Rating: 2½ Stars
What is art if it isn't more than mere entertainment? This is the question I struggle with after watching this most recent installment that chronicles the superheroic feats of The Man of Steel.
From the perspective of mere amusement, Superman Returns is a fine film. There is nothing to complain about with the acting. Brandon Routh is Superman, and he is Clark Kent. The music is outstanding; there is just something about that Superman theme that really throttles your passions to an almost fever pitch. It's right up there with the themes from movies like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Back to the Future. They really couldn't go wrong there. The filmography is fantastic, especially in the scenes where Superman saves an airplane from plummeting to certain destruction. And the drama is fairly well orchestrated, though the ending could have been more fulfilling.
But what is this art of film if it is only entertainment? Does it need to be more than mere entertainment? Should it have a message?
At least one person thinks not. A User Review on IMDB from "crobarj1" ends this way:
Ultimately, I loved this film. It's a great story well told. It doesn't need to be anything else.
"It doesn't need to be anything else." What are stories if they don't tell us something about ourselves? What are stories if they don't grapple with real-life issues and address, in some fashion, the human condition? What are stories if all they do is capture & hold our attention for several hours: nothing more, nothing less?
My favorite films are my favorites because they do indeed speak a message to the world, and/or they hold kernels of truth. The Shawshank Redemption speaks about hope & persistence in the face of evil, hatred, and cynicism. Field of Dreams portrays the fractured relationship between a father & a son, and their glorious reunion, all the while admiring a grand old game. It speaks about opening your mind to see possibilities that somehow seem unreachable. Swingers speaks to the struggle & ultimate fulfillment of romantic relationships, all the while portraying a brotherhood that picks one another up when they're down. And if you've watched Dead Poet's Society and didn't catch that theme ... well ... God bless you. Carpe Diem. Seize the Day.
Good movies have themes that dominate & leave you with an important message. The installments of Spiderman grapple with Peter Parker's grandfather's words: "With Great Power comes Great Responsibility." Batman Begins spoke about a prodigal son returning to fulfill his purpose. Cinderella Man embodies a period & a culture where people had to scratch, claw, and, in Jim Braddock's case, literally fight their way out of the hole. These are the movies that have bite. They mean something. They stand for something.
What does Superman Returns stand for? Box office revenue? I'm sorry, but I'm left wanting.
Perhaps the only storyline that comes close to being the theme is the idea that Lois struggles with of whether or not the world needs a Savior. She wins a Pulitzer for writing an article about why the world does not, but by the end of the movie she is brought around to the other side of the argument. And we find her, toward the end, staring at a computer screen that is blank white except for the heading, "Why the World Needs Superman." But it feels more like side-story than a theme. It isn't woven throughout. And then there's the kind-of-creepy voiceover of fatherly wisdom from Superman's own father through different parts of the film, which is repeated in part by Superman toward the end of the film. But what is that all about? A theme is a theme, not a three points and a poem. And ultimately, this is where Superman Returns misses it. It's a harsh view, to be sure, but out of Superman I suppose I expected much more.
Superman is Americana. So perhaps it is fitting that a movie about him would have more fluff and less depth. Is that too cynical a view of America? I'm not sure. But you know, life does imitate art. Or is it the other way around? Or does this movie even qualify to be called art? Perhaps "almost-art" is more fitting. Nevertheless, this piece of almost-art left me hoping for a message that never came. And because of that, I contend that this movie did only half of what it could have accomplished.
Two and a Half stars, out of Five.