Wednesday, July 14, 2010

That’ll Do, Pig: Superman Returns

| by Justin Thomas |

Remember the Cola Wars? Remember a world so utterly cool we had things called Cola Wars? Weren’t they lightyears better than the current Mobile Technology Wars and Cable Company Wars raging across the globe? Weren’t the Clone Wars as depicted in the Prequel Trilogy complete shite? But back to the Cola Wars, weren’t they cool?

Remember the greatest “misstep” in the Cola Wars? I’m addressing the introduction of New Coke on April 23, 1985, where the Coca-Cola Company “improved” the world’s greatest soft drink because that soft drink clearly wasn’t popular enough when it was the second-most-recognizable English word on the planet behind “okay.” Oh, what a blunder! Suddenly, the Coca-Cola Company was the number one story on each and every newscast across the country. For Pete’s sake, a proclamation was made on the floor of the U.S. Senate praising the launch of Coca-Cola Classic! Wilde had it down pat: the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, so stick that in your next generation pipe and smoke it, Pepsi.

For just a second I’ll go with the idea the New Coke thing wasn’t the single most brilliant marketing stunt in history or a clandestine way of replacing cane sugar with high-fructose corn syrup in Coke and say they actually thought the formula for Coca-Cola needed improving. For just that one second, some wonk in Atlanta decided to change the direction of the entire company and “improve” the best-selling soft drink in the world. Why would anyone break something so completely not broken? Conspiracy theories aside, Coca-Cola’s declining marketshare had nothing to do with its taste and was not a key indicator of what was broken with the brand.

The question I ask is if the Superman story has worked since 1938, wouldn’t a departure from the generally accepted story be as moronic as changing the formula for Coca-Cola? I would posit “as American as apple pie” should be extended to “as American as apple pie, Coca-Cola and Superman” so changing Superman for the sake of relevancy to modern society is as ridiculous and stupid as changing Coca-Cola, but for years, they tried.

Between Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) and Superman Returns (2006) some insane ideas were floated for Superman’s fifth cinematic outing. Rather than describe each of the failed ideas in turn you can find all the aborted projects at this Wikipedia entry. Idiots. There’s no other word for them based on those ideas. To those who don’t like the look: if you don’t embrace the suit and want to Edward Scissorhands it, you’ve got no business even thinking about Superman because you misunderstand the property at an elemental level long before you add a mechanical spider.

Want to know why I’d hug Bryan Singer if I ever got a chance? Superman Returns is watchable. It’s not dark and brooding because Superman isn’t dark and brooding. Over him isn’t hanging the path of choosing something bad because there might be good in it. He’s not conflicted, a relic of Generation X or hip like Homer’s Poochie the Dog. He’s just Superman and, for what he could have been given, I’d say a massive bullet was somehow dodged.

I’m not saying Superman Returns is perfect. Introducing the son might help Superman realize he’s no longer alone, but any story continuing from Superman Returns absolutely has to deal with the issue because it’s too big, and for a property so challenged to get right what already exists, adding something so unnecessary is like trying to swim the Channel with Australia tied to one’s back. Kevin Spacey playing Lex Luthor could have been great, but Kevin Spacey playing Lex Luthor as channeled through Gene Hackman multiplied by 10 is excruciating. And, come on, yet another real estate scam? Is that the best storyline more than sixty years of history could provide?

It’s watchable, not perfect and it gets some things so very right that I wish the powers that be would watch only key moments when determining where they go next with Superman. During the plane sequence, Lois looks out the window and sees something blue streak by and it’s just enough out of Kate Bosworth to know she’s terrified but aware something is there to save her. Brandon Routh is Christopher Reeve’s equal as Superman but he’s better as Clark Kent: Routh’s Kent is mild mannered as per the character while Reeve’s Kent was a schmuck and save your cries of blasphemer for when I decide to destroy the Prequel Trilogy. The movie gives a sense of a world that understands what Superman means and how things are better because he’s there even if he’s a fascist in blue tights or, more succinctly, the movie gives us Superman.

Superman Returns is not the Superman movie to end all Superman movies nor is it the Superman movie we waited for all those years. It is a Superman movie that’s watchable if they insist on giving us a Superman movie, and that works fine for me. Now we’re four years past, at some point realizing how much money is left on the table by not having Superman in theaters will get someone jonesing to go at it again and it will be the lost-in-the-woods misunderstanding of Superman that occurred before Superman Returns because the world post-Superman Returns includes The Dark Knight. If anything, I’m glad there will be time between the next Superman movie and The Dark Knight because that formula might work for Batman but it’s not Superman and it shouldn’t be forced on him.

A simple request of anyone wanting to wade into the storm of bringing Superman to the screen would be read the comics before you get going. Know what you’re working with before you work with it. It’s Superman. The property is owed just a little more respect than slapping him in a black suit, filming it in 3D and expecting it to be successful. People take Superman seriously. Well, not everyone.

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