Minor Spoilers - Read At Your Own Risk!
I finally saw Superman Returns yesterday. It seemed a fitting way to spend an overly hot afternoon and wile away the hours before the real festivities started. I was still slightly conflicted, even after hearing mostly good reviews from critics and friends alike. I got off to a rocky start when, after hearing Marlon Brando as Jor-El, hearing the John Williams score, I did not see the oh-so-familiar names of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder whoosh past on the starry background and felt like crying. But I soon found it entertaining and thought-provoking. So here is what worked for me and what didn't, and of course, the thoughts it provoked.
First, accolades must be given to those in charge of the art and set direction. The Art Deco with a modern twist was a perfect fit. It paid homage to the 1930s origin of Superman while creating a seamless modern world that the audience could recognize. It was simultaneously familiar and other, making Metropolis and the world of Superman believable and complete.
I think being the person picked to wear the tights would be extremely daunting, especially in the wake of Christopher Reeve, but Brandon Routh did well. He made Clark Kent and Superman separate entities, but you could still see a bit of each in the other. So either the casting agent had an excellent eye or Mr. Routh has a great future ahead of him. Or both.
I have never cared for Kevin Spacey as an actor, having never seen most of the films people laud him for. However, he made an excellent Lex Luthor, balancing the megalomania with the almost tangible sense of insecurity that drives it. He made a plausible villain in both his climb to victory and his fall to defeat.
I have long enjoyed watching Parker Posey do what she does best -- kooky supporting characters. But I think she did an extraordinary job as Lex's hanger-on. Her change from obedient follower to instrument in defeat felt validated by each scene she was in. It wasn't just the sight of a handsome, suffering Superman, or the loss of someone important in the impending mass destruction. Rather, it was about recognizing the sheer evil of the whole plan. She made Kitty believable as someone who would follow Lex to the end of the earth, literally, but would still have the iota of courage to undermine him.
What Didn't Work
The Lois Lane with whom I am familiar is a ball of energy harnessed by a steely determination. The Lois Lane on the screen was not. Kate Bosworth did not portray the woman who risks life and limb for a story, but rather one that has a keen nose for news. There is a difference. There was no sense of immediacy in most, if not all, of her scenes. Lois Lane moves at 120 mph to everyone else's 60. Here, she maxed out at maybe 75 mph. For example, if one were sneaking a smoke, one would be more agitated than resigned. And this movie's Lois Lane seemed more resigned than agitated about pretty much everything.
Additionally, I had issues with the whole Lois Lane subplot. Why does she need a child? She could have been equally upset about the disappearance of Superman without the driving force of an on-hold fiance and a child. Again, she played this, or was directed to, with an air of resignation, which seems so completely un-Lois like.
Finally, the unavoidable Christ references. The Superman mythos has long been compared to the Christ story, but some of the images and textual references were so blatant, it took me out of the movie long enough to say "Are you kidding me?"
I really did enjoy this movie and would like to see it again. It tackled the iconic story well and probably restarted the franchise. I found its themes intriguing. The one that got me thinking the most was that of our modern twist on hero worship. Throughout the film, Perry White wants to know everything about Superman in order to sell papers. He doesn't care what it is good, bad, or fatal. If it sells, it is gold. In a world where weekly the heroes of past and present are dissected and trotted out for inspection, do we recognize the damage we do to them and to ourselves? If we can't believe in them, even for a moment, can we ever believe in ourselves? This theme is picked up and carried through to its end by Lex Luthor's visceral pleasure in watching his goons beat Superman to a bloody pulp. He seemed to enjoy it even more than when he was participating in the beating. Do we get pleasure from watching the great be torn down because it makes us feel greater, or because it absolves us of our guilt for not being so? If the great have weaknesses, weaknesses that destroy, does that validate our mediocrity? And if we can't uphold greatness, is it the end of innocence?