Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Just like an old time movie, 'bout a ghost from a wishing well"

Weeks ago, I delved into the dangerous terrain of SUPERMAN III, and in my travel I was able to glean some insight about the nature of Superman and the character's hold over us. As stated in that previous essay, the most interesting aspect of the otherwise dismal movie is Superman's choice to either revel in his superiority to humanity, or to keep it in check, the better to relate to the citizens he has chosen to live among. It's a conflict that many of us go through every single day - we may not have extraordinary powers, but we have those moments like choosing whether to embarrass the office dullard when he has facts wrong or otherwise let him have his moment, whether to have it out with that rude store clerk or try to be nice and empathize with what is making them so grouchy - and thus we can relate to feeling like we're the superior person, but choosing not to be a dick about it in public, even if the result is having to watch someone else continue in their own dickitude.

So much credit for that relatability must go to Christopher Reeve. Probably not since Leonard Nimoy put on pointed ears or Boris Karloff wore bolts and platform boots did an actor so perfectly inhabit a character to the point where fans were hard pressed to separate man from role, and while initially chafing at the typecasting, the actor would ultimately embrace how much that portrayal transformed into positive energy for the whole world. Reeve understood this quite well, and used it to a practical advantage when producers coaxed him to return for one more flight with the cape: he not only leveraged the making of his pet project STREET SMART as a condition to appear in SUPERMAN IV, he also came up with the film's central theme of Superman as world pacifier, attempting to calm the planet by eradicating nuclear weapons, an issue which meant a lot to Reeve and millions of others in the waning-but-still-tense days of the first Cold War. The film ultimately became an infamous disappointment, even more reviled than SUPERMAN III, both due to the inherent real-world limitations of the story (Superman determines that unilateral disarmament is impossible without the will of all rulers), and the ridiculously cheap budget, script, and shooting schedule afforded him by Cannon Films. But aside from a little ribbing in the press, Reeve still enjoyed enormous public goodwill, and had he chosen to make another appearance as the gregarious superhero (which, for a short time, looked possible with a finished script and contract negotiations), fans would have eagerly lined up to see the return.

Thus, when the world grasped the enormity of Reeve's horse-jumping accident, that barring a miracle he would never walk or raise a finger again, not only was there enormous sadness that a nice fellow like him suffered such a terrible misfortune, there was probably also some less-relevant (but no less heartfelt) dejection that Reeve would not get to redeem the Superman legacy that he had so skillfully created onscreen. And as we all watched him demonstrate genuine, amazing heroics in his campaign for fresh thought on paralysis treatment and in his physical rehabilitation, including, yes, lifting a finger on command, we shared humongous pride in his achievements, but still felt a little wistfulness that were he to beat the odds and stand tall again (as so tantalizingly suggested by his 2000 Super Bowl commercial for Nuveen Investments), he would change the history of spinal injuries, but he would never be able to change that SUPERMAN IV was his finale as the Man of Steel, a fate neither the fictional hero or this real-life hero deserved. Sure, there would be attempts to continue or relaunch the series without him (including the notorious debacle of SUPERMAN REBORN, where despite the participation of Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and Nicolas Cage, Warner Brothers spent $30 million with not a single frame of film shot), and there would be respectful acknowledgements to what he established (In the TV series "SMALLVILLE," Reeve appeared twice as a doctor and spiritual counselor to collegeiate Clark Kent, essentially passing the torch for a new generation of fans), but for everyone who grew up with Reeve as Superman, neither of these felt quite right. Despite every bit of logic that hit us like a speeding bullet, we wanted Reeve's Superman, our Superman, back.

Five years ago, around this time of summer, is when SUPERMAN RETURNS played in American theatres. Producer/director Bryan Singer, who had been successfully navigating the rival comic book movie franchise X-MEN for Marvel Comics and 20th Century Fox, had come up with the story idea for the film, and more importantly, was the first of the almost dozens of screenwriters that had passed under the WB watertower to seriously suggest that the first two SUPERMAN films directed by Richard Donner serve as canonical backstory for this new movie; that for all purposes, it would be a true "threequel" to those films, and completely ignore the unloved parts III and IV. In contrast to Christopher Nolan, who wisely intuited that Batman fans had enough of the elements from the previous 4-film series and were ready for him to start from zero with BATMAN BEGINS, Singer wisely intuited that the primary audience for a new Superman film very much still loved what had been established previously, and wanted more of the same. Newcomer Brandon Routh clearly carried the appearance, and to a lesser degree, the demeanor, of a young Christopher Reeve; co-star Kevin Spacey had the natural mix of smarm and charm that fit the template for Lex Luthor established by Gene Hackman. Naturally, he also insisted on the use of elements from John Williams' legendary score. Also, taking advantage of the approval of Donner and the nullification by death of Marlon Brando's longstanding contractual gripes with the studio, Singer was able to integrate previously unused footage and dialogue of Brando as Superman's Kryptonian father Jor-El into this project. This was already a wedding cake of Comic-Con-Cosmic levels, with cameos by TV's original "ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN" stars Noel Neill and Jack Larson as jordan almonds on the table. Again, Singer was hardly being altruistic by his choices. Everyone involved in its creation wanted to see this film make Superman a viable franchise again, so he was making what he thought were the best choices to get the mythical four quadrants into the theatre: familiar images for the older crowd, modern action staging for the younger crowd. And for all the linking to the older series, this was to be the start of a new storytelling line, with almost all the main creative personnel locked under contract for sequels, so this was less about continuing Donner & Reeve's legacy but transitioning it into Singer & company's future.

Most observers have determined that ultimately, SUPERMAN RETURNS delivered a push: hardly a failure, but not the success the studio suits wanted. The movie delivered good, though often mixed, critical reviews, and delivered very good box office returns for Warner Brothers, though still not good enough for them to muster complete enthusiasm into putting the planned followup into production. It did not make leading man Brandon Routh a sensation as the first SUPERMAN did for its rising star, but he continued to deliver great performances in later films like ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, so it hardly hurt him either. But these dry data readings ignore an admittedly quiet detail that makes the movie significant to me years after it has been mostly forgotten. What it delivered to me, and I suspect, to many of the people who went to see it, was something that from all public appearances, was an unintended by-product, yet I believe in my heart was a secret goal for its producer/director/originator Bryan Singer: to everyone for whom the death of Christopher Reeve was still a gaping emotional wound, it provided closure.

If Superman is the hero we count on to fix things which we believe cannot done by ourselves, then SUPERMAN RETURNS is the movie that is trying to fix a filmic past that had been thought irreparable. Which is problematic because if Superman previously left movie screens looking foolish, this movie often gets weighted by gravitas. While there is certainly lightness and humor to be found, especially in all scenes with Parker Posey as Lex Luthor's half-hearted henchwoman, there is an attempt at a more serious tone to the performances and story, no doubt to counterract the forced slapstick of III and IV, so much so that it put off some critics, notably previous Superman partisan Roger Ebert, who described the movie as "glum...dutiful instead of exhilarating." Ebert's assessment is most applicable to the film's particularly somber third act, where Superman, weakened both by being stabbed by Kryptonite and launching the giant land mass created by Lex Luthor into space, must be rescued by Lois Lane's husband, and spends time comatose in hospital, with doctors attempting surgery but unable to penetrate his body to examine or operate, as the world waits in vigil for him to recover. Understandably, since Old and New Testament Messianic metaphors have been integral to the history of Superman since he emerged from Siegel and Shuster's inkwell, most viewers and critics took this story thread as Singer making heavy-handed allusion to the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth...which, let's be honest, is almost always a buzzkiller or at the least a tired pretense. But there's actually more to this particular segment that puts the whole movie in perspective.

What Singer must have understood in his original treatment, and consequently puts into practice in his execution, is that since Reeve's life has been haunting the Superman legacy, this movie must perform an exorcism. However, unlike most haunting stories, where the ghost won't leave until he finishes the business left behind by untimely death, it is we, the living, who are keeping his ghost captive until we feel the business is finished. SUPERMAN RETURNS begins with a dedication to Christopher and Dana Reeve that a packed Westwood Village midnight show audience applauded more noisily than one would expect for your average onscreen honorarium, and as it unfolds to tell how Metropolis goes from resigned cynicism to a renewed civic involvement upon his return, for as much as the movie is ostensibly about welcoming Superman home, it is also very much about offering Reeve a proper goodbye. Again, since Routh was chosen because of his resemblence to Reeve, one senses that the casting choice is not just to offer a familiar-looking face to the audience, but on a subliminal level, to initiate a gentleman's agreement between Singer and the audience that Routh will be portraying both Superman and Reeve. Therefore, in the last Sirkian quarter of the film, Singer is depicting an alternate history for our beloved superhero and movie star...where we as ordinary mortals came to his aid when he was near death, we did everything in our power to heal him, and we were able to see our devotion succeed: his hospital bed is empty, he leaves under his own power. Our hero is whole again, and we helped make it happen. That too, is a bit of a Biblical concept ("When I was naked, you gave me your coat; When I was sick, you looked after me..."), but it is also an effective element in the better superhero films (SPIDER-MAN 2 is elevated to greatness in its scene where a very vulnerable Peter Parker finds unlikely help from the public), and most importantly, it understands our relationship with Reeve the man: after his accident, if we as fans believed there was an action we could do to help him, we did it. We wrote him letters of support, contributed to his favored charities, and certainly would have given him even more direct help if the opportunity arose. Thus even after his death, we were tightly clinging to the ghost of Reeve because he was so good in the movies and so enormously great in his most challenging hours, and because Superman looked a little silly in III taking on a weak villain and frankly got punked in IV because he had to defer to all the governments (including our own) who wanted to keep their nukes. So to alleviate these residual regrets, Singer allows us one last chance to see the serious and strong hero that Reeve was in reality and that Superman should have been on screen, and we watch that image walk, jump, and fly away one more time; all we had to do was agree to believe in this kindest of illusions, to pretend that it wasn't Brandon Routh in the costume. And when it was over, like Demi uttering "Ditto" into the white light, we could let his ghost go now.

The Superman saga is now truly starting again from zero, as the upcoming film MAN OF STEEL, to be directed by Zack Snyder from a David S. Goyer screenplay, has announced casting for Jor-El, Clark Kent's parents, and other characters associated with his origin story. Fans are divided as to whether having the screenwriter of other successful comic book adaptations will make the series fresh, or if having the director of SUCKER PUNCH will plunge the franchise into a swamp so deadly not even Solomon Grundy could emerge from it. The underlying suggestion by this new project is that Singer and Routh failed to make moviegoers accept their new Superman. But in the most heartfelt moments of SUPERMAN RETURNS, they did the next best thing, which was to put the spectre of Christopher Reeve to rest and make it possible for moviegoers to accept any new Superman in the first place.


  1. I instantly clicked on the link to this entry when I recognized a Gordon Lightfoot lyric. (One of my favorite songs....but separate tangent). Here's what I thought about while reading this: 1. What makes a hero, real or imagined? 2. How do we envision that hero? In the case of Reeve as Superman, yes, who else could have played him? When he got hurt, it wasn't just Reeve being injured for the public. It was Superman with his back broken. I think he understood this better than anyone, and used it to draw awareness to his cause. That indeed was made he him more than just another actor or movie star. Also, I'm sure it played a part in me not going to see Superman Returns. Maybe I should have? I don't know. Wonderful post, and I applaud you for writing something of length and substance. I've seen too many top 10 lists lately (my own included).

  2. Great retrospect on the character. I wish I liked Superman Returns more than I did. And the Reeve accident still troubles me.

  3. Your insight overcame my initial apologist skepticism. I've been struggling to find a place for Supes Returns in the annals of history...and you just provided it, Boyo