Perhaps you’ve heard about a little movie that’s opening this week called “Man of Steel.” The small, under-the-radar, kitchen sink drama follows the adventures of one Superman as he struggles with the kind of identity issues familiar to many x-ray sighted, preternaturally strong orphan aliens gifted with the power of flight, and saves humankind from a terrible peril. Our review will be coming later today, and while we’re not going to include “Man of Steel” in our rating of the Superman films right now, come back next week when more of us have seen it and you can argue over its correct placement.
The Middle of the Pack: “Superman Returns”
Oh, Bryan Singer, you brought such a lot to your take on Superman: a perfectly cast lead (for our money, Brandon Routh did a fine job as both Clark and Superman, nodding to but never directly ripping off Reeve’s incarnation), a perfectly cast villain (Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor), some really outstanding visuals and some interesting, potentially fertile ideas (Superman’s son; the world needing/not needing a savior). So how the hell did you forget to pack any stakes? Our level of childhood investment in the Superman franchise is such that we were genuinely excited to witness Superman’s return after the 19-year hiatus occasioned by the awful critical, and poor commercial, reception of “Superman IV” so really the most damning thing we can say is that apart from a brief flutter when John Williams’ iconic tune rang out for the first time, we were almost completely unmoved by “Superman Returns.” As handsomely mounted and solidly played as it was, it is also so un-involving as to be a bit dull in parts, especially with the ham-fisted handling of what should have been a home-run addition in the father-son theme. The miscasting of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (just too slight and pretty a presence to bring any depth of feeling to an underwritten role), and the lack of any surprise around the paternity of her son, or indeed even of any particular moments of interest as the boy discovers his powers, bar one flinging-of-a-grand-piano, mean that at its emotional heart, the film is empty.
And so we start to look at the window dressing like Parker Posey’s outfits (terrific) instead, and to wonder about other things, like whether James Marsden is ever not going to be cast as the guy who gets the girl that the hero truly loves? And in the meantime we’ve kind of lost any attachment to the plot, which is something about creating a new land mass and submerging half of North America in the process, a nod to the first “Superman” film's real-estate swindle-style plot. But couldn’t they have chosen a more interesting thing to nod to? It really is a case of a film that had everything going for it, a big budget (somewhere north of $200m, we’re told), a passionate director with a track record in superhero films, an audience (well, us anyway) practically panting in anticipation and even the blessing of original “Superman” director Richard Donner, but, at 154 minutes instead of flying by like a bird or a plane, “Superman Returns” just sits there, pretty but inert. It was hardly a flop, pulling in just under $400m worldwide, and for a few years afterward there was (occasionally quite firm) word of a sequel with all the principal cast and Singer returning -- apparently the mooted sequel was the reason Singer hopped off the talent carousel that continues around the “Logan’s Run” remake to this day. But one by one, the key players fell by the wayside, attracted to other projects or simply frustrated by the lack of action (hey! like the viewers!) until in 2008 Warner Bros. announced a reboot rather than a sequel was in the works. And the rest is “Man of Steel” history, or at least it will be, come this weekend. Gotta feel a bit sorry for Routh.
Choice quote: Superman: “You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one..”
Second Best: “Superman II”
You know, in the hard, cruel game of film criticism (obviously regarded as one of the toughest professions out there, right up there with lumberjack-ing or oil rig roustabout-ing), sometimes your heart has to take a backseat to your head. “Superman II” is probably our favorite of all the Superman films to date, but with the best will in the world, we can’t pretend it actually stacks up better over the years as a film than Donner’s original “Superman.” So we’re giving it the second spot on the list, though our inner child is all like “What’s up with that?” and stomping off to its room heartbroken. Despite the tendency to lurch into comedy oddly at times (an inclination that would then be expanded to “Airplane”-levels of zany antics in “Superman III”) and some effects that just look terrible now even if they BLEW OUR YOUNG MINDS back then (the Phantom Zone prison thingie the trio of evildoers are trapped in was astounding back in those innocent times; looks a bit shit now), "Superman II" does still boast some great elements. And chief among them has to be Terence Stamp’s Zod who is just an infinitely more threatening and interesting villain than Hackman’s Luthor, and still stands as the series’ best (no wonder that’s where Zack Snyder & Co. are returning to for “Man of Steel”).
The real edge of menace he brings, plus the feeling that Superman could actually get beaten here (and then of course he does, temporarily), mark this film out as something special in purely story terms. And with Superman electing to shuck off his powers and responsibilities for Love, and coming to realize the wrongness of that decision, it feels like here he has the most involving and satisfying arc, pitted for once against a truly worthy adversary who also brings to light his inner struggle. It’s a shame, then that while a laudable effort is made to encompass all shades from light to dark, the lighter ”campier” elements are widely credited to Richard Lester who replaced Richard Donner when Donner disagreed with the more comedic direction in which the producers wanted to go, and the stitches between the two contrasting styles are very visible, even more so in retrospect than at the time, thus pulling “Superman II” up short of greatness. Everywhere except in our heart of hearts where nostalgia still has us standing on the stairs wrapped a bin bag screaming “Kneel before Zod!” at the family cat.
Choice quote: General Zod: “This ‘super-man’ is nothing of the kind; I've discovered his weakness...He cares. He actually cares for these Earth people.”