It’s probably my own fault for buying into the hype, but Superman Returns left me cold. There’s not a lot of drama implicit in the story of an omnipotent alien from another planet, and I just can’t buy the “god walks among us” metaphors. Spider-Man is a real, troubled human being burdened with great responsibility; Batman is a human being wracked with guilt and obsessed with revenge; Daredevil is a literally broken man overcompensating for far more than just his disability. With Superman, it’s just plain hard to relate to an alien, even if he suffers such petty human problems as unrequited love.
An obvious point of conflict is conspicuously absent: instead of any jealousy or anger from Richard White (James “Cyclops” Marsden), he simply acquieses to his romantic rival. It’s more like Superman to be above & beyond mere mortal jealousy; what makes White so noble? Perhaps he’s intimidated by Superman’s sheer potency. Just as the character is defined by nepotism (he’s the Daily Planet’s editor-in-chief’s son), Marsden is Bryan Singer’s X-Man star who was conspicuously erased very early in Brett Ratner’s X3. Hmm…
Another disappointment: whereas Spider-Man 2 exuded a strong sense of New York, Superman Return’s fictional Metropolis is a blank, generic city without character. It’s a timeless locale – the present, yet nostalgic – where when a superhero returns from across the galaxy to save them, the citizens all run out and buy newspapers.
As for the cast, Parker Posey wins for best screen presence. While Kevin Spacey gurns, hams, and scenery-chomps, she scores laughs with mere looks on her face. There was a lot of concern over the casting of a relatively inexperienced former soap star for the lead, but I thought Brandon Routh was just fine. Kate Bosworth (made up to look like Rachel McAdams), however, is was too young to be plausible as a star journalist with a five-year-old kid, and to be at all appealing to (yes I have to say it again) an omnipotent alien from another planet. Points detracted for dull, overhyped outtakes of Marlon Brando’s mumbled improv bullshit, and shafting screen legend Eva Marie Saint with about 5 minutes of screen time.
For all the negative buzz regarding Alan Moore’s total disavowal of the adaptation, I was surprised to find the film kept far closer to the book than I expected. Closer, in fact, than the two other travesties of Moore’s comics, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s better than both, if by itself still not very good.
It’s impossible for me to imagine how I would have reacted had I not read the book several times, but I suspect I would have had very mixed feelings either way. When if comes to movies based on comics, it’s the prerogative of every fanboy to obsess over “what they changed.” So let me point out a few changes I feel illustrate how the filmmakers either misunderstood or deliberately warped some key themes that make the book what it is.
First, Evey’s life (and the future Great Britain, for that matter) as seen in the film is in a far less desperate state than in the book. The book opens with her at the absolute end of hope, her parents dead and herself alone, blacklisted and unable to survive. She makes a misguided and pathetic attempt to prostitute herself, runs afoul of the corrupt police, and is “saved” (in more ways than one) by V. Her susceptibility to V’s seduction is much more plausible if she herself is already a victim of the state. In the film, she’s a rather happy person with a regular job, and her encounter with V is motivated by a redundant invented character called Deitrich. Every theme Deitrich represents is already covered by the character Valerie (which is, incidentally, lifted almost unaltered from the book).
But perhaps the biggest deviation is the very nature of the fascist state Great Britain has become. In the book, it’s something that just happens; a form of order that arises out of the chaos following a nuclear world war. In the film, the great societal disruption is a conspiracy machinated by a cabal of shadowy old white men, who then step in and profit from the reconstruction. Of course, the filmmakers are obviously reaching for an analogy to the Bush Administration, Carlyle Group, Halliburton, etc. While that may make the story of the film relevant to today, it obscures a more powerful point of the book: it’s far more scary when fascism arises out of the common consent of the people, as it did with Nazi Germany.