The Screen Saga of SUPERMAN continues!
This Week: Our Hero’s Progress gets RETARDED. Yep. ‘retarded’. As in the VERB. NOT THE NOUN /ADJECTIVE/pejorative connotation. Superman was SLOWED by the bizarre lack of clarity in vision for HOW to somehow make him popular / cool whilst honouring the mythology and established fans’ expectations. VERY.SLOW. As in Bizarro, slow. (Note to new fans: Bizarro was a clone of Superman that did not quite share his intellect: slow but not ‘ret..’. You get it).
2006: SUPERMAN RETURNS?
Well yes he did. But also, no, he didn’t. Finally, after a twenty year hiatus from the movies and half of that period in the false start hell of constant script /production development..SUPERMAN RETURNS put our hero back in Cinemas. Bryan Singer famously walked from X MEN 3 to do this. To be fair to him, I think he did offer to make both movies and complete his Marvel Mutant trilogy at Fox. But there were conflicting deadlines; set release dates and Brett Ratner was always available on standby to step in for either project.
Indeed, I never ‘got’ why Singer was ranked as some sort of inspired auteur. X MEN performed better than expected and on a small budget; it was well cast and moved along at a fun pace with a great sense of family to it, akin to STAR WARS; Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (replacing, last minute, Dougray Scott, who was busied on Mission:Impossible-2) a kind of way in Han Solo to the more earnest Professor X and co. But the to my mind, unremarkable sequel, X2 is for some, inexplicable reason, ranked as a classic benchmark in comic book cinema greatness. Fine. It’s fine and your opinion is fine. I just never saw what was so innovative or inspired about the piece. Its success cemented Singer’s status as some sort of genre Godfather and so, when Warners heard his SUPERMAN pitch? They poached him, albeit willingly and with his consent, from the X Men. It seemed a match made in Kryptonian Heaven.
So what WAS the pitch? It must have been amazing, because Warners signed off on a massive budget, for a project that had already been bleeding cash through over a decade of development and aborted productions. The myth is that Singer simply wanted to make Superman 5; a kind of straight continuation of the Richard Donner films. And yet, he was at great pains to be faithful TO that vision. And whilst that is an admirable take on the mythology, it remained cluttered, confused and myopic.
WAS this LITERALLY a SEQUEL? Fine, but in that case..why is it not a period piece? Why not set it in the 1970s etc? Will the new cast be playing the same iterations as Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman et al? If not then why bring back some of the old players (much was invested in the restoration of footage featuring Marlon Brando as Jor-El). Do you want the new cast to do impressions of their predecessors? Or be their own thing? How do you explain the gap between movies, in universe? Do you recognise or gloss over Supermans 3 and 4? Is there any merit in connecting, (maybe via shared universe /dimensions in the script) to the excellent Lois and Clark show starring Dean Cain or the so-so kids young Superman SMALLVILLE show or even both? Does this exist in the same universe as the (then) emerging Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT series and could we therefore use this as platform to a WORLD’S FINEST face-off/team up between Batman and Superman?
Fact is? If those questions were asked in any detail, Singer’s movie simply failed to answer them adequately. This was neither sequel nor remake and it failed to truly ‘reboot’ things in any decisive manner. Whilst there was a genuine love of the Donner movies in evidence, onscreen, there was a lack of definition to the very thing those were founded on: ‘verisimilitude’. This was neither the bold iconoclasm of the Burton Superman Lives pitch but nor was it a genuine sequel to the Christopher Reeve era movies.
In its favour, SUPERMAN RETURNS looks absolutely beautiful. The colours, designs, buildings, sets are all invested with care and loving attention to detail. This is a movie one can simply look at for the production quality alone. Guy Hendrix Dyas did an incredible job as Production Designer. Brandon Routh plays a complex yet accessible Superman; you feel his pain and his curiosity for the human life whilst understanding he is not one of them. But it’s also clear that he is quite consciously a kind of deutero-Reeve analogue and whilst that is not his fault, it certainly limited where he could go or what he could do in the part. Dean Cain had recently played the comedy just as well on the small screen whilst still conveying the similarly serious moral conflicts. And Henry Cavill (who was tested for ‘Returns’..) would ultimately star in the next reboot, post Routh: bringing the perfect physicality to a titular ‘Man of Steel’. Poor Brandon; for all his noble effort, was caught between a Rock and a Hard ..case?
Much was made of casting Kevin Spacey (remember him?) as Lex Luthor. Quite WHY everyone thought he would excel in this role is beyond me. Spacey was great at playing domestic level villainy or political machination; maybe the occasional full on creep /serial killer. But Luthor is a different beast. You either play it for laughs / boo hiss baddie fun (Hackman) or you inject a kind of calculating, chiselled, corporate ambition (see Clancy Brown; or rather..’hear’ his take in the excellent animated Superman series). Spacey seems to want it both ways and what one gets is a bizarre mish-mash of botched laughs (note his scenes on the yacht) and outright, vicious, inappropriate violence (Superman gets stabbed, by Luthor: it’s not nice). Not helped by slavish adherence to an earlier movie’s baddie plot. Not good!
I do like Kate Bosworth as Lois, despite her being too young for the part. She’s lovely. And Frank Langella fills the screen as Perry White. Parker Posey is hilarious and sexy as Kitty. I have noted the film’s attention to detail and aesthetic beauty. It also had a philosophical ambition and was beautiful, atmospheric, romantic meditation on moving on, moving back..just moving; all through the prism of Superman.
But nobody,even Superman himself, can save the movie from its own conflicting ambitions, muddled tone and lack of pace and purpose. It’s DULL. As in DEATHLY DEADLY BORING DULL. Overlong. And in its way quite nasty and violent in places despite its bizarre deficit of action. There are random bits of quasi Gothic horror (the dogs in the mansion), seguing awkwardly into big ideas like notions of paternity (is Superman a Dad?) and scenes of criminal assault (piano/thug/lois/kid on yacht) yet NO PROPER ACTION or PHYSICAL IMMERSION IN THE ADVENTURE. A big mess, frankly. And a LONG, SLOW one. Had I mentioned that? Seriously: watch below for a better pitch on the movie! Thanks, Val Verde!
Contrary to legend: Superman Returns was NOT a flop and it seems a shame that a sequel was never green-lighted, given the killer pitch I have read. Superman would have faced a humanoid take on a Jude Law shaped Brainiac in an epic duel across the world. Not to be, alas. And so we were left with superboy on smallville..on television..so fair to say that yes, our hero’s progress had been..’retarded‘?
But the property had at least been revived and it was clear that we were close to getting a perfect Superman film, somehow. All was not lost or forgotten and the hero would return. Again. Within 7 years. Would it work, next time round? We shall see.
TO BE CONTINUED..