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June 30, 2006

Oliver Willis is a Liar

Superman Returns was not "practically perfect." It was practically watchable. At points. Which is a shame, this could've been the capstone to a series of spectacular comic book movies that proved the stereotypically kid-oriented picture books packed the complexity and pathos needed to transform a popcorn flick into an epic. The first two X-Men fit the bill, and Batman Begins was among the best movies I've recently seen. No defense, of course, is needed of the Spidey's two flicks. X-Men 3 and Daredevil, while not quite up to the level of the others, were misfires that nevertheless exhibited seeds of greatness. Superman Returns did not.

To be fair, Superman is the toughest character of the set. As the comic book industry matured away from its characters' invincibility and towards their vulnerability, Superman was always the toughest of the bunch. In the old comics and cartoons, they used to just invent new powers by the episode, everything from ice breath to turning back time by reversing the earth's rotation. It was a bit silly. But, at the time, popular. Superman's strength, however, gave way to Wolverine's rages, Spiderman's conscience, Xavier's vision, and Batman's darkness. Comic book characters began fighting themselves, their enemies little more than triggers for their internal conflicts. Superman, lacking these troubles, was left behind.

So the comics had to find ways to subvert his invulnerability. They didn't, generally, do this through strategic usage of kryptonite. Instead, they pitted Superman against his need for public legitimacy (as in when Luthor became president) or his desire to simultaneously have and not endanger loved ones. The movie, however, takes neither of these approaches. Luthor has no public legitimacy, he's a crook with a coterie of morons providing comic relief. His plan appears entirely taken from those crystal growing chemistry kits I had as a kid -- he's going to use the krypton crystal's unexplained ability to sprout in water to create a new continent on which folks will then pay him to live. Oh -- and this continent will fall atop North America killing a bajillion people.

The plan, of course, makes no sense, all the more so because Lex is already rich. His initial motivations (which are actually interesting), hinted when he condemns Superman for keeping his powers to himself and not spreading divinity across the population, totally dissipate into mundane evil geniusdom. He's not humanity's mistaken champion, protecting them from a force beyond their control. He's just an odd dude with a vendetta, a formulation that could scarcely be less interesting. As for Lois, she sorta-kinda moved on, is angry that he left for a couple of years, wrote a possibly interesting editorial about why the world doesn't need him, but is swept off her feet as soon as he returns. Some storyline. There's no tension or tough moral dilemmas for Superman -- he's got a girl he loves but who has some logistical problems, an enemy he's got to defeat, and a lot of responsibility. And that's the movie's flaw -- this is a Day With Superman, not the The Day With Superman. You get the feeling you're watching an average set of chores for the hero, not a particularly troublesome, tricky, or apocalyptic moment. And what's the point in that?

June 30, 2006 | Permalink


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The best time for filmmaking in hollywood still remains the 70s when they got the right mix of doing what Hollywood does best mixed in with other schools of cinema. Maybe they need to return to this fusion rather than being so focused on bigger is better?

Posted by: akaison | Jun 30, 2006 11:21:28 AM

The only Superman I want to see on the silver screen is the Superman of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns series -- the Superman who's a tool of a fascist government and who gets his ass kicked by Batman in the end.

Posted by: tombesh | Jun 30, 2006 11:32:05 AM

"Instead, they pitted Superman against his need for public legitimacy (as in when Luthor became president)"

Both you and MY mention this. I find this conflict between justice or righteousness and legitimacy pretty interesting. It was probably not a theme of the comic in the thirties & forties, but certainly could have been for a very insightful and prescient author.

It would have been a very useful theme for the current movie in the current period.

(OT:Newberry committed to Edwards last night.)

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 30, 2006 11:33:19 AM

I believe one can refer to either the "webslinger" or the "wallcrawler." (Or, alternatively, the "webhead.") But not "webcrawler," which might be a nice name for a search engine, but is not, as far as I know, an appropriate Spidey referent. Not that I keep track of such things, you understand.

Posted by: wolfstar | Jun 30, 2006 11:48:21 AM

"I find this conflict between justice or righteousness and legitimacy pretty interesting. It was probably not a theme of the comic in the thirties & forties, but certainly could have been for a very insightful and prescient author."

The Superman of the thirties and early forties actually spent much of his time as a brash vigilante attacking plenty of established, legitimate targets like corrupt coal executives, arms manufacturers and sundry other evil businessmen. No real conflict presented here, of course - Siegel and Schuster were just playing up the escapist fantasy appeal, and so having Superman take out robber barons along with the usual petty criminals was just par for the course.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 30, 2006 11:55:49 AM

I have to disagree with you on this, I very much enjoyed Superman Returns and felt in on par with Batman Begins and the Spidey movies. Far better than X-men which are enjoyable but bubble gum.

Certainly Luthor's plot makes no sense. Or rather, it makes exactly as much sense has his plot in the original Superman. Luthor from the movies at least is fairly insane.

It seems clear to me that you don't 'get' Superman. This is not to say that you don't understand him intellectually but don't connect with him emotionally. There is nothing wrong with that, but complaining that the movie was bad objectively because the main character is someone you don't connect with emotionally seems unfair to me. The whole point of Superman is that he isn't an anti-hero or deeply conflicted.

Supermans biggest personal conflict is that he is an outsider, the question of how he connects to humanity. This movie dealt with that quite deeply, and in fact largely resolved that conflict. It did so in a rather incredible way in my opinion.

It is ironic though given other positions I have seen you take that you would assume that someone who has a lot of money would not do 'evil' to gain more money. Doesn't seem in character for you.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Jun 30, 2006 11:56:15 AM

The whole point of Superman is that he isn't an anti-hero or deeply conflicted.

I think this was, in fact, Ezra's point. To make Superman work as a character you really do have to play up his internal conflict more. Superman fighting a crazy mad scientist out to blow up the world isn't all that interesting; we know Superman is going to win. Superman fighting a corrupt CEO or an evil president? That's much more promising. The question shifts from what can he do to what should he do.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 30, 2006 12:20:26 PM

"Supermans biggest personal conflict is that he is an outsider"

That's the primary conflict of the X-Men, too. The difference is that the X-men are not invincible. Mere mortals are capable of harming them with tools they already have at hand, not strange alien rocks. I think it's a whole lot easier to relate to being threatened by bullets and tanks than going limp in the presence of kryptonite.

"Certainly Luthor's plot makes no sense. Or rather, it makes exactly as much sense has his plot in the original Superman. Luthor from the movies at least is fairly insane."

Whereas the (movie) plots of Magneto, Col Stryker, The Green Goblin, and Dr. Octavius make sense.

Calling a movie objectively inferior because it's hero is invincible (save for a fairly random weakness) and it's villain is just another raving madman seems fair to me.

Posted by: Kylroy | Jun 30, 2006 12:21:36 PM

And piggybacking Iron Lungfish's point on:

"The whole point of Superman is that he isn't an anti-hero or deeply conflicted."

It's not that every hero has to be. But if a hero has no internal conflict and can steamroll any external conflict...how do you write a story for him? Beyond a simple game of "dodge the Kryptonite?"

A pure hero facing an impure world can make for a great story...provided the pure hero can't just wave his hand and blow away all opposition.

Posted by: Kylroy | Jun 30, 2006 12:24:58 PM

The only Superman I want to see on the silver screen is the Superman of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns series -- the Superman who's a tool of a fascist government and who gets his ass kicked by Batman in the end.

Posted by: tombesh

Part of what I liked about TDKR is that its politics seemed so ambiguous. On the one hand liberals are either jokes or useful idiots, and police coddle criminals so badly that the return of Batman himself is needed. But on the other hand, Bruce Wayne himself has a lot to do with letting Two-Face go so it's not just the dirty hippies, and amazingly, the president of said fascist government is none other than an amiably incompetent Saint Ronald.

So is Miller so far to the right that President Reagan wasn't conservative enough for him? Did he only believe in the anti-left parts, and included the rest just to avoid writing a partisan screed? Or (my favorite guess, but if there's any support for it I haven't looked) was he just trying to tell a story more complicated and shades-of-gray than simple partisan politics?

I do second that motion to see TDKR on the big screen. Unfortunately, Hollywood would mangle it beyond recognition. Should they set it during the Cold War, update those elements for a more modern and/or more timeless historical context, or rewrite it so heavily that you dodge the issue entirely? Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jun 30, 2006 12:37:19 PM

I didn't dislike it as much as you did, Ezra, but Kate Bosworth really is not interesting as Lois Lane. Margot Kidder's Lois was so neurotic and focused, you could see how she would miss that Clark was in love with her. There's also something comic and sweet that the 'tough' Lois swoons for Superman. Bosworth, on the other hand, seems too soft. She should have been more angry and frustrated with Perry for putting her on the Superman beat, for example, rather than her passive-aggressive approach.

Also, there is no hint that Lane and Kent had a close working relationship in the previous movies.

One of the interesting things about this movie is the color scheme. I noticed this in the trailer, but it is even more obvious watching the entire film. It's all about yellow - the yellow of dawn. Dawn is a symbol of rebirth, and is literally the return of the light which gives Superman his power. Looking at his costume, the red of Superman's cape seems muted. Lights in Metropolis all seem like they are gas bulbs, they shine so yellow.

Superman is normally a 'day' superhero, well lit, full of color. Batman is a 'night' superhero, borrowing from noir and the gothic. So the darkness and the greyness of many scenes in 'Superman Returns' is unusual. First we see a very dark scene in the home of a dying rich woman, as if rich people can't afford lighting. Then we get a night scene on the Kent farm, with a yellow fireball. Clark then wakes up at dawn, and the yellow of dawn lights his features.

This all pays off in the climax, of course.

I like the fact that Singer tried to keep with the myth, rather than trying to 'darken' or 'interiorize' Superman too much. Batman and X-Men are ripe for that, but Superman is a simpler icon. Yes, even cruder. He can be messed with in interesting ways, ala 'Dark Night Returns.' It would be interesting to see a movie where Superman's instinct for good gets manipulated, but this sequel was not the time for it.

However, the boy was a disappointing story line. He was not overused, but he is also implicitly around for any sequels, and that will take some extreme care to avoid becoming sickening.

I did like when the boy looked up at Clark and saw his resemblence to Superman, because it tweaks one of the 'movie tricks' to make Clark and Superman look different - film Superman from below the chin, film Clark from above.

And why hire Kal Penn (Kumar from "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle") and give him nothing funny to do? What a waste.

Posted by: Misplaced Patriot | Jun 30, 2006 1:53:01 PM

"practically watchable"! Ezra, you are a brilliant man. Quite right, too.

Posted by: Dave Empey | Jun 30, 2006 1:55:05 PM

The 'fun' parts of Superman Returns were very enjoyable (especially the stuff with Spacey), but the rest was pretty rote and tedious, especially the love interest stuff which didn't strike any notes we didn't just recently see in Spiderman.

Only half of the action scenes really work because they're really just about getting Superman into place: once he shows up, there's no danger.

Early on we get hints that Luther's plan is far more interesting than it turns out to be. Luther wants money? And to destroy the United States? (Er, couldn't he have just planted that thing in the Pacific? Plenty of room there.) And how exactly does Luther control this land? He mentions advanced alien technology forthcoming, but we never see a bit of it.

Singer ruined the end of X-Men by abandoning it to a hack, then he makes this? Very disappointing.

Posted by: pantomimehorse | Jun 30, 2006 2:19:50 PM

I say this not to be snarky, but because I cannot help myself: It's Spider-Man, not Spiderman.

Yes, I'm a nerd.

Posted by: the pope of chilitown | Jun 30, 2006 3:36:17 PM

Otherwise it would be pronounced "SPEE-der-men."

Old joke, but funny.

Posted by: Kylroy | Jun 30, 2006 3:48:23 PM

by the way - if you want to see a great comic book to film movie- then check out V for Vendetta (well except the first few minutes)

Posted by: akaison | Jul 1, 2006 4:19:12 PM

I saw SUPERMAN RETURNS today -- it was craptacular. Bland actors (except for Spacey) in the major parts, a story line brimming with illogic, and that damned kid.

The makers don't even bother to make their story internally consistent -- Superman leaves Earth for five years. Uh, folks, Lois's kid must be older than that. He's too big to be 5, too verbal to be 5, and he's in school and receiving report cards, for Jeebus's sake!

Once I figured out the filmmakers didn't care about making even that one aspect of their story internally consistent, I had no respect for the rest of the movie. Why should I? The makers don't.

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Posted by: jenerson | Jul 3, 2006 10:03:46 PM

"Ditto" to all the criticisms, and I'll add that Routh made an uninteresting Superman. His Clark routine was pretty good, but Superman did too much brooding. It made me remember how, with Christopher Reeve, you could practically read Superman's thoughts from his face.

Posted by: JDCasteleiro | Jul 4, 2006 8:37:30 PM

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