THE GRIM LEAPER
Despite a campy villain, the new Superman movie is further proof that comic book heroes just aren’t that comic anymore
JULY 9, 2006 – KEVIN SPACEY HAS A HIGH OLD TIME AS Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, but as entertaining as his performance is, it belongs in a different movie. You can see why Spacey played the part the way he did. Bryan Singer, the director, has repeatedly emphasised that his take on the saga of the Man of Steel is a throwback to the Superman films that starred Christopher Reeve, and Gene Hackman, who played Luthor in them, made the villain more droll than diabolical. Looking at him, you never thought he was a raving megalomaniac – just an eccentric, old relative who’s misplaced a couple of marbles. That Luthor worked for that Superman, but in recycling the tone and the tenor of that performance, Spacey has made this Superman a protagonist in search of a worthy antagonist. Imagine Luke Skywalker battling an Ewok instead of Darth Vader, and you’ll have an idea of why Superman Returns is far more interesting for what it wants to be than what it ultimately is.
What Superman Returns wants to be is a myth – and nowhere is this clearer than in an action sequence that results when Luthor begins building a continent of his own just off the shores of the United States. The creation of the new land mass generates seismic shock waves, and Metropolis begins experiencing an earthquake. After the usual shots of tremors and screaming masses running helter-skelter, we see that the three-dimensional logo of The Daily Planet – the huge globe on top of the office building – is teetering on the edge, threatening to topple down and crush Perry White, who’s on the street all those floors below. Superman, expectedly, saves the day – but this is no rah-rah moment. It’s possibly the glummest rescue act in superhero history, for after catching the sphere, Superman descends slowly to the ground, holding it above him, his head slightly bowed as if from all that weight – and suddenly you realise that this moment isn’t about saving one man; it’s about saving mankind. That’s not the globe he’s shouldering; it’s (symbolically) our earth. He’s not Superman anymore; he’s Atlas. And this isn’t comic book territory anymore; it’s classical mythology.
It’s also the most unambiguous indication of how this Superman is essentially an extension of – and yet an evolution of – Christopher Reeve’s Superman, especially from the first of the series of four movies starring the late actor. There too, the key sequence involved the earth, but there, Superman was toying with it. Lois Lane had died, so he was spinning the earth backwards to bring her back alive; he was disturbing the space-time continuum for his own, selfish purposes. But in the far more grave, far more thematically ambitious Superman Returns, he has finally realised his purpose on our planet. He isn’t just our savior; he’s The Savior. After flinging the Luthor-created continent into space, he falls back to earth, his arms at right angles to his body. He’s Jesus; he’s even endured the sci-fi equivalent of nails being pounded into his palms when he’s stabbed with a shard of kryptonite. And in his recreated home world, the Fortress of Solitude, his father is played by that god named Marlon Brando, who speaks in that god-voice we know from god movies like The Ten Commandments.
That’s why Spacey’s Luthor invokes the legend of Prometheus early on in the film. The latter stole fire from the gods, and our villain wants to steal something equally significant from someone whose near-indestructibility makes him practically a god: the power to create a new world, through the ancient technology of Superman’s home planet of Krypton. But this offhand allusion to mythology cannot make this Luthor any less of a clown, and let’s face it: today’s superhero movies need serious super-villains, for they’re about creatures of angst who are as much products of the comics as the couch – working out issues of parental loss (Batman Begins) or near-death experiences in war-torn Vietnam (the upcoming The Iron Man) or selling one’s soul to the Devil (the upcoming Ghost Rider) or merely being a perennial outsider (The X-Men, also directed by Singer).
At least some of these issues work their way into Superman Returns, most notably in the conceit that he now sees himself as an outsider. Lois Lane has moved on to another man, and there’s a scene where Superman literally stands outside her house and, with his X-ray vision, looks in longingly at her domestic life. This moment boasts some lovely, state-of-the-art special effects, but the essence of this scene was there almost five decades ago when someone not quite like the rest of us invaded a woman’s privacy by peering at her through a hole in the wall. That film, of course, was Psycho – a terrifyingly dark exploration of a different kind of outsider. Superman Returns isn’t quite that dark, but it’s light years removed from the sunny Americana that the original comic books represented. For what could be more sombre, more sobering than the fact that the mighty hero who once stood for truth, justice and the American way has ended up a voyeur?
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