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December 23, 2013
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December 24, 2013

FRANCHISE ME: Superman Returns

franchise-me-superman

Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.

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The Franchise: Superman: following the peacekeeping exploits of super-powered alien Kal-El, who was sent to Earth moments before his home-planet exploded, and was then subsequently raised by middle-American farmers under the name of Clark Kent. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster as a comic book character, the franchise has expanded into pretty much every single conceivable medium, spanning from 1938 to the present. For our purposes here, we’ll only be examining the theatrically released live-action films.

previous installments

Superman (1948)
Atom Man vs Superman
Superman and the Mole Men
Superman (1978)
Superman II
Superman III
Supergirl
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

The Installment: Superman Returns (2006)

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The Story:

Remember how in Supergirl Superman wasn’t around because he was off exploring outer space? Well, what if he just stayed out there for five years? That’s what is going on here. And Earth is all, “Hey, what gives? Where’d Superman go?” Then all of a sudden Superman returns. That’s why the movie is called Superman Returns. Cause he returns from being gone. Anyhow, things haven’t changed too much in the ensuing years. Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) still lives on the farm in Smallville. Perry White (Frank Langella) is still running The Daily Planet and being crusty. Lex Luthor (Keven Spacey) is still successfully getting out of prison and concocting devious money-making schemes. But there is one noteworthy change — Lois (Kate Bosworth) has a baby! Superman (Brandon Routh) tries to be cool about this and the fact that Lois is now boinking Mr. White’s nephew (James Marsden). But he can’t keep his shit together and he gets all moody. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor once again sneaks into the poorly secured Fortress of Solitude and steals some Krypton-crystal-thingies and starts growing a new crystal continent in the Atlantic Ocean. Can Superman defeat Luthor using the awesome power of lifting things? Only time (154 minutes of time) will tell.

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What Works:

Superman Returns has a reputation as something of a smoking turkey of failure. Interestingly, that failure was only with fans and perceived public opinion, since the film nabbed nearly $400 million world wide, making it one of the box office champs of 2006 — domestically it earned almost $40 million more than the beloved “hit” of 2006, Casino Royale. Even more pointedly, it out earned Batman Begins globally as well. It was a hit film rejected by the world, to the point that even the soulless bean counters at Warner Bros didn’t bother with a sequel. That makes it possibly the most interesting installment to talk about in this whole franchise. So let’s dig in…

Up until this point in his career Bryan Singer could be counted on for smart, even inventive casting. And though Superman Returns has some big casting misses, it also has some notable hits. Parker Posey, as Kitty, is a perfect choice to slip into this franchise’s fondness for a quirky hottie to sidekick the villain, without triple-dipping back into the big-boobed blonde archetype we’ve already seen with Miss Teschmacher and Ambrosia. Though Kitty adds little to the film other than color, Posey is a nice color to have around — especially in this dour film. I like the scene in which Kitty swoons for Superman after he saves her from a runaway car (even if Kitty’s character arc is repetitive to Miss Teschmacher’s arc in Superman). Eva Marie Saint is a lovely choice for Martha Kent. As is Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen; he encapsulates the dorky verve of The Daily Planet‘s His Girl Friday-esque roots. Frank Langella (who filled in when Hugh Laurie had to drop out) isn’t best suited for a character like Perry White, since Langella is better at simmering menace than rat-a-tat hamminess, but his kingly presence in a film can never be a bad thing. And as far as fanboy stunt-casting goes, I loved seeing Noel Neill (Lois from the film serials) make a cameo as the dying old lady that Luthor charms out of her fortune. Speaking of which, the best casting choice of the bunch is…

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Gene Hackman may be one of the all-time great American film actors, but I never much cared for his Lex Luthor. In his defense, he was miscast. Hackman would have been amazing as the serious, titan-of-industry Luthor first introduced in John Byrne’s 1986 The Man of Steel comics – the version of Luthor that most audiences/readers are likely familiar with these days (thanks in part to Clancy Brown’s long-running characterization in the Superman animated TV installments) – but Richard Donner was building off earlier versions of Luthor and decided to treat the character as a light-hearted foil. “Wacky” is clearly not one of Hackman’s strengths, so his talents were compromised and Luthor became silly and insubstantial. Kevin Spacey on the other hand is a master at balancing light-hearted humor with danger (hell, he’s even kinda funny in Seven). He is ideal for Donner’s huckster Luthor — romancing old ladies, taunting children, putting on cheesy disguises and rolling his eyes at his goons. It is a shame that Singer keeps Luthor isolated so much, surrounded only by his underlings, because Spacey soars whenever Luthor interacts with anyone else. I guess this is verging on backhanded praise, since I’m really saying — great potential, mostly squandered.

Superman Returns gets a bad rap for having lousy action. Which isn’t really true. The film doesn’t have the right kind of action, or enough of it, but what Singer does decide to commit to is compelling and often very cool. The film’s stand out moment is the space shuttle rescue sequence, in which Superman saves Lois (and other members of the press) who are riding inside an airliner that is transporting a space shuttle on its back. When he’s on his game Singer brings an imaginative energy to his action. The FX of Lois being tossed around inside the rolling airliner are fantastic. As is the sense of dreamy awe when Superman flies back into Lois’ life after the rescue is complete. If we’re talking about a scene in which Superman saves a doomed airplane, this is exactly how it should go down. And Singer’s riff on the classic Superman-letting-bad-guy-shoot-him-in-the-chest routine may actually be my favorite single bit of Superman action thus far in the franchise — when we get a close-up of a bullet impotently flattening itself against Superman’s naked eyeball, and Supes doesn’t even flinch. I mean, that sums up the extent of Superman’s invulnerability right there. But more interesting to me than Singer’s handling of the sparse ‘big’ action here, is his fascination with Superman’s smaller and quitter moments. I like little things, like a nurse in the ER not being able to pierce Superman’s skin with a needle. And I love when we see Superman zip silently above the heads of oblivious pedestrians on the street. It is not only a solid flying tweak we haven’t seen yet, but it is also a subtle usage of modern FX technology that filmmakers wouldn’t have attempted in the 1980s unless the bit were necessary to the film. Not that a film can be praised for being produced in 2006 instead of 1986, but I like seeing advances in FX technology being utilized in creative ways to expand the reality of the Superman world, and not merely making composite shots more seamless.

The scene where Superman goes up into space for some pouty ‘me time’ (after spying on Lois and her new family), floating silently above the Earth just listening to the planet, is rather elegant. In this moment you can see what Singer was trying to go for in the film. The two Donner films presented Superman as an outcast who assumed the role of savior, but with little emphasis on the outcast element once Kal-El became an adult. Singer clearly wanted to explore the isolation, and explore it in an emotional way (ie, Superman feeling isolated), rather than a sensational way (ie, a story where Earth turns against Superman). That is a daring endeavor for a popcorn film, especially the first installment in a relaunch. And this is easily the subtlest Superman film we’re probably ever going to get. If all of Singer’s questionable decisions came off with the same raw beauty and power of that one moment with Superman floating in orbit, the film could have truly been something. But…

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What Doesn’t Work:

…for the most part Superman Returns is a lengthy misfire. A noble misfire, but a misfire all the same. It has a lot of soul. But it lacks spirit. Superman Returns is a filmmaker-fanboy film. Singer didn’t want to reboot Superman. He wanted to travel back in time and make an installment in the Richard Donner series. In an industry obsessed with staying “young,” this shows you the kind of clout that Singer had at the time, particularly when you consider how far from the Burton/Schumacher films Christopher Nolan had just gone with his successful Batman Begins. Though, also relevant, when Singer was pitching his take he was coming on the heels of Warner Bros’ increasingly muddled and bungled attempts to resurrect the Man of Steel, including Tim Butron’s gonzo Nic Cage vehicle, Superman Lives. So Singer’s take probably seemed breezily straight-forward by comparison at this point. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? In a broad sense, this was a big moment for franchises in general. When relaunching a familiar hero existing fans like to debate whether or not we need an ‘origin film’. While origin stories inherently have the strongest emotional set-ups, we all know that they limit the kind of plot the film can have — there is a reason why we now all look to the second (or in Iron Man’s case, the third) installment for things to get really juicy. We know who Superman is, where he comes from, right? Why waste time showing Jor-El putting Kal-El in the spaceship yet again? Can’t we just jump right into things? Comic books have that luxury. Imagine The Dark Knight Returns if Frank Miller had had to waste an entire issue setting up Batman’s origins. So, in this sense, Singer’s approach was ballsy and dramatic with possibilities for such an expensive and potential-filled film. But it just didn’t work out. Which is a bummer, because the success of Superman Returns would have meant interesting things for all future superhero franchises. Now it exists as more of a cautionary tale for execs to point at when they are feeling gunshy about trying new things.

The film has several big problems working against it, but the core issue (at least from my perspective) is that Singer’s fanboy attitude wasn’t quite steadfast enough. The basic elements of Richard Donner’s Superman are here (John Williams iconic theme, the opening credits style, etc), but it otherwise feels like Singer was returning to a point in Donner’s franchise when Singer was bored and wanted to see something that bucked popular expectations. He’s not continuing Donner’s franchise so much as he’s reacting to it. And that is pretty insane; in fact, I’d actually say it is more insane than the outward insanity of Tim Burton’s planned film. It is a huge leap of faith to ask a fresh audience to make do with what they already know about Superman from popular culture or TV cartoons, and it is an even crazier leap of faith to hope they’ll be able to connect with elements and aesthetics tied to old films they may have only seen in passing on TV or never seen at all. On top of this, Singer isn’t just asking the audience to have a fairly specific image of Superman in their minds, but he wants to use that specific context not to branch out, but to branch down. This is a film that subverts what most audiences would expect from a Richard Donner Superman film – and a Superman film in general – which is objectively exciting, but Singer blows it by awkwardly trying to piggyback on the Donner franchise while never truly committing to this gimmick creatively. He ends up holding the Donner/Reeve Superman at a slight distance, creating almost an ‘uncanny valley’ effect. The end result is that Superman Returns does not feel like an abstract new take or an homage, or even a long-lost Donner sequel. Watching the film I just had this uneasy, latent feeling like I’d shown up late to the party. The film feels like a Superman II to a Superman that I never got to see. And that’s hard to get past, because it means Singer is asking for things from us that his film hasn’t yet earned.

Let’s talk story. The film begins with a text block that reads: “On the doomed planet Krypton, a wise scientist placed his infant son into a spacecraft and launched him to Earth. Raised by a kind farmer and his wife, the boy grew up to become our greatest protector… Superman. But when astronomers discovered the distant remains of his home world, Superman disappeared.” This is a pretty lame way to handle the film’s backstory, especially when our central location is a newspaper office (offering numerous possibilities to get the info out organically), but whatever. Why waste time, right? Singer was dealing with a 20-year gap between installments, and he chose to weave that thematically into the story. I can get on board with that. Earth’s greatest protector leaves Earth all by its lonesome for a number of years, then returns to discover things aren’t as he left them. That is fertile ground for a compelling story, especially in a still fragile post-9/11 America where everyone is worrying about how well our protectors are protecting us. All sorts of horrible shit could have happened while Superman was away! But Singer uses this jumping off point in a rather uninspired way. Unlike Nolan, who nailed the anger and darkness of post-9/11 America with Batman Begins, Singer clearly wasn’t interested in tapping into the current emotional state of the country in the mid-2000s. And that’s fine, since he wanted to ride the Donner train. But… he also didn’t want to tap into any of the sensibilities of Donner’s early-1980s. Instead he plugs us into the 1990s and gets all angst-ridden with the concept. Does Superman return to Earth to discover Lex Luthor has become President? Or some catastrophe has taken place? Nope, Superman returns to discover that no one really gives a shit about him anymore. Cue Smashing Pumpkins song! Lois has moved on and has a kid with some handsome dude now; she even won a Pulitzer for writing an article about why we shouldn’t give a shit whether Superman is around or not. So instead of Superman looking on with horror at a ravaged or dystopian Metropolis, he is merely looking on with horror through a window as Lois smooches some other guy in her house.  The entire crux of the film is a love triangle. It isn’t that this is a bad idea. I wouldn’t say it is a great idea, but it isn’t bad. The issue is that this is basically the only idea driving the film. Lex Luthor, for all the fun Spacey has with the character, is a pointless element. He wiles away on the sidelines, existing in his own little movie. This is made worse by the fact that we have no idea what Lex is up to for far too long, which increasingly makes his scenes duller and duller — speculation only causes interest up to a point. Worst of all though is that Singer doesn’t even do anything exciting with the love triangle… 

For one thing, Superman never tries to get Richard White (the new boyfriend) out of the picture, which makes Superman both a pussy and – worse – boringSuperman’s big reaction to being cuckolded is moping around in a dull fog of existential crisis. Richard Donner would have at least given us some rom-com antics to pass the time. The whole film is centered on this conflict. Superman just steps back, letting Lois live her life. Snooze. This story can only be compelling if our central character is Lois, since she’s the one who actually has a decision to make. Superman simply wants Lois back. And it is incredibly low-impact to let the machinations of the plot bring Superman and Lois back together, instead of Superman getting Lois back himself. Snooze. It is also a problem that this central conflict never becomes a greater conflict. What does Superman’s existential crisis cause him to do? Double down on helping Earth! That’s good! He just abandoned Earth for 5 years to go on a personal quest. How bad am I supposed to feel for him that he’s channeling his relationship problems into superhero productivity? Snooze. It wouldn’t be very Superman-like to get sad and go on a bender, accidentally destroying the city, but I could at least relate to the guy. And the very concept of the story means we can’t just have Superman go to the Fortress of Solitude and abandon Earth for another 5 years. But something needs to create a bigger conflict here other than Superman being bummed out. His obsession with Lois or Richard White should be specifically what allows Luthor to get so far in his plan. Even the 5-year gap had nothing to do with Luthor’s plan! The gap does nothing for the story other than allow Lois to have a child who is old enough to talk. Snooze. And the big pay off of the film is that said kid is really Superman’s spawn. I’ll talk more about that in a moment, but… Snooze. After 20 years no one wanted a love triangle to be the A-story of a Superman movie. Audiences don’t always know what is best for them, so Singer might have been able to make this work. But he needed to sugar coat it. He needed to deliver what we all do want first. 

And what do I want out of a Superman film? To put it as dumbly as possible: I want Superman to punch stuff. To put it less dumbly, Superman is a larger-than-life character with no flaws, so unless you’re going to completely re-imagine him, to succeed with the character you need to embrace this reality. He needs to punch stuff. Big stuff and strong stuff. In Superman Returns he punches almost nothing. In previous installments we’ve seen Superman fight little to no street crime, but in all those cases he had another super-being to fight at the end. Returns doubles down and has almost no crime fighting and no super-battles. Instead Superman demonstrates his superness by lifting things. Sure he lifts a lot of things, some of them are pretty heavy too, but I’d say just lifting one super heavy thing is about all the lifting one Superman movie needs. This all goes back to the problem with that love triangle A-story. The film doesn’t truly build to a climax with Lex Luthor, it builds to a climax with the love triangle. The crescendo is Superman basically dying and being reborn (after lifting the heaviest thing yet!), with Richard White showing what a non-complex character he is by helping save Superman. What is the message here? Yes, the world (i.e. Lois) needs him. So Luthor isn’t even the antagonist. The overall battle of the film is Superman versus his relevancy on Earth. Since by degrees this is what Nolan’s Batman sequels were all about, it is safe to say that this is no excuse for benching your hero’s relationship with the film’s villain. It is tough because I want to give Singer props for going outside the box. I like the sound of making a big-budget Superman movie that places all its real attention on the relationship between Lois and Superman. But it is just… well, it is just not that entertaining. The touchstone for the Superman and Lois romance in the films has always been the big flying sequence. Just compare the similar scenes from Superman with Superman Returns. In Donner’s film the scene where Superman first takes Lois up in the air is lively and fun. It is sexy. The romance comes from tough-gal Lois being swept off her feet, very literally. In Singer’s film the big flying scene is slow, almost wistful. These scenes of course take place at different points in Superman and Lois’ relationship. The first flight was a courtship scene. This new flight is a rekindling scene between old lovers. Except… it isn’t. We’ve never seen this Superman and Lois before. Which brings us back to the problem caused by Singer awkwardly piggybacking Donner.

Singer isn’t trying to make a movie in the style of Richard Donner. He is using the Donner films for backstory and mythology so he doesn’t have to waste time setting up his world — so he can just use shorthand references. But there is an immediate disconnect because for the most part these don’t feel like the characters we saw in the Donner films. But, why hello, there is Marlon Brando reprising his role as Jor-El. And when Luthor arrives at the Fortress of Solitude, Kitty says, “You act like you’ve been here before.” And Lex clearly has. These are merely winks to the previous films though. Superman Returns isn’t picking up where the franchise left off, or even where Donner left off. It is a hybrid universe. Even if he had wanted to I don’t think Warner Bros would have let Singer bring back Margot Kidder as Lois, but that would have actually been a way more interesting story — if Superman had been gone for the 20 years the franchise had been gone. But there’s the rub. Singer can have all the callback jokes he wants, but he couldn’t actually build off the Donner films to tell his story (at least not in the ways he tried). Audiences connect to films via the actors. It is a bonus if the creative team returns for sequels too, but as the Alien franchise demonstrates, sometimes interesting things happen when they don’t. But could we have accepted Aliens without Sigourney Weaver playing Ripley? We know that James Bond is the same James Bond no matter who plays him. But we nonetheless reset each time we get a new actor, re-investing all over again. Just imagine how much weaker the impact of (SPOILER ALERT) Judi Dench’s M dying would have been in if they had done it in Goldeneye. When Spock dies in Wrath of Khan, it wasn’t just movie Spock dying but Leonard Nimoy dying as a character he’d been playing since the 60’s (one of the many reasons the botched attempt to reclaim that moment in Star Trek Into Darkness failed). Point being, Singer isn’t respecting this reality with his choice of story. And half-heartedly linking the film to the Christopher Reeve films won’t bridge the gap. Maybe, and I mean maybethis gambit could have worked if I subconsciously felt that Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth were the same Superman and Lois I’d seen before, but that was never gonna happen.

Though the film has some solid casting, it is nonetheless sunk by some dud casting choices. Sigh. I like Brandon Routh, so I feel bad bagging on him. Especially because I don’t necessarily think he couldn’t work as Superman — he just doesn’t work as Christopher Reeve’s Superman, which is who he is tasked with playing. I’ve already waxed plenty in this series about the subtle brilliance of Reeve’s performance. It is a tough act to follow, and Routh is done a disservice by the film’s attempt to connect the two performances. No one asked Roger Moore to be Sean Connery’s James Bond. Superman is a tough character because he has no edges. But Reeve made Superman work. You can’t just toss some other guy in there and expect it to work the same way. For example, Routh isn’t able to separate Clark and Superman particularly well. This is worsened by the fact that the script doesn’t separate them very much either. Whereas Reeve made Clark feel like a performance Superman is giving, a grand prank on us humans, Routh and Singer blur that line. If anything it now feels entirely inverted. Donner told the story of a god who disguises himself to connect with humans, and just happens to fall in love with a mortal. In Superman Returns it feels like Clark is a lonely dork who puts on a cape when he needs to feel better about himself. We’re getting the Marvel version of Superman. I’m hardly a Superman purist, but again, this movie isn’t really trying to re-imagine the franchise. So it comes off more like a mistake; one which Routh is forced to take the blame for. Odder casting is Bosworth. Just on the surface, she is far too young. Margot Kidder was 30 when Superman came out. Bosworth was 23 when Returns came out. Irrelevant to Kidder’s age, given the film’s premise Lois should have been in her 30s — preferably her late 30s. This would have allowed for some character exploration, drawing attention to the fact that Superman would (presumably) look exactly the same and Lois would have aged. That’s just compelling story fuel. But even if Returns were made right now I don’t think Bosworth is appropriate for Lois in general. Certainly not the Donner Lois. Despite Singer’s callbacks to Donner’s Lois (not being able to spell well, for example) this Lois feels like she has her shit together. It has been 5 years. She has a kid. That’s cool. She’s grown. But is this the Lois we want to pair with this Superman? That was their chemistry — the boy scout and the sassy mess. A Lois with her shit together probably needs a Superman who doesn’t yet have his together. But, again, this Superman is respectable enough to channel his ennui into his work instead of fucking things up. These are brand new characters, featured in a film that drops us midway into their long complicated relationship.

Back to Superman’s kid real quick… This is nothing against Tristan Lake Leabu’s performance or even Jason White as a character in the movie. But where the hell was this supposed to go in follow-up films? Historically, adding a kid to a franchise almost always ruins things. Adding one right from the get-out is bizarre to me, because it means that a sequel can’t even shake free from this dull subplot, since Singer (or a another filmmaker) can’t very well ignore Superman having a Superkid when he was dumped on us in Act III. Just like in real life, having a kid is a permanent decision. If this had been Superman III it would feel like a progression. Here it is simply starting things off on the wrong foot. And that really sums up the problems working against Superman Returns right from the moment this premise was put in motion.

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Body Count: 5

Number of Times Superman Smugly Lets a Villain Shoot Him in the Chest: 2

Best Villain Dispatching: Not much villain dispatching to speak of.

Superman’s Superest Feat: Lifting that entire new crystal continent out of the ocean and tossing it into space. Though by doing so he is removing a pretty hefty chunk of Earth’s matter. Seems like there might be some consequences to that down the road.

Best Use of His Brains: Using his heat vision to incinerate glass shards falling from skyscrapers before they hit pedestrians below.

Should There Be a Sequel: No. I have very little interest in seeing the outcome of the Superman’s child subplot.

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Up Next: Man of Steel

previous franchises battled

Alien
Back to the Future

Critters
Death Wish
Die Hard
Hellraiser
Home Alone
Jurassic Park
Lethal Weapon
Leprechaun
Meatballs
The Muppets
Phantasm

Planet of the Apes
Police Academy
Predator
Psycho
Rambo

Tremors