According to this movie Superman has been in outer space for five years doing some research and now he’s returned. The concept is supposed to be that everything has changed, because Lois Lane is now engaged to the guy who plays Cyclops from X-Men and has a kid. The problem is though, nothing much else has changed. Sure, this is a whole new set of actors, a new director, and modern special effects. It’s been exactly (something) years since Superman part whatever the last one was, and its two lead actors, Richard Pryor and Christopher Reeve, have both passed away. Still, director Brian Singer goes out of his way to NOT reinvent the series. He wants this to be a sequel to the old ones so he got a guy who looks like Christopher Reeve, he uses the same theme song, he puts some goofy ’80s retro comedy in there and even did retro style opening credits. In the last Star Wars I heard an audience cheer for a hallway, in this one I heard an audience cheer for a font. Strange times we’re living in.
In real life when you go away for a while and come back, it seems like the god damn planet of the apes, everything’s changed. I mean if Superman really was off the planet for the last 5 years there’s a whole lot he missed out on. He’s gonna have alot of questions.
“Why does everybody’s phones keep playing those stupid songs?” “Would you people please shut the fuck up about this god damn American Idol? Why would anybody give a shit?” “Wait a minute, that dude got re-elected?” “What do you mean never forget 9-11? What’s that all about?” etc. UNITED 93 is definitely “too soon” for Superman because he just found out about flight 93 five minutes ago and feels like an asshole for not being there.
But it doesn’t seem like Metropolis has changed much since the Christopher Reeve days. I’d like to see more new shit that wasn’t in the old ones. I already know about the evil bald dude with the wacky old timey girl sidekick, and how Kryptonite makes Superman weak, and that he can fly. I already seen Marlon Brando in a wig playing his dad. I already got that theme song stuck in my head. It’s cute nostalgia and all but let’s see a new movie here boys. What are we paying you for?
Let me be clear. I’m not asking them to “reinvent” Superman by giving him a different suit or a hat or making him Matrixy or wear a leather coat or something. But let me play armchair nerd here. Superman is a classic American icon, he’s been around for what, at least 40, 45 years. Could be 100, I have no idea. The point is, he’s been around longer than that crappy late ’70s movie this is all a tribute to. Your parents grew up knowing about Superman, it’s not just a thing from your childhood. So I think this movie oughta stay true to all the things that always made him Superman, but then they oughta come up with some new stories and ideas that are not just homages to that particular movie. Just making the same movie with better flying is not enough to capture the heart of 2006 America. Or at least, the heart of me.
And by the way, as long as you got Marlon Brando in there using old footage, where the fuck is Richard Pryor? He wouldn’t even need a wig or anything. I’m sure they could find some outtakes from BUSTIN’ LOOSE or THE TOY or something where out of context it seems like he’s talking to Superman about magic crystals.
As far as I can tell there is exactly one major change to the legendary story of Superman, this whole thing about Lois having a kid. Everything else feels like old hat. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey this time) has an evil plan, let me lay it out for you:
- He has magic Superman crystals that he puts in water and they grow
- He has 1 (one) piece of Kryptonite
Now, if it was really so many years they spent trying to make another Superman movie, it seems like there would’ve been time to come up with a better evil plan than this horse shit. He’s growing his own continent, okay, fine. It’s the one piece of Kryptonite part that bugs me. He stabs Superman with Kryptonite once. Superman gets hurt. Then he pulls it out. Now the plan is foiled. Not exactly the greatest cinematic drama and suspense I have come across, in my opinion.
The one thing that does really work is Superman and all his superness. The guy they got playing him is perfect. It’s nice that he’s not somebody from other movies, he just seems like if Superman was a real guy, this would be him. When he interacts with the humans he gives them a charming smile and says corny things to them, but he seems like a cool guy. You don’t hate him for being such a square.
By far the best scene in the movie is the one where the world finds out about the Superman return of the title. It involves a spectacular feat where he catches a falling plane inside a baseball stadium during a big game. And after a moment of contemplation, the crowd applauds. The only thing that could make it more American would be if all the baseball fans were eating apple pie. And maybe dressed as astronauts. And then he leads them in the National Anthem. I would like to think that Superman would not be an asshole and add that extra high note they always gotta do now to get cheap applause. “For the laaaaand of the fre-EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE…” You know what I’m talking about? I know this is a tangent but it must be said, I am against that bullshit. Every time I go to a ball game and they do that I think yeah, that old national anthem never quite sat right, thank God somebody realized they had to add an extra note in there in order for it to live up to the much higher standard of musicianship set by Mariah Carey. I actually make sure to only applaud lightly to any act that pulls that nonsense, and I give extra applause for the rare singer who sings the song correctly. But it doesn’t matter, if they do that extra show off note people always whoo like crazy. These are probaly the same assholes with the plastic flags on their trucks that are supposed to show how patriotic they are but they’re all ripped up and faded from the sun. BECAUSE THEY ATTACHED IT TO A FUCKING TRUCK AND THEN DROVE AROUND WITH IT. There is no common sense or actual meaning involved in these acts of patriotism. But that’s what happens in the land of the freEEEEEEEEEE.
Anyway whenever the movie is about Superman flying around lifting giant objects, it’s a good movie. There’s alot of beautiful imagery where he’s flying around in the upper atmosphere and it almost looks like a painting more than live action.
They do a good job of emphasizing that he’s godlike. Not that God would feel the need to wear a cape, but you get what I’m saying. There’s a funny montage of news footage of him zipping around the world helping people, which puts you in mind of somebody like God having to deal with everybody’s prayers all at once (or Santa Claus answering letters if you’re not into that). He even flies up into the heavens and sits with his eyes closed listening to every sound in the world, deciding which ones to respond to.
There’s a whole thing about how Lois won a Pulitzer Prize for the article “Why the world doesn’t need Superman.” He has a little talk with her where he makes a good point, she says the world doesn’t need a savior but every day he hears people crying out for one. The problem is, it seems like Lois just wrote that article because she’s pissed at him for screwing her and then running off to outer space. There is nobody else in the world (well, except Lex Luthor) who appears to be anti-Superman. There is no actual argument ever made for why the world doesn’t need Superman, we only see the headline. So the whole thing seems a little empty and makes Lois unlikable.
I guess there is one thing that makes Superman a little less goody two shoes. In this one he actually uses his x-ray vision to spy on Lois. He stands on a neighbor’s house and watches the family interact. I kept wishing he would get caught, that would be hard for him to explain. He never uses it for perverted means, but this is definitely stalker behavior, it makes it a little more interesting that he crosses the line like that.
Still, Superman is the squarest of all super heroes. You compare him to more of a brawler like a Batman, a Wolverine or a Popeye, and he seems pretty milquetoast. Which makes the life of Lois’s poor bastard fiancee all the more tragic. Even when Superman was in another galaxy, this guy knows he’s Lois’s second choice. I’m betting he knows spoiler the kid is Superman’s end spoiler – if not he’s in for a surprise in part 2. He risks his life and he tries his damndest to be a good dad and nobody fuckin cares, his girl and his son will always push him aside and trample over his face to get a better look at Superman. That’s the sad destiny of this poor chump of an actor because the same shit happened to him in the X-Men movies. In those he even has super powers but who gives a shit. Wolverine is cooler. He knows it, the audience knows it and most of all his smokin-hot fiancee or wife or whatever Xenia Onnatopp knows it.
Superman himself was enough to make the movie watchable, but if they make a sequel they have GOT to come up with a better story and characters to put around him. It’s hard to believe this is the same directionist who gave us the X-Men series. Yeah, this movie is more impressive on a visual level, and the action is much more exciting. But it’s not as good in the places that count most. Superman is trying to be more emotional and personal, but I can’t help thinking that the X-Men movies (yes, including the third one that Singer didn’t do) have so much more depth.
The biggest difference is in the villain. Magneto is an old friend and colleague of Dr. Xavier whose political views about mutant liberation are more extreme, and this puts them in conflict. He’s a holocaust survivor and he doesn’t want the same thing that befell his countrymen to befall his fellow mutants, and he is willing to kill to stop it from happening. Also he enjoys chess and is played by an old Shakespeare guy.
Lex Luthor, on the other hand, is a greedy evil guy who hates Superman. And he’s bald and has alot of wigs and crystals.
Magneto’s plan in part 3 was to lead a mutant revolt against a factory and kill the source of a drug that the human government is using to take away the characteristics that make mutants unique. He’s going about it wrong because his plan involves killing a child, but you can understand where he’s coming from and kind of side with him.
Lex Luthor’s plan is to grow magic crystals out of the earth that will destroy part of North America but he thinks he will own the new land so he will get rich. Nobody sides with him, not even his girlfriend.
When Magneto tries to execute his plan, he’s met by the military armed with dart guns loaded with the cure, a dangerous proposition. He tries to use his magnet powers to destroy their weapons like he has done in the past, but they were smart enough to make the weapons out of plastic. But he uses the unique powers of various mutants in his group to disarm the weapons. It’s a back and forth strategic battle where each side tries to outwit and overpower the other.
When Lex tries to execute his plan, Superman tries to stop him, so Lex stabs him with Kryptonite, like he did in every god damn Superman story you ever saw. But then Superman takes the Kryptonite out and Lex didn’t think of anything else to try, so he loses and gets stuck on an island.
Hell, even on the superficial level of skills and accomplishments there’s no contest here. Magneto can control metal objects and he used that to move the Golden Gate Bridge creating a path for his people to start an uprising. Lex is a master of wigs and he fucked an old lady for money.
Ah shit man, I’m gonna say it. I had more fun watching X-MEN 3. (Those are the seven words you recite to bring on a deadly nerd curse.) SUPERMAN is a better piece of filmmaking but I didn’t connect with it as much. Singer has already established the type of things that can make these super hero stories more exciting and relevant, and now he abandons them in his new movie.
I mean I can’t believe it’s ME that’s the one arguing this, but didn’t they already prove that comic strip movies can be more thoughtful than this? The X-Men movies have subtext about race, sexual orientation, the Patriot Act, all kinds of shit. This movie, every time it starts to bring up an interesting philosophical question it then runs away like a sissy. In his review Moriarty pointed out how Lex Luther brings up this question of whether it’s fair for Superman to have advanced alien technology and then just keep it to himself and not use it to help the world. Then the movie doesn’t explore that question at all. The one I noticed is the question of what Superman should be doing with his time. It’s just like the question of why God didn’t stop the levees from breaking in New Orleans, or why He allowed Bush to stop drinking and go into politics. We see that Superman listens to all the sounds in the world and then zips around stopping bank robberies and catching cars that go off jumps and that kind of stuff. But he never has to make a tough decision. I mean don’t get me wrong, he deserves all the credit in the world for saving the world at the end. But if you’re gonna compare him to God and Jesus you might want to show him facing the challenge of helping people who are starving or civilians being killed by war or Pakistanis in an earthquake or something. Not just American bank robberies. Or deciding which victim is most worth saving at any given time. In an X-Men movie you would be encouraged to think about these things while watching the movie, but in Superman you gotta suppress them.
So this one’s kind of the reverse of BATMAN BEGINS. It’s got great action but not a good enough story. One of these days you nerds are gonna get both in the same movie and your Hawaiian shirts are gonna burst into flames.
Two more Superman topics I want to address before I cut this off:
- GAY. Some guy begged me in the talkbacks to review “the gay Superman movie.” Apparently Brian Singer is gay so some people expected the movie to be all about boys holding hands and giving you a makeover to impress your girlfriend and shit like that. Well, sorry to disappoint you but there isn’t a god damn thing about this movie that’s any gayer than it would’ve been if anybody else was directing it. Shit, the whole damn movie is about men and women pining over each other and thinking about fatherhood. Of course people will say that everything in the movie is gay and phallic and whatever. But these are guys, you could give them a copy of World’s Biggest Gang Bang and if you convinced them it was directed by Brian Singer they’d write a seven page essay on its homerotic imagery.
- 3-D. If you go see this one in Imax it’s in partial 3-D. There are something like four scenes, I guess about 20 minutes of the movie, where a symbol comes up and you put on the goggles and it’s 3-D. POLAR EXPRESS was created in a computer, so they were able to process it into 3-D. But this was live action shot with one angle so they had to go through frame-by-frame and digitally alter it, and they didn’t have enough time to do the whole thing.In my expert opinion, this 3-D is only okay. At least with my goggles and where I was sitting, it looked blurrier and ghostier than when I saw POLAR EXPRESS. It looks kind of cool, about as good as the old one-color-glasses ones like FRIDAY THE 13TH 3-D. But the scenes weren’t really designed to be 3-D so the whole thing becomes a distraction. It gets to the big exciting action scene, then you gotta put your glasses on, suddenly you can’t see Superman’s face clearly and the whole screen looks smaller and faded a little. I was actually kind of wishing it wasn’t in 3-D, which is not something you’re gonna usually find me wishing.
I would like to dedicate this review to the biggest Superman fan I know, my old movie newsgroup colleague KalElFan. He first captured my heart when he argued for weeks on end that the shot of Thora Birch’s boobs in AMERICAN BEAUTY was a digital composite, and that any contrary information in interviews or articles was part of a coverup. He would accept the word of Steven Spielberg, as head of Dreamworks, that it was just a regular shot of some boobs, but since Spielberg had not come out to announce this to the world it was clearly not the case. To this day KalElFan is one of the craziest motherfuckers I ever came across online, and his works spurred me on in my early Writings. For at least the past 6 or 7 years (probaly longer) he’s used the name “KalElFan,” posted thousands of insanely detailed, bizarrely reasoned posts relating to his theories and mathematical equations of Superman, and apparently started a bunch of wars between himself and various Superman related newsgroups. But he claims after reading Ebert’s review of SUPERMAN RETURNS he wouldn’t have bothered to see it if he didn’t already have tickets. That’s my guy right there. Look him up if you ever get really bored.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.