Superman Returns to the Uncanny Valley

In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori observed that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance (such as anthropomorphic talking mice, or something) the human reaction is positive, but once it is too close to human appearance, it looks like an eerie thing with dead eyes, and the reaction is negative. Most people find manikins slightly spooky, particularly if they move when you don’t expect it, or find a prosthetic hand more unnerving than, say, a hook.

Well, an eerie thing with dead eyes would be about my reaction to SUPERMAN RETURNS. It copies slavishly the music and lines and tropes of its predecessor, the Alexander Salkind masterpiece, but it merely left out the dignity, lighthearted humor, stellar acting, originality, wit, verve, and charm of the original.

The plot is that Superman, away in space seeking signs of his lost planet, Krypton, returns to earth to find Lois Lane the unwed mother of a bastard boy, living without benefit of wedlock with the editor’s nephew, and the authoress of a Pulitzer-prize winning article on how the World No Longer Needs Superman. He comes to Earth again, to fight for Truth, Justice, and All That Stuff. (In these politically correct times, it is verboten to contrast the American way of life with totalitarian hellholes in the Mid-East, East or Far East, but it is perfectly OK to represent Lane as a trollop.)

Kevin Spacey is no Gene Hackman, and the pretty boy they cast as Supes, Brandon Routh, is certainly no Christopher Reeve. Reeve could make the mild-mannered goofiness of Clark Kent appear just by slumping his shoulders, or the cornfed middle-American majesty of Superman simply by straightening his spine. By God, sir, that was an actor.

Kate Bosworth was easy on the eyes, (actually, she’s drop-dead gorgeous) but she is no Margot Kidder, who had wit and flare and style. The personality for Lois Lane can be any number of things, and ladies from Phyllis Coats to Teri Hatcher to Erica Durance have played the big city reporter gal: but one thing she has to be is a big city reporter gal who is too slick for a hick from Smallville. Nothing of that edge, that sophistication, that strange love-triangle-built-for-two is present in Kate Bosworth’s performance.

(The best version of Lois Lane ever pulled off, in this writer’s humble opinion, was the voice-actress for the cartoon version of Superman and Justice League, Dana Delany. Her voice captured the character perfectly, just the right touch of crusading reporter-girl and cynical Miss Bigtown.)

Spacey follows the director’s orders to play Lex in a Hackman style, which he cannot quite pull off, managing merely to utter lines that don’t quit sound as playful and sinister as Hackman’s did when Hackman played him. I wish Spacey had been playing Spacey.

Ditto for Frank Langella. He did a great job playing Dracula or even Skeletor; but his version of Perry White is just Jackie Cooper’s version, only not as funny or frenetic.

Ditto for the other actors and their parts. It is painful to a fan of the first film to hear Routh woodenly reciting Chris Reeve’s line, after saving Lois from a horrifying air-crash, about how flying is the safest form of travel. The contrast is particularly painful, because saving Lois One from a falling helicopter was a tense scene, well directed and well edited, handled adroitly with a touch of humor and a touch of romance, whereas saving Lois Two from a space shuttle disaster was, well, pedestrian. I had seen it before. I had seen it before in a movie with this same name before. Done better.

Ditto for the flashback to Smallville farmlife. We are treated to a nice scene of young Clark learning of his newfound powers of flight. I am serious that it is a good scene: how can any pictures of a young man, surprised that he can soar like an angel, overjoyed, not be a good scene? But the original handled the same theme in a scene better directed, with more memorable images, better acting, better music …

That was the feeling for every point of this plot. Been there, done that. The plot was a retread of the land-fraud deal from the first movie, only this time with the rather clever idea of using Kryptonian technology to do it.

Let me pause in my belly-aching to laud the film for its one great idea, the only idea original to this film: Lex Luthor finds and loots Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (which looks WONDERFUL in the film) and creates a destructive new technology meant to raise Atlantis, a new continent made out of Kryptonite, destined to overrun the Earth and make Superman’s adopted home poisonous to him. He also says he will hold off the nations of the world with Kryptonian weapons of super-science, which I would have loved to see, but was disappointed.

But other than that, the plot was the same, even the joke about Lex’s father telling him to get out / invest in land. The Miss Teschmacher for this version is Parker Posey. She is not the equal in looks or comic timing to Valerie Perrine, but she does a fair job of impersonating her: that is, IF we wanted to see a movie where actors impersonated what other actors had already done. She turns on her boss out of a last-minute attack of kind-heartedness, just as in the first film, only the sweetness and humor, not to mention melancholy of the original is not present. (Why can’t I get it on with the good guys?)

The main difference in the plot here was that, in the original, Superman was forced, in a moment of perfect comic-book heartbreak, to face a moral quandary about interfering with human affairs, and solved the problem with comic-book physics. In the second movie, he makes a noble sacrifice and is wounded in the line of duty, which is all well and good, I suppose, but then there is a rather bland scene of him in the New York hospital, and … he just gets better without anyone noticing and sneaks away. Huhn? I was expecting the other characters to have to do something to save Superman, find him his magic green crystal, or expose him to the life-giving rays of Earth’s yellow sun, or something.

I still remember twenty years later the look on Superman’s face when he realizes Lois is dead. Sure, it was a comic-book death, and sure, she gets better by the last reel. But still. It was well done.

Lois’s child turns out to be Superman’s son. Since the live-in lover is not married to Lois, the natural turn of the plot, of course, would be to have the guy die nobly, and have Supes renew his marriage vows to Lois that he hypnotically removed by kissing her two sequels ago. Or have her fall in love with Clark, and discover his secret identity, following the lines of the highly-successful and brilliantly done LOIS AND CLARK television show. Nope: he stands by the child’s bed one night and says something that made no sense, a line I never understood from the first movie either, something about the father and the son shall be one. Oooookay. Good thing Superman, the super-boy-scout All-American Good Guy does not have the paternal instinct or the proper upbringing to go and care for his own child. But, oh, wait, he no longer represents the American Way, do he? Having some strange man raise your own flesh and blood is ever so more European way to do it. Pshaw.

The rule for making sequels in any medium is: give the audience the same thing as the first story, but not in the same way. Take it in a new direction, but don’t get lost. Here, the writers took it in the same direction in the same way, copying all the outward props and tropes, the actor’s business and theatrics, the plot’s same plot points, but without the heart and soul.

All in all, a mediocre effort, which should appeal to anyone not in love with the Salkind version, of which it is merely an inferior and derivative copy. Save your money and rent a rerun of LOIS AND CLARK, or, better yet, JUSTICE LEAGUE cartoons, which had a better grasp of the character, and a better sense of timing, plot, tension, humor, adventure, comic-bookish wonder.