Friday, February 11, 2011

Visual palettes again: Superman I and II vs. Superman Returns

The following image, I think, about says it all:

(click to enlarge)

The Richard Donner-designed 1978 and '80 films Superman and Superman II both had bright, cheery, colorful visual palettes ideally suited to movies about the smiling, good-natured Man of Tomorrow. Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns, on the other hand, had a more elegant and polished but also much darker, grimmer and brownish tone - indeed, the red on his Superman's suit isn't even red so much as maroon, and the whole movie looks as though it was shot through mud-colored nylon stockings. (That's the family-friendly metaphor, at any rate. You might imagine some other, equally fit ones.)

Now, I'm no Donner acolyte - I consider Superman and the recently-released cut of Superman II to be wretchedly disjointed, shamefully bloated and dramatically inert movies that are amongst our culture's most overpraised. Superman Returns, for all its many faults and shortcomings, at least has a steady directorial vision, and one that does a fairly good job of exploring alien existensial angst. But, to twist an old standby of Doctor Johnson's, though this may be done well, one is surprised to find it done at all. I've no doubt that this was a deeply personal theme for the Super-fan Singer, but as heartfelt and cinematically competent as the movie is, it nevertheless feels somehow off, and the above still mashup finally showed me why.

Naturally, however, San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick Lasalle got there first, upon the movie's release:
In the previous "Superman" series, the Lex Luthor scenes were often cartoony and tiresome, but [Kevin] Spacey -- with his quiet contempt and his aura of self-love -- turns Lex into someone we can understand, a loner and an epicure, who likes good music (though he never strays from the basic repertory), literature and beautiful surroundings but who can't connect with people. Every so often we look at him and see the distance between Luthor's self-image and his reality, and he becomes ridiculous and pathetic, in the way dictators sometimes are...

Actually, Spacey is so good that he's almost a problem. Who are you going to root for, the intelligent, enterprising human being with opera playing on the stereo, or this bulked-up space alien who's scared of a pretty girl?

It's Singer's Luthor who puts the plot in motion, gets all the best lines, and who starts the movie in a bad mood that's only worsened by the end, unlike Kal-El of Krypton and Earth, who by the closing credits has finally seemed to regain his jovial and, well, Super mojo. Since we mainly follow Superman during the story itself, maybe Singer could have somewhat redeemed his mistaken choice of a protagonist by ending the movie with a bright burst of Donner-ian glare. But how much niftier would it have been if he'd abandoned all pretense of really being interested in the dull Kent fellow and instead told the entire story from Lex's perspective?

After all, that's clearly the story upon which his movie's look seeks to focus.

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