Saturday, February 13, 2010

Superman Returns... Again!

I've just learned that Christopher Nolan may be involved in a reboot (finally!) of the entire Superman movie franchise...  My reactions are mixed.

"Our insiders say that the brains behind rebooted Batman has been asked to play a "godfather" role and ensure The Man Of Steel gets off the ground after a 3 1/2-year hiatus. Nolan's leadership of the project can set it in the right direction with the critics and the fans, not to mention at the box office."
On the one hand, I love Christopher Nolan, and what he's done with Batman.  Batman Begins is easily one of the best superhero movies ever made, and the Dark Knight follows closely behind.  Nolan just "got" the character so perfectly and treated the source material seriously enough that he managed to make Batman believable again.

As with Superman, the Batman franchise had been saddled with the unfortunate burden of stupidity and campiness for decades.  Tim Burton's 1989 Batman was excellent, and got some of the tone right, but it's certainly not aged very well and unfortunately everything that's come after it deteriorated until Joel Schumacher unforgivably left us all with the disturbing taste of George Clooney in skin-tight rubber complete with built-in nipples.  The problem is really that (again, like Superman) the people who owned the rights and were responsible for the story neither understood it nor took it seriously...  Nolan did.  But then, Nolan seems to have a sensibility that fits Batman perfectly.

All of the man's other work is kind of dark like that... And that's important.

Batman is a dark character...  His roots were born out of the rage & vengeance he felt upon his parents' murder.  He trained to become a ninja and master other martial arts so his fighting style is a combination of hiding in the shadows and quick, powerful beatings, he uses a symbol of fear to terrorize criminals and he has developed superb skills as a detective and forensics expert.  And Batman needs to do all that, because he is not invincible!  Bruce Wayne can't simply fly into the scene and withstand bullets... He must think in order to survive and accomplish his goals of fighting crime.

Christopher Nolan got that, and it showed.  For the first time in Batman Begins, the character himself wasn't a joke.  He was a complex person dealing with the loss of his family and watching his city deteriorate.

But will this translate to Superman?

I don't know.  Superman is drastically different character.  He is a little tragic, sure... But he's never "dark" in any meaningful way.  He is invulnerable physically (obviously), so there's little reason for him to be too cautious most of the time.  As a result, he does just fly into the path of bullets and doesn't worry about it.  He didn't earn the moniker "the Big Blue Boy Scout" for nothing, afterall!  Superman may be an orphan in the biological sense, but his earthly parents gave him the love and support that he needed to become a strong individual with a great deal of personal integrity.

To a great extent, Superman's "true" identity is actually Clark Kent, whereas Batman is actually the "real" identity of Bruce Wayne.  Wayne is the shell... Batman is what's underneath.  As Dean Cain's Superman put it in Lois & Clark: "Clark Kent is who I am, Superman is what I can do."

I have no idea if Nolan understands that, and just because he was perfect for Batman doesn't automatically guarantee that he's right for the Man of Steel.  And worse, he's got some additional problems lined up at the starting gate...

The movie rights to Superman have been consistently owned by fools who have no understanding of what the character actually is or why it's been the icon for not only superheroes & comic books for 80 years, but the mascot of America itself.

The Salkind brothers, who owned the rights during the Christopher Reeve days wanted to make the first Superman ridiculous, absurd and campy and were only half-stopped by Richard Donner, who managed to make the best out of a night mare producing team...  Of course, even after Superman's phenomenal success, Donner was fired anyway and then we got Richard Pryor as a computer hacker and Superman literally carrying a net full of nuclear warheads into space...  There is nothing defensible about those films, so when they decided to reboot the franchise a few years ago, I was excited.

But now the rights are owned by hairdresser-to-the-stars, Jon Peters, who's idiocy knows almost no limits. 

Take it away, Kevin Smith:

So then Superman Returns happens... Which I also have mixed feelings about.  I think it looks beautiful (although the colors are a bit too muted across the board)... I love most of the action in the film, and hardly has the there ever been a more heroic entrance than Superman flying faster than the speed of sound through a broken airplane wing and catching a 747 just before it destroys a baseball diamond!  But the story is horrific.

First off, it's really just a rehash of 1978's Superman where Lex Luthor yet again tries to destroy a large chunk of the United States so that he can get rich on real estate.  A lot of the same jokes are recycled as well...  And what was a stupid, overly ridiculous plot in 1978 is positively asinine in Superman Returns.  At least in the original, the land that he was going to own was arable and made of minerals commonly found on planet Earth.  In Superman Returns, he was going to kill billions of people, and displace most of the Eastern Seaboard and replace it with a big chunk of Kryptonite crystal.

How, pray tell, will he get anyone to live there... Much less pay him for the privilege, since he would have destroyed the majority of the world's economy and exposed himself as the biggest mass-murderer of all time in the process.

Lex Luthor of the comics is complex, intelligent, a master schemer and interestingly enough - as all true villains should be - actually concerned for the well-being of his planet.

Real bad guys don't think they're doing bad things!  They think that they are saving the world.  They almost always have the best of intentions, not the worst...  Lex Luthor believes (not unreasonably, I might add) that Superman is the advance guard for a malevolent alien invasion.  He's a little paranoid, he's holds many grudges and he's an egomaniac - but his motivation is often well intended... At least in his own mind.

Hollywood doesn't do that kind of character complexity very well most of the time... Especially not in movies produced by Jon Peters.  But as a result, the whole thing is laughably stupid.  And yes, I know I'm talking about "comic books".

But like any fantasy & science-fiction writing, the issue isn't about the believability or reality of the technology or magical abilities - it's about the human character development.  Sci-Fi is allegorical... That's kind of the whole point!  When you're watching the Lord of the Rings, you are asked to believe that there are Elves and Wizards, and that there is a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible and under the creeping control of a powerful evil sorcerer.  And that stuff makes for an interesting, more imaginative story - but that's not what the Lord of the Rings is about.  It's about people.  It's about friendship, it's about ordinary people being able to stand up to the tyranny of bad people, and it's about a dozen other things that have little to nothing to do with whether or not Gandalf can make lightening shoot out of his staff.

Christopher Nolan seems to grasp this concept.  The powers, the fantasy, are not what's important - what's important is that the world itself has internal consistency and that the people who inhabit it behave like real people.  None of the Superman movies have succeeded on that score.  Characters have been one-dimensional, the internal logic of the world Superman inhabits has been repeatedly violated, and directors, writers & producers have chased after cheap laughs and idiotic plot lines.

So yeah, I really hope that Nolan can bring the understanding of character and realism to the franchise - as I am still waiting for a Superman movie that isn't completely absurd - but I worry that he will take Superman into the darkness in a way that is inappropriate.

Time will tell, but it's definitely time to start over.

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