Welcome to the tag team review of one of the most anticipated films in the lifetime of someone who hasn’t been alive for very long. Superman Returns is one of the big ones. One of the A-List comic book franchises. Bigger than anything but perhaps Batman and Spidey. lot of false starts, big names, and big ideas went through the offices of Warner Bros. before this sucker hit the turnstiles. Re-imagining. Rebooting. Revamping. All those ideas went by the wayside when Bryan Singer and his "sequel" to Superman I & II came in and took the reins in a big way.
What follows is a verbose, unweildy, and somewhat incomplete tag team review. Devin had to fly to New Mexico to visit a set, Sean had to come in after the fact as he was traveling by car up the East Coast, and I’ve been in Los Angeles all weekend with very unreliable internet access (thank you Interactive in Santa Monica!). Russ, well Russ was pretty busy too. Bottom line, this is perhaps half of what we have to say on the subject and don’t be surprised if a postmortem follow-up hits the web in around the release date.
I’ll warn you, there are some spoilers here. I’ll try to invisotext anything that seems borderline. Also, this is not exactly a glowing review but I think we all agree with me when I say that you definitely ought to see this. In my Steady Leak the other day I made a point to say to trust none of these reviews. This is a unique film in the grand scheme of things. This is an audience film. It’s not a "critic proof" film like Torque or xXx; it just seems to exist in a weird ledge in regards to critics. I don’t really trust the bulk of the early reviews I’ve read and a lot of the "legit" reviews I’ve read (both positive and negative) seem to be coming from a weird place.
So go see Superman Returns. It’s definitely worth your dough in this mire of a summer. Now for our nitpickin’.
Devin Faraci: It’s taken a
decade or two to get to this spot, but Superman is finally back on the big
screen, and in many ways it’s like 1980 was just yesterday. Bryan Singer has
willed away the years between, eliminating Richard Pryor and Mark Pillow, and
begins his movie with an almost clean slate, if you ignore the giant letters
that say ‘Property of Richard Donner.’
There will be decades of nerd in-fighting to determine the exact chronology of
events, but for all intents and purposes, Superman Returns follows up Superman
II. Not only has Singer ignored the other two Superman movies, it seems like
he’s ignored decades of other comic book films, including his own. Superman
Returns is so much a throwback to the first Donner film it sometimes feels like
a retread of it. Even though he boxes himself in terribly by being quite
faithful to the Donner feel, Singer manages to create a pretty enjoyable
Superman movie – for about two hours. But in one of the most exasperating
recent examples of directorial overindulgence, what had been a fun film starts
wearing out its welcome, leaving audiences with twenty minutes to slog through
after the movie feels like it already ended.
Nick Nunziata: Pretty enjoyable
doesn’t cut it. This film needed to be stupendous to warrant its existence,
especially with the talent and dollars involved. I don’t see Bryan Singer as a
visionary filmmaker but he’s certainly capable of very solid work when given
the right toolbox. Richard Donner’s not a visionary either but what he did have
was the newness of it all. Superman is a very long film but in a lot of ways it
was Chuck Yeagering through new territory so it had some leeway. Superman
Returns is a big unwieldy beast that starts off strong but loses its
way in the third act on such a big level that it seems like a pointless
exercise, sabotaging good work by its cast and Singer’s assured visual sense.
Sean Fahey: Loses its way
in the third act? It loses its way an hour in. Hell, I’m not even sure the
movie has “a way” to begin with. Singer
et al obviously have a lot to say, and that becomes problematic when they feel
compelled to go ahead and say it… all. Superman Returns
can’t decide whether it’s a superhero action movie, a forbidden romance
chick-flick, a heartwarming father-son (squared) drama, or a James Marsden
seaplane adventure. Sure, a Superman
movie can have elements of each of these (including a James Marsden
seaplane adventure). But this felt like
three separate movies welded together.
As a result, the pacing is terribly off and the film(s) is (are)
That said, Lex is the bomb and Parker Posey looks
hot in the French Maid outfit.
Russ Fischer: I can’t agree with
‘pointless exercise’, because this film did more for my interest in Superman
than I thought possible. I’ve never cared much for the character; he’s cool
when opposite Batman, or fighting one of the big guns like Braniac or Luthor.
That’s about it. And while Lex is definitely a part of Superman Returns, there’s
almost no real fighting between them onscreen.
is one aspect of Superman I do like a lot, and it’s usually buried in the
mythology. Specifically, Supes is both a man and a god, and that duality is
loaded with power. Alan Moore’s Miracleman
(or Marvelman for the Limeys) toyed
with it. So did the Bible. This movie tries to play up that angle, occasionally
with great success. It does so by minimizing Clark Kent and focusing on
Superman, when it manages to focus on anything at all. Sometimes the Jesus
imagery glares through in a distracting way, but more than once Singer manages
to project a vision of Superman that is more complex than any version of the
character we’ve seen onscreen before. That kept me on board, even when the
floundering script and story structure tried to shake me off.
was excited by the Christ imagery as well, especially a scene that parallels
Christ taking a shot from the spear of Longinus, but the metaphor is too
sporadic, and eventually goes nowhere. “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman” is
the name of the article that wins Lois Lane a Pulitzer, but the movie never
fully engages this concept. Obviously we’re meant to understand that Superman’s
greatest power is as a mythos, as an example, but the film itself seems to
paint him as a Supernanny to the Earth. The death rate on our planet must have
skyrocketed when Supes took his space vacation.
other dropped metaphorical ball is Superman as adopted son. Bryan Singer is
adopted, and I know that part of his love for the character comes from this aspect,
but the movie seems to pay little more than lip service to it. Maybe we’re
being set up for a sequel, where Superman will deal with whatever he learned
while visiting the ruins of Krypton, but within the context of this film we’re
know, it’s lame to focus on ill-formed metaphors and themes in a Big Summer
Action Movie, but Superman Returns is a Big Summer Action Movie that’s
surprisingly light on action. There’s the plane rescue which you see in the
trailer, which I think ends up being one of the best action scenes in years
(and ends on such a triumphant note that even I wanted to cheer), but most of
the film’s action set pieces feel like Superman progressively picking up
Nick Nunziata: It’s not lame to
focus on it because Singer isn’t your typical summer movie director. He has
pedigree. Metaphors are great, but only if they deliver rather than just set up
more questions or allude to a better film we aren’t watching. Also, I think a
lot of the metaphorical stuff is borne more from a reviewer’s cranium that what
transpires onscreen. One man’s ‘Spear of Longinus’ is another’s prison shower
film succeeds massively at making Superman an icon and a worthy character to
follow onscreen, if by nothing else Brandon Routh’s excellent Christopher Reeve
impersonation (I won’t be convinced it’s anything but) and some astonishing FX
work. That’s a major achievement to me, since a recent viewing of the original
film made me wonder if there was anywhere new to tread. Problem is, the film’s
top heavy by staging the most memorable action beats in the first act and then
coming up way short in a flat out horrible third act. Devin, you hated some of Batman
Begins and were a very vocal critic of the film but in my eyes it’s a
far superior film to this and Superman Returns makes Batman’s
third act like a walk through the posies.
big difference for me between Batman Begins and Superman
Returns is intent. Batman spends two acts setting up a
realistic take on the Dark Knight, as well as establishing some very specific
guidelines under which he operates. The third act tosses all of that out the
window for a generic action sequence that has Batman breaking his own code left
and right. Superman Returns, on the other hand, intends to be a
continuation of the Donner/Lester films, and these movies had Superman turning
back time by reversing the Earth’s rotation.
third act of Superman is thematically and tonally and logically
consistent with everything else – it just loses all its momentum. The film
climaxes and then staggers along for twenty more minutes; the climax certainly
isn’t my favorite finale for a superhero movie, but I could live with it. It’s
the next quarter of an hour of schmaltz that bogs the film down for me. I had a
lot of goodwill built up by Singer’s crackerjack pacing and the actors’ snappy
and fun work, but all of that goodwill was exhausted by the time the closing
Russ Fischer: I’m with Devin on
the comparison between the finales of each film, though I have to admit I can
remember all of the last act of Batman, but have to work to recall
the last 20 minutes of this, which I saw less than a week ago. As a summer
movie that leaves the audience exhilarated and breathless, Superman Returns falters.
But at least the characters are consistent across the acts. And even in the
midst of the schmaltz that mars the end, there are moments of wonder that only
Superman, done well, seems able to evoke.
doesn’t help that the finale focuses on Lois. There had been a lot of negative
press about how this is the Lois Lane film, which isn’t true at all. But Kate
Bosworth doesn’t deliver the sort of convincing take on the character that
Routh does. In fact, she doesn’t offer much of a take at all. I felt like I was
watching a succession of comic book covers when she was on screen — there’s
that little to her Lois Lane. It’s the same old tough mom/working girl
stereotype that feels familiar from a dozen other films. Bosworth is easier to
watch than Margot Kidder, who always irritated me, but Kidder can be said to
have defined the character in a way Bosworth can’t claim.
Lois material is also complicated by her son, who in one minute is almost
useful as an extension of the adopted child-father/son-God/man series of
metaphors, and in another is an amazing example of massacred continuity and
blasé internal logic. Cute kid, but he’s an aberration, and could really
demolish this as a reborn franchise.
Sean Fahey: Ok, I want to
pick up on few things being batted around here. First, the plane rescue
sequence. I have to give credit where credit is due. That was an exceptionally
well done, edge of your seat, summer movie fried Twinkie. Makes you wonder what
kind of movie this could have been were it more action-orientated! Second, Nick mentioned prison shivs. Prison
shivs!! (SWIPE)An important point actually, as Lex proves his badness by gutting
Superman with a Kryptonian prison shiv at one point. A Kyptonian prison shiv!!
(ENDSWIPE) Finally, the inevitable comparisons between Superman Returns and Batman
Begins. Hmmm. Batman
Begins this ain’t. I’ll just
leave it at that, Deadwood’s about to come on.
Nick Nunziata: One last thing
about ol’ Batman. That movie, warts and all, gets better and better the more I
think about it. This one, all I see is holes. Typically I love holes. Here I
see stuff that bothers me more than the typical problems in event movies. You
have to give some slack to films aiming for the widest possible audience
because if you live in Phenix City, Alabama I can’t always expect you to be the
master of subtext.
a really solid film in terms of potential. It gets some stuff very right, most
obvious being its ability to mine our emotions with evocations of the original
two films. I just can’t give it a pass simply because of great music, great
effects, awesome opening credits, and a likable lead. I even dug Spacey and
Posey, but it is so unfocused and somewhat scatterbrained that it seems like a
first draft sent before cameras. For a film that so seemingly caters to the
fanboy crowd, it does a lot to avoid the pitfalls of comic films and create
brand new ones.
don’t have the nostalgia for the first two films that a lot of people do. I
look at the first Superman as a very, very flawed film and Superman
II as a mess with some wonderful moments (and I’m not one of these guys
who recently became a zealous anti-Lester guy without even having seen Donner’s
cut. I just think the movie ups the already high cheez factor from the first
one to barely bearable levels). So while the original John Williams theme is
evocative for me, it doesn’t call up instant happiness or anything. I guess
that means I feel that anything I have to say positive about the film comes
from the actual film itself.
said, I do agree the film is scatterbrained. I think it’s poorly constructed in
such a way that the whole thing comes apart in the third act like New Orleans
in a hurricane. Singer and company didn’t make a film, they made the start of a
franchise – Superman Returns might as well end with “To Be
Continued.” And the movie is often too emo for its own good – turn off that
Bright Eyes album, Superman! But even with all of that I feel like the first
two thirds of the film deliver enough old-fashioned moviemaking magic with a sheen
of modern technique to allow me to recommend it. Should the movie have been
better? Without any doubt, but most of the time it feels like an honest effort.
So far, it’s been implied that the reliance on the work of Donner & Co is a
good thing, and to some extent it is. The hybrid score is excellent, the main
titles are fun, and I appreciate Routh trying to bridge his take with Reeve’s.
(I’ve badmouthed Routh based on the trailer and photos, and this is as good a
place to eat my words as any. To me, the Reeve impersonation is most obvious
when he’s playing Kent; as Superman, Routh does begin to create a new vision of
the character. Singer helps by choosing some very iconic shots that are quite
that reliance on Donner is what hamstrings the film and forces it to be as
scattered as it is. Look at the Lex Luthor scenes. Parker Posey is entertaining
(for the first time ever, to me) but she seems to be doing little other than
pretending to be Valerie Perrine. Spacey waffles between a Hackman
impersonation and something much more menacing, like the businessman Phil
Seymour Hoffman created for MI:3. Both are great fun to watch,
and Spacey shows more life here than he has since the late ’90s. But the two
faces of Luthor don’t sit well with one another.
the same with the rest of the movie. On one hand, this is a $300M fan film,
with respect to Superman and Superman II. But it’s
also trying to be a film I keep wanting to call The Last Temptation of
Superman, as the more conceptual aspects of the character are
tentatively explored. Singer evidently couldn’t choose between the two
approaches, leaving the audience to do the work. I’m not going to say that’s
lazy, because the film is terribly accomplished in many ways. But it is weak,
and as Nick says, even the best parts of the movie suffer for it.
Nick Nunziata: Last temptation? It’s
supposed to be the first, though. Any time you continue a story as old as this
one (30 years), there’s only so much you can coast on in terms of residual
threads. Seeing this for all it got right, I longed for a total reboot. It’s to
Superman somewhat how The Sum of all Fears was to The Hunt for Red October. If
the ages and faces and *some* of the story aspects are different, why bother
adhering? Especially when the main villain’s big plan seems reminiscent of the
Going further, why in Hell is Lex the villain? We’ve seen Superman battle the
human opponent and the whole "using Kryptonite against Superman"
conceit is so overblown it’s hard not to wonder how much better it could have
been, especially in the third act, if it actually continued the SUPER aspects
of Superman with a worthy adversary. Yes, it’s pointless to wonder ‘what if’,
but when the hero and villain have no real confrontation how can a film like
this be satisfying? It certainly isn’t from the romance, because there are so
many things wrong with the motivations of Superman leaving in the first place,
especially without saying goodbye. We believe a man can fly. We understand his
angst. Where is the payoff? Why does this story exist?
Russ Fischer: Why is Lex the
villain? He’s the only Superman villain anyone knows. Poll people about the
comics, original movies, Lois & Clark,
Smallville, whatever. The only
recognizable enemy most people will come up with is Luthor. Even the second
film — the one everyone loves — couldn’t come up with anything better than
evil versions of Superman to replace Lex. He’s the guy. Batman will always come
back to the Joker, Spiderman to the Goblin (or versions of him) and Superman’s
enemy will always be Lex Luthor.
a total reboot is obviously not something WB trusts, given how much time other
scripts have spent in non-production. It’s predictable but sad that the result
is a tired retread of the ‘Lex schemes, gets Kryptonite’ storyline. That’s why
I find the Emo Superman stuff, and the metaphor and subtext in this movie so
interesting. It seems like the only way that Singer was able to get something
newer and different into the project.
Sean Fahey: Villains.
Finally something I can hitch my fuckin’ wagon to. Why Lex? Because he’s the antithesis of
Superman. Russ is right when he’s says he’s also the only Superman villain most
people can name. They’re trying to relaunch the franchise. They’re going play
it safe to an extent, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luther is safe bet that works.
But, again, Lex is THE Superman villain. He’s a mortal man who has worked for
every ounce of power he has, as opposed to a god who was born with all the
power in the world, and Lex hates Superman because of it. He’s a great villain.
As much I liked Spacey in this role though, it
would have been interesting to see a take on Lex more in-line with writer Brian
Azzarello’s mini-series Man of Steel.
Someone who believes in the power of man and human endeavor above all
else. Someone who doesn’t want to
destroy the world, but instead wants to see it become a better place and
achieve more. A Lex that believes
himself to be the hero, and views Superman as an unchecked threat to
humankind. That – compounded with a
further analysis of the “Why the world does / doesn’t need Superman?” theme –
would have made for a fantastic superhero flick.
So, in conclusion, if you like fried
Twinkies, there’s fried Twinkie to be had. Keep in mind however that there’s lots
of other filing as well. For every French Maid outfit and Kryptonian prison
shanking, there’s an unwashed autistic boy and a Titanic-esque
chick-flick moment. To be fair, I give Singer et al every ounce of credit they
deserve for aspiring to be more than just a summer movie, and more than most
comic book movies. But if you want to see an example of where it works, watch Batman
Nick Nunziata: This looks like a great movie. It has the intentions of a great movie. It has actors doing their best to make it a great movie. The same goes for the director. The composer. The FX artists. Somehow, either in its conceptualizing or editing, it became a pretty good movie. Not the best comic book film in recent memory and not the best Superman film. Not the second best Superman film. It’s good, but it just isn’t the franchise starter and mega-flick it should have been. I wasn’t hyped for this and it still left me a little cold. I wonder how the rest of you are going to feel.
To be continued?