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Superman Hollywood / Superman Bollywood

July 20th, 2006 (08:21 pm)

Superman is cropping up all over, and he's not a remake...

© 2006 D. Gordon

Clark Kent has been away across the universe and comes back to pick up his life and his duties. In the meantime, though, he misses a court date as a witness, which sets Lex Luthor free; and he found it too difficult to tell Lois that he was going away – which sets her free. So he's got a lot of picking up to do when he gets back...

The new Superman Returns is more a continuation than a remake of the first two Superman movies (Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980)). The events laid out in those first two movies are still supposed to have happened (more or less) a good 5 years before. This film is also meant as a tribute to Christopher Reeve, who was aware of the production although he died before it was finished.

Casting for the movie is its Achilles' heel, varying across the map. Brendan Routh isn't Christopher Reeve – who, given the events in his life, has grown to become a sort of icon. As a tribute piece, the movie encourages the comparison – same music score, same general tone, only slight modifications to the uniform. But Brendan doesn't quite have the same je ne sais quoi (and I really don't know what) that Reeve brought to the part. The cape just fit better on Reeve's shoulders.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, howver, is a perfect choice. This ranks up there with Jack Nicholson as the Joker. He's snide, selfish, condescending, and generally unpleasant in just the right way. If Brendan Routh had brought the same "rightness" to the Superman role, I'd probably be singing his praises. The other leads - Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, James Marsden as Richard White, Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski, Frank Langella as Perry White, Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen, Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent – acquit themselves decently enough (although Tristan Lake Leabu does quite well as Jason White, the Boy Who Came From Where?). But Spacey is just a more skilled actor.

In the reality check department, there were a number of Bad Physics Moments. A ship being speared on a growing crystal (and the whole scale of those growing crystals kept shifting throughout that sequence) wouldn't have broken apart so elegantly, and a piece of ship breaking off wouldn't have fallen into the water in quite that way. There's always the physics of Superman's flying, and it was just mean to play catch with the dog and throw the ball two counties away. Overall, these are minor quibbles; either this stuff bothers you or it doesn't, and if it isn't consistent within its own universe it tends to bother me. But there's a bigger problem which I've seen explored in various reviews, which goes beyond whether or not a character defies the laws of Newtonian mechanics.

Superman came out of the days leading up to World War II, when kids reading comic books looked to heroes like the ones fighting the Nazis and other real-life enemies. The "Truth, Justice and the American Way" bit wasn't just a catchy slogan but came out of some stark realities. Likewise, the 1978 movie came at a time when the turmoil of both the Vietnam War and Watergate was recent, and the Reagan Revolution and a new conservatism were just two years away. Superman's brand of patriotism, along with his battle against straight-up criminals rather than supernatural beings, was appealing on a certain level. But in the intervening 25 years, the villain ante in superhero movies has risen astronomically, until a computer – something that few people would have seen, much less incorporated into daily life, in 1978 – becomes the enemy in The Matrix. Despite Spacey's performance, Lex Luthor's criminality may just be too small potatoes in 2006. It's doubly a shame because it's the same land-grabbing stunt Luthor tried in 1978. (I dunno; maybe he should have teamed up with some terrorists.) Even within the criminal world, Superman the Tale just hasn't grown.

It's not the end of the world, and I by no means hated the movie; I especially like the MAJOR plot twists towards the end, which add some texture to the Superman story (and neatly set up the chance for a sequel). And it's doing well enough at the box office. But there needs to be a rethinking of the story to keep up with the sophistication of the audience.



* * * * * * * * * *

Krrish.

Okay, who / what is Krrish? I hear you ask.

Krrish is an Indian superhero film. It's not the first – several other films, plus a television series, can make that claim – but it may be the first to process the Western concept (mask, disguise and all) through a purely Indian filter. It's also the sequel to what apparently is the first Indian science fiction film (Koi... Mil Gaya, which did land-office business in India), made by the same father-son team of Rakesh and Hrithik Roshan.

Krrish is really two movies. The first half (actually slightly more) is a combination of Bollywood love story and how-Krishna-got-to-be-Krrish. It takes place in the remote location where Krishna's grandmother has taken him to protect him from those who would use his powers for evil. (She, unfortunately, doesn't bother to tell him why or about his otherworldly background.) This is also where the ditzy Priya, the love interest, goes on her hiking trip with her ditzy friend Honey and meets Krishna. There are the traditional song-and-dance numbers, Krishna learning (by trial and error) about his powers (and Hrithik Roshan does a very good man-boy in the isolated Krishna, whose only friends are the neighborhood kids), the couple meeting improbably but cute. But this, being a Bollywood film, started stretching out. After about 1-1/2 hours I started wondering if Krrish was ever going to get to be a super hero.

Once Priya and Honey return to their Singaporean lives – and television jobs – the movie morphs slowly into a Hong Kong action flick. (In fact, renowned stunt coordinator Siu-Tung Ching choreographed Roshan's fight sequences.) The two women use Krishna's attraction to Priya to lure him to Singapore – to save their jobs (they were on vacation just a little bit too long). This is not the street-smart but basically kind-hearted Lois Lane, but a shallow, selfish girl who doesn't encourage much empathy. But it's also in this part of the movie that a villain - the villain – appears in the form of Dr. Siddhant Arya. Finally, Krishna has to start using his powers to save... well, I wouldn't want to give too much away. %^} But you definitely didn't see this coming.

I was worried that this would be a nepotism job – Roshan's father is director, after all – but there does seem to be a there there. Roshan son's acting job remains solid, handling the transition from man-boy to mature hero quite well. Roshan also quite ably handles the role of Krishna's father (although without as much depth, possibly because it's covered in Koi... Mil Gaya, the earlier movie). Oh, and that I'm-angry-and-you're-going-to-pay look on his face, with and without the mask, is perfect. Think of a friend who rarely gets mad – but when s/he does, you know you'd better pay attention.

I'm inspired to look for Koi... Mil Gaya. Even with another Roshan or two on staff, there's sophisticated technical work, well-choreographed dance and action sequences, plus a fair bit of CGI (with a little misfiring). This one even goes international, shot in both India and Singapore.

And Hrithik Roshan, overbulked or not, looks really good in a leather duster, which doesn't hurt at all. %^}



* * * * * * * * * *

Although they look somewhat similar on the surface, it's striking how culturally-driven motivations make the two movies completely different animals. Superman / Clark Kent is driven by duty first, and uses his knowledge of his background story in order to meet that duty. His focus is on his powers, and his meeting Lois Lane is almost a sidebar (and many times a liability). Krrish / Krishna, however, has been hidden his entire life; his grandmother, after finally telling him about his background, allows him to go into the world only with the promise that he'll continuing concealing his identity – even at the cost of using his abilities. He's the definition of a reluctant superhero, and he has specific personal motivations (even beyond Priya) for his superhero actions. In fact, he allows a friend to take credit for his actions to deflect attention away from himself. And the movie implies that his superhero career is likely over by the end.

It's also interesting to see where the two men come from. Clark Kent is brought up on a farm. He works as a reporter, and he's not exactly the top journalist at the Daily Planet. Krishna, however, is clearly from money. The movie begins with him as a student at a prestigious Catholic elementary school. His grandmother decides to pull him out and go into hiding – so she builds a new house in a remote location. (He's super intelligent, too, so he can figure out what he needs to education-wise. School is for mere mortals.) He doesn't have training in anything and just spends his days Before Priya running around with the neighborhood kids.

Even the stories are driven by different things. Although Perry White doesn't just come out and say, "truth, justice, and the American Way," it's still in there. Superman's powers are used in the service of everyone, every individual being. Krrish, though, is motivated by family and loved ones; there's even a mention of a son's duties towards his father in there. This points to a basic tenet of international relations theory: the West (and especially the US) tends to concentrate on the individual as the basic social unit; the East emphasizes the family, the community, the nation. It's a bit of a simplification, but the differences between Superman Returns and Krrish are differences in the fundamental definition of duty.

It's interesting to see this take, though. Krrish has its own hybrid style, and in places keeps you guessing just trying to figure out what's going on. For that reason, Krrish worked better for me.