Monday, July 22, 2013

Like reading with your ears!

I mentioned my involvement with the Nerdologues last week, and it seems that the podcast is up a bit earlier than I expected. So if you've ever wondered what it'd be like to experience my Superman-centric meanderings with a completely different set of sensory organs, or if you just want to hear all those other amazing people say/sing cool things, you can listen to the whole thing right here. Let me know what you thinked!

And I suppose I'll post a transcript of my portion in the near future. I'd just copy-paste it, but I did some ad-libbing, so I'll have to listen to it again first.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Supermovie #6: Superman Returns

Like I said at the start of this, while I loved Superman Returns when it came out (saw it at least five times in the theater, including at least three times in IMAX 3D), I don't know that I've watched it more than once or twice since. I've also read all the critiques by reasonable people who have largely tempered my enthusiasm for the film, so I'll be interested to see what I think of it now, seven years after the fact.

My brother got me the Blu-Ray Superman film collection this past holiday season, so I started by watching the deleted "Return to Krypton" sequence for the first time outside of YouTube. It's a very pretty opening, and while it does a nice job of showcasing Kryptonian sunstone technology, demonstrating Superman's weakness to kryptonite, and revealing the fate of dead Krypton, it's also kind of long and slow. It's almost artsy, like something you'd expect from Ridley Scott or Stanley Kubrick (keep in mind: I am not a film student), so I can see why they'd want to cut it from a movie marketed as a superhero action flick. Also, it seems like a major oversight for Superman not to build some kind of anti-kryptonite shielding into the ship he's taking to examine the source of all kryptonite.

The text opening is kind of awful. I suppose it's better than another origin story, but it seems like there are other ways they could have accomplished this beyond a paragraph on a blank screen.

The scene of Krypton's sun imploding, then exploding, seems physically improbable, but is a nice way to start the film off with a bang.

Which leads directly into the title credits, which are kind of clearly what the credits for the Donner movies wanted to be, with lots of cool space visuals that also, admittedly, often don't make a lot of physical sense. But if I can accept an alien race that looks exactly like humans but can fly under their own power when exposed to particular kinds of solar energy, then I guess I don't have too much room to talk.

Noel Neill sounds an awful lot like an older Margot Kidder, which is fascinating. She plays Lex Luthor's dying older wife, who leaves everything to him. It's nice to see the extreme lengths Lex will go to in order to get what he wants, even if it seems oddly out of character for him to become a glorified gold-digger.

Clark crashes in the Kent field again, and Martha gets a nice Pietà moment, though this scene makes a bit more sense in light of the Return to Krypton sequence, where Clark is weakened by all the kryptonite.

Lex is researching minerals while sailing on his yacht to the arctic. He gives a little speech about Prometheus, and his desire to forge an empire through control of technology. Specifically, Kryptonian technology which he goes to steal from the Fortress. Lex activates the console somehow, then activates the Jor-El floating head hologram, which, presumably, Superman repaired after its destruction in both versions of Superman II.

Clark spends some time down on the farm, reminiscing, and I've always really liked the flashback sequence of young Clark enjoying his powers. There's a much greater sense of wonder and enjoyment here than there was with the beat-the-train sequence in the first movie. Clark is concerned by the turmoil and strife in the world, and he and Martha share a tender moment. It's interesting that this is kind of the meta-theme of the movie: why has Superman been absent so long from a world that needs him?

Clark returns to the Daily Planet offices with two big suitcases for some reason and the doofiest smile.

Brandon Routh is pretty great here. He gets his job back, and learns a bit about Lois's life during his absence. She's a mom! She has a son! She's on a space shuttle thing!

Lex and his henchmen have a fun scene experimenting with the sunstone in the bottom of his inherited mansion. Dropping a tiny piece in some water leads to a giant blackout, even causing an electrical failure on the jet that Lois is on. It's funny to see the carnage this wreaks on Lex's train set, complete with 'realistic' sound effects, since so much of the disasters in the first film were done in an HO-scale.

There's some good humor there, and I like how sarcastic Kitty is. It's nice to have someone around Lex who isn't afraid to make fun of him.

Of course, the power outage causes problems for the shuttle, which begins its launch sequence without releasing from the jet. Which, of course, is a job for Superman. Everything about the shuttle rescue is still pretty great, and the effects really hold up. About the only bad thing is how little Lois has to do; she gets tossed around like a rag doll just trying to get to a seat, and it kind of sets the tone for her relative passiveness in the rest of the movie.

The "safest way to travel" line works here in a way that it really didn't in Superman IV, and I could be happy if the movie ended with that triumphant flight out of the stadium.

As an aside, I've heard the criticism that Superman is too humble to stand in and take in the crowd's adulation, and that's a fair point. I wish he'd give them a salute or something, but I think it can also be read as him letting the people know that he really is back.

I like the newsroom sequence, especially with Lois standing up and fighting for her own story, even if Kate Bosworth doesn't put a whole lot of oomph into said fight. The meeting between Clark and Lois is pretty awkward, and while I've always thought that Richard White gets treated surprisingly well for a guy that a lesser movie would make into...well, into Brad from Superman III, Lois asking him to fight her battle with Perry is pretty enormously out of character for her, and kind of throws Lois under the bus.

There's an interesting bit of banter between Lois and Clark where it seems--especially in light of the movie's twist ending--like she's passive-aggressively calling him out, and is weary of the double identity game. It's our first glimpse of a more Kidder-esque Lois, and it's really kind of hard to take Clark's side here. It's back to that meta-theme. Old Clark is trying to go back to his old habits, but the world has changed and moved on. Without him, without Superman, people aren't stuck in the same old routines, and they're free to grow and change. Damn, I could write an essay on this aspect of the film, as a critique of these serialized fiction franchises where the only changes are cosmetic, where the characters stay in the same roles for decades or longer without moving forward, and about the tension that results from being nostalgic for the past when the present is so different.

"Superman Returns" is, essentially, an argument against "Superman Returns."

And then we get to the worst scene, where Superman spies on the Lane/White clan at home.

It fits with the whole theme of Superman as an outsider, looking in, kept at arm's length from normal humans, but it's not the Superman I really want to see. The messianic imagery gets pretty heavy here too, and thankfully it leads into the bank heist scene, which has some well-conceived and fast-paced action. It's all spectacle, designed to be spectacle, with the intention of drawing Superman's attention. The guns in this scene, with the Gatling gun firing in slow motion and the bullet hitting Superman's eye, are just so, so good. I love the look he and the robber give as that last bullet falls.

Lex's entry into the museum, punctuated with the second distraction of Kitty's out-of-control car careening through the city, shows that he's got the whole scheme plotted down to the second.

And then we get the Action #1 shot. It's fanservice, but it's also a scene that we've never really scene in live-action before.

It's strange that the kryptonite meteorite only seems to glow under certain filters; it fits with the fluorescent properties of earthly minerals, but that's certainly not what it was like the last time we saw it.

One thing I really like about this movie is the flying effect, how quiet and smooth and effortless it is for Superman, like he's swimming through the air. It's nice that we also see lots of Superman saving people, doing little things like stopping robberies and fires, though it's a little weird that Clark is distracted by seeing it on TV. It seems a bit self-indulgent.

We get the "it's a bird" line in the next scene, interrupted as the "truth, justice" line was earlier, and with a focus on a picture rather than the actual sky. One thing I notice watching this half of the film after Man of Steel is that the Superman fanservice bits here are a lot like the Christ imagery in Man of Steel: they exist mostly (if not solely) to say "look! It's that familiar thing! Remember this?" At least the messianic stuff in this movie feels a bit more like it fits thematically.

The bit where Clark, Lois, and Perry are talking about story assignments, and the way it all breaks down, underscore two of the major themes about the film. Clark is passive; the only time he really speaks up is to ask Jimmy how Lex Luthor got out (and learns that it was kind of his fault, another thing that went wrong without Superman around), while Lois is clearly annoyed that Clark gets her story, and mentions their "relationship." I suppose it's still ambiguous, but I think the implication that she knows/remembers and is irritated by him trying to play the game, trying to slip back into their old roles as if nothing happened, is made even stronger here. It's giving me a new appreciation for Kate Bosworth in this role.

Kitty confronts Lex about putting her life in real danger, which gives us an interesting wrinkle to Lex's character. Is this cavalier attitude toward the safety of the people closest to him meant to be a contrast to Superman's deep concern for everyone around him, or is Lex so confident in Superman's abilities and predictability that he knows he'll save Kitty and simply doesn't worry about it? Or some combination of both? It makes Lex delightfully sociopathic.

It's not made clear how Lex's tools are able to shape the kryptonite when they had such difficulty cutting through the sunstone. I guess kryptonite isn't as robust? Or maybe they used bits of sunstone to do it? But then, the matter of what sorts of things from Krypton are indestructible is kind of fuzzy anyway.

Lois and Richard talking about Superman, with Lois rattling off info from her "I Spent The Night With Superman" column, is a super-awkward infodump. Clark shrugs it off, and Lois kind of ditches him for a smoke, which Superman thwarts. She tells Superman "Just wasn't," and any doubt I had that she's just fed up with the dual identity game is eradicated. He gives her an interview, in which she tells him that the world's moved on, that "the world doesn't need a savior, and neither do I."

They go for a flight, and it further demonstrates how effortless and smooth flying is for Superman in this film. It's a shame that it has to come on the back of Superman trying to make time with an engaged woman.

I do like the "You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear the world crying out for one" line. Not so much the "I'm sorry I left you, Lois. I'll take you back now" double-entendre, which treats her like an object and acts like a big screw you to Richard. Their flight takes them past the Lane/White house, and Lois clearly has some second thoughts. How easy it is to slip into old habits and forget the present.

I do like the art deco aesthetic of this film. It's what saves the darker color palette of Superman's costume for me, since everything has that more washed-out feel.

Superman finds out the Fortress has been broken into, Lois tracks down the source of the blackout, and then realizes she needs to pick Jason up from school. Which then leads to her investigating the blackout with kid in tow. It makes sense, honestly, especially given the themes of this film. Lois's habit has typically been to rush into dangerous situations without a thought for her own safety, figuring it out on the fly. But things have changed for her as well, much though she might wish/act like they hadn't.

It's kind of nuts that she leaves her cell phone in the car but takes her kid with. Come on, Lois.

The wig-based reveal is a genuinely creepy moment, and then they run into Lex in his robe, brushing his teeth. It's great to see Lex disarmed like that.


The banter between Lex and Lois is great, especially since Lois has every reason to agree with him regarding Superman. She does a little hostage negotiating, and manages to finagle an interview, which is kind of classic Lois.

Lex's land scheme is contrived, but Kevin Spacey's portrayal is so perfectly gleeful. Let me digress a moment here, because his plan gets a lot of flak, and while it's not great, it's not the "why would anyone want to live on a continent of kryptonite" stupidity that people make it out to be. It's pretty clear that Lex set this plan in motion before he knew that Superman had returned, so for all he knew, he was going to end up with a continent of Kryptonian sunstone, complete with crazy technology like holographic projectors and molecule chambers, but at the very least, with the combined knowledge of an entire super-advanced alien race at his disposal. The kryptonite was an afterthought, a contingency plan enacted when Superman returned. I suppose he'd still end up with an island made of kryptonite, but he'd also have all that alien technology to go with it, and we have no reason to think in this reality that kryptonite affects humans (in fact, I think they've said the opposite).

Lois using her young son to create a diversion is kind of the worst parenting ever, especially when the only song her kid knows is typically played by two people. And then she sends a distress call via fax machine.

Lex's island grows, Jason throws a piano at a predator, and Lex's henchmen learn Lois Lane--and Jason White's--secret. Other people had problems with Lex's plan, I have issues with the way that Kryptonian/human biology seems to combine to make a sickly asthmatic kid who's immune to kryptonite but has flashes of super-strength.

Superman flies to save Lois, seeing the seismological disturbance on the way, and realizes he has to choose between her and Metropolis. Hey, Superman placed into an impossible moral dilemma? Where have I seen that before?

The action of Superman saving people and stopping disasters in Metropolis is pretty well done, especially saving the Daily Planet globe, even if he has to set it on a car at the end. Better than putting it where it can fall down again, I guess.

Richard White saves Lois and Jason, which is a great moment for him. They could have made his character really terrible, but I'm glad he's such a good, nice person. He really steals the show. Of course, the stakes raise along with the ship, and suddenly Richard and his seaplane aren't quite enough to save his family. And that's when Superman shows up. I love that it's Superman and Richard working together who manage to save Lois and Jason.

So here's the other thing people have a problem with in this climax: "how can Superman get so close to an island made of kryptonite?" As if the whole point of this ending weren't Superman working against absolutely impossible odds to save the day, take a look at the island:

Is it glowing green? No, it's not even the shiny translucent green that kryptonite tends to be in this film. It's mostly black rock (no relation) because the sunstone crystal took the properties of the crystal material surrounding it as it grew (otherwise this island would have only as much kryptonite as was in that cylinder Lex had cut). When it fell into the crevasse in the ocean, it became surrounded by rock just as much as it was surrounded by kryptonite. This resulted in an island with a more layered structure: sunstone, kryptonite, and normal (probably basaltic) oceanic rock. Superman's affected by kryptonite to be sure, but the effect diminishes with distance. With all that rock between him and the pockets of kryptonite, it's no wonder that the effect is diminished, and no wonder that he's able to do some super-feats despite its presence.

With that out of the way, we get to the climactic confrontation, Superman in a desolate wasteland not unlike the Krypton he visited in the deleted scene. Superman's "I see an old man's sick joke" line to Luthor resonates with the deeper themes of the film.

That shot of the sweat on Superman's temple is the greatest indication that he's not invincible, and it's similarly great that Lex picks up on it before Superman does. Superman gets kicked while he's down. It's kind of terrible that Superman's the only character who really doesn't get to throw a punch in this scene, and it hearkens back to Clark's beating at the hands of the truck driver in Superman II. He couldn't even put up a token defense?

Naturally Lex stabs him in the side, and Superman falls off the edge of the island, and the scene of him struggling in the water probably doesn't need the disembodied voice of Jor-El. The scene of the plane landing over Superman is a nice reversal of Superman landing on the boat door that we had earlier, and Lois dives down to save him for once. The one person who's not afraid to tug on Superman's cape.

Naturally, once he's recovered, he still has a job to do, and unlike the last time he left, he tells Lois "goodbye."

Then it's a quick trip into the sunlight, and he uses a bit of intellect to solve the problem, drilling down into the oceanic crust to get far enough below the island that the kryptonite doesn't affect him as much. And then he lifts the whole damn continent out of the water.

Doing the "aircraft appears to fall but is actually flying just fine" bit twice is a bit much.

Superman tosses the island back into space and falls to Earth, unconscious, in a crucifixion pose that makes at least a thousand times more sense than the one he had in Man of Steel.

The scene of the hospital workers trying to save him is a pretty great moment, and leads to a little fakeout of Perry and Richard standing in front of a "Superman is Dead" headline, which turns out the be a mock-up, alongside a "Superman Lives" one.

It's a pretty decent gag, and leads to Richard White offering to take Lois and Jason to the hospital, to join the vigil. Once again, Richard gets a lot of really small heroic moments in this film, and while the story has put him in a crappy position, the filmmakers ensure that you really can't dislike him. And he's confident that Lois will come back.

Jason's "is he going to get better? I like him" dialogue is kind of clunky even for a little kid. Lois tells the unconscious Superman a secret, and hey Ma Kent is there in the crowd!

There's a little poetic justice as Lex and Kitty end up stranded on some beachfront property, and it seems all Superman needed was a little R&R, and the approval of a child, because he's no longer in the hospital room. Meanwhile, Lois is writing a rebuttal to her Pulitzer-winning article, and Superman is creeping on his love child upstairs.

He recites Jor-El's speech about being alone, and aside from the nonsensical "the father becomes the son" bit, it's pretty touching. But at least part of it makes more sense in this case, because here the Last Son of Krypton has indeed become a father, at least in a biological sense. Still no fathers becoming sons.

Superman and Lois have that "Will we see you around" exchange again, though here it tinged with hope and relief rather than annoyance. Superman flies around the city, and then we get Brandon Routh in the flight end sequence that ended every previous Superman film. It really is a pretty fitting ending to the entire series, even if it is meant to be a sequel to a version of the second movie that was never entirely finished and ignores the third and fourth movies and also parts of the second movie.

Overall: I think I actually like this film more now than I did the last time I watched it, and I think it's largely because of themes that I'd never really noticed before. "Superman Returns" is ultimately a movie about nostalgia, and about Superman's place in the modern world. Bear with me.

The film starts (or at least, was intended to start) with Superman returning to Krypton, literally retreating back into his past in the hope that things are better than he thought they were. But in doing so, he neglects the rest of his life, and the world moves on without him. When he returns, he tries to start up right where he left off, but there's no place left for him anymore (literally, in Clark's case). He's an outsider, staring in, while these bits of his past that he tried to leave behind keep coming back to harm him and others. Only by completely throwing away those artifacts from the past--which kills him--can he be reborn and returned to some semblance of normalcy. In order to rejoin humanity, Superman must reject Krypton entirely, keeping only the memories.

The other aspect is more metafictional, I think, looking not just into the problem of nostalgia, but into the problem of Superman. When you remove Superman from the picture, these characters around him are able to move on, to change and grow. Lois gets a family and a Pulitzer, Ma Kent starts a relationship, even Lex changes his tactics to embark on a new, more ambitious plan. But when Superman is there, things stagnate. He's a relic from this past time who doesn't fit into a modern world. The patterns have changed, the people around him for once have been allowed to change, and Superman's trying to get them to return to old routines, old characterizations. It's almost an argument against serialized fiction, that these characters could be allowed to grow and change if not for the demands of the medium locking them into predetermined roles and repetitive stories. And look at how everyone is forced back into routines they'd abandoned as soon as Superman is back, and the tension that produces with the characters like Richard and Jason who don't fit that mold.

It's a movie where Superman is a metaphor for Superman, asking the question of whether or not Superman can still fit in a world that has changed so much, and if Superman isn't just holding these other characters back by his presence. Goyer and Snyder read "Birthright," but I'm beginning to suspect that Singer read "Must There Be a Superman?"

The problem is, in part, that the film is too clever for its own good in this regard. It's telling a story about Superman being stuck in the past by itself being stuck in the past. And what's more, it never answers the problem. Superman's stuck in the past even at the end, and there's no real resolution to the problem of Superman fitting into the modern world, unless the solution is "Superman needs to be for kids," which is a definite possibility.

Superman Returns is not a perfect Superman movie. It does some uncomfortable things with Superman's character, and it's never particularly upbeat. And while it may be trying to make a point about nostalgia and being stuck in the past, it's still overly nostalgic and stuck in the past. But I think it's a deeper and better movie than people typically give it credit for, and I'm happy to say that I enjoy it on a different level now than I did seven years ago when I gushed about it on this nascent blog.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

My Story

So, this past Sunday my friend and one-time comic supplier Eric Garneau invited me up to Chicago to be a part of a special event. Eric's a member of The Nerdologues, a comedy troupe focused on nerd culture. They do a regular event called "Your Stories," where people tell personal and/or funny stories on a particular topic, which is kind of like a nerdy open-mic meets This American Life. Sunday, they teamed up with the Chicago Loot Drop charity to do a fundraiser event including a MST3K-style commentary on Superman: The Movie. Before that, though, they did a special Superman-themed Your Stories, where I got to talk a bit about Superman alongside some other really cool people, including super-fan and fellow Stand-Up Comics customer Jim Snedeker, Terry Midnight of Third Coast Comics, the Nerdologues' Chris Geiger, and Art Baltazar of Aw Yeah Comics, Superman Family Adventures, Tiny Titans, Green Team, and some other awesome books.

The event was a blast, and it was great to hang out and chat with other Superman super-fans. People seemed to enjoy my story as well, and you can judge for yourself when it's released as a podcast sometime next month. I'll be sure to put up a link when it shows up in my feed. I'd love to do it again, and I've got a couple of new comic shops to stop at next time I'm in downtown Chicago or Skokie.

On an unrelated note, the only thing left on my Superman Returns post is to takes some screenshots, so I should have that done by the end of the weekend.