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The Trouble with Superman.

I'm probably one of the last Superman fans to see the latest movie Superman Returns. I missed it in the theatres and it's taken this long for me to see it on DVD. This isn't meant to be a review but my overall impression was that the movie got almost everything right.

Brandon Routh is perfectly cast. There's enough of Reeve in Brandon's performance to say this is the Superman we remember from the previous films. There has to be because this movie is a sequel not a re-imagining of the franchise like Batman Returns is.

Kate Bosworth has been criticised for being miscast as Lois Lane. Personally I always thought Margot Kidder was not only miscast but the weakest link in all the previous films. Whilst Kate may not be the ideal Lois, in my view she's an improvement on Margot for playing the whiny, pseudo independent female lead.

Kevin Spacey is the reason I wanted to see the film. More than anything else. His performance in the movie Se7en as the twisted, moralistic, killer was so convincing that you just know Kevin would add a whole new level of evil to Lex Luthor. Much more of a nemesis for Superman than Gene Hackman's version of the character - and I liked Gene's version. Even though Kevin's appearance in Se7en was brief you have to believe that his character is capable of all the shocking murders once you meet him. Kevin didn't disappoint in Se7en and he didn't disappoint as Lex.

The script was the real let down. It was fantastic in the detail and understanding of each character but it did what all the Superman Movies before it have done. It went beyond the suspension of disbelief in resolving the story. That is the trouble with Superman.

Superman is the greatest of all superheroes. When you watch a Superman movie you expect to see things that you know are clearly impossible for any normal human being but this is Superman so you happily suspend your disbelief. In doing so you make the Superman legend seem plausible. You make Superman seem like someone who could exist.

What destroys that suspension for me is that, whilst Superman is... well... super, everything else around him is subject to the same laws of physics that we all understand. For example, in Superman III (I think) Superman freezes an entire lake, picks it up by one edge and flies it over a chemical plant (I think) fire. There is no way, even Superman could have picked up the frozen lake the way he does.

The ice wouldn't be able to support its self and would break off in his hands. To be even half way believable he would've had to have got underneath it like Superman gets underneath the Krypton island in Superman Returns.

Superman movies are filled with inconsistencies like this.

Another example is in Superman Returns when Superman puts down the shuttle plane he's just rescued, holding it at all times from the nose. Again it would break off in his hands and come down with a bigger and very jarring crash. Note later in the film when he rescues Kitty in her runaway car. Superman puts the car down, supporting it from the middle and then maintains support whilst he puts the front down and then moves to the back of the car. Much more believable.

Granted the aeroplane is a much bigger proposition but there is a fine line between what we believe Superman can do and keeping it within our suspension of disbelief.

For example, some reviewers think that Superman's use of heat vision in Superman Returns to melt falling glass before it hits bystanders on the street is really cool. Sure it is but really, what a useless thing to do. As if all the glass would fall out of the windows at exactly the same time, making it possible for Superman to melt it all in momentary fly by.

Not only that but he only does one street. What about the other side of the buildings on that street? What about the buildings on neighboring streets? Well you can't save everybody but you do what you can, right? It's only a small moment of questioning but it takes you out of the movie.

Back to Superman Returns and the big, giant gaping plot hole inconsistency that has nothing to do with any real physics but is entirely accepted as fact in the Superman legend. Kyptonite is lethal to Superman. It is so lethal that just a small rock of it will render Superman unable to even stand (as per the previous movies and I've even seen him collapse in the TV series Smallville).

This movie wants us to believe that within the proximity of an island of kryptonite (that's an ISLAND not a small rock) Superman can:
  • Save Lois, Richard and their son (well Superman's son apparently) from a submerged boat that he single handly lifts from out of the water.

  • Lift a Sea Plane so it can take off.

  • Lift an ISLAND (did I mention it was an ISLAND) of Kryptonite and fly it into space whilst having a shard of Kryptonite still embeded in his side.
Those three points alone blew it for me. All through the scenes with the ISLAND OF KRYPTONITE (it's an ISLAND for god sake - Luthor encased the crystal in Kyptonite because he wanted to make an ISLAND of Kryptonite so Superman would be rendered powerless) my head was screaming IT'S AND ISLAND OF KRYPTONITE!!!

The trouble with Superman is there is a fine line between what we believe Superman can do and keeping it within our suspension of disbelief. It is for this reason that I've never been able to fully embrace Superman as the pinnacle of what a superhero is.

Batman has always been my favorite because Batman has boundaries. Limits to what he can do that we all understand because Batman is human. Even the latest Spiderman movies never go beyond what you believe the character is capable of even though we don't really understand the physics of Spider powers.

Some day I hope they'll get someone who knows the Superman legend like Christopher Nolan knows the Batman legend. Someone who can keep Superman believable for the entire length of the film. Someone who can make Superman... well... Super.

Comments

  1. Very much enjoyed your review of "Superman Returns." Having just written a book that examines the entire history of Superman in popular media ("Superman on Film, Television, Radio & Broadway", published by McFarland on October 30), and consequently having spent more than a year watching tons of Superman movies, TV shows and cartoons, I've been struck by how each decade's Superman is a little different than the one before, but how nonetheless most of the actors who've tackled the role played it straight (we won't mention the ABC version of the "It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman" musical). Still, I found Brandon Routh too much of an ersatz Christopher Reeve (the best film Superman), and longed for the jaunty charm of the George Reeves TV series. I agree with you about the kryptonite, and wish the story overall had been a little less dour and a lot more fun. Maybe the sequel - due in 2009 - will be more satisfying.

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  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Bruce. When I was growing up George Reeves was superman for me (thanks to reruns of his series in the 1970s) but once I saw Christopher's performance there was no going back. I think Superman does have to be played straight for the most part to give credibility to his ability to perform totally outlandish feats of strength (for which there seems to be no limit - the guy lifted an ISLAND in Superman Returns. Did I mention that?). Writing a book about the history of Superman in the media sounds like a huge but awesome task. Personally I love pouring over Superman and Batman history. It's all fascinating stuff. If you happen on back to read this comment you might get a chuckle from this short post I wrote about Superman III.

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