Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The New Yorker Returns (Along with Superman)

In this media blitz era of comic book characters and superheroes, an interesting trend has come about in Hollywood: the revival of the dead Superhero franchise. Last summer, Batman Begins was the official advent of this phenomenon, and though it was hard for me to swallow any other vision besides that of Tim Burton…art deco Gotham, Keaton and all; it was ultimately hard to disagree that the film had a new and fresh take on the Batman universe. Where there was once glamour puss photographer/journalist Vicki Vale, there was now social adjudicator Rachel Dawes. Where there was once a sleek, sculpted Batmobile, there was now a rough converted military tank. Not only was the scenery different, (new Gotham, new Bat cave), but mythology changed as well. The Joker didn’t kill Bruce’s parents –a poor underprivileged soul did. New themes and new plot lines were developed for this new retelling that were unique to Christopher Nolan’s interpretation, and weren’t at all derived from the previous incarnation of the film series.

Not so for Superman Returns. From the very beginning, it seemed that the Superman franchise wished to connect itself to the success of the former films –at least the two good ones. Superman Returns purportedly takes place between Superman II and Superman III. Whereas the new Batman film wanted to wipe the slate totally clean after the calamitous Batman and Robin, the new Superman film wanted us to forget the lackluster Superman III, and embarrassing Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, while honoring the legacy invented by the first two films directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester respectively.

Superman Returns was one big giant homage by Bryan Singer to one of his favorite movies of all time. It was almost like a fan film, albeit one with an exquisite production value. He seemed to make it no secret that he wanted to capture the flavor of the original film. After all, he cast Hollywood newcomer Brandon Routh, who is in both appearance and voice, incredibly reminiscent of the late, great Christopher Reeve, and the similarities didn’t end there. The villain in Superman Returns is Lex Luthor, who was played brilliantly by Gene Hackman in the original two films, and given a funny, but very similar (though not as spectacular if you ask me) turn by Kevin Spacey in this film. Instead of Valerie Perrine’s Miss Tesmacher, there was Parker Posey’s Kitty Kowalski –but again, the roles were very similar: they both had an ambiguous romantic relationship with Lex, they both swooned at Superman’s charming good looks. And they both felt guilt at what Lex was planning, and did their part to try and stop him.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t be comparing, right? But if you don’t want me to compare the two films, don’t strike as many of the same beats as the original aye? Like using the same sound design for the “voices” that Superman can hear in his head courtesy of his superhuman auditory sense. (which is admittedly a simple, though great sound effect.) Or the use of Marlon Brando’s image and voice as Jor-el, or the moment where Superman and Lois soar through the air together, or Lex’s speech about creating a new coast and prime real estate, or the use of John Williams original score…this wasn’t a reinvention, it was a remake! And that’s OK. But even as a revival, I think Warner Brothers and Singer would have been wiser to do a little more remodeling. If they’re just going to spout out a couple more of these without a big change in tone or concept, I have a funny feeling it may start to get old, and feel done, rather quickly.

Nevertheless, let it be said that I enjoyed parts of this film immensely. I saw Superman Returns last Tuesday night, at the first possible screening at the Grauman’s Chinese theatre in Hollywood with a packed and raucous audience. Rumor has it that Bryan Singer, the man of the hour, was there as well. It was impossible not to enjoy the film in this crowd. They were cheering, laughing, and hooting at every turn, and I couldn’t think of a better group to see it with then the one there that night.

For all the teasing I throw out about Bryan Singer and his Blue Tights Network and questionable history of photo shoots, the man is undeniably talented. He is truly a visual artist and there were some absolutely breath taking shots in this film. The various shots of Superman hovering above earth, with the celestial galaxies surrounding him were gorgeous, the sequence when he takes Lois up in the air, and the scenes of his flying around Metropolis were stunning. One thing that can be said about comparing the original ’78 film to this one is that the capacity for special FX has grown tremendously…and it shows. As in the first Spiderman, there was a shot or too where Supes looked a little rubbery, but overall I was agape at how good some of the action sequences looked, (the plane sequence was cool) as well as his flying of course. I LOVED that shot where the bullet hits his eye, and crumples. I also thought that Singer’s visuals managed to capture the sensibilities of comic book art, while remaining cinematic. As I watched certain shots and set ups whiz by, I could picture what the comic frames would look like in my head. The overhead underwater shot of Lois, Richard and Jason pounding on the porthole of Lex’s boat as it plummeted under water was one of several of these moments.

Speaking of Richard, Lois’ fiancé, portrayed by James Marsden –I liked him. Marsden handled the role well, with what he had to work with, but beyond that, I liked the way his character was drawn. I liked the fact that he was a normal genuine guy, who was naturally a little jealous of Superman, but was hardly malicious about it. The love triangle that developed between Lois, Superman, and Richard was a good one, because it actually made for Lois having a hard choice. There is no convention that I hate more in Hollywood films, than when the leading lady (or man) is seriously dating or about to marry someone who is a complete a**hole. Then the romantic lead gets to swoop in and shake them to their senses about what a complete imbecile they’ve been in love with this whole time. It is the stupidest, most trite and most ridiculous convention ever. But since Richard is actually a decent guy, Lois faces a crisis of faith instead of an easy decision. I thought this was a good choice on the part of the screenwriters. I also liked the inclusion of “the kid,” Jason. His presence not only upped the stakes between the Lois/Richard/Superman dynamic tremendously, but he also created a nice mirror for the relationship that Superman-Kalel had with his own father, Jor-El. I liked the whole “father becomes the son, becomes the father” thematic motif that ran through the film. I also thought that the filmmakers were wise in only having Jason perform one “superhuman” stunt. Having him suddenly and literally fly into action would have been too much, but having him use his strength to save himself and his mother only once was also a clever way of ultimately revealing who his real father was. I have to say for me, the saddest/cutest moment of the film was when Jason showed his mother, Lois, the drawing he made detailing, “Superman, Daddy, Mommy, Me” --this poor child is in for a rude awakening.

I’m not typically a big fan of Kate Bosworth, but I thought she nailed Lois Lane as a smart, bookish, romantic type. I liked the fact that they tried to make Bosworth look a bit mousy (as possible as it is to make Kate Bosworth look mousy…), because the idea for Lois has always been that Supes, who could have any woman in the world, doesn’t go for runway model, but for an earnest, quirky, news reporter. The only thing that struck me about Bosworth, and Routh as well for that matter, is that they seemed a bit young in their respective roles. Christopher Reeve was twenty six when he took on the role, and Margot Kidder was thirty, but both channeled more maturity on screen than the twenty six year old Routh and twenty three year old Bosworth. Bosworth’s age in particular troubled her role, because she was made to be Pulitzer prize winning, established career woman with a five year old child. At twenty three? I don’t think so… As much as Routh was a ringer for Reeve, I do think he was a good casting choice on Singer’s part. It was important to get an unknown in the role, and I thought he brought a novel and endearing goofiness to his moments as Clark Kent. Spacey and Posey had great chemistry together as Lex and Kitty, but it still came off like it was trying to recapture the Lex, Otis, Tesmacher tomfoolery of the ’78 version –at which it did not succeed. I don’t care how silly it might be, but Ned Beatty and Gene Hackman’s shtick is unforgettable.

I do think the film could have been trimmed a little. At two hours and thirty four minutes, it started to feel a bit long by the middle of the third act. I could have done without the whole “Superman is Dead” portion of the film, where they brought him into the hospital, etc. For a second there, I thought things were going to get really interesting, and they were going to kill him off so that they could deal with his various incarnations in the future installments of the franchise, but then I thought better of it, realizing the studio themselves would have sooner died then let that happen.

I had a lot of fun watching this movie, and something tells me that I had such a good time for the same reasons that Bryan Singer enjoyed making the film. With a cultural icon like Superman, it’s hard not to break into a grin when you see him take flight in the air. His is a story that’s become so familiar to us –living in Metropolis, working as Clark at the Daily Planet, furtively pursuing Lois Lane. I can’t imagine how fun it must have been to play around with all the imagery, and while you’re at it, pay homage a plenty to the original film that gave Supes his birth on the big screen. Because Singer is a good film maker, the film had strong moving parts. It had a solid cast with solid performance, the FX looked great, the emotional moments were well directed. As for the script, I thought it was strong in that it took the time to develop its characters, and layer in humor and drama in equal measure. But I did think the overall plot was a bit too similar to the original film. In fact, originality was the biggest thing lacking from this film. Even if there wasn’t going to be a new take on the Superman character, I would have liked to see something that was a bit of a departure than the traditional “Oh No Metropolis is in trouble, Superman will save the day! Better keep that kryptonite away from him!” The story felt so familiar, but maybe that was the point. Maybe Singer was just looking to give an old tried and true friend a bit of a face lift and a welcome back celebration. If that’s what it was he succeeded indeed.

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