Pirates vs. Superman: a double review

posted 15 July 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was actually rather disappointing. There were a few good bits, but they were floating like tasty bits of meat in what was otherwise a thin soup of a movie. Also, if you are actually from the Caribbean, the sheer insensitive ignorance of a lot of the portrayals is very grating: there are no waterwheels on desert fucking islands, the architecture was all wrong, as were all but one of the accents, and most gratingly there are no cannibals in the Caribbean. This is not because nobody ever reported it, it's because there were almost no people in the Caribbean when Europeans arrived, and certainly by the time the East India Company was around all the natives had been killed off by a combination of (chiefly) venereal disease and good-old-fashioned genocide.

However, the perfect antidote to that disappointment was the sheer joy that was Superman Returns. If you've not seen it yet, I've not included any plot spoilers in the below, but I advise you to go in with no expectations, so skip the below until you've seen it. And go see it right now. And invite me to see it with you: this one could stand some rewatching.

Allow me to blaspheme slightly and say that I am actually not much of a fan of the original Superman movies. I don't just think 3 and 4 were lame -- everybody thinks that -- but actually 1 and 2 were not how I envisaged the Superman universe either. Lois Lane was too shrewish, snappy and arrogant like the comic book Lois never was, but more importantly, and even more blasphemously, Christopher Reeves was just too wooden as Superman. His Clark was not so much mild-mannered and bumbling and foolish. I'd already spent a lot of time reading Superman comics by the time I got around to seeing those movies, and I knew what personalities Clark and Lois had, and they were not those people.

That's not to say 1 and 2 were not good movies -- they worked well, and the characters as introduced were portrayed convincingly. But they were the wrong characters. And in Superman Returns, that's exactly what has been corrected. In his earlier work on the X-Men movies, Bryan Singer had proven to me that he really got comic books, loved them, and made sure the characters fitted the universe they grew up in. So Lois and Clark in Returns are not the Lois and Clark of the previous movies -- something many have noted disapprovingly -- but they are the real Lois and Clark. Lois is wonderful: still smart and courageous, determined and resourceful, but also warm and vulnerable and, removing one of the more annoying inconsistencies of the previous movies, no longer a smoker (the real Lois Lane never smoked a cigarette in 50 years of comic book appearances; she chain-smoked through Superman 2 as the result of a product placement by Marlboro). Clark is gentle and unassuming, but no longer a buffoon -- it is genuinely hard to reconcile him and Superman as the same person.

But the real leap forward is Routh as Superman. This is man you can really believe is a beautiful, beneficent alien, with his surreally perfect skin and body -- Reeves was always too reedy and pale. This real Superman is poised and confident, emotionally reserved as always, but unlike Reeves you can now tell what emotion it is he's reserving. Singer is masterful at portraying Kal-El's love for the human race while acknowledging the terrible burden of the constant demands of the world for a saviour. And speaking of saviours...

As Bob has mentioned, the religious references are not so much undertones as overtones, in places bordering on a sort of spiritual product placement. This is so beautifully and seamlessly done that I don't really mind, but it's a bit of an off-note because Superman in the comics is explicitly not a Messiah: in fact, the comic books repeatedly and at length take pains to make this clear: that he's not a god, does not wish to be, and cannot solve the problems of the world -- he is merely leading by example, inspiring them to greater things. But as I say, I can overlook this.

Oh, and as one last bit of fanboy wibbling, the flying effects? Spot on. I was really worried about them. All it took was a flashback scene and some very subtle use of body acting to take it from a stupid camera trick to a natural-looking ability. I was impressed beyond all measure.

I loved, loved, loved this movie.

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