Additional Issues With/Reflections On/Questions About Superman Returns

Superman Returns could be the most confounding epic I've ever seen. It's a good film, but a disappointing one, a point I feel I hammered home pretty well in my review. I caught most of A&E's documentary about the history and evolution of the Man of Steel, and while the special confirmed for me that Superman really is just the dorkiest superhero out there, it also presented interviews with Bryan Singer and the cast of Superman Returns, as well as clips, production sketches, etc. The presentation of the film's footage was indeed captivating, but I quickly excised the seed of doubt by remembering that I'd been blown away and truly entertained by the wonderful trailers for X-Men: The Last Stand, which turned out to be a giant steaming pile of awful. The trailers presented an idea, but the film was the execution, and I remain sadly in the camp that the film, though occasionally stunning, was a let-down.I say "sadly" because I wanted to love the film. Kurt Busiek made a good point when he talked about why he doesn't want to tell deconstructionist superhero stories. He (rightly) cites the graphic novels Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, both from 1986, as pioneering the modern trend in dark, introspective, psychologically complex heroes, but he also expresses a desire to put the superhero back together now to see what it can do. Batman Begins was a direct result of that trend toward darker tales, and it was one of the best superhero films ever made. But the thing about Superman is his inherent light from within, existing in a world of sun and glass and flags waving in the breeze. Superman Returns, though it manages to catch part of that spirit, is ultimately bogged down by its length, story, and curious treatment of the mythology. [Spoilers follow. You've been warned.] • I guess one of my biggest regrets is that Superman didn't actually fight Lex Luthor. Superman flew around the world answering the prayers of millions (and believe, I'll get to that in a minute), but Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey shared the screen for just a few minutes. Superman landed on the giant kryptonite island, at which point Luthor and his henchmen whaled all crap out of the Man of Steel before dumping him off a cliff. By the time Superman was rescued by Lois and Superlovechild, Luthor and Kitty Kowalski had escaped in a helicopter. And that's that. This is the inherent problem with such a godlike hero. Batman and Spider-Man can have reasonably matched battles with various nemeses because of the limit on their powers, especially Batman, who has no supernatural abilities other than that he's really, really pissed off about being an orphan. Even the X-Men can be fought and defeated (though why Magneto never just nuts up and snaps Wolverine like a twig is beyond me). Some of the greatest moments in superhero movies are when the hero keeps fighting a losing battle: Batman's run-ins with the Joker or Scarecrow that at first yield nothing but failures; Spider-Man's refusal to back down from the Green Goblin or Doc Ock, even as both battles take him to the edge of death. But Superman's almost deified nature make it tough to find him a suitable villain to fight. As a result, the screenplay takes the safe route by giving us an essentially villain-free superhero movie, at least in the sense that the hero and the villain never directly fight. Hell, Superman doesn't even fight a giant robot or something that Luthor built, though that would have been entertaining. • Lois knows a lot about Superman, and her "I Spent the Night With Superman" article from the 1978 film is referenced. So would it have been so hard for her to tell the hospital staff that, instead of mounting a fairly dramatic sequence in which needles couldn't penetrate Superman's skin (duh, you idiots) and giving him a bed and some peace and quiet, maybe the doctors should have just taken Superman outside, since it's our solar system's yellow sun that gives him his powers in the first place? And if you're going to go that far, why did Superman even fall back to Earth in a near-death state after successfully launching the kryptonite island into space? Free from our atmosphere, Superman should have been able to absorb unfiltered sunlight, or at least fly closer to the Sun to grab a recharge. This cherry-picked approach to the character's film history hurt the plot. • Another trouble spot: The fact that Superman can apparently spread his bright green Kryptonian man-juice at will without harming Earth women, and actually breed with humans to create human/alien hybrids. And aside from the fact that Kal-El would tear through Lois Lane like a freight train, there's a weird emotional subtext that also challenges the films' continuity. Superman and Lois actually got their swerve on in Superman II, though in order to do so, Superman gave up his powers, implying that his radiation-enhanced lovemaking abilities would render her comatose or something. I'm assuming they used protection, too, since they went to all the trouble of having Superman give up his abilities so he wouldn't kill Lois, and that means that they were probably thinking ahead. Of course, by the end of the film, Superman has regained his powers and erased Lois' memory, returning everything to normal. So: Is little Jason in Superman Returns the illicit offspring of Superman and Lois' arctic love romp? He can't be, since Superman had given up his powers then to sleep with Lois (and really, giving up the ability to FLY AND SEE THROUGH WALLS just to tap Margot Kidder is maybe the dumbest idea in cinema). Superbastard must then be the result of an affair between Superman and Lois. And I think Lois slept with Superman, not Clark, if you follow me, since she was clearly frightened of the effect that Kryptonite would have on the kid once Luthor pulled out a chunk of the mineral and started waving it around. This doesn't gell with the originals at all, and while I respect the screenwriters' stated intent to take a more James Bond approach to the film, making it merely another entry in a series with a recurring hero instead of a specific chapter in that hero's tale, that tack doesn't really work with fantasy-themed films. Superman isn't some random figure completing pointless missions and bedding willing vixens while driving an Aston Martin; his world is an infinitely more complex one, and it demands some kind of respect for consistency and continuity. It's not required that the films match the myriad of comic book titles that have been running for almost 70 years, which would be impossible. But it would be nice if the film either (a) managed to meld with the originals, even just the first two, since Superman III & IV were unholy abominations, or (b) went its own way with the story, a la Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Singer's decision to stick with the continuity of the originals was a fair choice, but he didn't follow through. • I lost count of the number of awkward pseudo-religious images, many of which were just gratuitous. His origin story draws partly on the tale of Moses, shipped up-river to avoid certain doom. But a lot of commentators are sketching paralles between Superman and Jesus Christ, a link that's partly accurate but that misses some bigger points. First, comparing any modern male superhero to Christ is child's play, and requires little or no real intellect or insight: "Wow, Spider-Man just saved all those people … just like Jesus saved everyone!" Singer played up that old-time religion in a big way for Superman Returns, placing a noticeable emphasis on Superman's inherent alien nature; that he's in the world (for our protection), but not of it (he is, after all, from another planet). Superman's Smallville pop, Jonathan Kent, is barely mentioned, as is his Kryptonian mother; for Singer, it's all about the supernatural, heavenly father siring a child with an earthly woman. (In another bizarre kind of Hollywood karma, Superman's mother is played by Eva Marie Saint, who co-starred with Brando in On the Waterfront. Creepy.) Then there's Superman's trips into low Earth orbit to receive our prayers and swoop down to answer them. And don't forget the film's most needless bit of melodrama: Superman in a hospital bed/tomb as his mother and friends weep for him, before the bedsheet/stone is rolled away and he returns. The film is stuffed to the gills with religious imagery, and it winds up nearly choking to death on it. Personally, I'm more of the school of thought that forcefully combining art and religion, instead of letting the art flow from the religion, can wind up damaging both. And what was Singer trying to prove? Was all the trite symbolism just a cheap attempt to cater to religious fanatics? Or does he really believe that Superman is like Jesus? The first is offensive, the second misguided. It's a mystery.