance at personal happiness with the love of his life. His magic kiss made her forget, but he couldn't. I might want to take a road trip under those circumstances. And again, Superman Returns points out all of the negative consequences of Superman's decision to put his own desires first--which either works as a thematic echo of Superman 2 or makes you wonder if the guy will ever learn.

I don't know how it will play out in any sequels, but for the purposes of this movie, Superman's son, and Lois's relationship with Richard White, feel like organic outgrowths of the characters and circumstances as previously established. The kid also brings the father/son themes of the first film full circle (probably in a way Donner never intended ) that now seems gratifyingly obvious in retrospect. Unfortunately, the goofy Metropolis Clark Kent is now an almost useless construct, as pining for Lois (as a proxy for all of humankind) was pretty much the only thing that anchored him to the identity. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the Clark persona disappears from the back half of the picture, once the question of his relationship with Lois is resolved.

But is their relationship resolved? I can't help thinking of this movie in terms of Raimi's Spider-Man. I strongly suspect that Singer and Warner's have made a conscious decision here to emulate Raimi blockbuster template: doomed romance, decent fella as rival for the girl's affections, a strong focus on how heroic sacrifice tend to ruin your personal life. But of course, Raimi closely based his Spider-Man movies on Donner's Superman pictures, so the two series at this point feel like two dogs chasing each other's tails in an endless circle. However, if Richard White is intended to fill the Harry Osborn/John Jameson role, then moving forward, his relationship with Lois might not be as stable or permanent at it seems at the end of this movie.

The most difficult aspect of the new movie for me has been wading through all of the media pontification about what Superman Is, what he Means, ad infinitum, watching critics and feature writers make points either too obvious or flat-out wrong about a subject I ponder nearly every day, and which they were paid to think about for six hours. Actually, after 30+ years of reading, watching and thinking about Superman, I feel no compulsion to make any grand, definitive statement about the character or what he represents to the greater culture. (For that you'll have to take the class.) All I can say with any degree of certainty at this point is that Anthony Lane is, in blogger parlance, a total wanker. Although it is very nice for him to point out the absurdity of everyone's inability to see through Clark Kent's disguise. How could no one have ever caught that before?

Lane is also still earning that reputation as a master of comic writing. The name Jor-El sounds like "a failed airline"? That's some Dorothy Parker-level shit right there. I know I feel more smugly superior to, and wearied by the rest of the culture having read Lane's review, which is usually the point. It's wonderful of the studios to make all these pictures to serve as punch lines to Lane's uptown Rex Reed routine.

And now, I implore every last one of the Warner Brothers. Please: bring on Brainiac.

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