Super Movie Monday – Superman Returns, Part 3

This is it, the conclusion to our titanic three-part recap of Superman Returns, and the end (sort of) of our months-long odyssey through the Superman theatrical films.

When we left off last week, Lois (with Lois Jr. in tow) had tracked down the origin of the mysterious blackout to a mansion on the shore of the Hudson River (or whatever the Metropolis equivalent is). Then she had  to sneak on board a yacht only to discover Lex Luthor in his bathrobe.

So Luthor tells Lois his plan. This may shock you, given how studiously the film has avoided any reference to the earlier films (ahem), but it’s a variation on his plan from 1978. Lex is going to use the Kryptonian crystals to create a new continent in his quest for land (and he quotes his father in lines lifted almost verbatim from the 1978 film, including his mistress’s interjection). This will, of course, have the small side effect of destroying most of North America.

But where Gene Hackman was charming, but silly, Kevin Spacey is charming and scary. Luthor’s role in the film is, in my mind, the one unambiguous improvement over the original. Luthor clearly bears a huge grudge against Superman. There’s also a subtle dig at George W. Bush as Luthor says, “Bring it on!” with great bravado. Kitty Teschmacher is, of course, horrified to learn the full extent of Luthor’s plans, because her mother lives in Hackensack, er, North America (BTW, WordPress apparently doesn’t support strikethrough–odd, since there’s a button for it). Luthor also shows off the Kryptonite he will use to keep Superman at bay. Lois Jr.’s response to the Kryptonite causes Luthor to become rather suspicious of the boy’s parentage.

So as Lex is supervising the firing of the rocket that will destroy America, Lois Jr. and one of the thugs play “Heart and Soul” on the piano while Lois tries to send a fax with the yacht’s location ( as unobtrusively as Michael Palin writing the note for help that he shoots out the window attached to an arrow in Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

The crystal begins to grow and causes another brief blackout, and when the light returns, the thug discovers Lois’s trick with the fax and attempts to kill her. Unfortunately, he gets smashed by a flying piano shoved at him by Lois Jr., and now there’s not really any doubt as to whose son he is, is there? He also discovers he no longer needs his asthma inhaler (just as young Clark, earlier in the film, discovered he no longer needed his glasses after learning to fly).

And this brings up an interesting question. Because on the one hand, this film would seem to be in continuity with the first two Salkind films, which means that Lois got knocked up after that brief tryst in the Fortress of Solitude, a period in which Clark had no powers. And even if you could say his sperm still had all their Kryptonian potency, she was also standing outside the molecule chamber when it irradiated Zod’s crew, stealing their powers. Shouldn’t that have stolen the child’s powers forever, as well?

But let’s leave aside all the wonky, fanboy speculating and look at something else. Lois has been shown, throughout the film, knowing, or at least suspecting, that Lois Jr. is actually Superman’s son. But when Lex asks her, “Who is that boy’s father?” she answers, “Richard.” And when Lex asks, “Are you sure?” she looks confused. Because we remember the hypno-kiss.

And the hypno-kiss had to have worked, because she doesn’t remember that Clark is Superman. But she seems to remember having knocked boots with the big “S” at some time. Now my head hurts.

Oh well, as the blackout subsides, Jimmy discovers the fax from Lois and brings it to Clark and Richard, both trying to track down Lois since she’s late for her awards dinner. Richard decides to take the seaplane out to the coordinates on the fax, while Clark flies up the elevator shaft.

And in a departure from earlier films in the series, we actually see Clark pull off his clothes and let them drop down the elevator shaft behind him rather than simply dissolving into Superman’s uniform (well, he pulls off his shirt and jacket; his pants and shoes just kind of disappear).

Superman flies off to the rescue. But halfway there, he notices fissures spreading on the bottom of the sea toward Metropolis and decides the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Meanwhile, Lois and Superman Jr are trapped in a pantry while Luthor abandons the yacht in a helicopter. Superman Jr. doesn’t care. He’s got plenty to keep him occupied, what with using olives like finger puppets and all.

Superman himself is much busier. In a callback to the “saving California” climax of the 1978 Superman, he is flying all over Metropolis trying to save people from the multiple disasters resulting from the tremors caused by the growing Kryptonian island out to sea, climaxing with catching the falling globe from the roof of the Daily Planet and holding it on his shoulders like a modern-day Atlas. Perry even manages a “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” at that one.

While on the yacht, Richard arrives to save Lois and Supes Jr. When Lois asks how he got there, Richard says he flew.

And let me take a break right here to finally try to verbalize the problem I’m having with this movie, without even mentioning the conceptual misfire of Superman as Lois’s Baby Daddy (other than this one time, of course).

Because, aside from the occasional visit to the Uncanny Valley, this movie should stand head and shoulders above any other Superman film. It is better-looking in about every way, from the awesome cinematography and excellent effects to the sumptuous set design. The writing is much tighter and more sophisticated, and in general, the acting is better.

But Bryan Singer is so determined to make sure you know he’s outdoing the original in every way that it’s like the entire movie is covered in flop sweat. Not a single scene can go by, hardly a line of dialogue can pass, without the movie nudging you in the ribs and going, “See what I did there? Isn’t that awesome? Isn’t this better?”

Like Richard saying “I flew,” inviting an immediate comparison to Superman and the fact that Lois wrote an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” and look, she doesn’t, because Richard is the real hero. See, the scene works on so many levels, given the way Richard feels threatened by Superman and Superman feels threatened by Richard, especially given the small-boy-sized elephant in the room that Richard doesn’t even know about, because Superman may be the sire, but it’s Richard who has stepped up to be the father, so who is the real hero, and what is a hero anyway, and thank God, the yacht just split in half.

The rising Kryptonian island skewers the yacht and splits it in two, dropping the three of them into the ocean to drown. So Lois and the world really do need Superman after all. There’s just too damn many layers of meaning, and the movie still has 45 minutes to go. Shit.

Superman saves the trio and sends Richard back with Supes Jr and an unconscious Lois, then heads for the island where Luthor waits. But he doesn’t realize the entire island has a chewy Kryptonite center, which renders him weak enough to get beaten up by Luthor and his thugs. I actually have a real problem with a mass of Kryptonite that size affecting Superman so subtly that he doesn’t even realize it. But it’s almost redeemed by the moment when Luthor stabs him with the sharp shard of Kryptonite he’s been saving for just this moment. Superman falls into the ocean to drown (which, I’m sure only coincidentally, is the way Luthor intended Superman to die in the 1978 version).

But Lois, knowing about the Kryptonite, has convinced Richard to turn the plane around. They spot Superman from the sky and set down on the water, then Lois dives in to save the man who’s saved her so many times. They take off and fly back toward Metropolis, and Lois pulls out the Kryptonite shard. Superman recovers and says he has to go back.

Superman burrows down into the ocean floor and lifts the island out of the ocean. Lex and Kitty barely escape with their lives, which is more than can be said about the three remaining henchmen, who die when a mountain falls on them. And Kitty dumps out the rest of the Kryptonian crystals, so Lex can never try this again.

Superman lifts the island into space, not so easy when it’s still growing, with sharp Kryptonite spikes growing toward his heart. And it’s an impressive visual, calling to mind other floating cities from movies like Flash Gordon and The Empire Strikes Back and Castle in the Sky.

But it’s at this point, right at the big climax, that the movie tips over from “cool, but trying too hard,” to “absolutely fucking ridiculous,” because we’ve seen what happens to Superman when he’s exposed to even a fist-sized chunk of Kryptonite. And we’re supposed to believe that an entire island made of the stuff will barely affect him if he manages to get a few feet of rock in between? Please.

Superman flings the island out into space and finally succumbs to the Kryptonite, and no, there’s not a blatant Christ analogy in there at all.

He falls to Earth and crashes down in Central Park. Emergency room doctors try to revive him, but to no avail. But Richard rushes Lois to the hospital, where she whispers in an unconscious Superman’s ear that he’s a daddy (we don’t hear the words, but it’s pretty obvious given what happens later). And Superman Jr. gives him a kiss. Aw. But pity poor Martha Kent, who has to stand outside the hospital with all the other rubes, because she can’t tell anyone that it’s her boy who’s on his deathbed inside. That really must suck.

Meanwhile, Luthor is stuck on a desert island with nothing to eat but a few coconuts and Kitty’s yappy dog. Superman wakes up and visits Lois’s house again where he recites Jor-Bama’s “Your Life Is All About Me” speech to a sleeping Lois Jr. (echoing the same speech we heard in voiceover at the very beginning of the movie–this script has seriously been Truby’d out the ass).

And after a final goodbye to Lois, Superman soars into the sky for the ending we’ve all been thinking might never come (the movie is long, y’all). But before we get there, let’s take one more visit to the Uncanny Valley, shall we?

And then it’s up to orbit and a final grin at the camera, although it’s not the endearing smile we were used to from Chris Reeve, is it?

Roll credits.

As I said, Superman Returns is sort of maddening, because in many ways, it is much better than the film it’s trying so hard to pay homage to. But in the end, I still like the Donner-Reeve film more, just due to the uneasy combination of flop sweat, Superman as deadbeat dad, and Christopher Reeve’s easy charm vs. Brandon Routh’s creepy alien eyes.

Now we’re just waiting for the next big screen Superman to see what the future holds for the Man of Steel. There’s been a big dust-up on the Internet over the fact that Henry Cavill, the man cast for the role in a new film being directed by Zack Snyder, is British instead of American.

But let’s face it, the biggest Superman movie of all, 1978’s Superman: The Movie, while starring an American, was produced by a father and son from France and made mostly in England by a British crew. As long as the movie is good, I don’t so much care about where the actor is from.

Next week, a special surprise as we revisit the Superman movie you don’t know about, or at least wish you didn’t remember.

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