Tip of the Quill: A Journal
Superman Returns.

Updated. After I had a chance to think about the film a little more in-depth, I decided to go back in and tighten the focus of my review, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Superman Returns

So this Fourth of July weekend has served as a reunion on several different fronts – my MIT friends Sam and Amanda Ford are here, crashing with me to check out a new apartment for the fall, and my Kenyon friend Dan Nickerson is also staying here for the night on his way through town. We met up with my other Kenyon friend Ryan Ruopp for dinner at John Harvard’s before proceeding to the AMC at Fenway to catch a late showing of Superman Returns.

Superman, Batman, and The Cheese Factor

My feelings on Superman Returns are mixed. I grew up watching the Christopher Reeve versions on TV with my parents – I remember shuddering at the idea of the Phantom Zone and being transfixed by General Zod. I remember those films with an appreciation for their cheese factor. These were not “cool” films, a fact thrown into sharp relief after the release of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. That movie was cool. It was beautiful, it was Gothic, it was dark. There was no darkness to Superman – in fact, Superman is designed to be about as anti-dark as you can get. And, to me at least, that darkness was cool.
Usually a good barometer of a boy is asking the simple question, “Batman or Superman?” I’d always pick Batman, hands down – he had cooler toys, he relied on his brains instead of ridiculous superpowers, and he was dark. Plus, Batman always offered the remote possibility that if you played your cards right, if you trained properly and made the right investments, you might actually be able to become Batman. You could never be Superman, because he was born a hero. Batman made himself a hero. Where Batman was at least marginally plausible, Superman was literally unbelievable.
That’s why Superman Returns strikes me as an odd movie. I loved Bryan Singer’s work on X-Men and X2, and so even though I was dubious I was still looking forward to this film. It’s certainly not a bad film, although it’s plagued by plot holes you could fly a battered, broken 747 through. Kevin Spacey turns in a strong performance as Lex Luthor, Brandon Routh does a servicable job as Clark Kent, and Kate Bosworth, while looking like she’s twelve for most of the film, is a decent Lois Lane. Further, the film does what a film does well – the special effects are gorgeous and the great sweeping panoramic vistas are fantastic. But – and this is a big but – the flm is almost a case study in the strengths and weaknesses of different types of media.
Superman by Degrees
Perhaps the perfect example of this line of reasoning can be found in Lex Luthor. Spacey’s interpretation of the world’s richest, baldest supervillain is by turns charming and funny, although he never quite achieves true evil maniac status the way Jack Nicholson did in Burton’s original Batman or Cillian Murphy did in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins. More to the point, as my friend Ryan pointed out after the film, Spacey’s Luthor doesn’t quite achieve the erudite intelligence and plausible sinister genius of the animated Lex Luthor from the recent Justice League and Justice League Unlimited TV series, which was voiced by Clancy Brown, who also played Brother Justin Crowe in HBO’s Carnivale. Nor does Spacey achieve the tantalizing moral ambivalence and heartwrenching sympathy-for-the-devil quirks of Michael Rosenbaum’s master turn as a young Luthor in Smallville. Spacey’s Luthor steals most of the scenes he’s in, but he definitely feels flat by comparison – actually, he feels two-dimensional.
This may seem to be an obvious criticism of a comic book villain, but Rosenbaum and Brown both brought real depth and nuance to their Luthors. The animated Luthor had occasional moments of internal conflict, and he was a delight to watch as he concocted scheme after scheme and constantly jockeyed for position with other Superman villains like Brainiac and Darkseid. He was ruthless and brilliant and occasionally darkly noble – even occasionally reminding me of an Aaron Sorkin character.
Rosenbaum, on the other hand, did something unique with his Luthor: he made him almost heroic. In the first few seasons of Smallville, Rosenbaum’s Luthor constantly and consistently stole the show by demonstrating a rarely-seen side of Lex. Rosenbaum’s Luthor wasn’t evil so much as he was a “morality-free zone”, as my friend Shannon Farney used to say. This Luthor was suave and charismatic, but he was also extremely loyal. This Luthor suffered from a horrible relationship with his father, constantly yearned to prove himself to his surrogate father figure Pa Kent (played by John “Bo Duke” Schneider), and struggled to establish a genuinely close friendship with Tom Welling’s Clark Kent. This Othello-like performance makes Smallville more like The Tragedy of Lex Luthor – as the seasons progress, we see how Clark’s desperation to conceal his alien heritage repeatedly frustrates Lex’s desire for friendship, and fuels Lex’s drive to discover Clark’s secret. Further, as Clark (and the other citizens of Smallville) turn to Lex for assistance only when they need financial help or some kind of professional connection and otherwise turn their back on him, we get to watch as Luthor’s moral compass gets slowly and definitely skewed. It’s simultaneously horrible to watch and yet completely compelling.
None of this comes through in Spacey’s Luthor.
True, by the time we meet this Superman and this Luthor, they’ve known each other for a long time (and the film is definitely not in Smallville continuity), but it’s not the slow decline I miss – it’s the nuance of character. Sadly, Brandon Routh falters similarly as The Man of Steel. He does an okay job, but he also feels two-dimensional. True, it’s hard doing a nuanced Superman when Big Blue is designed to be almost devoid of any character flaws, but Routh’s Superman is neither as noble and inspiring as George Newbern’s animated Superman from Justice League or as emotionally interesting as Tom Welling’s turn in Smallville. Routh does deliver some genuinely funny and fairly human peformances in the guise of Clark Kent, but this is where Singer and company drop the ball – where Batman is a disguise for Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent is the disguise for Jor-El. Routh’s Superman seems more at home in Clark Kent mode, and that’s when we find him the most sympathetic. I think, if I remember correctly (which I might not be), Christopher Reeve’s Superman felt more real as Superman than as Clark Kent. Routh’s Superman feels too godly, operating at too much of a separation from the mortal human characters. One of the great running gags in Superman stories is watching Superman try to pass as a small, unassuming weakling, but aside from the accidental breaking of a glass picture frame, we don’t get much of that in Superman Returns.
What Films Do Versus What Television and Comics Do
Where this gets really interesting to us Comparative Media Studies geeks is in how this demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of each medium. Comics and television are both long-form narrative tools, whereas films are delivered (usually) in shorter, 2-hour bursts. Assuming an hourlong TV drama has 22 45-minute episodes in a season, that means Smallville has 16.5 hours to develop their characters versus a film’s paltry two (or, in the case of Superman Returns, two and a half). A cartoon like Justice League usually has about 13 episodes in a season, each one running about 20 minutes long after commercials, so that’s 260 minutes or 4.3 hours. Sure, these shows also have to dedicate a certain amount of time for stuff blowing up or else big chunks of their audience will go back to their PlayStations, but still – especially over the course of multiple seasons, a TV show necessarily offers characters more room to grow.
As for comics, assuming each issue of a comic is around 16 pages, multiply that by 12 and you get 192 pages. According to Superman’s Wikipedia entry, Supes made his debut in the first issue of Action Comics in June 1938 – so that’s sixty-eight years’ worth of Superman comics. Even if you assumed there was only one Superman comic running continuously from then until now (which ought to send any comic geek into hysterics), that collected comic would be thirteen thousand and fifty-six pages long. 13,056 pages – the Modern Library edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace clocks in at a whopping 1,424 pages, but this collected Superman would be almost ten times as long. (Although it just might take much less time to read.)
Another area where film, TV and comics go head-to-head is in the sheer bang-for-your-buck factor. I’m not talking exclusively about how much entertainment a consumer gets dollar-for-dollar from a $3.95 comic versus a $10 movie ticket (although that should enter into this somewhere), I’m talking about special effects budgets. Comics actually come out ahead on this one – couple a writer with some imagination with a skilled artist and anything goes. Alan Moore obliterated New York with giant calamari in Watchmen, Neil Gaiman took us to Heaven, Hell and everywhere in between in Sandman: Season of Mists, and if you consider all the times that the universe has been destroyed and reassembled in any given book in the DC or Marvel universes… If you tasked Lucasfilm and the WETA Workshop with putting all of that onto film – at least 12 times a year, no less! – it’d be finacially apocalyptic. According to The Numbers, the budget for just 2.5 hours’ worth of Superman Returns was $209 million. True, the digital wizards in Hollywood can do just about anything these days, but wizards still don’t come cheap.
That said, film still takes the silver in this category. A distant third for budgeting is television, which is why special effects on TV shows still look weak compared to their silver screen big brothers. According to multiple sources, including Henry Jenkins’ recent blog entry “More on Firefly and the Long Tail, the budget for Joss Whedon’s Serenity was $1M per episode. That’s a lot of visual effects, assume 45 minutes per episode and you still come out to less than a third of the runtime of Superman Begins. (The budget for Serenity was close to $40M.) True, I’m sure most of Superman Begins’ payroll went to Singer and Spacey, but still – $209 million smackers divided by 2.5 hours is $83.6 million bucks an hour – 2.5 hours is 150 minutes, and $209M divided by 150 is a little more than $1.39M – which means that each minute of Superman Returns cost more than an entire episode of Firefly. By extension, that means that you could theoretically have produced almost ten years’ worth of Firefly for the wad that Warner Brothers blew on Superman Returns.
Now, I’m sure some of you are screaming about how much crazy money Superman Returns will generate for the studio, and how poorly Serenity did at the box office by comparison, and I’m not going to argue that point. Sure, Chris Anderson’s “nichebusters” probably won’t turn in the ridiculously high ticket sales of these full-fledged $209M blockbusters, but they certainly seem like they could be more profitable.
Do films necessarily need bigger budgets than TV shows? No. Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mirrormask was made for only $4M and brought in over $860,000 in its super-limited theatrical release (which sounds awful until one realizes that Mirrormask was originally intended to only be a direct-to-video film). The key is to realize what each type of media does particularly well – films provide great, sweeping vistas and overwhelming sensory experiences. Wide panoramic shots work well on big theater screens but don’t necessarily work as well on smaller TV screens. (Mobisodes and iPod video stuff get weird here because of how close you hold the screen to your eyes – a 2.5-inch screen held up to your nose can look bigger than a 60-inch screen hanging on the other side of a large room.) Films don’t have as much time for character development as long-running TV shows, comics or novels.
So what do independent, web-based, zero-budget online TV shows do better than all these older media? Yeah. We’re working on that. 🙂
Up, Up and Away
All media specialties aside, let’s get back to Superman Returns. So far it sounds like I’m roundly panning this movie, but I’m really not, and here’s why. Somewhere around the halfway point of the film I found myself thinking differently about the Superman/Batman concept I outlined earlier. For a moment, I found myself getting swept away by the cheesy goodness of Superman, wishing that all of America could get caught up in this notion of being a better person, a nearly perfect person, and incorporate into our daily lives the sense of light and hope and optimism that defines Superman, as opposed to the darkness and revenge that define Batman. There was a flicker of hope and admiration there, which reminded me of 1998, when the dotcom boom was in full swing and the whole world seemed full of opportunties. For that moment I was transported and elevated. For that moment, I was flying right alongside Big Blue.
That’s the reason, I suppose, that I would suggest that people go see it. Not for any truly spectacular writing or dialogue, but because in a political environment like our current one, it’s a refreshing feeling to once again see a solid demonstration of “Truth, Justice and the American Way” in action, untainted by things like Halliburton, the Patriot Act or Guantanamo Bay. It’s defnitely worth the ten bucks for that little breath of inspiration and hope.
Still, looking forward, unless there’s some seriously cool villain in the next Superman flick, I’m going back to Smallville and Batman.. What can I say? Hope’s great, but darkness is still cool.