02 July 2006

Superman Returns Metablogging (Spoilers Alert)

Most of the blogosphere wasn't nearly as impressed with Superman Returns as I was, and some of the criticisms are well taken.

The American Way Quote

Conservatives were outraged over the fact that "Truth, Justice and the American Way" of television, becomes "Truth, Justice and 'all that stuff'" in the words of Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet (see, for example, here and here and here and here).

Unless you are a rabid conservative it isn't a big deal, however, doesn't hurt the plot seriously, and a conservative Christian Superman apologist, saves the day, however, with a witty observation:

Some may be of the mistaken opinion that Superman, himself, uttered the imponderable unAmerican quote, but he didn't. True to form, it was the editor (Frank Langella) of the MSM Daily Planet who sluffed off the aforementioned comment. Think of him as the editor of the NYTimes or any other big time MSM newspaper and why would anyone be surprised that he would say such a thing. He's the editor of an MSM newspaper afterall!

Here's the other thing. I keep hearing that Superman is "gay." Huh? Who's suggesting this? The "gay lobby?" Are they suggesting that everyone who wears tights is gay? Isn't that a bit prejudicial? Have they forgotten that Superman has the hots for Lois Lane regardless of his attire?

Well if the Gay lobby can wishfully suggest that Superman is gay and others can suggest that he is unAmerican, I'm going to suggest that he is a conservative Christian convert from another planet who saw firsthand that liberalism and the leftist U.N. have been an abysmal failure and he has had to intervene domestically and internationally in order to save mankind. In fact, he altruistically sacrificed his very life for all mankind, not knowing whether or not he would be resuscitated.

Yes, there's no doubt about it, Superman is a devout heterosexual conservative Christian. You go, Supe!

(Another intra-conservative snipe at this take can be found here, chiding fellow free marketers for being anti-globalist.)

While I can nevertheless understand conservative ire over this, and the easy way out would have been to have the less sophisticated and utterly enthusiastic Jimmy utter the phrase, I also have to agree with those bloggers who note that President Bush has tarnished the "American Way" to mean xenophobia, torture and disregard for the rule of law. What director wants to associate Superman with that? Also, the screen writers themselves note that their dropping of the American Way thing, is largely in service of their focus on Superman as a Christ figure who stands for more than just Americans, but is a savior for the entire world. How can conservatives complaint about that?

Although despite the Christ figure references, although, in the movie, almost no one is visibly influenced by this story. A lengthy account at Belief.net spells out the Christ figure elements in excruciating detail after detail. High school English teachers are prone to making unintended symbolic mountains out of molehills, but in this case the symbols are there (and indeed, we have corroboration from the script writers themselves that it was intended).

A comment at the same site is also notable and I'm reprinting it here before it disappears:

7/2/2006 9:31:06 PM
What's kinda funny about this whole "Christian symbolism' that's being projected into this film is that Superman's original creators were both Jewish, and plenty of Moses parallels can be found in the original story. There's an interesting article on aish.com about it.

The referenced article is here, and probably entirely justified in the Jewish lore that worked its way into the Superman story, although it appropriately doesn't go so far as to claim that Superman Returns lacks a detailed Christian Passion story, instead, merely not discussing that part. (And, of course, Jesus is, in the tradition, a Jewish man, and not a Christian himself.)

Sincere Plot Hole Critics

No two ways about this one. The comic book fans have it right. There are some serious holes in the script.

The supporting cast (hell, even Superman in his Clark Kent persona) was not given an opportunity to shine.

The movie earned some well deserved snark:

Why would ANYONE want to live in Metroplis? Jesus. A day doesn’t go by when there’s not at least one disaster. That town would break FEMA in a month. And the citizens must now be used to them because no one ever heads for cover, no one ever panics, people continue dining at sidewalk cafes even though a car or airplane is hurtling right for them. . . . .

Why doesn’t anyone ever call the Child Protection Agency and blow the whistle on Joan Crawford-worthy mom, Lois Lane? She puts her kid in harm’s way every fifteen minutes. . . .

For a flashback segment (which wasn’t needed at all) they spent untold millions to build a whole farm and cornfield in Australia when they just as easily could have used any fifteen minutes from SMALLVILLE. . . .

If Superman were really wheeled into a hospital he’d be stopped at the door and asked to provide proof of health insurance.

Lois Lane gets into the hospital to see Superman but his mother has to stand outside with the crowd?

In the hospital, they can’t hang up Superman’s suit. They just have to drape it over a chair? Was Superman in a Kaiser hospital? . . . .

You’d think Superman would be smart enough to put a lock on his Fortress of Solitude. If not Lex Luther, there has to at least be Jehovah’s Witnesses stopping by. . . .

With those crystals I thought initially that Lex Luthor’s insidious plan to achieve world domination involved opening a New Age store.

Also high up in the snarkosphere is the "Superman in Prada" poster.

Yes, they totally screwed up the whole kryptonite thing:

I also object to the use of Kryptonite in this movie. By all rights, Superman should not have been able to fly anywhere near New Hawaii (as Nick christened it). Certainly not over it, and then walk around on it without noticing the power drain. I thought this was the plan to begin with - that Lex could set up his new island-o-fun without having to worry about Superman even showing his cute little face. The small effect Kryptonite has on Supe is really, really annoying. If he had a shard of it in him, she should not have been able to fly. Yellow sun or no. (In the comics, Lex kept him at bay with less in his pinky ring) He should not have been able to sustain his upward thrusting when the kryptonite laced crystals burst through the bottom of the land mass he was lifting into space. (I also really wanted to see a shot of the shuttle astronauts going "WTF where did that huge rock come from!? Mayday, mayday! Hard to port!" Alas.) Weakened as he was, he should have been dead when he hit the ground.

In the same vein:

Speaking of boneheaded moves, how is it that Superman lands on an island made of Kryptonite, and he doesn't even realize it's weakening him until he's close enough to be punched by Lex Luthor? You'd have to be awfully unobservant to not notice a GIANT CONTINENT MADE OF THE STUFF THAT KILLS YOU until you are standing on it.

Many movie goers likewise took umbrage at the lax security at the Fortress of Solitude (see, for example, here). As one disappointed fan put it:

Why does Superman leave the Fortress of Solitude totally open and unguarded? It wouldn't have surprised me if Superman came in there and found, not just the crystals missing, but the whole place covered in graphitti and empty beer cans from teenaged Eskimo partiers. I guess he wasn't smart enough to realize that in five years, global warming would make it possible for someone to pilot a yacht to the Arctic and stroll right in.

The leads are too young. Many bloggers noted that the Superman and Lois Lane characters were too young. The actor and actress who play them certainly are:

Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane is problematic. The actress is 23, way too young for the role, and too young to have a five year old kid (spoiler) to Superman unless he bonked her when she was in high school. She does okay, but maybe a more mature actress would have worked better, though Routh is 27 which doesn't make them a bad match age-wise.

Other Points

The references to the 1978 "Superman: The Movie" were overdone. Although some people enjoyed this, as one blogger put it: "The director was not in love with Superman. The director was in love with Superman : The Movie." Riffing on this idea with some really deep analysis and examination of roads not taken, another blogger writes:

And in this film, I spotted at least two plotbunnies that I've seen all over the place in fan efforts, to wit: pregnancy and huge medical emergencies. I've seen both of these in particular all over the Lois and Clark fanfic archive site where I was amusing myself earlier this year. It's full of plots involving Superman getting Lois pregnant without his knowing about it, and later sequel stories where the kid grows up (or kids grow up!) to inherit Daddy's Kryptonian powers. There are also quite a few stories involving Supes in a medical emergency, and I very clearly remember at least one where he was in a coma and thought to be in danger of dying.

Now, to this film's credit, they handled both of these things fairly decently. This film is a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve flicks, and he and Lois do sleep together in Superman II. That she therefore got pregnant as a result of that is not a stupid idea in the slightest. Neither did I have any real issue with Superman falling into a coma. I mean, he had suffered a huge dose of exposure to Kryptonite, thanks to Lex's little island being laced with the stuff and because of Lex stabbing him with the Kryptonite shard. That the titanic effort of yoinking that island out of the ocean and shoving it into space almost killed him is totally reasonable. Furthermore, I appreciated that the scriptwriters very specifically avoided a couple of the schmaltzy things that they could have done with Superman in a coma--i.e., having him wake up when Lois was whispering to him, or having the kid somehow be able to magically wake him up. I really liked that they had him hear her even while unconscious, that the heart monitor blipped to show this, and that Lois gave it a "you have got to be KIDDING ME" look--and that he did not actually wake up. The boy coming over to give him a smooch on the forehead was also a very sweet little touch, which was exactly how much you needed of the kid in that scene, and not a whit more.

But that I have seen similar plotbunnies in fanfic a lot detracted from the film for me. So did the constant hammering of the concept of Superman as Christ figure, and the too-heavy stealing from the first movie. I caught all the noticeable large chunks of dialogue that were lifted right out of the movie, while spazzkat and solarbird remarked upon how big chunks of the cinematography were also swiped from it, not to mention the entire sequence where Supes zips all over Metropolis doing his string of Superdeeds. It was all too heavily reminiscent of Supes' first night out in the first flick. Lex's female sidekick this time around was also way, way too reminiscent of Miss Teschmacher--flighty, really kind of a decent person deep down, crushing hardcore on Supes, and doing something behind Lex's back to help him out. With her, too, we had rehashes of some of the best Lex lines out of the original movie: "When I was six, my father said to me--" "Get out!" "Heh, no, before that!"

I was really kind of torn, musically speaking, by hearing John Williams' theme playing over the opening credits. Don't get me wrong--I really, really love that theme. It's one of the most iconic movie themes ever, and it never fails to fill my little heart with joy. But to hear it here overall just played for me as another example of this movie swiping way, way too many things from the original Reeve one.

Read the whole thing, as it really does point out the thematic failures of the film.

One blogger noted: "And Superman is kind of a stalker in this movie. That's a little weird." (Other aren't so hard on this behavior.)

I also have to join in noting the shout out to citizen journalism in the movie.

A woman of considerable insight notes:

I've always disliked the depiction of Clark Kent as over-the-top "bumbling" or "mild-manned." It's hard to believe that Clark could succeed as a front-page, investigative reporter on "a great metropolitan newspaper" like The Daily Planet.

I much preferred Dean Cain as Clark in "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman." He was charming in the role, indicating that it was Superman, not Clark who was the disguise (which made sense) and also made it far more plausible that Lois, if she's a woman of substance, would fall for the real man rather than the icon. This is the route that the comics ultimately took.

"Superman is not gay. He is Jesus, however. I'm sure his creators would love that. . . . In many, many ways, this movie should have been called 'Lois Lane, Superman's Ex-Girlfriend.'"

3-D Imax apparently helps. (Although, "Lois Lane's kid totally needed a haircut and some grooming.")

And, for a truly different consideration, you can get Superman's horoscope (He's a Saturn in Leo).

Lessons Learned

In a low budget B movie things like plot holes, roads not taken, inconsistencies, and pissing off lots of your potential audience with a single line of dialog aren't such a big concern. But, this was a $200 million, give or take, enterprise, with another $150 million or so squandered on aborted efforts that preceeded the version that opened this weekend. Wikipedia's take on the movie calls it an example of "development hell."

Once you commit to a plotline and script in a movie of this magnitude you are really committed. You can't just edit out a $20 million special effects sequence, or add a $10 million addition, at that last minute without really pissing some people off, not least amongst them, the producers who paid to make it happen.

Is it any wonder that adapted sceenplays from proven, well crafted, best sellers are more popular than original screenplays? Indeed, part of the whole idea of doing a comic book movie is that the basic concept can be tested with a small number of illustrators, writers and inkers, for a minimal investment, before you throw the boatloads of money necessary to make a science fiction/fantasy movie at it.

The technical execution of Superman Returns was exceptional. Very few people are complaining about the quality of the special effects, the realization of the visual elements from the first two Superman movies, or quality of the cinematography, although the editing does come in for some considerable criticism (few people think that this needed to be a two and half hour film). But, the underlying screen play was flabby, and the many of the main problems with it should have been clear not later than the story board stage of the production process. Particularly if you are writing a movie that is going to have, by virtue of its lineage and developed fan base, such an intense level of audience scrutiny, it pays to vet your screen plays better with the right kind of people (like the fan community). Clearly, this wasn't done in this case, even though there was a lot of "movie community" input as evidenced by the slavish attention to the details of the prior films and virtually invisible fine touches like the many cameos cast from people with prior involvement in the Superman saga.

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