by Will Nepper
We’ll get this out of the way first: I know that Christopher Reeves is dead and I did ‘get over it.’ (Mostly.) I’m also aware this is ‘not Donner’s Superman.’ (What is?) And finally, the fact that I really enjoyed Superman Returns may render my opinion invalid in your eyes. In fact, that may’ve been enough to stop you from reading further. I can live with that.
(What I can’t live with? A “World Machine” for starters, but more on that later.)
On the positive end of the spectrum, there is a lot to like about Man of Steel. That, perhaps, is what makes the entire experience so frustrating. The problem isn’t that it isn’t Donner’s Superman; it’s not even Superman’s Superman.
I enjoyed Kevin Costner, Diane Lane (even though, she wasn’t given much to do but beam proudly and look concerned) and almost all of the Smallville-era Kent family backstory, particularly moments where a young Clark becomes overwhelmed by his super senses in the classroom. His struggle to keep his powers a secret in the face of bullies presents some solid moments – some of the best in the Superman movie history.
Unfortunately, those moments make up about 20 percent of MoS, serve an origin story that we don’t really need and leave two hours of running time open to completely botch the rest of the job with increasingly boring battles and no real sense of peril or characterization.
I admit that I prefer my Superman movies with a bit of humor and characters that smile from time to time. (Henry Cavill smiles once or twice during the two-hour-plus epic.) But I’m willing to sacrifice all of that on the Fan Boy Alter because those aren’t Superman-story necessities. There have been plenty of “dark” story lines for the Last Son of Krypton and he can’t always maintain the boy-scout-in-blue attitude that many of his older fans (…Who has two thumbs and is an ‘older fan?’…) are accustomed to. Fair enough.
If you can’t see that this incarnation of Superman was built around the fan boy gripe that Superman Returns didn’t have enough punching in it, your brown-tinted, grit-covered Chris Nolan glasses may be blinding you.
We’ll never know (well, until we hear a DVD commentary) who’s most responsible for which of MoS’s problems, but I’m sure there’s plenty of blame to go around. The convoluted Kryptonian story components are almost certainly the fruits of Nolan’s influence. The static, unrelenting stake-free action sequences – well, those reek of Snyder’s style. For example: the fast zoom-in-zoom-out moments (to give you the POV of a flying Nikon, I guess) and the terrible pacing. (Snyder blew his wad on his remake of Dawn of the Dead as far as I’m concerned.)
Let’s scratch beneath the surface to the spoiler-y list of gripes I have with MoS and how they keep the movie from being the “Superman movie I’ve been waiting for.”
1. Lois Lane, as played by Amy Adams, looks more Lana Lang than spunky reporter and her character plays more like a History Channel “History’s Mysteries” sleuth than a “Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter.” In fact, there’s no evidence that she’s much of a reporter at all considering that she spends the entire movie tracking one story she’s been told to drop in favor of, you know, news. I’d say she’s miscast, but I don’t think Adams is the problem. Her LL is written as bland, and LL has never been bland. Adams singing scene in The Muppets was a showstopper and she was the only actor to rise above the material in the god-awful The Master. Her relationship with Superman – if we can call him that (Nobody does until the last reel and even then, only once.) –seems to have developed off-screen. I won’t say there’s a lack of chemistry between the two leads because we never get an opportunity to see for ourselves. The movie shifts back and forth in time and jumps to a new scene whenever things start to actually get interesting. To be fair, Superman Returns had some major Lois Lane problems too. (She was played by a woefully miscast Kate Bosworth and was Superman’s baby mama. Whaaaaa?!)
2. Krypton occupies waaaaay too much of MoS – even after we leave it – and this is a huge miscalculation where story is concerned. EVERYthing is explained to no substantial effect. What’s accomplished in the early scenes on Krypton could easily be chopped down to about 5 minutes without leaving us wanting or needing more. It would kick start the flick with some action-movie pacing rather than serve as a bloated Krypton history lesson. It doesn’t help that Krypton is … well, brown – like a cross between the sets of Dune, The Neverending Story and the Dark Crystal dropped into Nolan’s Gotham City. And the flying monsters, like the one Russel Crowe’s Jor-El hops on? They only served to remind me of a similar moment in a Star Wars prequels (they blur together for me) where Obi Wan mounts a similar CGI beastie eliciting similar groans from me.
The meat of these scenes is our introduction to this movie’s Zod, which is necessary but also problematic when this particular villain’s agenda is revealed and we learn how, in some ways, he’s a more sympathetic enemy than he is pure evil. He’s a Krytonian patriot just as he was genetically engineered. That means this dye was cast without his say, making him less a big meanie than a diligent servant of his race. Kal-El, on the other hand, is the only Kryptonian capable of free will. He faces tough decisions, can weigh the pros and cons, and act accordingly. Everyone else (including bred-for-science, Jor-El) is just doing the Gattaca shuffle his or her destiny demands. This leads me to another major gripe:
3. Superman does not snap necks. He never kills unless he’s left no alternative, and he almost ALWAYS finds an alternative because he’s super smart and calculating. (How many times has he outwitted confirmed genius, Lex Luthor?) Unlike Batman, Supes is a lover, not a fighter. Where DC’s second banana (kidding, Steve-O!) (… Even though he totally is … ) is a vigilante, Superman is more in the business of being a rescuer. His priority: protecting the people of the world (and the individuals within earshot of his super hearing). When Faora (Ursa 2.0) announces that: “You will not win. For every human you save, we will kill a million more,” she nails it because in that way, the bad guys DO win. Her prediction proves correct and though Zod and Co. don’t walk away with the store, they certainly rack up what must be a substantial body count. Remember what 9-11 did to this country? Imagine where the country’s head would be under the rubble of a completely trashed Metropolis. (It’s going to take Smallville several years to rebuild as well, and forget about a late night trip to IHOP for a while.) Superman would never let that pass. He would find a way to save as many people as possible AND save the planet, because HE’S SUPERMAN!
Not to kick it all nostalgic, but remember in Superman II when the panic-stricken Superman pleads with Ursa to rethink throwing the city bus full of people? He knows that a big Metropolis showdown between four superfolk would create a lot of collateral damage, so he leads the bad guys away from the city to battle them where they’ll do less damage. (The Artic was a good choice.) Instead we’re forced to endure a battle of indestructible Gods in which all the real damage is done to the city and its residents. Instead of outsmarting the villain, Superman breaks Zod’s neck and screams.
[An aside: On the topic of collateral damage: What the fuck, Hollywood? I had this gripe with The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness too. Our primary characters go unharmed while millions of simple city folk are squished under demolished buildings and thrown cars. I don’t need realism. I don’t require that we dwell on these things, but it would be nice to feel like something is at stake for once. We KNOW the good guy is going to win, but at what cost? That question is never answered because we never get an inkling of suffering despite the mass destruction. Even if we could just hear an off-screen newscast reporting: “Millions dead as Metropolis comes tumbling down like a lost game of Jenga, because a battle we have nothing to do with is being waged in our city by aliens, one of whom is supposed to be the good guy despite his inability to strategize.”]
Within minutes of Zod’s snapped neck, which, it would seem, indicates Supe’s victory, we make a rare visit to The Daily Planet, which looks to be in pretty damn good condition after the battle waged there. Did city engineers start reconstruction with The Daily Planet (a PRINT publication)? Instead of, like, schools? Things look like they’re back to business as usual, though we know outside Perry White’s windows are dead bodies trapped under the rubble left by a battle between two indestructible forces. Unless we’re to believe several years pass between the two scenes, and I’m pretty sure we’re not.
4. Lazy writing. Allowing Pa Kent to be swept away by a tornado is laughably lazy writing and makes no goddamned sense besides. Seriously, I laughed. It was the ONE TIME in his young life that Clark could have used his powers without it being detected by others. (–Even though Papa Costner forbids him, I bet Pa would be rethinking that stupid move as he free falls through the roof of a Smallville hardware store when the tornado eventually drops him.) But he let’s Dad’s raised hand force him back under the overpass? Maybe Clark just didn’t love him enough. I’d like to think that Ma, would immediately have slapped the shit out of Clark after that scene. “What the fuck?! He was your dad, dumbass!”
In Superman: The Movie, it’s important and pivotal when the elder Kent dies of a heart attack because “even with all of these powers, I still couldn’t save him.” Teachable lesson there, Kal – and one that will inform many of your future decisions as a protector of “truth, justice and the American way.” (In the Donner version anyway.)
Also, Snyder wants us to believe that Kal kills Zod because he had no choice! Zod was gonna heat-vision that family to death!
So, only then he finds the strength to do effective bodily harm to Zod? This after they’ve been having an aerial fistfight in which they sustain virtually no damage? Again: lazy writing that caters to the demand for more punching! Lazy writing made worse by the fact that Zod just made the case that he’s protecting what he was genetically engineered to protect. That’s not evil enough for a main villain. It’s pitiable. He’s not sadistic or cruel so much as he’s trying to maintain what he sees as “the greater good” even if he’s crazy, angry and misguided. But think about it: If Earth people had to relocate to another populated planet, we’d totally take over and think nothing of dropping a Target and Starbucks smack dab in the center of the alien planet’s red-sun-worshipping sacred ground.
5. Kryptonian jargon. It’s confusing, useless and poorly named. The only thing sillier than Kevin Costner being whisked away like Dorothy is all of the jargony, macguffiny, mumbo jumbo about things like a “codex” and (God help me) a “world engine.” I get that the villains are up to terraforming Earth into Krypton II, but did we need knowledge of Kryptonian science to make this effective? (I’m not saying bring back the crystals, but didn’t they do the job without us having to know exactly what they were doing?) Also did we need over-explanation of the House-of-El family crest? I mean, it works, but that was also done in Superman: The Movie – without the need for dialogue exposition I might add. Can’t we, the audience, sort that shit out for ourselves?
While they’re at it, why not explain why Kryptonians speak English? And have “military generals” that say things like: “Where did you train? –on a farm?!” Because it’s unnecessary. Like Star Wars prequel politics, we stop paying attention to what it all means halfway through the movie because we don’t care. A full season of Battlestar Galactica had less in-your-face fiction-based science.
6. Important elements left out. Most disappointing – and fatal, I think, to MoS’s potential acceptance by his *ahem* older fans – is what’s missing. I’m guessing a lot of this is to stretch the origin story even further into the inevitable sequel, by waiting to introduce REPORTER, Clark Kent, as a coda before the credits. For all the bitching fans seem to do about superhero movies being oversaturated with origin stories, this makes no sense. (It’s the ol’ Prometheus switcheroo, where we know there will be another movie or why else put Guy Pierce under all of that terrible old man makeup?) Without Clark Kent, the intrepid, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, there’s no signature Superman transformation to get a kid’s heart racing. It also means no real fun with glasses, double identities and the balancing act required to keep reporter and hero separate entities in the eyes of the public and, most importantly, Lois Lane.
Does NO ONE else have a problem with the fact that, throughout most of the movie, Lois is fully aware that Clark Kent and Kal-El are one and the same? It’s one of the primary tropes of the Superman mythos and it’s snuffed out, and what’s worse: for no discernible reason. (Will he be giving her one of those Superman II-style Forget Me Now kisses to reboot her memory later?) Lois seems to exist solely to be rescued by Superman, awkwardly bridge scenes and provide a quasi-romantic moment in the last act so that our two primaries can share a head-scratching kiss that is completely unearned by the story’s wobbly narrative.
Finally, a word about the inexplicably maligned Superman Returns:
What’s everyone’s beef with it? Brandon Routh’s performance was spot-on and the character, well developed. Yes, it used Donner’s movies as a jumping off point but I was glad. It wasn’t a sequel so much as it existed in the same universe. Donner directed most of Superman II before the Salkinds replaced him, mid-shoot, with British director, Richard Lester, who admitted to not giving a shit about Superman and who specializes in comedy.
Snyder and Nolan don’t seem to give much of a shit about Superman either. Thus, we get a stoic, humorless hero and a soulless movie that seems hell-bent on being different for difference-sake. “Let’s make Perry White … BLACK! Let’s modify the costume almost completely! And let’s make the final battle … Well, can we go bigger than The Avengers? Let’s try! … And don’t forget! MORE PUNCHING!”
MoS’s flying sequences are the most well rendered of any Superman movie – I’ll give it that. And Cavill looks great in the cape (and there’s less wrong with his performance than there is with the writing of the character), but there’s more to Superman than that. And Team MoS doesn’t seem to understand or care. They just want to out-action every Superman movie that came before and it’s obviously priority one.
I think the lesson to be learned here is an easy one. Superman is a tough hero to bring to the big screen, now more than ever. Different times require different movie heroes. (It’s why post-Last Crusade Indiana Jones movies can’t be done right. It’s why the return of Star Wars is/was a lost cause. And there’s a reason Bill Murray is telling Dan Akroyd to fuck off with his Ghostbusters III dream.) Someone got Superman right once. For my money, SR came close for many pre-millennial fans. (And critics. Note the 75% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to MoS’s “rotten” 57% … but who pays attention to critics? … oh … wait. Nevermind.) MoS seems to be pleasing younger audiences with the spectacle of its relentless battle scenes, spaceships (Spaceships?!), mass destruction and thin characterization. I don’t blame them though because that’s consistent with the movie heroes they’ve grown up with. (See: Transformers) Perhaps it’s time to just accept facts: No one is ever going to make a modern Superman movie that works for everyone. I’m of the belief it just can’t be done and I hope to God people stop trying. (Not likely.)
As for a Justice League movie? Just say no.
by Steve Habrat
I’ll never forget the jolt of excitement that I felt when I first saw the Superman Returns teaser trailer, the one with Marlon Brando’s Jor-El commanding the speakers and explaining to Kal-El why he has sent his only son to earth. It looked like Superman was in good hands, picking up shortly after the events of 1980’s Superman II. Director Bryan Singer worked overtime to make a film that captured the nostalgia of the original two films while also updating the character for modern audiences. I really can’t express how disappointed I was in the finished product of Superman Returns, a dull, lumbering, and bloated reboot that basically served no purpose other than to let us know that Superman now has a son and that he is still not with Lois Lane. It has been said that Singer cut fifteen minutes from this movie when he should have cut about forty minutes from it. For almost two and a half hours, we go in circles while Kevin Spacey tries his hardest to perk the film up. Even worse, you’d think that with all of our beefed up special effects, Singer could have conceived one thrilling action sequence but nothing ever rises above mildly attention grabbing. They almost seemed like they were in there just as an excuse to crank the volume up and wake the audience up from their naps.
After assuring the president that he would never abandon Earth again, Superman Returns begins by explaining to us that Superman (Played by Brandon Routh) has been missing for five years, searching the galaxy for the remains of his home planet Krypton. He apparently didn’t say goodbye to anyone he deeply cared about, which has really upset Lois Lane (Played by Kate Bosworth) and led to her writing an article entitled Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman. Lane has also won the Pulitzer Prize for the article, an award that she has mixed feelings about when Superman suddenly returns to earth and makes a daring rescue. The Daily Planet is sent into a frenzy covering his return and Superman confronts the now engaged Lois, who also has a mysterious son named Jason (Played by Tristan Lake Leabu) about the article she wrote. As Superman tries to reignite the flame between Lois and convince her that the world does need a savior, the dreaded Lex Luthor (Played by Kevin Spacey) hatches a plot that elaborates on his destructive real estate scheme from 1978’s Superman. Luthor travels back to the Fortress of Solitude and steals multiple crystals that can allow Superman to grow massive landmasses that resemble his home planet. Luthor isn’t content with just growing alien landscape and he figures out a way to lace the rocky terrain with Kryptonite, which would prevent Superman from stopping him. Luthor plans to grow his new landmass in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, which would cause the sea level to rise and destroy the United States, killing billions of people.
My first complaint about Singer’s Superman Returns is that casting of the blank slate that is Brandon Routh, who has absolutely no screen presence at all. He barely even registers half the time and seems downright uncomfortable when he pulls on the iconic tights. He is expressionless and bland, cast simply because he has a striking resemblance to Reeve. Routh has so much make-up caked onto his face that at times he looks artificial, making him more creepy and off-putting rather than warm and inviting like Reeve was in Superman and Superman II. Singer twists him into more Christ-like poses and double underlines the idea that Superman is in fact Christ sent from heaven to deliver us from evil (Lex Luthor). He glides above Earth with his arms outstretched, listening to a world cry out for his help. His awkwardness does transfer well to the bumbling Clark Kent but he never pulls that side of performance off like Reeve did in the original films. I hate to compare Routh so much to Reeve but it is virtually impossible since he is picking up where Reeve left off. The best scene he does have is when he confronts a crook wielding a Gatling gun, smirking as a bullet bounces off his eyeball.
Then we have Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane, another small blip on the radar when she was such a firecracker in the other two films. Singer puts a heavy emphasis on her character, almost making her the centerpiece in all the apocalyptic mayhem. Bosworth is pretty enough and Singer doesn’t go to cheesy lengths to make her look like Margot Kidder, letting her physical appearance stand as it already is. At least she isn’t creepy like Routh. She is overly cold to Superman when he shows up for an interview and she is too torn between her fiancé Richard White (Played by James Mardsen), the nephew of Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White (Played by Frank Langella), and the alien savior. The finale is basically an extended sequence of Lane getting herself into one nasty situation after another, all there simply to reveal that her son may be the offspring of the Man of Steel. Luckily, the two bland leads are saved by Kevin Spacey’s inspired take of Lex Luthor. He steals the movie and holds our interest through the entire project. Going for a lower key interpretation of Gene Hackman’s over-the-top tantrums, Spacey owns the role until the final frame.
Superman Returns also doesn’t stray from the massive apocalyptic obstacles that the Man of Steel must overcome. Pointy alien rock formations poke out of the sea while lightning crashes down on Superman as he swoops in to pull Lois, Jason, and Richard out of harms way. Metropolis also sees its fair share of devastation as Luthor’s plot sends tremors right into the heart of the city. The Daily Planet globe tumbles off the top of the building while a damaged gas lines ignites a discarded cigar and sends flames shooting out of the sewers. The message here is quite simple in Superman Returns: Don’t smoke! Superman manages to keep everyone safe through the extended sequences of devastation—you never once fear that he won’t overcome what is thrown his way, which is the major problem of the film. Things do get a bit edgy when Luthor pummels Supes on his Kryptonite laced landmass. The best action scene has to be Superman’s rescues of an airplane that tumbles out of the sky, right towards a crowded baseball field. It is perhaps the most rousing aspect of the entire film. Luckily, all this CGI destruction looks great but it fails to ever really get our hearts pounding.
There was plenty of potential here for Singer to really make America fall back in love with the Man of Steel. He really tries hard but his choices in his cast are what really drags Superman Returns down. Nobody really grabbed me outside of Spacey and made me like them and trust me, I really did want to like these characters again. Singer is also quick to elaborate on the religious subtext made in Donner’s Superman, something that didn’t need to be rehashed to the audience. The lack of stunning action set pieces also really hold the film back and we know that Singer can do action, especially after watching his X-Men films. If Singer had provided a tighter runtime, a different thespian in the iconic tights, and a different villain to annoy Supes, Superman Returns would have been a much better film with a hell of a lot more flavor. Singer’s nostalgic nod had its heart in the right place but there is nothing here justifying Superman’s return, which is a real shame because it would have been nice to have him back.
Superman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.