Movie Reviews - 2000s postsWednesday August 14, 2013
Movie Review: Spider-Man (2002)
WARNING: RADIOACTIVE SPOILERS
Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” which, in 2002, became the first film to break the $100-million opening-weekend barrier, and thus ushered in the frantic age of superhero moviemaking we’re all stuck in, owes a lot to a movie that set an earlier opening-weekend record ($40 million) back in June 1989: Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
Just as Burton filmed a scene in which the hero is viewed as a figure of horror (the opening rooftop scene), so does Raimi (the warehouse/burglar scene). In “Batman,” a city-wide celebration with parade balloons and the popular R&B singer of the day (Prince), is ruined by an attack from the hero’s grinning, insane arch-nemesis (the Joker); same with “Spider-Man” (Macy Gray; the Green Goblin). Raimi uses the same composer, Danny Elfman, who scores the movie in a similarly ominous manner. “What are you?” the petty crook asks in the beginning of “Batman.” “I’m Batman,” Batman replies. “Who am I?” Peter Parker asks us at the end of “Spider-Man.” “I’m Spider-Man,” he answers.
Both superheroes also fit our dictionary definition of a superhero: They: 1) have a secret identity, 2) prowl the night in search of crime, in order to 3) cleanse themselves of a past tragedy.
The similarities end there. Spider-Man fights out of guilt, Batman out of revenge. Spider-Man is colorful and glib, Batman dark, silent and brooding. Spider-Man has the proportionate strength of a spider, Batman … um … knows martial arts and stuff. Peter Parker is poor and struggling to survive; Bruce Wayne is rich and struggling to remember where things are in his house.
I’ll take both Spider-Man and “Spider-Man.” But I’ve always been a Marvel guy.
Improving the origin
This is a fairly faithful adaptation of the comic book. It’s bright, colorful, quick. It has a Stan Lee ethos as opposed to a Frank Miller ethos. It doesn’t lose its sense of humor.
Tobey Maguire is your Steve Ditko-era Peter Parker, though a little sweeter, a little less mopey, and with the ability to shoot webs out of his wrists rather than out of web shooters attached to his wrists. He webslings through the high-rises of Manhattan and trash-talks the crooks and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) calls Peter “Tiger” even though it’s 2002 and not 1966. In MJ’s fall from the Queensboro Bridge we get echoes of Gwen Stacey’s fall in Spider-Man #121, and in the Green Goblin’s death by glider we get echoes of Gobby’s death by glider in Spider-Man #122. Spidey calls him Gobby. Our hero is happy as Spider-Man and unhappy as Peter Parker, and he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and that’s pretty much how it works.
Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp even improve upon the origin. In Amazing Fantasy #15, when the petty thief (forever known as “The Burglar”) runs past Spider-Man, we recognize that Spider-Man’s refusal to help is the act of a selfish jerk. “From now on I just look out for number one—that means—me,” he tells the cop, then swaggers away. Peter’s not us here; he’s other. In the movie, the petty thief rips off the wrestling promoter who has just ripped off Peter Parker. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” the promoter tells Peter when Peter complains. This allows Peter, 30 seconds later, to throw the words back at him. “You coulda stopped that guy easy,” the promoter complains. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” Peter tells him.
Here’s how brilliant that is. When I saw “Spider-Man” in a crowded movie theater in 2002, moviegoers, who obviously didn’t know where the story was going, who didn’t know this was going to be the saddest moment of Peter Parker’s life, actually laughed. They’d been trained to expect put-down quips from their action heroes, and this was a better quip than most. Haw! Told him! The laughter was indicative. We identify with Peter here. He’s not other; he’s us. Thus when the horrible lesson is imparted, it’s imparted to us, too. With great power comes great responsibility. It’s a lesson our popular culture doesn’t deliver much.
All of that said ...
Testing around the fix
OK, here’s the difficulty in improving upon stories, and allow me a quick metaphor. For a number of years I was a software test engineer at Microsoft’s Xbox Studio, and whenever we, in Test, filed a bug, and the developers fixed it, we had to test around the fix. Because whenever anything is fixed in computer coding, something else can easily get broken. I would argue that this is true in storytelling, too. It’s certainly true in telling Spider-Man’s origin. Koepp and Raimi fixed one problem, the problem of “otherness,” but in the process what gets broken? The street smarts of everyone around Peter Parker.
This guy is ripping off a wrestling promoter and his escape route relies upon … an elevator? Really? And what to make of the promoter? He has a fan-favorite wrestler, Bonesaw (Randy Savage), and this little pipsqueak with the arachnid fixation defeats him. Pipsqueak not only stays in the ring with Bonesaw, he beats him. He knocks him out. What a godsend! If you’re a wrestling promoter, this is the guy you’ve been waiting for all your life. And what does our guy do? Find out who he is? Sign him to a contract? No. He cheats him. He relies upon a technicality to save himself $2900. He makes an enemy out of the kid who could be his goldmine.
And, hey, just how long is Bonesaw in that ring anyway? There’s a line of guys waiting to fight him. That doesn’t seem fair. And if the point is to stay in the ring with Bonesaw (to earn the $3,000), and it’s thus in the promoter’s interest to have Bonesaw throw combatants out of the ring (so they don’t pay the $3,000), what’s the point of a cage match? You can’t throw anyone out of the ring in a cage match. And when Peter shows up, and is introduced as “the terrifying ... the deadly ... the amazing Spider Man!” why do boos rain down on him? He’s this scrawny thing in a silly mask. Shouldn’t everyone laugh? Wouldn’t that have made for a better scene? He shows up, they laugh, and he beats Bonesaw quickly in a non-cage match. Wouldn’t that have been a better way to handle it?
And when Spider-Man later appears as a crime fighter, doesn’t the promoter, who saw Peter’s face, connect the dots? Doesn’t he track him down? And do the kids at Midvale do the same? Hey, remember how Parker beat Flash that one day? Doing flips and shit? Then punching Flash like right across the hallway? Like with one punch? And, hey, didn’t that happen right after we went to the science museum and saw all those freaky spiders? And ... right! ... wasn’t one of them like totally missing? Like tour-chick said there were 15 and MJ goes, dude, 14, and tour-chick goes like whatever? I bet something freaky happened with that spider and Parker is totally Spider-Man!
All in all, there’s entirely too much shrugging going on in the movie. “Here are 15 genetically designed superspiders.” Nope, 14. “Huh. I guess the researchers are working on that one.” Then Peter wakes up with perfect eyesight and simply goes: “Weird.” He wakes up totally buff and just flexes in the mirror. Then checks out his package? Where’d that come from? Who thought that was a good idea? And when this heretofor nerdy kid beats up the toughest bully in school with moves that Jackie Chan couldn’t make in his dreams, how do the other kids react? “Jesus, Parker, you are a freak.” Or go this route: Imagine you’re an 18-year old kid who gets bit by a spider and wakes up the next day superstrong and superagile And you look down at your hands and see black things, like tiny black razors, coming out of your skin; and you flex your wrists and out comes superstrong web filaments, meaning these things are being produced inside your body. At what point do you begin to freak out? At what point isn’t your reaction simply “Wahoooooo!”
For my final problem with “Spider-Man,” I have to return to Batman for a second.
“The Dark Knight,” for me, has the same problem that every other “Batman” movie has. It’s not about Batman. I think Heath Ledger is just phenomenal and the character of the Joker is beautifully written. He has a particular philosophy that he carries throughout the movie. He has one of the best bad guy schemes. Bad guy schemes are actually very hard to come up with. I love his movie, but I always feel like Batman gets short shrift. In “Batman Begins,” the pathological, unbalanced, needy, scary person in the movie is Batman. That’s what every “Batman” movie should be.
I add this not only because I’m not a huge fan of “The Dark Knight,” but because bad guy schemes are something most moviegoers don’t look at. The villain leads us all on a chase, and it’s fun, but most moviegoers don’t stop to ask: Wait, what was the point of the chase? Why is he doing this? What does the guy want?
What does Norman Osborne, a.ka., the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) want? He starts out just wanting to save his company, Oscorp, from losing a big military contract. General Slocum (Stanley Anderson), who apparently can speak for the entire Pentagon, acts as if creating a genetically superior man is like inventing a better brand of pistol and is ready to pull funding. He acts, to be honest, like a studio exec ready to mothball his predecessor’s projects. “I never supported your program,” he tells Norman. “We have my predecessor to thank for that.”
So Norman does what he does and becomes the Green Goblin. Then he kills Slocum and the competition. As a result, at the next board meeting, he announces, “Costs are down, revenues are up, and our stock has never been higher.” The board’s reaction? “We’re selling the company ... The board expects your resignation in 30 days.” Instead they get theirs at World Unity Day.
Now up to this point the Green Goblin’s schemes have been pretty straightforward. He even annunciates what they are to his more timid alter ego: “To say what you won’t. To do what you can’t. To remove those in your way.” So why go after Spider-Man? Sure, he encounters him at World Unity Day, and Spider-Man is trouble for him—rescuing that doofy kid from the balloon, as well as MJ from the balcony—but he hardly keeps him from his goal. Gobby still kills the members of the board who would sell Oscorp. Yet for the rest of the movie, the Goblin’s bad guy scheme involves Spider-Man. This is how he puts it:
There’s only one who can stop us. Or—imagine if he joined us.
So for the rest of the movie he offers a hand to Spider-Man; and when it’s rejected, he tries to kill him. He tries to kill those Peter loves. What remains unanswered in the above quote is this: Stop us from what? Join us TO what? The Goblin has no goal, no scheme, other than to recruit and/or kill Spider-Man. But that is supposedly a means to an end. We just don’t know what the end is.
Here’s a question: If the Pentagon had a more far-sighted general, or if Oscorp had a less greedy board of directors, would the Green Goblin have even been necessary?
Guilt > Revenge
There are other problems. Even when I was 12, the J.Jonah Jameson/Peter Parker dynamic never made much sense to me. Peter has something everyone wants (photos of Spider-Man), but he sells them for a pittance to J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who uses them to turn the city against Spider-Man. What the hell, dude? C’mon, Brainiac, act like a Brainiac.
And do we need some explanation for why our guy is quiet/polite as Peter and glib/bratty as Spider-Man? Or do we just make the assumption that the mask allows him to finally let out what he’s held back all these years?
But for all that, “Spider-Man” still works. For starters, it’s expertly cast by Lynn Kressel and Francine Maisler. A few years ago, shilling for MSNBC, I wrote a top 5 list of the best superhero casting and put Maguire second, after Christopher Reeve and before Hugh Jackman. I mean, casting handsome leading men to play heroes is a no-brainer. But casting a nerd to play a nerd? That’s refreshing. Dafoe is a bit undone by the “Alien”-like Goblin mask but Franco makes a good, believable son for him. And Dunst? Cliff Robertson? Rosemarie Harris? J.K. Simmons? Perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect. Simmons provides levity and Robertson provides heart and pathos. He provides the lesson. Or The Lesson.
A year before that top 5 list, I did another list, the 10 great superhero scenes (circa 2007), and the death of Uncle Ben was no. 8 on my list. I wrote this:
Outside there’s a crowd and flashing lights. Then something pulls Peter toward the crowd and he sees what everyone is rubber-necking: Uncle Ben lying bleeding to death. In the comic book, Peter is simply told his Uncle Ben is dead. Here he gets to speak to him. At first this worried me. “Oh crap,” I thought, “He’s gonna blah blah blah and then die. It’s gonna stink.” But Cliff Robertson delivers. Peter’s voice seems to call him from a faraway place and he looks confused and scared to be where he is, then grateful, grateful to see the face of his nephew. He says his name once, twice, a gurgle in his voice. Then he slips away.
At that point, as the cops talk up the carjacker/Burglar, Peter’s eyes fill with rage and he’s this close to becoming Batman. But then he tracks the guy, captures him, holds him high; and in the spotlight he sees the dude’s doofy hair and stupid face, and his eyes fill with something besides revenge. He knows now. He knows he’s partly to blame. He was given this gift, this power, and it allowed him to act less than noble—less noble than his Uncle Ben would have wanted; and in the act of squandering this gift, his Uncle Ben died, and he’ll carry that knowledge and that guilt with him for the rest of his life.
This is why Spider-Man resonates more than Batman. Revenge is a loutish emotion, a wish-fulfillment fantasy emotion, which is why it’s so popular at the movies and in the comic books. Revenge suggests that there’s something wrong with the world but not with us, but Peter Parker, all of 17, knows better. Guilt is not only more complex, it’s more universal. Few of us walk around every day with revenge in our hearts; but all of us are guilty.
Movie Review: The Specials (2000)
I threw up in the early morning hours after watching “The Specials.” Unrelated, I’m sure.
Who was it that told me this movie was good? Any of you? This is me shaking my fist at whoever that was.
I’m not much of a fan of one-joke movies, and I’m not much of a fan of movies in which the chief metaphor is Hollywood-related, and “The Specials” is both. It’s about a team of low-budget, B-list superheroes played by a group of B-list actors and actresses and filmed in a low-budget manner. It’s written by James Gunn, who would go on to write the two “Scooby Doo” movies, and directed by first-time director Craig Mazin, who would go on to direct “Superhero Movie,” and it has a tinny, flimsy quality. It feels like something filmed in rooms with wood paneling. There’s no comedic rhythm and less comedy. The heroes’ super-powers are never on display. It’s anti-special.
One of the leads is Jamie Kennedy, a kind of break-out star amid the young and loutish in the late 1990s, who has never said one thing that made me laugh. He keeps his string alive here. He plays Amok, blue-skinned and dickish. His bit is to say rude, unfunny things, particularly about women. It’s how we imagine Jamie Kennedy is.
Another of the leads is Rob Lowe, fresh from “West Wing,” who plays a good-looking, two-timing superhero named The Weevil. It’s how we imagine Rob Lowe is.
And so on. Fresh-faced Jordan Ladd, daughter of Cheryl, plays fresh-faced new member Nightbird, with bird-like superpowers (including laying eggs), who has admired the Specials ever since she was a kid. Thomas Haden Church is The Strobe, the nominal leader, who takes seriously the role-model aspect of superherodom, while Paget Brewster plays his wife, Ms. Indestructible, who is growing weary of her husband’s blowhardness, and is thus having an affair with The Weevil in the backseats of cars.
Kelly Coffield of “Mad TV” plays Power Chick, who is raising Alien Orphan (Sean Gunn), who is bald and green and bendable. The bit goes nowhere. Judy Greer is one of the few bright spots as the super-cynical Deadly Girl, who is offered a gig with The Femme Five by Sunlight Grrrll (guest star Melissa Joan Hart), whose ‘90s-feminist name she dismisses with a deadly reaction shot. The movie’s screenwriter, James Gunn, gives himself one of the best bits, playing Minute Man, who is forever correcting folks that his name is pronounced my-NOOT (as in small) rather than MIN-it (as in time). Oh right, there’s U.S. Bill, too. Mike Schwartz. He says nothing funny and does nothing memorable.
I liked the notion of the Specials as “the 6th or 7th greatest superhero team in the world,” and I liked the line about “a holocaust of stretchy people” and the commercial for the Specials’ action figures actually made me laugh out loud. This is the plot point for the first half of the movie: the idea that the Specials don’t get Oscars, they get action figures. But then the commercial is unveiled, and Minute Man’s action figure is black (minority representation was needed), and one hero has Richard Dawson’s head (the company had leftovers from “Hogan’s Heroes”), and Ms. Indestructible’s doll has enormous boobs, and ... etc. It’s a disaster and pretty funny.
The rest of the movie—in which The Strobe finds out about his wife’s infidelity, disbands the group, then gets them together to battle giant ants who have taken over the Pentagon (which we never see, of course)—contains jokes like this:
Deadly Girl: Has anyone noticed that Mr. Smart has an enormous package?
Mr. Smart: My father, too, had a large penis.
According to IMDb, “The Specials” was filmed in 18 days. It shows. According to IMDb, it’s also only 83 minutes long. Mercifully.
Movie Review: Superhero Movie (2008)
Surprise! There are actually a few funny moments in “Superhero Movie.”
At one point, for example, after he’s bitten by a genetically created dragonfly that gives him the proportionate strength of a dragonfly (although such nerdlinger lines are sadly never tossed around), Rick Riker, this movie’s Peter Parker (Drake Bell), has a nail from a nailgun accidently fired at him by his Uncle Albert (Leslie Nielsen). He catches it. “How did you do that?” Uncle Albert asks. Trying to maintain his secret identity, Rick says, “It’s … easier than it looks.” At which point, Uncle Albert shoots a nail at the leg of Rick’s friend, Trey (Kevin Hart), who screams in pain and crumples to the ground. “No, I don’t think so,” Albert says.
Mostly, though, “Superhero Movie” is filled with jokes about farts, humping animals, pubic hair, blow jobs, and whatever stupid people were glomming onto in 2008: MySpace, Tom Cruise’s YouTube rants, etc.
Shame. Is there a movie genre begging to be spoofed more than the superhero movie? The western got “Blazing Saddles,” the disaster pic “Airplane!” and the cop drama “The Naked Gun.” Mike Myers spoofed ‘60s spy thrillers with “Austin Powers” and “Star Trek” was sent up with “Galaxy Quest.”
But the superhero genre that’s been dominating the box office for most of the 21st century? Crap. Not even “Not Brand Ecch!”
The timing of “Superhero Movie” was off, too. It was released in March 2008, when 2002’s “Spider-Man” was the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time, and so, with brief forays into “Batman Begins” (to explain Rick’s orphaned status) and the X-Men series (a Prof. X figure nonsensically tries to recruit Rick), it mostly just spoofs “Spider-Man.” Nerdy kid gets stung by dragonfly, develops super strength. There’s a Flash Thompson character, Lance Landers (Ryan Hansen), a Norman Osborne character, Lou Landers (Christopher McDonald), who becomes the villainous Hourglass, who often uses time-related puns in his threats to the city. Instead of M.J. next door, it’s J.J., Jill Johnson (Sara Paxton), who wants to be a dancer instead of an actress. Uncle Albert gets shot by a crook; Aunt Lucille (Marion Ross) is there with ponderous advice; and with great power comes …
Rick: Great responsibility?
Albert: I was gonna say bitches, but if you want to be a virgin all your life.
The movie is best when it’s spoofing the tropes of the genre. Dragonfly and the Hourglass get dizzy midfight when the camera keeps spinning around them. Rick, in love, watches J.J. in slow-motion … until Lance pushes him: “Watch where you’re going in slow-mo, dipshit!” All of the names are alliterative in the Mighty Marvel Manner, while the Dragonfly gets into a shoving match with a Human Torch figure over who gets to stare broodingly over the city from a specific gargoyle perch. But that’s more Batman/Daredevil. That’s Frank Miller stuff. Should’ve been raining, too.
Leslie Nielsen, two years before his death, still has that great deadpan delivery. Brent Spiner helps as Dr. Landers’ craven assistant.
But most of the humor is lowest-common denominator stuff. Dr. Stephen Hawking (Robert Joy) complains about his lack of sex, makes an “ass…stronomy” joke, and gets pushed into a hive of bees. Aunt Lucille makes jokes about pubic hair and blowjobs, then becomes the butt of the longest fart joke I’ve seen on film. The longest. Apparently they were going for the record. Even the Farrelly Brothers were grossed out. They said, “Take it down a notch already.”
“Superhero Movie” was written and directed by Craig Mazin, who previously wrote “Scary Movie 3” and “4,” and went on to write “The Hangover II” and “III,” as well as the abysmal “Identity Thief.” One gets the feeling this is his A game.
On the plus side? The great modern superhero movie parody is still waiting to be made. Opportunity, kids.
Movie Review: Hollywoodland (2006)
“Hollywoodland” begins with a point-of-view shot of soaring through clouds, a la Superman, then quickly plummets to Earth and Hollywood, Calif., on June 16, 1959, the day George Reeves, TV’s most famous Superman, was found with a bullet in his head. Did he kill himself? Was he murdered? Was it an accident?
The movie suggests all three. It’s less detective story than character study. It’s the story of two men, neither of whom is super. Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a marginal private investigator scraping by in Los Angeles in 1959, and George Reeves (Ben Affleck) is a marginal actor scraping by in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Neither is happy where they are. Both insinuate themselves into situations where they’re not wanted: Simo into the Reeves investigation, Reeves into the tabloid photos of more famous stars. Both men rely on the pocketbooks of older women. For Simo, it’s Reeves’ mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), who refuses to believe the official police report that her son killed himself. For Reeves, it’s Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), with whom he has an affair throughout the ’50s.
Both men are looking for an opportunity, too: their chance, their shot. Only Reeves really gets it. He just doesn’t recognize it.
A never-ending battle
From 1939 to 1950, George Reeves appeared in more than 50 films, ranging from Pool Player #1 in a sex hygiene short to the male lead in the World War II-era “So Proudly We Hail!” He also had a bit part in the biggest movie of all time, “Gone with the Wind,” playing Brent Tarleton, one of Scarlett’s early suitors. It was all so close. But by 1950 he was 36, and grasping at what he could. One offer was a dual role in a TV show about a comic-book superhero in cape and tights. He went with it, assuming it wouldn’t be picked up. It was.
He found the “Adventures of Superman” ridiculous. Basically he got trapped by circumstances into playing a character he didn’t like and then got trapped by that character since no one could see him as anything else. There’s a great scene where he’s with friends at an early screening of “From Here to Eternity,” in which he has a supporting role. But this is a year into the six-year run of “Adventures of Superman,” and as soon as he appears onscreen, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jawing with Burt Lancaster, the crowd buzzes, then titters, then various wags shout out Superman-related lines: “Faster than a speeding bullet!” etc. It breaks the mood, and Fred Zinnemann, the director, turns toward the projection booth and makes a scissors motion. Most of Reeves’ work winds up on the cutting-room floor.
You’re this, the world was telling Reeves, and only this. And then he wasn’t even that. The show wasn’t picked up for a seventh season, a directing deal fell through, and Reeves was left to scramble. Would he take a role in professional wrestling? We watch 8mm footage of him trying out moves but betrayed by body and age. He leaves Toni for a younger woman, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney)—who, ironically, has the same “L.L.” initials as all of Superman’s girlfriends—and suffers recriminations from both women. Leonore thought he was a star but he’s fallen. Toni stomps on him there.
“Have you seen yourself, George?” Toni says to him. “Your face is going. Here. Your eyes, your hair, your stomach. You think no one notices?”
Then she gets mean:
Toni: You want publicity? You’ll get it. I’ll say you’re a red. And a faggot. A lush. Nobody can call that a lie.
Reeves (angry): You know what? You never helped me. You never helped me. You could’ve talked to Eddie. You could’ve gotten me something but you didn’t! Because you liked me where I was in a fucking red suit! You liked that! Well, that’s not who I am, you understand? Goddamn you.
Toni (sweetly): But George, that’s all you were good for. 10 year-olds and shut-ins. That was the best you were ever going to be. I knew that. Why didn’t you?
Sure, Diane Lane is stellar, but has Ben Affleck ever been this good? At this post-Bennifer point in his career he was coming off a string of laughable movies, including “Gigli,” “Surviving Christmas,” and his own turn as a superhero, “Daredevil.” He was trapped, all of which was good prep for playing Reeves, and he brings a matter-of-fact pathos to the character. The irony of Reeves’ existence weighs upon his mighty shoulders. Reeves plays the world’s most powerful man even though he has no power. The final irony, about the speeding bullet, comes too late.
If Superman is wish fulfillment for kids then George Reeves is identification for adults. Most of us never wind up where we want to be. Most of us assume roles (pharmacist, plumber, real estate agent) that define us and trap us. Then even that role, through age, circumstance, and technological advances, is taken away from us, too.
Not truth, not justice
The Reeves half of “Hollywoodland” is powerful and reverberates long after the movie is over. The other half, the fictional half, is boilerplate. Simo is not a nice man, but through his research into Reeves’ life and death he comes to an epiphany. He takes the lesson of Reeves’ life and applies it to his own. But what’s the lesson? Be happy where you are? Don’t lie so much? Don’t string your clients along? Don’t show up drunk at your kid’s school?
That’s part of the problem with the movie. Sure, Simo scrambles after his next best chance. But he scrambles because he has to make a living. So where does the epiphany leave him? Not scrambling? Going into a different line of work?
“Hollywoodland,” written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, was going to be called “Truth, Justice and the American Way” until Warner Bros., putting out their own Superman movie that year, intervened. But elements of the original title are still in the movie. To corral Reeves’ mother as a client, Simo taps the lurid headline about her son’s suicide and says, “You need a headline this big … only with the truth.” Except he doesn’t believe it’s the truth. When another client, who has long suspected his wife of adultery, kills her with three bullets to the head, heart and groin, he tells Simo, “I hope you’ve learned the meaning of justice.” Except it’s not justice.
So not truth and not justice. Just the American way.
Movie Review: Superman Returns (2006)
This is one ballsy movie. No pun intended.
In 2006, Bryan Singer, with nothing but success behind him (“The Usual Suspects,” the “X-Men” movies), directed the Superman movie he always wanted to see: a continuation of the Christopher Reeve version that jettisons the awful ’83 Richard Pryor vehicle and the ’87 Golan and Globus abomination, and adds intrigue and depth to where we left off in ’81.
He picks up on the storyline. In “Superman II,” Superman beds Lois. Now, six or so years later, she has a child. Hey, could it…? It could.
He returns Jor-El (Marlon Brando) to us. The Salkinds taketh, Singer giveth back.
He picks up on the Jesus metaphor. Superman dies, is reborn, and ascends. Well, he flies anyway. “I am with you always,” Jesus said at the end. “I’m always around,” Superman says at the end.
We get some of the great lines from the first movie—“Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel”—as well as the resounding John Williams score in all its iterations. For a moment, as Superman and Lois flew around town, I thought, “OK, so everything but ‘Can You Read My Mind.’” But then they pass Lois’ house, and the camera focuses on their hands, holding in flight, and we get a strain, a suggestion; then suddenly the whole thing wells up again as her love for him wells up again. Because you don’t get the love theme until you get the love.
All of this is ballsy for obvious reasons. We live in a throwaway culture and Singer was involved in the greatest recycling project in movie history. Hollywood gears its product toward 12-to-14-year-olds and Singer was determined to make a sequel to a movie released 25 years earlier. He ignored the original’s third and fourth iterations as if he could rewrite movie history. “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick told Gatsby, to which Gatsby responded “Why, of course you can!” Singer is Gatsby in this regard.
And, like Gatsby, his project was doomed.
Start with the casting. Brandon Routh makes a good Clark Kent/Superman but he has the misfortune of following the greatest superhero casting ever. Routh is actually several years older than Christopher Reeve was when Reeve was cast as the Man of Steel, but he looks younger. Except it’s supposed to be six years later. Is Superman aging backwards? Like Benjamin Button?
The casting of Lois Lane is worse. Kate Bosworth was 22 when they filmed this. And she has a 5-year-old? From a consummation six years earlier? That’s some awkward math. She should’ve been in high school instead of, you know, reporting for The Daily Planet and shacking up with Supes in the Fortress of Solitude. We have laws, dude.
Kidder and Reeve were adults in a gritty adult world—New York in the 1970s—but these two look like kids and act like kids. Why the world doesn’t need Superman? Really, Lois? She can’t even let go of her anger to be the star reporter she is. The biggest scoop of the year—Superman returns—shows up on the Daily Planet rooftop and she frowns her way through the interview. Her first question is about where he’s been all this time. He says there was a chance Krypton was still there. “I had to see for myself,” he says.
Imagine you’re a reporter. What’s your follow-up?
- “So was it still there?”
- “What about kryptonite? Were you in danger?”
- “Why didn’t you tell anyone you were leaving?”
This is Lois’ follow-up: “Well, you’re back. And everyone seems to be pretty happy about it.”
That’s not even a question. Then we get this awful dialogue:
Superman: I read the article, Lois.
Lois: So did a lot of people.
Superman: Why did you write it?
Lois [upset]: How could you leave us like that? [Throws up hands.] I moved on. So did the rest of us. That’s why I wrote it. The world doesn’t need a savior. And neither do I.
I’m not sure who’s being more childish here. Lois assumes her pain is the world’s, her resentments ours. And him. He can’t get past the fact that she wrote the article? That she was angry that he left for five years without a word? What is he—a Vulcan?
It gets worse when they’re about to fly together:
Lois: You know my… Richard. He’s a pilot. He takes me up all the time.
Superman: Not like this.
Who knew Superman was so insecure? You can feel his insecurity throughout the movie. He basks in the applause from the baseball crowd and listens to news reports about himself with a smile. He’s the mightiest being on the planet, the savior of the world, and he’s checking press clippings. Does he Google himself? Read the comments below YouTube clips? “SuperDORK more like! Go back to Krypton, Creepton. LOL.”
He spends so much time worrying about what Lois is thinking and feeling, and with whom she’s thinking and feeling it, he doesn’t put together the fairly obvious pieces of the plot. Let’s see…
- Lex Luthor is out of jail.
- Kryptonian crystals from the Fortress of Solitude are missing.
- The east coast has suffered a massive blackout that includes cellphones.
It’s even Clark’s job to be covering the blackout story. It’s the story Lois wants, it’s the one Clark gets, but it’s still Lois who uncovers it. She finds its epicenter, finds the boat, “The Gertrude,” anchored there, slips aboard with her son, then comes across Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) brushing his teeth. “Lois Lane?” he says with a mouthful of toothpaste. It’s one of the few times Luthor makes us laugh in the movie.
No obvious metaphor here. Keep moving.
I hate carping like this. I actually think “Superman Returns” is one of the better cinematic incarnations of the Man of Steel, so I want to say the positive. But I keep returning to the things that bug me.
I love it when Lois tells Superman “I forgot how warm you are.” That’s so evocative. This notion that the Man of Steel, instead of being cold like steel, is warmer than us. As if he absorbs more of the sun than we do. Then this:
Superman: What do you hear?
Superman: I hear everything.
You’re immediately struck by the burden of that. But it backfires. You think: Wait. If he can hear everything, why spend so much time being Clark Kent? Why is he hanging at a bar with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Bo the Bartender (Jack Larson, the Jimmy Olsen of the 1950s)? Why isn’t he out saving all of the people he can hear being beaten, murdered, and raped? Why save some dingbat in a car or bother to stop that bank robber—a guy so stupid he: 1) robs a bank; 2) in Metropolis; 3) the day after Superman returns? And if you’re going to stop the dude, why walk up to him and allow him to keep firing? Bryan Singer wants to show us that even Superman’s eyes are invulnerable but he could’ve done it without making Superman seem like an ass.
There’s a nice scene when Supes lands with a sonic boom—boom!—on the new Krypton continent in the Atlantic Ocean, and fissures develop. And yet … I mean, if he can hear everything, surely he knows where Luthor and his men are. He can hear them breathing. They’re there, there and there. Pick them off. Instead he lands dramatically, with the fissures, and lets his enemies gather.
And how does he not feel all of his powers draining away? If I landed somewhere, and lost 99% of my power in two steps, I think I’d know it. Don’t even get me started on the horror of watching Superman get his ass kicked. There are a lot of painful moments in these movies—the post-reveal dialogue with Lois in “II,” being upstaged by an unfunny Richard Pryor in “III,” all of “IV”—but, for me, the beating of Superman in “Superman Returns” might be the most painful. It’s so brutal, I wouldn’t be surprised if it killed the movie at the box office. Who wants to re-watch a helpless Superman getting his ass kicked by Luthor and his men? Nobody. Superman returned but we didn’t.
OK, then how about the airplane rescue scene? Wow, right? And an homage to the helicopter scene in “I.” Yet why does the original work and the homage not? Is it that the helicopter scene is about revelation (the first appearance of Superman) while this is about return? Is the original rooted in the everyday, the gritty, while this feels like so much CGI? And did the landing have to be in the middle of a baseball stadium? The length of the scene doesn’t help. In “Superman,” from the moment he turns into Superman to “Statistically speaking… ” takes about one and a half minutes of screentime. In “Superman Returns,” it takes five and a half minutes of screentime. It just keeps going.
Second-to-last son of Krypton
I like him lifting the kryptonite-laden continent on his shoulders, like Atlas, pushing it into space, then falling back to Earth. The scenes at the hospital are good, too. But it still takes Lois forever to tell him Jason is his son. She should’ve told him as soon as she entered the room. Hell, she should’ve told him as soon as he returned from Krypton. Seriously, what kind of woman withholds that information? From both men? And that’s your heroine? It’s not a bad idea, certainly, having Lois marry Richard White (James Marsden), but it ruins the greatest love triangle in superherodom. Lois loves Superman and ignores Clark because she doesn’t see what’s super in him. It’s the story every man tells himself about every unrequited love. It’s poignant in that way. Here, Lois kinda loves, or certainly appreciates, Richard White, to whom she’s married, but really loves Superman, who’s always around. Sometimes he’s just outside their house, listening in. Right. That’s a little less poignant.
So let me end with two scenes I appreciate without qualification.
The first is the scene outside the hospital, where Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) stands with the crowd, unable to visit her dying son because no one knows he’s her son. That’s heartbreaking. It’s also reminiscent of what gay men went through in the age of AIDS. No way Bryan Singer didn’t make that connection.
The second is the moment Superman tells a sleeping Jason something Jor-El told him as a baby—as Kal-El slept on Krypton for the last time:
You will be different. Sometimes you'll feel like an outcast. But you'll never be alone. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father the son.
It brings cohesion to the whole Donner/Singer enterprise, and to this movie in particular. Superman traveled to Krypton to discover he was its last son. Then he traveled back to Earth to find out he wasn’t. He went searching for Krypton but found it in his own backyard.
The son becomes the father.