Saturday 29 May 2010

Film: Superman Returns

Superman Returns was one of my Christmas collection of recorded movies. It was, I suppose, a competent enough production but it left me pondering the whole question of realism and credibility in such present-day fantasies.

With any fantasy, the reader has to be capable of suspending disbelief in order to enjoy the story since at least one key aspect of it (e.g. a superhuman ability) is usually scientifically impossible. However, for it to be acceptable (to me, at any rate) it is important that the plot woven around this aspect should be internally consistent and reasonably logical.

To give some examples from my recent reviews: Batman Begins, while highly improbable, is not actually impossible. There are no magical powers, just a well-trained man using moderately advanced technology. With such limitations, tackling crime in his home city seems a reasonable target. There is a different approach in Gould's Jumper (the book not the film) in that the hero's ability to teleport is indeed impossible (as least as far as present-day science can conceive) but apart from that, what happens as a result is intensely realistic and credible. The X-Men films push the boundaries a bit further, since there are various different super abilities distributed among the characters. However, the plots built on this make acceptable sense.

So where does Superman fit into this? Not just one super ability, but a whole batch of them in one man; in fact, there's not a lot he can't do. He is so all-powerful that he would achieve an easy victory every time, so the debilitating effect of Kryptonite had to be added to provide any trace of dramatic tension. However, if you are able to take a really big swallow and suspend your disbelief about this, you then get to what Superman does with these abilities. Think about it for a moment; what would you do?

Well, recent earthquakes provide some obvious opportunities; rescuing people trapped in fallen buildings, rushing them to hospital, carrying in vast quantities of supplies and other necessities. Part of the world suffering a drought? Dump an iceberg into the nearest lake-bed. Famine in a war zone? Get the food through regardless of attempts to stop this. Worried about nuclear war or terrorism? Scrap North Korea's nuclear facility and haul Osama bin Laden out of whatever hole he's in. Then you come to the fun bits: want to encourage space exploration? Lots could be done; for example: deposit research satellites around the Solar System; launch probes at extremely high velocities towards all the most likely nearby stars; lift complete, self-contained, permanent habitats onto the Moon and Mars (although I'd insist that humanity develops and maintains the ability to transfer people and supplies between planets, otherwise they'd just rely on me and the whole endeavour would collapse when I wasn't there any more).

These kinds of plot elements could provide some interesting material. For instance, Superman was supposed to have been sent to Earth to benefit mankind, not just the USA, which (incredible as it may seem in the comic-strip world) may not always be in the right. If you're removing nuclear weapons, where do you stop, and why? Who would be in charge of your Mars (or wherever) base? How could you get the nations to work together? Lots of moral and political issues to tackle here.

So what does Superman do: any of this? Err no, actually, he just fights a criminal nutcase while rescuing people from small-scale disasters and dealing with routine crime. In other words, the film is entirely unbelievable in all respects from start to finish. This is fantasy for kiddies who, one would hope, would grow out of stuff like this before they're ten. It makes Batman Begins and the X-Men films look like epics of Shakespearean quality and grandeur. The film-makers try to distract attention from this by focusing on the romantic relationship between Superman and his former girlfriend, but to try to make a decent film about Superman is, to borrow a memorable phrase, like putting lipstick on a pig; it simply isn't worth the bother.


Bill Garthright said...

Nice point about Superman, Tony. It sounds like comic books are lacking in imagination. (I was never a fan, though I must admit to having daydreamed about being a superhero.)

Anthony G Williams said...

Haven't we all, Bill!

But another failing of Superman (now that I come to think of it), is that the hero isn't human at all, but an alien. How much more interesting the story is when an ordinary human acquires a paranormal ability; the effect it has on his life and attitudes, what he chooses to do with his power. That was the fascination of 'Jumper' for me. And I might add (pause for an plug from the sponsors) it was one of the inspirations behind my own story, 'Scales'.