Monday, November 06, 2006

Superman Returns: a rant about story failures

Superman Returns was an uneven movie. Much of it was lame (stupidity about crystals, a boring Lois Lane), and some of it was good (Jimmy Olsen and James Marsden were so good they unbalanced the movie, putting my sympathies with minor characters rather than the main ones, and Lex Luthor had a great first scene). Much of the film chugs along in an uninteresting way -- I already saw the original movies, didn't need a movie that did the same thing the 1980s movies did. I can still rent those movies if I want to. I want something NEW from the new Superman movie. I want more than a pale study of the nostalgias. Characters need to be reinvented from time to time (as Frank Miller reinvented Batman in the Dark Knight Returns). Making Superman's cape darker is not enough. As Brad pointed out to me you can tell how boring the movie is by looking at how each character (with the exception of Lex Luthor) is introduced for the first time in the film. They don't get great introductions because Singer knows we already know them. These are characters we have seen before, so no fanfare -- there they are, doing their usual thing.

Then we get to the scene where Lex Luthor's goons pound Superman on kryptonite island. (Yeah, it's weird that Superman cannot tell for a while that it is a kryptonite island -- that is a storytelling failure I don't want to talk about right now; I suppose it has something to do with the fact that is is a kind of hybrid kryptonite-crystal thing but the movie does not feel like being clear on this point). The scene is powerful. Kevin Spacey is an uninteresting Lex Luthor for a lot of the movie, channeling Gene Hackman as Routh channels Reeves, but Spacey SHINES in this scene. J. Hoberman, in his review in the Village Voice describes "the cold sexual enjoyment [Luthor] projects watching the weakened Man of Steel being stomped," which is exactly right. Then Luthor, wonderfully not above getting his hands dirty, comes in for the final, up-close and personal stab and it is really horrific. Superman falls. I got choked up, which is impressive during a movie that was not that good. It was just a very good scene. Eventually Superman goes on to foil Luthor's evil plan, and the movie takes a dull turn and goes on for 45 minutes more than it should. At the end Luthor, escaping kryptonite island, gets stranded on a little desert island with Parker Posey. The end.

Luthor wanted beach front property and now he has it, though not in the form he expected. He wanted lots of land and now he is stuck with only a little. Plus he has to put up with Parker Posey being annoying. The screenwriters must have been patting themselves on the back: "Hilarious! Ironic! Classic!" But it is just wrong. That is a punishment appropriate to a comedy character, a buffoon like the bad guy in One Crazy Summer, a guy who is going to shake his fist in the air and yell "Darn those crazy kids!" Superman does not come face to face with Luthor again after Luthor kicks him off the cliff. That is just wrong. Comedy punishment cannot be the end for the guy who tortured and degraded Superman in a quasi-sexual way. The film demands a scene where the nearly indestructible Superman confronts the man who brought him to the edge of death. Do something creative with the scene, fine, but you cannot leave it out. And they did. And they are idiots.

While cleaning my house this weekend for relatives I watched a chunk of View from the Top, the horrifically bad Gweneth Paltrow movie where her highest dream is to become a flight attendant (Mike Myers is the instructor, and Candace Bergen plays her role model). The big bad in the film is Christina Applegate, who -- gasp! -- switches her exam with Paltrow's, damning Paltrow to being a local flight attendant rather than an international one (her dream). Applegate gets to fly to Paris while Paltrow is stuck is Cleveland. Eventually Applegate is caught -- a copy of the test is recovered and all the "i"s are dotted with little hearts, Applegate's "trademark" (as she says). Say what you want about the film, it doesn't forget to have a final confrontation between its main antagonists (a cat-fight), where our hero emerges the winner. How embarrassing is it that, at least on this fairly important point, Superman Returns cannot claim to be a better film than View from the Top?


Baxter said...

While I enjoyed Superman returns I'm not about to make any arguments on its behalf. If you ike Superman and can shut your brain off for what, two and a half hours you'll like it. Then you'll probably die because your involuntary actions haven't been acting for a few hours.

MBoyd said...

I can't disagree with your assessment too much. However, I'm just glad we got what we got when you look back at the numerous pre-production outlines over the decade. I think Singer was just a little too much in love with the orginal films, and that hurts the new film. Still looking forward to viewing this and the Donner Cut on HD DVD at the end of the month though!

Doom Is Above Such Things said...

Thank you for helping me put a finger on OTHER problems with the film. I didn't like the costume (who did?), didn't like the kid (as a subplop, not a character or an actor), and I thought Kate Bosworth should play one of the crystals...except that would have required a fat suit.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people talk about Singer's reliance on the Donner originals. When it's all said and done, I wonder whether this results from nostalgia, or just laziness.

Villainous E Box Man said...

First time commenting but I had to speak up on this one. Besides the way you tend to review things so dramatically, you do a good job of it. As for Superman, I thought it was a good movie. Taking into account that lately the public has wanted just this, the return of what they already know and love. They don't want it changed or shinny; those who do are the ones that know the comic. I think the super child is one of the greatest parts of the movie as was the stabbing of Superman. The ending was fit only because Lex could never go face to face with the man of steel, we know Superman would win. This is why Lex is almost a comical character in the story from the view that he is only human and he can some how kill Superman? As for a side note, no one has yet to mention the part where because Bryan chose to do this film that X-Men 3 suffered greatly. In the end I liked Superman Returns more then I did X-Men 3.

Reel Fanatic said...

Though I think I liked this one more than you, I have to agree that the main weakness in Singer's flick was that Luthor's evil plot just made little sense at all

Mitch said...

The thing that got me about Superman Returns was the attention to pointless details. For instance, the entire scene where Jimmy Marsden and Clark try to guess Lois' computer password and SURPRISE! It ends up being "Superman", just like the audience thought. Why bother, then?

Also, the dog that eats the other dog was just... bizarre and completely out of place.

There is certainly some merit to giving the audience what they want, Villainous E Box Man. But the plain truth is that it's disappointing to see a movie that you've already seen.

Superman and Superman Returns could be written from the same one sentence per scene outline.

Muhammad Iqbal said...

I completely agree with you about the scene where Superman got beat up. Tears were shed when I first saw that. As for the rest of the film, man I just wanted to see Supes whack someone all the way to Jupiter. Overall it was an OK movie, I'm just hoping the quality improves for the now green-lighted sequel. Ah well, I'm a Batman fan anyway.. :P

Anonymous said...

I love Bryan Singer. Usual Suspects is one of my favorite films and X-Men 2 is arguably the best superhero movie ever made. This is why Returns is so painful for me. It's lazy writing.
Villainous E Box Man said, "The ending was fit only because Lex could never go face to face with the man of steel, we know Superman would win." I don't care. I still want to see it. And I want to see how both characters react to each other now that the tables are turned.
I want to watch Luthor plead for his life, or try to fight back in some way, or use his genius to escape. I want to watch an enraged Superman step right up to the line of murdering Luthor, only to have his extreme morality kick into gear and arrest him instead.
I think to a large degree what Villainous E said is true, that "the public has wanted just this, the return of what they already know and love." In some way that's what I wanted. But, what's important isn't how stupid a raised chest plate looks or why Superman's cape shouldn't be made out of fruit roll-up. What's important is how these characters act when the shit hits the fan. What's important is that a story's been crafted that throws shit at that fan in an appropriate and exciting way.

Anonymous said...

isn't this a lil late? i really liked the movie. but the story was pretty much your average superman comic book, which doesn't translate well to the movies very well. the next'll be ace though

Dent said...

It seems to me that most people complain about Returns because it isn't the Superman movie they wanted to see. That isn't a valid criticism of the film. Bryan Singer wasn't trying to make an over the top action oriented 4-color adventure. He was making a film that took the best of what Donner did and updating it for a new generation. If that was his goal, he succeeded brilliantly.

As a filmmaker, you can't concern yourself with what the audience thinks they want. You have to decide on YOUR vision for the film and do your best to accomplish that vision. Singer didn't do anything wrong by making the movie he wanted to make. He just failed to do what you would have done.

Anonymous said...

anonymous, I can only speak for myself. It's not too late to figure out what went wrong with Superman. Frankly, I still want to talk about the Matrix sequels. Time's not healing that wound either.

Mitch said...

I still think that Kevin Smith "Superman Lives" script would have been pretty damned entertaining. Certainly different.

Anonymous said...

dent: If you liked the movie, I'm happy for you.
But I was disappointed - and not because Singer didn't create MY vision of Superman. It's because the structure was crap and his main characters didn't do much.
If Singer envisioned Superman as a hairy fat guy in a a purple suit AND the story had an amazing structure filled with tension-filled moments that truly tested the main characters, then I probably would have liked the movie.

Anonymous said...

I can't disagree with you Geoff. Superman Returns was a cotton candy flick, I was completely unimpressed. I saw the Donner movies, and wasn't looking to see them again. Was hoping for something new, which I didn't really get. Maybe inthe sequel we'll finally get past Luthor.

Brad: Regarding the Matrix and me both, man, you and me both. If you are a fan of them, the commentary tracks on the Matrix Ultimatesuperspigffyninemilliondisc Edition are really interesting and a good analysis of what is right and what is wrong with the entire trilogy.

Tim from Myspace

Katie said...

Now here are two movies I never would have imagined would be mentioned in the same review. Nice work.

I kept on trying to figure out why this movie was made. I still don't know. I mean, it's basically the first Superman movie, only with a fancy plane crash and an anorexic Lois Lane. Is anything else different about it?

But I think the problem may be that, well...Superman isn't horribly interesting. I don't know the comics, but correct me if I'm wrong...there's basically nothing he can't do, and his only weakness is kryptonite, right? And he's always good. So really, how interesting are the plots ever going to get?

Maybe I'm off base, in which case you can explain to me why the comics are good, even though this movie was not.

Geoff Klock said...

I posted, then my day got very busy. Sorry about that. Let me respond. (First off: thanks new people for posting).

Baxter: that's a very good sound-bite you have for people who tell guys like us to stop thinking so much. Thanks.

Mboyd: I don't know enough about those pre-production outlines; I will have to go find them.

Doom: "subplop" is my new favorite Freudian slip. I will use it every time a movie or tv show has a shitty sub-plot.

Brad: you are dead right: nostalgia is a nice word for lazy.

Villainous: 1. I am dramatic; what can I say. 2. Brad already said what I would say to your main point. 3. Preferring Superman Returns to X3 isn't enough of a compliment to justify the Superman movie. I liked it better than X3 but I would also rather get a hangnail than see X3 again.

reel: like I said, Luthor's poorly defined plot is a story problem I don't even have time to get into, but you are dead right.

Muhammad: don't even get me started on Batman Begins.

Brad: thanks for picking up my slack today. I should have said that myself.

Anonymous: actually this is not late but early: I was saving this post for when the DVD came out -- so I could fairly spoil the end -- but after the Planetary post I was too impatient. I wanted to harp on other story failures.

Dent: To add to what Brad said: Singer did more than fail to make the movie I wanted. He failed to make a good movie for the reasons I pointed out. Boogie Nights is a great movie -- unlike Superman Returns it is well told -- though actually I don't like it for personal reasons. This isn't just me whining: this is a discussion of what story structure demands, Singer's script demanded a final confrontation and it didn't have one and that is a problem.

Brad: the Matrix sequels had the worst story failures ever. I wouldn't even know where to begin. At least with Superman you can list all ten or so big mistakes. But yeah, time is not helping that wound.

Mitch: "certainly different" was all I was asking for. I want that Smith script.

Brad: thanks again.

Tim: thanks for that link.

Katie: you make a fair point, but there are good Superman comics -- Grant Morrison's All Star Superman is STUNNING, for example. He and Quitely have made that character live again, as far as I am concerned. The thing is the movie wasn't even mediocre -- it had big flaws that a copy of a student screen-writing guide would have revealed. I don't deny it is hard to tell a strong story about this character, but I don't think it is hard to tell you need to have Superman confront Luthor after Luthor ruins Superman.

KevTav said...

I totally agree. Nice work. I wrote a blog about it when I first saw it that you might like:

Coligo said...

Taking in to account all the structural flaws in Singer's Superman film, I believe the key weaknesses in the movie go back to the Donner originals. Personally, I hate them.

The Superman universe as I enjoy it doesn't feature a bumbling Clark Kent who exists only as a foil for Superman; it doesn't have a ridiculous carnival villian in a Lex Luthor that is neither threatening nor frightening. When Byrne put together Man of Steel he redefined the Superman universe and, I think, made him an infinetly more interesting character.

Singer is happy to play out his story using boring and uninteresting characters. Byrne had to reinvent them because there was nothing as to do with them as they were, and with Superman Returns we see that.

(Incidentally Geoff, its for this reason that whilst I enjoy Morrisons All Star Superman, I don't consider it one of the greatest Superman stories; Morrison chose to explore the pulp Superman universe, which is fun, but for me ultimately unsatisfying.)

Björninn said...

Judging the movie by its trailer I decided not to spend money on Superman Returns. I did read Smith's script a while back ( and I remember thinking it was a complete waste of time. I can't really elaborate since I honestly don't remember anything specific, and I'm not about to read it again to find out. But there it is.

ping33 said...

I've written my feelings about Superman Returns before so I don't have THAT much to say beyond the following two points:

1) Luthor stabbing Superman; I LOVED this scene, I know a lot has been written about the sexual/homoerotic quality of the scene. But to me it played a little different... it shows Luthor in a new light, for much of the film he has been playing the Hackman Luthor but now we see that he IS the same man after several years of HARD time. The stabbing looked to me like something out of the TV Show Oz more than anything else.

2) For me, for many years now, I'm more interested in moments if films like this than I am the movie as a whole. This may sound like a cop out but it comes from someone who has seen a LOT of movies and basically gave up on narrative cinema about 5 years ago. As such, the Plane scene makes the entire Superman Returns movie worthwhile just as the first 20 minutes of Blade validate the entire franchise.

Troy Wilson said...

Re: Batman Begins, Geoff, I'm curious about two things.

1) Do you see it as a) a solid movie that you didn't find fun because of its overall approach and tone, b) an inept movie that had significant structural problems, c) all of the above, or d) none of the above?

2) What do/did you think of Batman: Year One?

Personally, I enjoyed Year One when it first came out, and was happy when I heard Nolan, Goyer, and company were lifting elements from it. I really went into Batman Begins wanting and expecting to like it. But I didn't.

I found that it suffered in comparison to Year One. I found myself pining for more Gordon, less love interest, and no big villains at all. And I found myself pining for Miller's hardboiled first-person narration.

I'm not saying the movie should have followed Year One note for note. But here's the thing. If you're going to go for a barebones beginning, then go for it all the way (though I imagine the studio wouldn't have allowed for any Batman film to be as small in scope as, say, Year One). If you're going to go for big villains and nightmare gas and all the trimmings, then go for that all the way. Instead, Batman Begins occupied the murky middle ground between the two and didn't satisfy me on either level. They took bits from Year One and bits from the 1989 movie (the fear gas enveloping the city, for instance, evoked Joker's laughing gas enveloping the city) and bits from elsewhere too, but they didn't add enough of their own pinache to make the mishmash of warmed-up leftovers worth eating.

The big difference between this movie and Superman Returns is that Nolan and Goyer cribbed from multiple sources while Singer cribbed from one. Doesn't make the result that much more exciting. Though it sounds like Batman Begins is by far the better movie from a storytelling standpoint (I say "sounds like" because I haven't seen - and don't plan on seeing - Superman Returns).

(By the way, a friend of mine had a great idea. Nolan and Goyer could have deleted the romantic interest entirely, and had Harvey Dent be the one questioning Batman's methods instead. Planting seeds for the future and all that.)

Is Batman Begins a solid movie? Sure, I'd say so. Certainly not an embarassment like X3. I'd go so far as to say they were brave for doing a movie that is so unfriendly to the kiddies. And certainly there were some nice scenes in there (few of them being action scenes, mind you, which mostly fell flat). But, alas, it just didn't do it for me.

Mitch said...

I have just recently seen Batman Begins again. I think it is leagues beyond Superman Returns, structurally anyway.

Geoff-- I think it it high time for Batman Begins blog. I know you've blogged a little about it here and there, but perhaps a merciless, full scale attack? I think everyone would love to hear it.

Geoff Klock said...

Troy and Mitch: I agree with you troy: I didn't think the problems were so much structural as thematic and tonal. Your opinion here is mine: if you are going to do something, do it all the way: either strip it down to no super villains or go nuts but not half and half. The thing is I think a big part of the problem has to do with toys: you want to tell the story of year one, but you also need to sell action figures and corrupt cops #s 1-8 are not going to fly off the shelves. So you get a big tank and the Scarecrow and a bunch of ninjas.

I may say more about this later, because there is more that went wrong on that film, such as a muddy theme and a general lack of imagination and fun. But that's the biggest thing, I think.

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: I know what you mean about how part of a movie can justify a movie -- Pirates worked because Depp was in it. But I still want to bitch about bad stories, because I get so annoyed at people being so pleased with these things. Plus I am a curmudgeon.

Anonymous said...

Geoff, on the action figure front, Nicholson said it best back in Tim Burton's first Batman. "Where does he got those wonderful toys?"

A: From the Warner Bros. marketing department, of course.

Having said that, I'm with ping. A handful of cool moments is enough to salvage any superhero movie for this fanboy, no matter how poorly structured or nonsensical (he picked up a *kryptonite* island and threw it into space?!?) or boring (let's all fret about Supes, unconscious in a hospital bed, until the magic urchin brings him back to life with his yellow son radiation) the rest of it may be.

Besides, you do 'curmudgeon' so well, I'd feel silly if I tried to compete. So I'll just be the easily-pleased balding guy in the corner.

Anonymous said...

Oh, almost forgot. The i's dotted with little hearts? That's Luthor's trademark too.