Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Superman Returns

Roger Ebert had a rather noteworthy turn of phrase in his review of North. "I hated this movie," he wrote, "Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it."

By the way, get well soon, Roger. And you can all see how Roger's doing after his surgery.

I never saw North. But I hated Superman Returns. Hated hated hated hated hated it.

Seriously. I hated it.

It's the most joyless Superman movie ever.

I'll tell you first the three things I did like. I liked Sam Huntington's Jimmy Olsen. I liked that Richard White's airplane had a call number that didn't have a "bravo", an "echo", a "foxtrot", a "tango", a "yankee" or, most especially, a "niner" in it. I liked the moment that Frank Langella as Perry White says "Great Caesar's ghost!"

The latter of those is most important. It wasn't so much the nod to John Hamilton's Perry White from The Adventures of Superman, or wherever in comic books, comic strips or radio that Perry White exclaimed that prior to that series. No, that exclamation was the only time in the movie where anyone seemed genuinely in awe of Superman. The rest of the movie is people kind of generally pleased with "moderately neato guy". Bleh!

I don't believe I went in with an attitude that set me up. I went with guarded optimism on Independence Day, to celebrate "Truth, justice and the American Way", a phrase this movie didn't have the courage to speak fully, even when couched specifically in terms of Superman's politics, and found nothing worth celebrating.

In a matter of months, I've seen two generally well-received geek extravaganzas, with only moderate sprinklings of bad reviews and hated them (for those out of the loop, the first was King Kong). Apparently I also liked X-Men: The Last Stand better than most. I guess I'm getting out of step.


This movie begins with the premise that Superman left suddenly after the events of Superman II to seek the remains of his homeworld of Krypton. This is a stupid plot point and seems to be held over from J.J. Abrams's notorious screenplay (read Moriarty's review of it) for no compelling reason except to put a distance between Lois Lane and Supes. He doesn't bring back Kandor in a bottle. He doesn't accidentally bring home any interesting new kinds of Kryptonite.

But this isn't just about the far away hopes of a big Silver Age geek. Jor-El doesn't still live on Krypton and Lex Luthor isn't secretly Kryptonian or whatever bullshit was in that Abrams script, which would've at least made a kind of internal sense, even if not within the history of Superman stories. Nope. This goes absolutely nowhere.

So, he's been gone for five years. I'm not entirely sure what those five years represent. He apparently used the spacecraft that he came in as a baby, presumably because away from the light of the yellow sun he wouldn't be able to fly and survive without oxygen, etc. Cool, cool.

However, in Superman: The Movie, which this is clearly intended as a sequel to, Jor-El says... No. Strike that!

In this very movie, Jor-El says, "My son. You do not remember me. I am Jor-El. I am your father. By now you will have reached your eighteenth year, as it is measured on Earth. By that reckoning, I will have been dead for many thousands of your years."

Ok. If you can get from Earth to Krypton and back in five years in that ship, why did it take baby Kal-El thousands of years to make it from Krypton to Earth and then come of age? Dumb.

So, Clark Kent and Superman both go on five year sabbaticals, presumably starting at the same time, and both return on the exact same day. Now, I've been following a long time and I'm happy with a wink to explain why no one thinks Clark is really Superman, but to have no one even raise an eyebrow at this stretches even that credulity well past the breaking point for me. Dumb.

Luthor's plot, well, as Marty McKee wrote in It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's A... Dud, "Luthor’s plan is idiotic. He could have at least created his ugly, rocky, Kryptonite-beached new land mass near the equator where it would be warm. The plot makes no sense, and while Luthor might be a megalomaniac, he ain’t crazy and he sure ain’t dumb."

This movie is, however.

Compound that with a subplot involving a Supercreepy Superstalker Blue Boy Scout and you've not got much to go with.

Then there's the issue of the child, Roger Ebert, in his review, wrote, "Now about Lois' kid. We know who his father is, and Lois knows, and I guess the kid knows, although he calls Richard his daddy. But why is nothing done with this character? He sends a piano flying across a room, but otherwise he just stares with big, solemn eyes [like a beta version of Damien]. It would have been fun to give Superman a bright, sassy child, like one of the Spy Kids, and make him a part of the plot."

Yep. Pretty much.

In Up, up and anyway..., Paul Dini also wrote, "Given Superman's history in comics, movies, radio, television and a dozen other places, I was disappointed that the filmmakers looked only as far as the two movies made in the late 70's for their inspiration."

Yep, the Lex Luthor land scheme. The "daffy henchmoll", as Dini wrote, who is rescued by Superman as part of the scheme against him and ends up falling for him. The rooftop scene with Superman wisking Lois off into the night. The scene of Luthor taking down the big guy with Kryptonite. Yawn! We've seen all of this before! It's not even a sequel to those but the slightest of retreads.

The thing that Richard Donner, Mario Puzo, et al knew, too, was that you need to expand. Superman: The Movie had Luthor. Superman II added the three Kryptonian criminals. The natural extention to the third would be to have him face a phoned-in performance by Robert Vaughn... No, I mean... Something even greater.

How about Brainiac? The Ultra-Humanite? How about Mongul? Ok, maybe Metallo? I'm not even going to The Kryptonite Kid, Bizarro, Mr. Mxyzptlk or even Composite Superman!

(Not to mention that I assume that Darkseid has his rights tied up in some other corner of Warner Brothers.)

Anything but boring old Lex and a boring old land scheme, just one that makes vastly less sense! What is this?

Brandon Routh's performance has been praised, although I can't much say why. He's so tied to the exact rhythm and cadence of Christopher Reeve's performance, I suspect by director Bryan Singer, that he can't own the part at all. Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane is rather bland and remarkably incompetent, although that's the script. I can't fault either of them specifically, but the biggest flaw is that they have no chemistry whatsoever. Reeve and Margot Kidder smoked onscreen together and these two don't quite seem to have met or be in any way compelled by each other.

And then there's Kevin Spacey as Luthor. His performance sums up the movie for me. He neither seems to have fun with the role (as Gene Hackman did) nor did he take it seriously (and bring something like a live-action version of the Clancy Brown animated characterization). He just sort of sits in between, phoning it in. When does this wrap?

That's the whole movie for me. It could have been just as dumb, hell, even dumber, as long as it wanted to have some fun and take me along. I suggested a whole bunch of really fun, geeky things they could have played with. The thing the two Donner movies knew was to take it to the very edge of the comics version and then pull back just a tiny notch so you don't seem too silly in live action. They knew they took place in a world that had the bottle city of Kandor and Mr. Mxyzptlk even if it was just showing you the most plausible segment of that world.

This movie wants to be smarter than all of that. Smarter than the comics, smarter even than the movies it copies so diligently. It fails on all accounts, however.

They could instead have been actually smart. Put together a story that made sense within an interior logic. Render the characters motivations as logical and within our reasonable expectations from what we've seen previously. They could have told a really thoughtful story that explored the meaning of Superman in the world.

But doing neither? That's just sloppy.

I'm sorry, the stupidest moment in X-Men: The Last Stand was smarter than the smartest moment in Superman Returns. By a good distance.

And it at least wanted to have some fun. This movie seems to despise fun.

Roger Ebert noted that "even the big effects sequences seem dutiful instead of exhilarating." I couldn't agree more.

There was one moment where it came close to having me. It was way too far in for me to have recommended it anymore, but it started. Superman is pushing the Kryptonite continent up into the sky. He's struggling with all he has, the original John Williams theme rises up and I started to feel a tingle, the tiniest amount of the excitement I felt as a kid watching the first two movies... and then... the music is covered over - not, mind you, wholly replaced - by some awful tuneless choral music, once again pushing the Superman is Jesus button as hard as possible... after the fall to Earth in a Jesus Christ Pose and the haloed moment where he flies up to absorb God's Love, I mean, the light of the yellow sun.

Yes, I know. I saw the entertaining two hour commercial for Warner Brothers DVD and movie products, Look, Up in the Sky, and I know the writers defend their Jeso-Supes connection as being an existing part of the story. And I certainly agree. I just think people as smart as they seem to think they are should have heard of subtlety.

Did I ever hate this movie!

I'm going to sit down to a double feature of Supergirl and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace one of these days, just to remind myself of some better takes on the Superman mythos.


Erech said...

I'm where you are with X3 as you are with Supes.

I'll give you most of the points, I think it comes down to which crappy comic movie you were able to accept more. I did have a problem with the incestuous (sp?) constant nods to the Donner flicks, but I have a thing for dudes who can fly.

Unless they have wings, then not so much, it seems.

Erech said...

Errr. I'm with X3 where you are with Supes, rather.

Me am smurt.

Marty McKee said...

If the stupidest moment in X-MEN 3 is "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch," then I'm not sure it's really smarter than the smartest moment in SUPERMAN RETURNS. But I more or less get your point (I didn't think much of X-MEN 3 either).

Neil said...

You are correct. That is the stupidest moment of X3 ad it is stupider than the smarter moments... actually even some of the stupider moments... of Superman Returns. I do, however, stand by the spirit of my statement.

I also wish to note that you wrote that they turned Lois into "a skank who had sexual relationships with two men simultaneously, became pregnant by one, and allowed the other to believe the baby was his."

As best I can tell, this is actually even stupider than that.

Clark and Richard had clearly never met, so they hadn't likely been having relations at the same time, so I don't know if Richard is supposed to really think the boy is his or not. More importantly, I'm not sure how Lois is supposed to have any idea who the father is since he gave her his underutilized memory wiping kiss power at the end of Superman II.

I tried to leave that as a comment for you, but I couldn't figure out how to use the new comment set-up there.

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