Thursday, July 06, 2006

Comic Book Jesus

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I've been meaning to pool more extensive thoughts on Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (**½ out of ****), which I saw a couple of days ago, but, with the 4th of July, work at Megamovies, and an essay about Die Hard---yes, you heard right---that I've been working on since yesterday for Matt Zoller Seitz's "House Next Door" blog, I haven't had the time (or, to be honest, the will) to sit down and write my usual long, detailed take on the film.

But I want to say at least a little something about this film, because Superman Returns is not like any comic-book movie I've seen. Seriously.

In my experience watching comic-book movie adaptations---from Richard Donner's 1978 Superman and Tim Burton's two Batman films to more recent fare like Sam Raimi's Spiderman films; Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's (vastly overrated) Sin City; and last year's revival of the Batman franchise, Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins---I've never seen a comic-book movie that actually got me examining my own religious beliefs like Superman Returns did after I walked out of the movie theater.

Because, as it turns out, religious fervor plays a big role in explaining why, in spite of my mostly secular self, I found myself entranced by the imagery of the film even as I found myself less than fully exhilarated by the special effects and performances.

In Superman Returns, Bryan Singer seems to be trying to give the Superman legend the feel of an American myth. This is Superman as a Christ figure for a people who need a hero, need the defender of truth, justice, and the American way. Not everyone responds to this collective need, of course: obviously, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) doesn't believe in Superman, preferring to pursue his own selfish desires; and, for a while, intrepid Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) believes that a world without Superman is a better place. In a way, Superman Returns is about---among many other things---Lois' eventual conversion back into the ranks of Superman worshippers, and about Luthor's eventual comeuppance for his lack of belief.

In other words, it is about the typical conflict between good and evil, but in a passionately religious manner that dares to take good-versus-evil seriously---more than you can say for a lot of Hollywood action films, which basically take good versus evil for granted, as a springboard for whatever fancy special effects and brutal violence a filmmaker can dream up. Good, of course, eventually wins out, but when it does, it doesn't feel like simply Hollywood cliche---good winning out just because, by the requirements of Hollywood formula, it has to---but a genuine hard-won triumph, an affirmation of the goodness of people.

And damned if I wasn't at least a little moved by Singer's conviction, which spills over into some of the beautiful imagery in this film. Superman, eyes closed, hovering above the earth and trying to listen to all the voices; Superman hoisting the Daily Planet globe in what looks like a recreation of the famous cover illustration adorning Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged; Superman getting beaten up like a tortured Christ by Luthor's goons before he is pushed off a cliff---there are countless other examples of the kind of expressive visual poetry that Singer uses to basically tell his story, which eventually turns into a kind of Passion play in which Superman has to suffer before he reawakens, with a nation once again grateful for his reemergence into the landscape. I guess Singer's innocence and belief in this mythical story is what dazzled me more and more after I saw the film; it tells in every shiny, wondrous frame of this film.

Superman Returns , admittedly isn't as great a film as it could have been. At 2½ hours, it probably is a bit too long and sluggishly paced for its own good. Another problem is with what I perceive as a lack of involvement in the big action sequences. I suppose, being that this is a Hollywood blockbuster production after all, the film had to deliver the kind of special effects and action fireworks that most moviegoers expect from the genre. The special effects are generally impressive; really, they make the effects in the 1978 Superman---impressive in its day---look almost amateurish by comparison. But honestly, I found myself almost bored as I watched some of the major setpieces. Maybe it's simply because Superman's super-strength inherently drains the suspense out of the rescue scenes: as much as Singer tries to keep you guessing as to whether Superman will save the day, it's obvious that he (or "He"?) will; he's Superman, of course! But overall, the impression I get is that Singer is employing these special effects and focusing on Lex Luthor's evil plans simply out of duty: marking time (however impressively) before he's able to unleash his inner graphic artist and let rip with all the Jesus-like imagery he can muster in the final act.

And I wasn't very thrilled by the acting, either. Brandon Routh isn't bad, I suppose, but he lacks Christopher Reeve's personality. Yeah, Clark Kent is meant to give off a deceptive ordinary-Joe image, but Reeve never came off as merely bland, as Routh does. The Lois Lane of Superman Returns is, I guess, meant to be seen as domesticated compared to the Lois Lane of the first two Superman films; and, by that standard, Kate Bosworth does fairly well here. But I admit that I miss Margot Kidder's faintly Katharine Hepburn-ish style. And, as Luthor, I found Kevin Spacey a bit of a disappointment, lacking the juice and evil relish one would expect from an actor who so memorably portrayed the essence of Hollywood egomania in Swimming With Sharks. (And yeah, I did miss Gene Hackman in the role.)

Despite all its flaws, however, Superman Returns somehow manages to get to you in the end. Any movie that manages to find some kind of fresh angle to the typical action-movie conflict between good and evil deserves some kind of recognition in my book, especially if it is as eloquently done as it is in passages of this film.

Whether or not any of the film's religious aspirations will resonate with anyone is up to individual taste. I wavered back and forth as I watched the film: I was tempted to snicker at its pretensions at first, but then I found myself awed at Singer's visual invention in the third act. In the end, I respect Singer's sincerity and full commitment to his material, even as I remain a little skeptical as to whether his attempt at a kind of religious allegory ultimately means anything other than providing an unusual gloss on yet another cinematic comic book. But if you're looking for one of the most visually transcendent comic book movies to come out of Hollywood this summer, look no further.

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