While I cannot understand the hubbub over the new Superman movie -it is a poor remake of the original, if you ask me- it does make sense to me that audiences are concerned about how our icons are portrayed. After all, isn't that the source of the latest interest in costumed heroes, a recognition of mythical figures for our time and culture?
To prepare for watching Superman Returns, my housemate Danny and I viewed the first film the evening prior. We are Seattle's bonafide biggest fans of this film and once again we were reminded of our great affection. Unfortunately, since it was so fresh in our minds going into the theatre the following day, we were acutely aware of how recklessly the new movie steals material from the original. I mean, entire lines of dialogue are hijacked intact! Rather than honoring the source material, Bryan Singer (I have to blame the director, whose adoration of Superman the Movie is well-documented) allows it to bind up his own film and render it a static piece of shallow entertainment -a colossal disappointment, considering how typically insightful he is to his material.
In order to recover from my disappointment, I threw in the Spider Man sequel last night. Now, if it were not for the first Superman, this film would stand out as the all-time greatest about a superhero. What works in both movies is that the directors (Richard Donner and Sam Raimi) utilise a "mash up" approach. That is to say, they liberally mixup genres and constantly switch tones, a method that is uniquely effective for, if you will, costume drama. One scene is straight drama, followed by screwball comedy, followed by a heartstopping action sequence, which leads into a romantic setting... and so on. It shouldn't work, yet the results are clear: both films did bangup box office and are considered peaks of the form.
Now, you look at other films of this type -Batman Begins (which is a fine movie), Daredevil (horrible) or Fantastic Four- and they are rendered in a straightforward fashion. This works to their detriment, I believe, because we in the audience have too much of an opportunity to realise how absurd these characters really are. And it isn't that they are absurd that works against them -these are iconic, mythological figures who (ideally) serve to fire our imaginations- it is the presentation.
In music when various genres are sampled in a song, this style is called a mashup. The cinematic form has been compared to music many times, most recently by director Steven Soderbergh, who describes the action of film as "rhythm and release". I think in the superhero genre we can see the mashup technique works quite effectively -when it is utilised. When it is not, the story suffers. By extension, the audience is made to suffer too.