Why We Need Snyder's Man Of Steel: Superman Returns Revisited
I had a happy surprise when I went to see “Django Unchained.” Not the movie itself, which I consider the equivalent of a bloated, particularly bad episode of “The Dukes Of Hazzard,” but in one of the trailers.
It was Zack Snyder’s upcoming take on Superman, “Man Of Steel.” Now, believe me, I think Snyder is far from a cinematic visionary. At best he introduced the annoyingly omnipresent “slow down/speed up” form of presenting an action sequence, and his greatest triumph, “Watchmen,” really owed more to creating an exacting, panel-by panel replica of Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s graphic novel than offering any ideas of his own. But something about this trailer…I began to feel that old excitement rise up the back of my neck, the same feeling I had as a child the moment Christopher Reeve glided up to the Daily Planet window to challenge the evil Kryptonians as those horns blew the gallant opening notes of the famous theme song.
The trailer begins with a bearded man (Henry Cavill) floating Christ-like in water, then scenes of flooded school bus. A woman’s voice is heard telling Ma Kent (Diane Lane) of what she saw her son do. Pa Kent (Kevin Costner, lopping in amidst a backdrop of those reassuring, sun-kissed “Field Of Dreams” cornstalks) advises young Clark on taking responsibility. The elder Clark is then seen fingering a familiar ‘S’ symbol. Finally, red boots stalk an anarctic landscape, and then, with a touch of the ‘lense-flare’ technique used by Abrams to make the ships in “Star Trek” drift like documentary subjects, a lone figure shoots heavenward. I never thought I’d say it, but Snyder appears to have found a visual poetry to match this archetypal superhero, or least been influenced by the dreamlike style found in the best films of "Steel" producer Christopher Nolan (that is, the Nolan of “The Prestige” and “Batman Begins,” not the dreary “Inception” and masochismfest “Dark Knight Rises”). This is tantalizing stuff. With two costly wars, a recession, and the general consensus that America is an empire whose day in done, we don’t really need a third Iron Man sequel largely shot in China to pander to our future economic overlords. What we need is the original symbol of the American dream, originally cooked up by two Jewish kids in Depression-era Cleveland to remind this country of its promise and give it hope for its future. This is a job for Superman.
One attempt that failed this job was Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” (2006). It'd been nearly twenty years since the last sequel of "Superman" gave up the ghost, and anything less than an original spin on the character would have seemed a cop-out. Fans cheered when it was announced the director of the first two "X-Men" movies would be at the helm, and Singer at least flirted with an interesting premise: While Supes (Brandon Routh) has been off for five years investigating the husk of his home planet Krypton (an episode presumably originally tucked away for a sequel), Lois (Kate Bosworth) has moved on, married and had a child by another. The old boyfriend does some early X-ray vision semi-stalking on her new family scene and hopes soon rise for a portrait of the modern super-hero hitting rock bottom.
But it's as if Singer, overawed by the task of reinventing a comic legend the way Christopher Nolan did with "Batman Begins," was content to do little more than sift through the shards of our collective movie and TV memories, hoping sheer budget would push his pile of scenes through. Never did a comic-book blockbuster seem so rote, and an over-reliance on John Williams' classic score and the old Brando voice-overs as Jor-El (Marlon didn't even have this much screen time in the '78 original; the estate must be rolling in residuals) screamed of a movie going through the motions.
Bits and pieces of old plots are cherry-picked to maintain interest. While Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) plans a revenge strangely reminiscent of something Gene Hackman once cooked up, we return to the old farm with Ma Kent (a glazed Eva Marie Saint, probably thinking of days with Cary Grant in "North By Northwest") and flashbacks to the young lad discovering his powers in the fields. Pa Kent is nowhere in sight, though, leaving Mad Magazine without any prospects for classic digs like "Look, Pa, I'm racing faster than a speeding locomotive!"-"Son, that's the Long Island Railroad. Some folks walk faster than it."
Clark heads back to Metropolis, where Lois has won a Pulitzer based on a Superman-slamming essay, and is reluctant to forgive him. A semi-thrill is still to be had from the computer-generated rescues of planes and minor planetoids, but the performances are too hit and miss to excite any further expectations. James Marsden as Lois' husband Richard White and Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen are game, and Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski does her bewildered bitchy number to good effect. On the other hand, Frank Langella's lines as Perry White may as well be "where's my check?" Kevin Spacey is robotic through the film's first third, and once awake, has something too rat pack about his Luthor, like he's still doing Bobby Darin in "Beyond the Sea." Kate Bosworth is crankily cute in specs, but doesn't really hold an eye beam to Margot Kidder's chain smoking neurotic, much less Terri Hatcher's turn. And Routh is just the thespian crater at the center of the film, noticeable even by today's standards. He pulls off a decent imitation of Christopher Reeve's Kent/Superman vocal mannerisms, but is simply lifeless as the beacon of hope; they might as well have used the graphics model from the accompanying Xbox game. Mainly, it's the youth-market pandering, the feeling of watching a lot of money thrown at a couple of high school leads, that nagged the most. Superman has been gone for five years. How old were he and Lois when he left? Fourteen?
The showdown ends as haphazardly as the opening began, lost in the familiar impersonality of set pieces out of Peter Jackson’s "King Kong," released around the same time. “Superman Returns” did its intended job as a stopgap to a several-year trend in dying summer box office until Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack made the scene, but Snyder gives hope that ‘Truth, justice, and the American Way’ will get a vision worthy of the super hero that started it all.
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