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The Rise and Fall of Superman

August 22, 2006

Like the hero it features, Superman Returns was supposed to be invincible. It was directed by Bryan Singer, the creator of the first two X-Men movies; the first couple Superman flicks were beloved blockbusters; no other major movie challenged it on the long July 4 weekend; and early previews were overwhelmingly positive. This super-expensive movie (a reported $253 million) had super-high expectations. But then it premiered to box office well below the studio’s expectations, and it will soon leave the theaters without making a profit.

What happened? I was eagerly awaiting Superman Returns from the moment I saw the trailer before X-Men: The Last Stand. But it seems like I was the only one. I think the reasons for Superman’s demise are multifold.

1) Superman’s not as popular as he once was.

When Superman was introduced in Action Comics #1 in 1938, he was an immediate sensation. Popular culture had seen a handful of costumed crimefighters before–The Phantom being the most prominent–but none had ever had superhuman powers. Superman was the prototype for all future superheroes, but as owners of CalicoVision well know, the first is not always the best.

For starters, he’s nearly omnipotent. But if he can overcome any foe and escape any situation, where’s the risk? If suffering is the key to sympathetic identification, how do we identify with a character who is incapable of suffering?

To overcome this problem, the writers of the ’40s radio serial Superman came up with the idea of Kryptonite. While this became a highly influential and trenchant mythical device, it has become too much of a narrative crutch, especially in Superman TV shows and movies. The latest Superman is no exception. As my friend Brendan said, “Superman stories are always the same: he fights Lex Luthor, Lois Lane gets in trouble, Superman gets exposed to Kryptonite.”

Superman is simply too good. The idea of a a flawless savior struck a nerve with World War II audiences hungry for escapism, but his righteousness starteded looking like naivety around the mid-’60s. Stan Lee capitalized on this, and launched titles like Spiderman and the Fantastic Four, which featured flawed heroes with relatable human problems.

That being said, when the first Superman movie came out in 1978, it was a brilliant stroke of cultural counterprogramming. Compared to the deeply flawed, unlikeable protagonists of the ’70s, men like Michael Corleone, Travis Bickle and Randall McMurphy, Superman was a breath of fresh air. And the tone was completely different from the dark dramas of the ’70s; it was jokey and fantastical, and nearly every character was played for laughs. (Which made the death of Lois Lane all the more shocking.) Moreover, we’d never before seen real actors fly like Superman and pick up schoolbuses like Superman; much like Action Comics #1, Superman derived much of its appeal from being the first of its kind.

But what goes around comes around. Just as comic book audiences in the ’60s demanded “realer” heroes than they did in the ’40s, moviegoers in the ’00s demand “realer” heroes than they did in 1978. Batman Begins was popular precisely because Bruce Wayne is such a tormented loner; everybody relates to Spiderman because Peter Parker’s an unpopular young adult; and Wolverine is everybody’s favorite X-Man because he’s a cynic.

None of these modern heroes are remotely as powerful as Superman. Batman has no superhuman abilities, Spiderman isn’t particularly strong, and Wolverine isn’t even the the most powerful X-Man. Superpowered spectacle is no longer enough; we now want our fantasies tempered by reality. This modern sensibility leaves a diminished place for a hero as blandly noble and powerful as Superman.

2) Superman’s become too ubiquitous.

Because Superman hadn’t been seen on film since 1987, I think there was an assumption that audiences would be hungry for him to reappear. But between Lois and Clark (1993-97) and Smallville (2001-present), Superman’s been on TV for nine of the last 13 years. The initial Batman and Spiderman movies benefited from the fact that their heroes hadn’t been seen in live-action for decades, but where’s the mystery in a hero you can catch every week on the WB?

3) There are no stars.

It is a maxim of modern Hollywood that you don’t need stars if you have spectacle. But spectacle only gets you so far. If you have to be a mega-hit just to turn a profit, you need an actor or two who will draw in women. Brandon Routh, who plays Superman, isn’t merely a no-name; he’s the kind of anonymously gorgeous uberman that men and women love to hate.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Johnny Depp, the rare actor who’s cool enough to draw men and sexy enough to attract women. (The only others that fit this bill are George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Will Smith. Sorry, Tom. People of all sexes now hate you.) Only a week after Superman Returns’ disappointing opening weekend returns, Pirates of the Carribean II shattered box office records on the strength of Depp’s cross-gender appeal. In the weeks that followed, Pirates gobbled up much of what was supposed to be Superman Returns’ market share.

4) Word-of-mouth stunk.

While hype and anticipation can open a movie, quality is what sustains it. And if Superman Returns’s week-to-week box office declines were any indication, the movie must have been pretty shitty.

Most people I know who saw the movie didn’t like it, but I’m still struggling to understand why. What were they expecting? Superman saving the world, perhaps? It’s got that. Clark Kent bumbling his way to an aborted romantic confession to Lois Lane? That too. Lex Luthor maniacally making plans to kill billions and make trillions? You bet.

According to Warner Bros.’ own press about Superman Returns, the action takes place five years after the events of Superman II. But the ages of the actors make no sense–when the first Superman came out, Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) was 30; in Superman Returns, which presumably takes place six or seven years after the first movie, a 23-year-old, Kate Bosworth, plays Lane. The opening title sequence, which recycles the block-lettering and the uplifting John Williams score from the original movies series, is no help. Is this a sequel? A remake? A reimagining of the Superman myth? It’s somehow all three, and none of the above.

In Superman Returns, Superman has just returned to Earth after a long trip to outerspace to find the remains of Krypton. It turns out he found nothing, but in the intervening years, a lot has changed; Lois Lane has won a Pulitzer for her editorial, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” and Lex Luthor has been let out of prison because Superman wasn’t around for a court date. Even worse, Lane is now engaged to Perry White’s nephew and has a five-year-old son who suffers from hyper-attentive parent disorder. He takes medication and has an inhaler, but it’s never clear if he’s truly sickly, or just a victim of over-(s)mothering. Luthor, of course, is concocting an insane plot that only Superman can stop, which involves creating a giant new continent out of crystals in the Atlantic Ocean. (Seems like a good idea.)

At first glance, Singer’s version of Superman is almost indistinguishible from Richard Donner’s. As Superman, Routh utters PSAs about smoking and forever seems on the verge of uttering “aw shucks.” As Kent, he impersonates Reeve down to the nervous eyebrow-shrug and stammering speech. The red S and blue tights remain, and the script assumes the same mass stupidity on people’s part for not realizing that Clark Kent is just Superman with glasses.

But there are subtle differences. When Superman stops a jumbo jet from crashing into a baseball stadium, he basks in the glow of the fans’ applause a few moments longer than I suspect Reeve’s Superman would have. We also see a new, contemplative side of Superman. To get some quality alone time, Superman flies into the stratosphere to hover and reflect. But 10 miles above the earth’s surface is not a place for quiet respite, far from it.

As he floats on the fringe of outerspace, a cacophony of sounds–conversations, sirens, screams–increases in volume as the camera tracks slowly into his ear. Unlike the rest of us, who can tune out the world’s suffering and resign ourselves to impotence, Superman can hear everyone’s pain. And he is capable of doing something about it. For Singer’s Superman, power is both blessing and burden.

These scenes in space also emphasize Superman’s solitude in a world full of mortals. As his quest to find the remains of Krypton demonstrate, he seems to want nothing more than to find someone who can relate to him. His is the loneliness of a demigod.

As lonely men are wont to do, Superman longs. This movie demonstrates the depth of Superman’s desire for Lois Lane in a way the previous Superman movies never could; with his X-ray vision, he can watch her wherever she goes: up elevators, at home with her family, in White’s office as she embraces her fiance. The rest of us, when we pine for a girl, at least when they’re out of sight we can imagine that maybe they’re thinking or talking about us, but Superman can see everything, and he knows the truth, as dark and solid as black ice: Lois Lane has moved on.

The irony is that Lois implies, but never says, that she still loves Superman. There’s a scene where Superman carries Lane to the heavens, and he explains himself. “You say that the world doesn’t need a savior,” he says, “but everyday I hear people crying for one.” It’s an apology masquerading as a rebuke. Despite his love for her, Superman feels such an overwhelming sense of duty to help people that he can’t let anything, including love, distract or subtract from that.

So that makes it all the more painful when, in the movie’s (first) climax, Luthor stabs Superman with a shard of Kryptonite and four wordless henchmen beat him mercilessly. We’re not simply watching a hero who has lost all his powers; we’re watching a man on the cusp of death who never expressed his true feelings to his beloved.

Singer adds a twist to the whole question of who is the real personality, Superman or Clark Kent. In early scenes in Smallville, Superman/Clark speaks with his mother in a direct, intimate manner that is unlike the public aloofness of Superman or the bumbling goofiness of Daily Planet Clark. This suggests that neither Superman nor Clark is the real man; the real man only exists in the company of Martha Kent, the one remaining person in the world who calls him Clark but is aware of his powers. It’s a poignant idea and it only deepened my sympathy for Superman. Like many of us, he rarely feels comfortable enough to reveal his true self.

But while Singer pulls off the nifty trick of making a superpowered boy scout sympathetic, he fails at making the supporting characters interesting. I don’t know how intelligent Kate Bosworth is, but as an actress, she’s no good at suggesting intellectual depth, making her a poor choice for Lois Lane. (Rachel McAdams would have been perfect for the part.) And Kevin Spacey is surprisingly uninteresting as Lex Luthor. He has none of the comic exuberance of Gene Hackman. This Luthor is not just evil, which I can forgive, but he’s condescending and humorless, which I cannot. And I suspect that the casting and direction of Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen was a fop to the marketers who wanted a kids-friendly castmember, but his performance belongs in a bad Disney movie.

While Olsen is intended as a comic foil to Superman, he’s simply not funny (“irritating” and “intolerable” come more to mind). This suggests a reason for people’s disappointment with this new Superman. With all the evidence pointing to the idea that this was a sequel, viewers were probably confused by the difference in tone between this movie and the original Superman. Where the original was lighthearted and comic, this one is serious-minded and epic.

But for me at least, that’s what makes this new Superman so good. In the first Superman movie, Superman was an innocent. You cheered for him the same way you do for a sports team, because he’s on your side, not because you have any personal connection. By vividly showing us Superman’s loneliness, Singer pulls off a difficult trick: he makes Superman vulnerable without resorting to Kryptonite. In the original series of movies, we rooted for Superman; in this movie, we feel for him.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason permalink
    August 23, 2006 1:15 pm

    We saw Superman in the Imax 3D. Didnt add to the movie at all, in fact, it was almost a distraction. Little pictures of green glasses flashed at the bottom of the screen when you were supposed to put the glasses on, and red glasses for when to take them off. The problem was, I wasnt paying attention to the bottom of the screen and my wife had to keep nudging me to take off/put on the glasses.
    Overall, if you think of it as a reintroduction to the Superman franchise, it wasnt all that bad (chapter 1, if you will). Hopefully chapter 2, will be better, similar to that of the X-Men movies..

  2. bro permalink
    August 23, 2006 7:25 pm

    this is more a question than a comment, since i havent seen it, but do you know if this production had anything to do with kevin smith’s superman screenplay that was floating around a couple of years ago that i think was even attached too nic cage at some point (god help us). it would have been interesting to see if he had adopted a reverent tone befitting his fanboy status or a more cynical one a la the clerks movies

  3. August 23, 2006 8:25 pm

    The relationship, as I understand it, is that Warner Bros. had been wanting to do a Superman movie for at least the past 10 years. One incarnation involved a Kevin Smith script, another one involved Nicolas Cage, another one involved McG. There was a story in Entertainment Weekly a while back about Superman’s imprisonment and release from development hell. All I can say is thank God that Cage, Smith or McG were not involved in this in any way. Any one of them would have absolutely ruined it. They are probably the last three guys you’d want writing, acting in or directing your blockbuster action movie.

  4. H.I. McDunnough permalink
    August 25, 2006 4:48 am

    When watching this horrendous movie, all I kept thinking about was that hilarious debate in Mall Rats about Superman having sex with Lois Lane.

    Brodie Bruce: Lois could never have Superman’s baby. Do you think her fallopian tubes could handle the sperm? I guarantee he blows a load like a shotgun right through her back. What about her womb? Do you think it’s strong enough to carry his child?

    T.S. Quint: Sure, why not?

    Brodie Bruce: He’s an alien for Christ sake! His kryptonian biological makeup is enhanced by Earth’s yellow sun. If Lois gets a tan, the kid could kick right through her stomach. Only someone like Wonder Woman has a strong enough uterus to carry his kid. The only way he could bang regular chicks is with a kryptonite condom . . . and that would kill him.

  5. August 25, 2006 1:20 pm

    This is very interesting to me. You called this movie “horrendous.” What is so horrendous about it?

  6. Juan permalink
    September 17, 2006 6:51 pm

    The movie is far from “horrendous,” but I didn’t care for it either. Stylistically, I don’t think Bryan Singer was the right director for a Superman movie. Richard Lester got Superman right (in “Superman 2,” anyway), just as Sam Raimi gets Spider-Man right. But I think Singer’s weighty, semi-dark style would better fit a Batman movie.

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