Monday, September 14, 2009

Underrated, Part 4: Superman Returns

Today, a request was delivered to The Middle Room, post haste, asking us to revisit a film we've mentioned in the past, the underrated Superman Returns:

"...I want to see Underrated Part 4: Superman Returns. You're the only person I know who really liked it, and I've had it on my mind a lot lately."
-Jesse L.

The Middle Room is hardly alone in liking Bryan Singer's film; rather, we are one of a dwindling number who REMEMBER that they like it. When the movie came out, the response was far more favorable: its Tomatometer, to this day, stands at a respectable 76%, with many of the positive reviews gushing over the picture's brilliance and subtle beauty. The comic book community, while somewhat split, was enthusiastic overall.

Most of the animosity came later.

As we understand it, there are two principal complaints about Superman Returns. Firstly, that the movie fails to deliver the requisite action (in fact, at no point in the picture does Superman throw a punch). And secondly, that the movie served as a franchise killer: by introducing a son of Superman's, the movie effectively negates the feasibility of a sequel.

We will begin with this second complaint, as it is addressed quite easily. While there is a kernel of truth to this claim - that it would be difficult to create a follow-up to Superman Returns - the logic of holding this against Singer is faulty. Warner Bros. has never demonstrated the commitment to Superman that the character deserves: that Singer succeeded in filming one movie is more than dozens of others have managed. Fear not: by court order a sequel will be managed or they'll relaunch the series. Either way, the character is no poorer for this film.

As to the other issue, that Superman Returns failed to deliver a violent clash of gods: well, we actually would have agreed with this before seeing the picture. Going in, we wanted a story of monsters or robots from space battling Superman. Someday, we would still like to see that picture.

In fact, the last thing we wanted was to retread old ground. Yet, when we reached the theater and the movie begin, we felt a sense of joy as Singer took us back to Donner's film.

Yes, Superman Returns is a tribute. But it is one hell of a tribute, delivering on the themes of the original in a manner that is nuanced and considered. In 1978, Jor-El told his son that mankind needed only to be shown the way to realize their greatness. But it wasn't until 2006 that this promise was fulfilled, when Lois Lane and her fiance risk their lives to rescue Superman.

And, while there was little in the way of combat, the scenes where Superman protects Metropolis from destruction are awe-inspiring. The use of his heat vision, in particular, is incredible to behold. Lex Luthor is likewise a success; a near-perfect facsimile of Gene Hackman's character, taken to his darkest extreme. He is still comical, but now he is truly frightening, as his scheme - itself a clever reworking of the 1978 plot - is unveiled. When he takes his vengeance upon Superman, it is brutal and horrific.

Superman Returns is not the movie we thought we wanted: it is instead the movie that won us over. It is a carefully constructed drama, a brilliant work of religious symbolism, and a loving sequel to the movie which defined the genre. It is far superior, in fact, to the overrated Superman II, a film who's potential greatness was squandered by studio interference and a replacement director lacking the vision to see it through.

Don't mistake us: Superman II is still a good picture, but it is unable to honor the original. It took decades for a director to accomplish that.


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Jesse said...

This is interesting, and I have a good deal to say about it. But for now I will just say something trivial: I specific didn't say I knew few people who liked it. *I* liked it. I just only know one person who REALLY liked it.

MarquisdeKiel said...

Thanks! Finally someone found a way to write about "Superman Returns" in a way that does this movie justice.

I had expected Aliens and Robots and God Battles in Space and whatnot - and what we got was that Superman magic we almost forgot - and that only "Superman I" so far actually captured.

So if we one day get an action packed god battle, then there should be a spoonful of this in there, too: the story of a man who gives it all to protect stupid old mankind - and a way to show superman, that still makes us feel "Wow, wouldn't it be great to be able to fly".