Expectations really do lie beneath both pleasure and disappointment. A few weeks ago, I saw X-Men 3, worried that because Bryan Singer was no longer directing, it might suck. Partly because of that worry, I ended up having a pretty good time. This weekend I saw Superman Returns, the project for which Singer left X3, and was very excited to watch his take on the Man Of Steel. Perhaps for that reason (among others), I found Superman Returns a little disappointing.
Now, some of this disappointment wasn’t Singer’s fault. For one thing, the showing I happened to attend featured an incredibly irritating kid, who yammered, shouted, cried, and generally misbehaved through the whole film. This kid was across the theater from me (thank goodness) and was still annoying as hell. His parents were apparently indifferent — I saw at least four people get up and change seats to get away from him. To me, that kind of thing should get you ejected from the theater, no different than if you’d lit up a cigarette or something.
Audience annoyances aside, there were a few things that bugged me about the actual film. For one thing, there’s the plot. I thought it was a surprising choice to try to keep so much of the iconography and continuity of the original Superman films embedded in this one — Marlon Brando’s Jor-El appears almost as much in this movie as he did in the one he was actually alive for — but that isn’t a bad choice in itself. However, what is a bad choice is to leave us feeling like we came in on the middle of the story, and never adequately backfill. I mean, some pretty surprising things seem to have happened before this movie begins. Clark/Superman and Lois have sex? (Even setting aside the “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” issues, this is a pretty significant event for the characters.) Lois turns around and marries somebody else quickly enough that their first sex could plausibly produce her pregnancy? Superman abandons his protector duties because some astronomers claim that Krypton wasn’t destroyed after all? (Doesn’t the existence of kryptonite kind of undermine this hypothesis? Wouldn’t the whole thing be made of kryptonite, which would make seeking it out, you know, a bad thing?) He doesn’t even take the time to say goodbye to Lois, jetting off into space in some superhuman version of getting laid and then not calling? It takes him five years? Now, I saw the first three Superman movies, and never quite managed to catch the fourth. Maybe lots of this stuff is explained in the stories of those movies. But come on, I saw them over twenty years ago. Give me more than a few sentences at the beginning of the movie to cover all these huge events.
So Superman comes back to earth, dragging, for some reason, a spaceship (when has an adult Superman ever needed a spaceship to fly through space?) and a load of continuity questions. Let’s set all that aside. He resumes his civilian identity, and Daily Planet employees display their usual Metropolis cluelessness in failing to connect two identical absences between two highly connected people. He starts zipping all over the place, saving people, including the conveniently endangered Lois (whose question about why she’s the only press member on the flight goes forever unanswered. Lois, by the way, must have had some of Superman’s indestructability rub off on her. She is bounced mercilessly around an airplane cabin at extremely high speeds and emerges with nary a bruise. Later she withstands a brutal blow to the head with a chunk of rock, not to mention a pretty fair drowning.) He finds that Lois is married and has a kid. He seems offended that she has written an article called “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman.” (This seems like a pretty dang mild response from such a completely jilted person and planet. If you’re going to take off for years at a time with no explanation, you’d better expect people to start figuring out why they don’t need you!) So what does he do? Well, he… tries to seduce her. Or that’s sure how it looked to me. At some point, it seems clear that this is not the Superman I remember. What happened to this guy out in space?
The movie that began with this premise and then unraveled all these questions into a satisfying story would be awesome. That was not this movie. Instead, we get Lex Luthor coming up with a completely preposterous plan about growing land from Kryptonian crystals, drowning North America, and then somehow making a killing on the real estate. Never mind that the land he grows is almost totally unlivable in its rockiness and its pointiness. This land is totally suffused with kryptonite, which apparently has wildly varying effects on Superman himself. When he’s standing on it, he is weak enough to be beaten up by a group of Luthor-lackey thugs, then stabbed, then thrown into the ocean. However, once the shards of kryptonite from the stabbing are removed from his body, he is somehow able to go under the entire new island and fly it into space, despite the fact that the kryptonite-concentration is no less at the bottom of the land than at the top (it started at the bottom after all), and in fact big ol’ kryptonite jags are growing down right next to him as he’s flying the island. Also, gosh that Krypton must have been a pretty dry planet (or the Kryptonians super duper careful with the crystals) if nothing like this ever happened by accident.
Anyway anyway anyway. I’ve always thought it’s hard to write a good Superman story, because the guy himself is so amazingly powerful that it’s hard to put him in jeopardy. Kryptonite is about the only thing that does it, and yet he has to overcome that, too, in order to triumph. (Well, there’s also magic, but the movies have shown no interest in that, so far.) So as far as storytelling is concerned, Superman is a tough sell. You can put him in emotional jeopardy, but he’s not a very emotional person, and based on the plot of this movie anyway, his attachments are intermittent at best. So intstead we get him putting the moves on married Lois and lifting a jillion-ton island that ten minutes earlier made him so weak he couldn’t even hit back. Maybe Superman Returns was just following in the proud tradition of preposterous deus ex machina Superman movie endings — there’s certainly nothing here that’s as silly as flying reallyreallyreally fast around the earth to somehow reverse time. I thought that one was dumb even when I was eight. By the way, I didn’t really see any of the gay subtext I’d been hearing about (there was way way more of that in X2), and while the Christ subtext was there, I was too bothered by the plot to pay attention.
The good: The effects are fabulous. That “bullet in the eye” moment is going to be iconic enough to be parodied lots of places. The flying looks terrific, and the airplane sequence is tons of fun. The theme music is wonderful, as always, and much of the nostalgia worked well for me. Also, there’s some good casting. Kevin Spacey is terrific as Lex Luthor — in fact, he’s the best part of the movie. Also, I really liked Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen, and although he had plenty of doubters, I think Brandon Routh pulls off Clark/Superman just fine. The most inspired bit of casting had to be James Marsden as Lois’s husband. It seems that this poor guy will always play the “I’m really nice but my girlfriend is attracted to a powerful dangerous dude” type in Bryan Singer movies. He’s good at it, though, and the emotional association with the X-Men movies enriched his character. On the negative side, Kate Bosworth is a bit too slackerish as Lois, and Tristan Lake Leabu is fairly unlikable as Jason White, who turns out to be Superman’s son.
Superman’s son. Yeah, where are these movies going to go with that? There are probably some pretty interesting stories to be told with that premise. I can only hope that, unlike this movie, those future films will actually tell interesting stories rather than presenting a mixed-up hash of total implausibilities and spectacular special effects.