The Passion of the Superman

I managed to find time during my break to catch the new Superman movie. It mostly holds your interest, though it could certainly have been thirty minutes shorter without losing anything. The action sequences are impressive, and the acting is good (especially Kevin Spacey, whose even better than the always excellent Gene Hackman as Luthor). On the other hand, Luthor’s evil scheme is utterly preposterous and Superman himself is such a stiff, humorless, bore that you find yourself sympathizing with Luthor.

More below the fold, including a few spoilers.

So, let’s see. Luthor’s big plan is to use Superman’s crystals, the ones that created his Fortress of Solitude, to create new land off the coast of New York. Since land is always scarce, he expects to be paid off handsomely for the use of this new land. That he will destroy most of the continental United States in the process does not disturb him. And when the rest of the world tries to stop his evil scheme, he will use alien technology, culled from Superman’s crystal archives, to fight them off.

I detect a few problems with this scheme. First of all, the land created by Superman’s crystals is solid rock. Not very useful. Furthermore, he launches his crystal off the coast of Metropolis before he has taken the trouble to arm himself with all of this alien technology. He’s sitting there playing cards with his henchman, armed with nothing, moments after destroying a good chunk of the city. But Superman seems to be the only one who cares.

And then there’s Superman himself. When we first see him he has just found out that during his absence (he spent five years (!!) trying to track down the remains of planet Krypton) Lois Lane has won a Pulitzer Prize for her editorial “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Moments later he learns that Lois is trapped on a space shuttle-toting airplane. Superman flies to the rescue and very dramatically saves the shuttle and stops the airplane moments before it crashes nose first into a baseball stadium (in what I must admit is one of the most impressive action sequences I’ve seen in a movie in a while). He steps on to the plane and sees Lois for the first time (who incredibly hasn’t a hair out of place despite having been thrown violently around the plane moments ago). If you’re writing this scene, how could you not have Superman say something like, “So. World doesn’t need Superman, eh? Not so cocky now, are you Lois?” Instead he just tosses off a quip about flying being the safest way to travel.

But the real problem with the movie is the whole Superman-is-Jesus angle they insisted on throwing in. “The world doesn’t need a savior,” intones Lois Lane to Superman. “Come with me,” replies an unimpressed Superman, who promptly takes her up to the stratosphere. “I hear the World crying out for one,” he says. Unsaid is, “And I guess I’m nominated on account of all my gnarly superpowers.” Seriously, is that what everyone on Krypton was like?

As the story plods along we find Superman basking in the glow of the Sun, arms akimbo, to regain his powers after getting the stuffing beat out of him by Luthor. (Luthor cleverly laced his island with kryptonite, you see.) After parting the clouds to allow a ray of sunshine to shine through, Superman lifts Luthor’s island, Kryptonite and all, out of the sea and transports it into outer space. He uses his last ounce of strength to thrust it into deep space, Marlon Brando playing the voice of God in the background, explaining to his son that humans try to be good. Then he passes out from the effects of the Kryptonite and crashes to Earth. Died for our sins, anyone?

(Incidentally, I’m afraid that whole sequence is patently absurd. When confronted with Kryptonite, Superman can not simply grit his teeth and tough it out. The stuff takes away his powers. Instantly. Period.)

Next we see Superman flatlining on his hospital bed, the doctors unable to do anything for him since hypodermic needles can’t penetrate his skin. Moments later, his heart is inexplicably beating again. Why? Because they needed the death and resurrection thing. I half expected him to rendezvous with Aslan the Lion and Cool Hand Luke in Metropolis’ version of Central Park.

So the writers felt the need to take a simple superhero story and turn it into a silly religious parable. But apparently they didn’t go far enough for some people. Here’s Bill O’Reilly desperately searching for some angle to portray the movie as one more assault by Hollywood on good ol’ American values:

The culture war has tugged on Superman’s cape, and it is not pretty. In the new film “Superman Returns,” Daily Planet editor Perry White responds this way after being told the Man of Steel has come back after a five-year absence: “Does he still stand for truth, justice and all that stuff?”

And all that stuff?

The original line in the television series and movie, of course, was “truth, justice and the American way.” But no way the “American way” gets in the film.

Actually, the first time Superman appeared on television he stood simply for truth and justice. The American Way part was added for the awful fifties television series with George Reeves. (I learned that little tidbit from the History Channel’s recent show on the history of comics).

More to the point, however, the scene in which Perry White makes the statement O’Reilly finds so offensive was obviously intended to be humorous. White is talking to all of his senior editors, explaining to them how every section of the paper should be running stories about Superman’s return. As I recall, he instructs the Fashion section to do a story on whether his costume has changed during his absence, for example. The point of having Perry White say, “ Truth, justice and all that stuff” was that he obviously cares nothing about either truth or justice, but is only interested in selling papers. O’Reilly knows this too, of course, but that take would be difficult to squeeze into his preferred story line.

All in all, the movie was disappointing. It’s hard to tell good Superman stories, since he’s too powerful and righteous. More generally, this is why Marvel comics tend to be better than DC. The Marvel folks figured out that superhero stories are more interesting when the hero has personal issues. That’s why Spider-Man has never been topped in the genre. That’s why Batman got a lot more interesting after being turned into a brroding, introspective, creature of the night. But that’s a separate post.

Comments

  1. #1 Dom
    July 10, 2006

    You’re right about Marvel, but I grew up with Superman, and it still brings back wonderful memories for me. More so than Spiderman. And Marvel has rotten arch-enemies. Dr. Octopus?

    O’Reilly may be responding to a statement the authors made, something like “The phrase “The American way” would have made the movie too parochial.”

    Do you really think the 50′s show was terrible? Seeing it today it certainly is, but again, I remember enjoying it as a child.

  2. #2 Fred
    July 11, 2006

    (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!)

    I could be wrong, but my impression was that Superman wasn’t as affected by the Kryptonite as he raised the island because he went down deep into the earth, below the level where the crystal change was taking place, and pushed the island up from there. However, the Kryptonite was still in the general proximity, hence the fact that he was eventually overcome by it. As I said though, this is just the impression I got.

    In general I thought the film was OK. Not great, but OK. It was a foolish idea to have Superman– the hero, the guy we’re supposed to literally cheer for– be depressed during the whole film. I expect and accept Batman in his films to be depressed, and Spider-Man too, but it felt really wrong and out of place for Superman. Still you can’t go too wrong as long as you’ve got John Williams backing you up.

    I just hope that if there’s a sequel we can get away from Kryptonite. He falls for it in every damn film!

    By the way, one thing I was very impressed with was that they didn’t take the easy way out with the love triangle. In a lesser film they’d have had Lois’ boyfriend turn out to be a jerk so we’d feel OK about her dumping him for Superman. But in this film he was, in a way, *better* than Superman, because he kept risking his life even though he had no super powers. And I’m glad they didn’t have him die in a noble effort to save Lois and/or Superman. Again, that would have been the cheap easy way out.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 11, 2006

    Fred-

    Good point about the island lifting scene. When he finally gets the island into space the kryptonite is right up next to him, but I guess they were far enough from Earth thay the island weighed almost nothing.

    And you’re right about the love triangle. In Spider-Man II Mary-Jane leaves John Jameson at the altar for Spider-Man. Jameson was portrayed as a pretty decent fellow, as I recall, which lowered my opinion of Mary-Jane.

    As I understand it there are already two sequels in the works. Maybe they’ll bring out Doomsday or Darkseid, instead of Luthor!

    Dom-

    I like Dr. Octopus!

    It’s one thing for a kid to like the old television show, but as I understand it that was the number one show on television for a while. That means a lot of adults were watching too. I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, but I’m afraid I found the writing excruciating and the stories puerile to the point of unwatchability. Television is so much better today! :)

  4. #4 J. J. Ramsey
    July 16, 2006

    “I could be wrong, but my impression was that Superman wasn’t as affected by the Kryptonite as he raised the island because he went down deep into the earth, below the level where the crystal change was taking place, and pushed the island up from there. However, the Kryptonite was still in the general proximity, hence the fact that he was eventually overcome by it.”

    The way it was explained to me is that the kryptonite-laced crystals were still growing through the natural rock as Superman was hoisting the island into space. By the time that Supe got all the way to the upper atmosphere, it had made its way through the rock, knocking out his powers. That certainly makes sense within the logic of the movie, though it would have been better if the movie made that clearer.