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Friday, Aug. 25, 2006
A bird? A plane? Nah, just a blockbuster
One of the certainties of addiction to any drug -- be it crack, smack, or nicotine -- is that you'll always be chasing that first high. Tolerance builds up over time, and ever greater doses are required for diminishing returns. Sure, doubling your fix will bring back that old euphoria . . . for a while. Pretty soon you're tripling, quadrupling, and not feeling much of anything.
That seems to be about where we're all at with Hollywood blockbusters these days. Studios keep pushing the product, but the more they ramp up the budgets, the volume, and the lavish special effects, the less it seems to be doing anything. The rush I got oh-so-many years ago watching Indiana Jones outrun that juggernaut in "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," or that evil robot reassemble from drops of liquid metal in "Terminator 2," just keeps getting harder to find.
Take "Superman Returns," this summer's latest cinematic crack: There's a scene where the movie's faux-NYC Metropolis teeters on the verge of devastation as massive shock waves shake the skyscrapers and debris tumbles on passerbys. This should be exciting, right? But the idea of a CG-New York meeting the apocalypse yet again couldn't raise more than a yawn. I can't begin to think how many times I've seen a major American city obliterated on-screen in the past few years, and that's not including Osama's 9/11 show-stopper.
That's not a connection we should dismiss lightly: Just as Bollywood is synonymous with endless cheery song and dance routines. Hollywood's trademark is lavishly produced destruction, whether from natural disasters, evil space aliens, or British-accented bad guys. Given the amount of screen-time devoted to epic disaster -- the screams, the fireballs, the flying glass, the toppling buildings -- is it any wonder that terrorists would plan their own SFX-extravaganza too?
Like I said above, ever-increasing doses are required to make jaded viewers feel something. It's almost as if the American national psyche, through its endless fascination with Towering Infernos and Con Airs, had willed it into being.
I digress, but, not really: "Superman Returns" begins with the casual catastrophic explosion of Superman's home planet, Krypton, just a little background eye-candy as the credits roll. Returning to Earth after a five-year hiatus, Superman (Brandon Routh) stops at his parents' farm, checks in -- as alter-ego Clark Kent -- at The Daily Planet newspaper where he works, and bang, he's right off saving his flame/coworker journalist Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) from an accident involving a space shuttle and a 747. The scenes of passengers tossed around the cabin, smashed by flying baggage as the plane hurtles toward impact, ensure that this won't ever be in-flight entertainment.
The film's SFX sequences are, mercifully, not as relentless as "Pirates Of The Caribbean 2," but then again, no one's as relentless as Jerry Bruckheimer.
"Superman Returns" is helmed by director Brian Singer, fresh off the "X-Men" project, and like he did in those films, he makes much of the romantic mooching between the characters. Clark pines for Lois, who treats him like a bug; Superman wows her, but she's pissed at him for taking off for five years. Now she's hooked up with Daily Planet editor Richard (James Marsden), and also has a son, Jason, whose father may or may not be Richard. As usual, Lois somehow can't tell that Superman is Clark with his glasses off, which remains the film's most mystifying point.
Lex Luthor is back (Kevin Spacey, in for Gene Hackman) and this time the evil genius raids Superman's Arctic getaway for some magic crystals that he will use to grow a new continent and get rich off real estate. If this sounds absurd, well, it is. Even sillier is poor Parker Posey as Lex's "moll," Kitty, who seems to be some kind of ditzy 1930s "big-city girl" dropped into a 2000-something setting. Spacey is as smarmy as ever as Luthor, but his presence here only reminds you how far director Singer has fallen since "The Usual Suspects."
But "Superman Returns" isn't a bad film -- it's just entirely predictable and generic. This film could have been made in 1982, right after the first two "Superman" flicks; it's impossible to tell the difference. Brandon Routh could be a clone of Christopher Reeve, in both looks and performance; dead and gone Marlon Brando is back, thanks to the miracles of CGI; and composer John Ottman's score is a blatant regurgitation of all the crap orchestral overkill John Williams has spewed over the past three decades. At times, the soundtrack is inept; when Lois Lane walks into an empty room and sees a row of wigs (meaning THAT bald baddie Lex Luthor IS nearby), the soundtrack blares like the staircase scene in "Psycho" -- it's not clear whether this was meant to be an over-the-top joke or not.
Singer manages one or two ironic pokes at the "Superman" franchise -- the "It's a bird! It's a plane!" bit is slipped in nicely -- but for the most part, he plays it straight, and more than a little hokey. The Christ metaphors, seemingly irresistible to makers of comic-book cinema, are laid on a little too thick. "I have sent them you, my only son" intones Superman's dad, Jor-El (Brando), and a late scene sees the crimson-caped hero in full, arms-outstretched crucifixion pose. Unlike Christ, Superman is no pacifist, engaging in his own just war to uphold "truth and justice" (and "The American Way" is notably absent this time, a victim of globalized film markets, no doubt). A better filmmaker than Singer would have given the Man of Steel some hard choices in this department. But comic-book movies -- with the notable exception of "X-Men" -- eschew moral complexity in favor of easy Manicheanism. After "The Hulk," a couple of "Spiderman" and "X-Men" flicks, a fistful of "Batman," "Daredevil," "Catwoman," "The Fantastic Four," "Hellboy" and "Elektra," the non-otaku viewer may well decide enough is enough, and stop chasing the high.