The Top Five Most ‘Okay’ Superhero Movies: Superman Returns
The Internet is full of lists on “The Top Five Best Superhero Movies” (the second movie of every superhero trilogy) and “The Top Five Worst Superhero Movies” (the third movie of every superhero trilogy). But here at Fempop, we’re committed to doing the unexpected. At least, I think we are, I don’t really read this site. That’s why, in honor of The Amazing Spider-Man, a movie whose ambition is to tell the same story as a movie made ten years ago, we’re bringing you The Top Five Most Okay Superhero Movies.
What makes a superhero movie okay? Just as an okay movie can’t decide between being good or bad, I can’t decide whether it’s a movie with sky-high ambitions that fails, or a movie with rock-bottom ambitions that succeeds. It’s not impressive to jump over a pole set two inches over the ground, but it also isn’t very cool to run headlong into a pole set six feet off the ground. With that in mind, here’s five movies that could learn a thing or two about handling a pole.
First, an honorable mention. Hulk, the 2003 Ang Lee movie. With a lot of people complaining that Marvel’s recent output is too tied in to the Avengers universe and too ‘work-for-hire’, surely a standalone piece directed by an acclaimed auteur would easily be a better Hulk film than The Avengers.
Well, no, not really.
Hulk has a lot in common with the next entry on this list, but for my money, it drifts too far into the territory of the bad movie for there to be a border dispute. There’s an xkcd comic where the author talks about referring to Christian Bale’s character in the Nolan Batman movies as “a guy dressed as a bat,” to highlight the ridiculousness and pretentiousness he feels is on display. Don’t people get how silly this is? Yeah, well, so are people fighting with laser swords in Star Wars, but who wants to be one of those neckbeards that insist all sci-fi should have people fighting sniper duels with railguns?
But Hulk—that just gets me. “No, this isn’t silly at all, Bruce Banner’s DNA was experimented on as a child, then he was exposed to nanotechnology that reacted to a lethal dose of gamma radiation to turn him into a giant green rage-monster.” Yeah, I was cool with it being the work of a science wizard. The more you say how grounded and psychological the movie is, the more it seems you’re just protesting too much. The way pulp works is to have fantastical situations and express emotions through those, not to drag situations into realism and expect the emotions to have weight because you spent fifty minutes going on about jellyfish and starfish.
That, and I can’t get past the thing being edited to literally look like comic book panels. What, if Ang Lee adapted a book would every scene change be heralded by a page turning? Fuck you.
5. Superman Returns
Superman Returns has as many detractors as Hulk, but I feel it more than earns than the defense of being a misunderstood masterpiece. It’s close to being a good movie, a good Superman movie even, but while it may have been the Superman movie we deserved, it wasn’t the one we needed.
There’s a lot good in SR: the general atmosphere and look of the film, the portrayal of Superman both in terms of acting and the character’s graceful, ballet movement. Richard and Jason White are intriguing additions to the mythos. And the movie asks some questions that most superhero movies wouldn’t dare—instead of being obsessed with youth and origins, it’s positioned as a continuation, a finale even. What happens to Superman after his soul mate has fallen in and out of love? What’s his final place in the world?
And yet, the movie can’t back itself up. The reasoning on Superman’s actual departure is sloppy and lame. Having been told conclusively by Jor-El that Krypton was destroyed, and thousands of years ago at that, and then having promised the President of the United States (!) that he would never abandon his duty again—Superman just up and leaves when he finds Krypton. In the script, this was the result of Lex Luthor tricking Superman into thinking there was still life on Krypton; something that elevates both characters—Luthor for having managed to pull one over Superman, and Superman for having a legitimate reason to leave Earth. Instead, the finished film makes Superman look like a selfish jackass and Lex Luthor like a lucky jackass.
Oh, Lex Luthor. Gene Hackman did a good job with the guy in the original films, but the characterization was hopelessly mired in the Silver Age. Going in spoiler-free to Superman Returns, I thought director Bryan Singer would take the opportunity to update Lex Luthor accordingly. In the five years that Superman’s been gone, he’s got himself freed from prison, patented some new technology (or stolen some from the Fortress of Solitude, which curiously has no security, something your average thirteen-year-old boy has on his porn folder), and become a corporate titan. After all, that’s the Lex that showed up in the Superman cartoons, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and Smallville. Yet, this Lex takes five years to get out of jail (having taken five minutes in Superman 2) and has to fuck an old lady to get the resources needed to carry out his scheme. Instead of, you know, stealing something.
That scheme is similarly unsatisfying. In a movie that’s resolved not to be a bigger and louder remake of the original Superman—Lex’s plot is a bigger and louder and dumber remake of his plot from the original Superman. Kill millions (billions!) of people in order to seize land. But while his original plot was the kind of thing you could imagine him getting away with, how would Luthor live one day after setting in motion a natural disaster that has his name written all over it? “Hey, guys, sorry about that giant chunk of radioactive rock, completely inhospitable and unappealing, that sunk North America. Oh, and it killed Superman, who I also happen to hate. But hey, I had nothing to do with it—why not come live on said giant chunk of radioactive rock, which I just happen to own?” Yeah, I’m sure Kumar and those five other guys are going to be enough to protect Lex from all the shoes that are getting jammed up his ass like it’s a Dr. Scholl’s.
Would it be so hard to come up with an evil plan that reflects the theme better than “Hey, Superman, ever thought about how this giant chunk of radioactive rock is kinda like the son you don’t know about?” I’ve heard an analysis that paints Lex as a man living in the past, in a film filled with characters looking to relive or recapture what came before. But it’s going too far to say “oh, Lex Luthor’s plan was meant to be a dumb reiteration of his old one.” Wouldn’t bringing, say, Bizarro (a deformed and aggressive clone of Superman) or Brainiac (in some continuities, a creation or even destroyer of Krypton) into the mix better serve the plot, as well as give Superman Returns some better action scenes than Superman 2, the thirty-year-old movie?
But for all the Lex Luthor plot is an afterthought, only required to give Superman something to sacrifice his life for at the climax, the actual meat of the story is—okay. Kate Bosworth is miscast as Lois Lane, four years younger than Brandon Routh (who is also young, but, as Superman, probably doesn’t age, and his performance redeems the discrepancy). The character is classically older than Clark Kent, the experienced reporter to his young noob. Margot Kidder was thirty when the original movie came out, and this is supposed to be the same character at least five years hence—a mother, for God’s sake! And this is the character who’s given the lion’s share of work, representing the Earth’s discontentment with Superman without much backing from the script, which has seemingly everyone else overjoyed with Superman’s return. In a world where people are still mad about the Lost finale, I don’t think most would be so quick to forgive the guy who let 9/11 happen.
That’s another glaring problem. For a movie with the premise that Superman has been gone for five years, a movie that does headstands to pull off getting Superman out the door for those five years—nothing much has changed. Perry White is still in charge of the Daily Planet. Jimmy Olsen is still a young photographer. Lex Luthor is still in prison until the week Superman gets back, for Christ’s sake! The only thing that’s happened in those five years is Martha Kent dating again and planning to sell the farm, and that scene was cut.
And yet, for all I rant, it comes from a place of love. After the bittersweet and sorta weird ending of Superman 2, with Clark wiping Lois’s memories, Superman Returns works as—not a trilogy ender, but an epilogue to the Donner movies, giving the characters all satisfying endgames (except for Lex, who ends up trapped on a desert island without any real comeuppance from Superman himself). Lois ends up with a man who’s textually just as good as Superman, while Superman’s isolation and alienation ends with him discovering a fellow Kryptonian—his own son, Jason.
As well, the movie often possesses a dark edge—sometimes overplayed (did we really need to see Lois Lane getting beaten up in front of her young son, followed by her assailant being crushed to death by said son?), but the sheer sadism of Lex subjecting Superman to a jail yard beat down almost redeems his villainous turn. And the airborne rescue sequence is the one place where Singer’s thesis of a “requel” to the Donner films really works, repeating what came before, but adding on and making it his own. It’s worth the price of admission; not that America agreed.
A lot of criticism sprung from Superman fans when Bryan Singer called Superman Returns, with its emphasis on romance and drama over adventure and plot, his “chick flick.” But even for a chick flick, it’s an odd duck, constantly characterizing the main romance as wrongheaded and even creepy. And yet, there’s an appeal in its lack of appeal. As much as many fans wanted to see what Singer would come up with next (he promised a Wrath of Khan style sequel with an alien villain), it would necessarily come at the expense of the closure Superman Returns offers. Why so much work into establishing Richard, Lois, Jason, and even Superman as a fixed family unit, just to kill off Jason (as many fanficced) to get Superman ANGRIER THAN HE HAS EVER ANGRIED, or Richard just so Clark can swoop in and get what he’s really wanted without having to make a single hard choice?
No. Best to let Superman Returns die, having given a little more dignity to the old Donner movies than Richard Pryor and “Nuclear Man,” and move on to the reboot.
Where Amy Adams, 38, plays Lois Lane. See? Now that’s more like it.