Why That New Superman Movie Stinks
WARNING: This is not a standard review. This is me laying into a film plot point by plot point. So if you are reading this be ready for SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!! And if you like this movie? Well... get ready to gnash your teeth and curse out loud. Just don't try to do both at once or you'll either hurt yourself or look like an angry pirate. You've been warned. It's also pretty long. Blame the moviemakers. They just supplied so much ridicule-worthy material.
You heard me. Superman Returns stinks up the joint. It's a pretty film to be sure. But pretty isn't top priority in making a Superman movie. The story is ill conceived, the writing is sloppy and the characters poorly developed. And the start of the movie - which needs to be pretty - is ugly and lazy.
Now in eviscerating this piece of dreck, I'm going to reference Superman I and II. Usually I would say it is only fair to judge a film on it's own merits. But in this case director Bryan Singer has gone out of his way to express his admiration for those first two films, to say he was trying to make a film in the same vein. In fact the film picks up the continuity of those first two films. Now they've spun that this film is semi-sequel. Like it sort of is in continuity with Superman I and II and sorta not. Bull. It either is in the same continuity or it isn't. And given the numerous elements from those films it uses (key plot points, Brando as Jor-El…) I'm saying it is in that same continuity.
The problem starts with the very conception of the film. To do the story they wanted to do they needed Superman to have been gone for a number of years. Fair enough. I can buy that. But the reason they come up with is nonsensical: Superman has disappeared into space looking to see if Krypton might still exist. Any basic knowledge of comics tells you Krypton was destroyed. Not that you couldn't spin a tale out of Superman thinking maybe it did still exist. But they don't DO that. They use the idea of Krypton still existing as a cheap excuse to get Superman to leave Earth for an extended period without developing the Krypton plot at all. Despite Bryan Singer's declaration of his love for the character, I would swear the planning for this film was done by someone with a total disregard for the character and his basic – BASIC - history. I can hear the planning session in my head:
"I want to do a story that starts with Superman having been gone for five years."
"Well where did he go? Why did he disappear?"
"I dunno. It doesn't really matter. Our story doesn't get into that. Maybe he went back home to Krypton."
"Uh… Krypton was destroyed. The whole starting point for the character is that Krypton was destroyed."
"Whatever. Maybe he thinks it's still there."
"His own father Jor-El told him it blew up? And why would Jor-El shoot his own son off to Earth if the planet wasn't blowing up. Plus everyone in the audience knows it really is destroyed. So we will need to do some clever writing so Superman won't look stupid for believing Krypton still exists. We'll have to set up some really plausible evidence so that…"
"Hello? That crap doesn't enter into our story. We come in after he's been gone for years and years. That stuff doesn't matter. Superman went home to Krypton."
And that's what they did. They skip over explaining the jumping off point for the story in any intelligent way. We are simply informed scientists believed Krypton might still exist and Superman ran right off to check it out. That's ALL the information we get. And we get that from a plain bland title card which starts the film (I'll get back to that).
The thing is, that's a very big plot element to yadda yadda over. The info we are given the audience is left to fill in the blanks. I jumped to some simple common sense conclusions about what happened that all proved to apparently be inaccurate. Given "Scientist's think Krypton still exists," I assumed it would have went like this…
Superman rushes to see the scientists and discuss the evidence they have found of Krypton's existence. Seeing their evidence was strong Superman would then tell them he wants to go into space and check for himself. The scientists then help Superman get set for his journey. I mean, he can't just fly off into space. He will be heading to an area of space where his powers won't work. His powers come from him being under our yellow sun. I would think they would have to help him build a ship. But maybe Superman could use the crystals from his fortress of solitude to "grow" a new Krypton ship. Anyway, then I would thinking Superman would say his goodbyes, either privately or publicly. I can see where he might want to tell the general public he's going because that might cause problems of varying sorts. Still, just disappearing for years is worse. At a minimum I would think the scientists he talked to would know.
But none of that happened. Nobody knew what happened to Superman. He apparently left without telling anyone except maybe Ma Kent. That being the case… I guess he didn't go over the evidence with any scientists. If he had I would assume THEY would have an idea where he went and then that info would get out. Even if he said to keep it secret someone would blab. So he didn't check the facts with the experts. I guess he read a report in some magazine or newspaper saying that Krypton was still out there and just believed it on face value, despite the fact Jor-El told him it blew up. Despite the fact that Jor-El launched his only son into space to save him. Despite the fact that Superman has records of all Kryptonian history which would include his father's proof Krypton was doomed. I mean, what is indisputable proof from a scientist from an advanced civilization who is also your DAD when compared to a vague theory in the newspaper by some Earth scientists? But that is apparently what must have happened.
That brings me to another problem. The Superman in this film is apparently dumb as a bag of hammers.
More proof of this? Well back up a pace. Again, this film follows in continuity with Superman and Superman II. It is directly inspired by the fact that Lois and Superman made with the super-sex in Superman II. So let's review the plot of Superman II. Lois Lane discovers Clark Kent is Superman. They make love. Then Superman discovers that if he wants to live a life with Lois Lane he has to give up all his powers and become fully human (To be fair whether Supes became human before or after the loving is up for debate. In the theatrical cut he was depowered first. In the Richard Donner "How I would have done it" cut the sex comes before the depowering.). Superman agrees to become human. He gives up his powers and becomes Clark Kent. The Krypton Criminals show up and begin to wreak havoc and start taking over the entire planet. Clark is powerless to stop them. Realizing it was a mistake to put his own wants and needs above the good of his adoptive planet, Clark hikes back to his fortress of solitude and regains his powers, forfeiting his life with Lois. Back as Superman he defeats the Krypton Criminals and saves the day. At the end of the film, Superman flies to the White House and says to the President, "Good afternoon, Mr. President. Sorry I've been away so long. I won't let you down again," and flies off.
Okay. Now cut to Superman Returns. Oops. Rather cut to the title card before Superman Returns. Big spoiler here so be warned. The big inspiration for Superman Returns is when Superman and Lois had sex, what if he got her pregnant? Thus the need for him to be gone five years so that he could return to discover he has a son. That also means that, clearly, Superman left before he knew Lois was pregnant, we can assume he left shortly after Superman II. Really shortly. He's Superman. He would be able to see Lois was pregnant very early on with his vision. Lets say he leaves… two months after the end of Superman II. So in Superman II he painfully learns that he must put the needs of Earth ahead of his own personal desires. He apologizes to the President for being away so long (we was gone maybe a week or two) and that he won't let him down again. Then two months later he leaves Earth without telling anyone on a personal five year long wild goose chase. He also leaves without covering his bases. He doesn't secure the dangerous tech in his Fortress of Solitude. He doesn't make sure his departure won't result in Lex Luthor's release from jail. He doesn't even apparently warn the President he's leaving. His actions fly in the face of everything he learned in Superman II and everything he swore to do. Dumb as a bag of hammers.
Skipping the "off to Krypton" setup wasn't just damaging to the plotting, it also damages the start of the movie. As I said, the movie starts on a plain title card which lays out the basic plot points you need to know. The movie starts on the plainest dullest text card ever. I looked to me like a mistake. Like something they used for test screenings and forgot to go back and fix. Dull. Compare that with start of the original Richard Donner Superman movie Bryan Singer lionizes. That film opens with old fashioned movie curtains opening to reveal a child reading the original Superman comic. That opening drew you in, made you a kid while still doing it's job of setting the stage. Then Donner spends a huge chunk of the film carefully spelling out Superman's back story. Not only does he not skimp or yadda yadda over anything, he actually even takes time to do set up for the NEXT film. Singer gives us a plain title card because he's too lazy to do it right.
And that ‘s just the problems with the first, what, 10 seconds?
Let's move on to the credits. Yes, the credits. What could be wrong there? There they used the crystalline flying lettering from the original films. We watch the credits whiz by as we fly through the galaxy. Same lettering, the majesty of space, so it can't be bad, right?
Wrong. It ain't the same. The original film used the crystalline lettering and its shots of space to create a sense of grandeur, majesty. The lettering has weight. When we see Krypton, Earth and other celestial bodies, they all have a feeling of mass, size and, again, majesty. Krypton looks huge and imposing. When it blows up it is a massive blast. When Superman changes the rotation of the Earth he is moving an impossible mass. In Superman Returns these same elements seem to be used because they're pretty. The titles don't seem to have weight or import as they whiz by. Maybe they are undermined by the lackluster opening card that precedes them. Maybe it's just me. But the shots of planets isn't just me. We zoom through space past giant planets. But these aren't massive weighty bodies. Nope. They whiz around and jump about like pretty balloons. Wheeee!!!
Finally we reach the film proper. Superman returns. He crashes to Earth outside the Kent farm… again. In the same sort of ship he originally crashed down in. Is this the same pod rebuilt? Did he grow a new one? Did he fly to Krypton unaided and then find the ship there? What are the odds he'd crash in Smallville again? Was he aiming for that? Who knows? Doesn't matter.
So Clark Kent heads back to Metropolis. His arrival parallels the return of Superman. Does anyone bat an eye that Clark and Superman left and returned at the same time. No. Because it's a comic book movie so who cares about that stuff? Oh wait… the target market for the movie cares.
Here's where the director's love for the original movie comes into play because he basically repeats all the major plot points from that movie. First stop: Superman saves a plane from crashing. Only this time it is with higher tech visual effects and lower charm. Didn't we already see this? Then in a reference to the original film, Superman has the same post-save quip. Superman say maybe five lines in the entire movie and several like this one are repeats from the last film. Which actually easily allows you to compare the new Superman to the old and realize Christopher Reeve was so much better.
One of Superman Returns biggest flaws is that it goes back to the old films and disregards things it should keep and keeps things best forgotten and makes them worse. The plane save was great once but doesn't need revisiting. Similarly Lex Luthor and his main plan are copied right out of the original movie but with inferior results.
The biggest complaint I ever heard about the first movie was about Lex Luthor. A number of people I know felt Lex was reduced from a true super villain to sort of a cheap con-man. But I bought into that Lex in the context of the first film. In the original movie Lex had bought up tons of worthless property on the San Andreas fault. Then he sabotages two military missiles. One will be aimed at the fault so that the west coast of the U.S. will fall into the ocean leaving him with valuable beach front property. The other missile is aimed at Hackensack, New Jersey as a distraction for Superman. He won't be able to stop them both. His evil villain scheme is a land grab deal.
Why do I buy Lex in the first movie? Because symbolically he is the opposite of Superman. Superman is the American Dream purified and perfect. Strong, brave, willing to sacrifice for others. Truth, justice and the American way! Lex is the corruption of the American Dream. He is out to get rich quick with a land deal at the cost of other's misery and pain. Symbolically it's nice. I also like it because even though Lex is really a two bit con, he doesn't see himself that way. He lives in a sewer but sees it as his mansion. He sees himself as being better than his current station in life. Classy. He is even too proud to show the world he is bald.
Lex in Superman Returns is still a petty con and he is also working a land grab deal only none of the mitigating factors that would make him more than a petty con are present. There is no balance of Lex and Superman as two sides of the American dream. Additionally where Lex's original land grab was pretty well thought out, the new land grab is the dumbest plan ever. The original plan was a clean getaway. Nobody except Superman could link Lex to the missile launches. If he kills Superman Lex would supposedly get away with no one knowing he had a hand in things. It would look suspicious he owned all that land but that's it. In Superman Returns, Lex gets out of jail early since Superman was not there at his parole hearing (bag of hammers). He then literally marries an old dying widow for her money. Right there, too much. Again, Hackman's Lex Luthor would not have lowered himself to that level unless he could justify it as not being beneath him.
Anyway, Kevin Spacey Lex then uses the old woman's resources to travel to Superman's Fortress of Solitude (he leaned it's location in Superman II). Once there he is easily able to access all Superman's Kryptonian tech since Superman failed to secure any of it before leaving (hammers). Lex takes a crash course in Superman's Kryptonian data files. He must have had access to science and knowledge with which he could stage a staggeringly clever plan to rule the world. Instead he again goes with a land scheme. But this one is a bad one. He plans to throw a Kryptonian crystal into the Ocean. In the original film Superman built his whole Fortress Of Solitude by throwing a crystal into a field of snow and having the crystal create the fortress out of that ice and snow. Lex will throw a crystal into the ocean and grow a giant crystal continent. This will cause the existing continents to flood and everyone will have to come to him for land and survival. Problem number one: Lex is easily identifiable as being to blame. Flooded world or not, everyone in the world will come to get him and he really has no defense. Second problem: his new continent is a hunk of rock that is uninhabitable and could not support life. No plants, no animals. Just hard crystal. He had access to the knowledge of all Krypton and this is the plan he came up with. Bag Of Hammers 2: the Sequel.
Lex also laces his new continent with Kryptonite to protect himself from Superman. Superman arrives, becomes weak and Lex attacks him. Hey, some good super villany! Only the way it is done is not cool or entertaining. Back to petty con mode, Lex's battle with Superman looks like a shameful mugging. Lex's men beat him like it's a hate crime. I think they were going for that vibe. I also think they were going for the Christ imagery of the savior brought low. Save it for an art film. I do want to see Superman on the ropes and having to come back but I don't want him to look pathetic. How about the henchmen holding him up so that Lex can slowly beat the tar out of him as they laugh at him? How about in the face of that Superman standing firm? Nope. Because Lex isn't a thug, not a cool bad guy and Superman is a sap.
But now let me back up. There is another major plot in Superman Returns. I already told you Lois had Superman's baby. But that isn't revealed right off. To Superman it looks like while he was away, Lois Lane had a child and became involved with Perry White's nephew. Seeing that Lois is practically engaged to Richard White, Superman does what any true heroic figure would do. He steps aside. Oh no… wait… I got that wrong. Let me go again. Seeing that Lois is practically engaged to Richard White, Superman tries to mack on her and seduce her away, only stopping when Lois tells him to back off. But THEN he backs off and goes away. Wait… no… wrong again. Sorry. After that Superman flies to Lois's house and like a super powered stalker floats outside watching their every move inside with his x-ray vision. I get the idea. Superman is outcast and alone and we pity him. Again, I don't want to pity Superman. And regardless of why he is doing it, it's creepy. Finally, I have no pity for this Superman because this is a situation all of his own making. He flew off into space for five years on an idiotic mission showing no concern for Lois Lane. Now she's involved and happy and I should pity Bag-Of-Hammers Man? I don't even like the dolt at this point.
Okay, lets move onto Superbaby. What a squandered opportunity. The kid is almost just a prop. A cute moppet who needs to constantly use an inhaler, no fun is had with him being superkid for most of the film since they have to hide that he is Superman's kid. Then how do they go about revealing that fact? Lois and her son Jason end up captive's on Lex Luthor's yacht (I should point out Jason has been raised thinking he is Richard White's son). Lex's henchmen start menacing them in a really creepy way while Jason sits at a piano. To protect his mother, Jason uses his super strength to shove the piano into the thug, squishing him into goo. The five year old discovers his powers by murdering someone. Not that it wasn't justified but the point is he is FIVE and he killed someone! Should that not have repercussions? Because it doesn't. He also doesn't seem to react at all to discovering he is super strong. I was dumbfounded by this entire section. I was shocked they would have the kid kill someone. Having done that I was shocked that it wasn't used in some way. I expected to either see them play the drama of Jason being traumatized from taking a life or to see them play the comedy of Jason discovering his powers. I really thought after he killed they guy Jason would look at his mom and go, "Mom, Richard isn't really my dad, is he." The kid is old enough and I would think smart enough to put two and two together. But, oops, I forgot. He's Superman's son and Superman is presented as being really dumb. As Superman would say, "The hammer don't fall far from the big woody plant thing."
I could go on and on. I know I am but… I could do more. Let me try to cut to the chase a bit. Superman saves the Earth by throwing Lex's kryptonite island into space. This is a great effort since it is like a giant piece of kryptonite. I couldn't figure out at first how he could even do it at all. Then I realized that when he dug it out of the ocean floor, he supposedly dug it out so that there was a big layer of dirt between the kryptonite and himself. Because two things can block kryptonite radiation: lead or a several feet of mud and dirt. Anyway, he throws it into space and then goes all Jesus-on-the-cross pose before plummeting to Earth, landing with power enough to leave a huge crater.
Now at this point, the movie still has quite aways to go before the end but the heroics are over. Because there's nothing better in a super hero movie than a long slow protracted ending devoid of anything heroic.
Superman is taken to the hospital where they can't treat him due to his tough skin. There are a handful of actual good moments in the film and one of them happens here as we see that Ma Kent cannot go in and be with her boy in the hospital since he is in there as Superman. She has to wait on the street with everybody else. While I'm on the subject, here are the other solid moments. After Lex has nearly killed Superman on his new continent, he is rescued by Lois and her husband in a plane. Once his injuries have been somewhat tended, he jumps out of the plane to go back after Lex even though he clearly knows it's a hopeless fight. He has to try. Very good. The other is when Superman does fall from the sky after throwing Lex's island into space. It's not so much about him as it is about all of Metropolis watching helplessly as their hero falls. Very good. Those moments are good. The rest is trash.
Back on point. Superman is in the hospital in a super coma. Lois whispers to him, "Hey ass, you knocked me up five years ago." Or something like that. Actually another reason Superman is a jerk. He left Lois to face having a baby by herself. And not any old baby. He left her impregnated with his alien demon seed. Seriously. Lois must have been scared out of her mind. Could she have this baby? Would it be a freak monster? Would it go all super fetus and break through her uterus before being born, killing them both? Probably would have considered abortion just for her own safety. But then she decides to keep it just to keep a piece of Superman alive for herself. She goes through all this why? Because Superman heard a half-assed rumor Krypton got all better from exploding. Ugh.
So much to get annoyed with it is easy to get off topic. Like I said, Superman is in a coma. Lois tells him he's a deadbeat dad. Shortly after that Superman wakes up and sneaks out of the hospital, perhaps trying to dodge the hospital bill or the back payment on the child support he owes.
Superman flies to Lois Lane's house where he sneaks into his child's bedroom and repeats the words his father said to him, tells him how happy he is because now neither of them will have to be alone. On the surface it's beautiful. Underneath it is alllll crap. Superman is happy he isn't alone. I will say it again, he abandoned the Earth and everyone who cared about him to fly alone into space on the dumbest mission ever. He makes himself alone. HE left that kid for five years. On top of that, they won't tell that kid he's Superman's son. He's not going to have Superdad and son days. That kid thinks he's Richard White's. They need to leave it that way unless they want Jason in the spotlight every day of his life and every villain on the planet after him. Now eventually it will come out and likely Richard will leave Lois. Wouldn't you if you found out your son wasn't yours but the result of your wife banging Superman? How do you not feel inadequate and lied to. So eventually Lois's life will be in ruins. But the movie makes clear at the end that Lois is not so important to Superman now anyway because now he can obsess on his son. Oy!
Some other odds and ends missed along the way...
Now some of you might be saying, "Hey big mouth, making a movie is hard. Like you could do better? Sit down and shut up." Here's the thing. I could make a better Superman movie. Anyone could make a better Superman movie actually. But I'll prove my point. With one change I could fix oodles of problems with Superman Returns. One thing I didn't even have to think hard to come up with. Here it is…
It's that lazy opening title card and everything it brings to the film. Lose it and the plot points it glosses over. It's no way to start the story and visually no way to start the movie. Going back to James Bond, start the movie Bond style with a pre-title min-story. We pick up the plot shortly after the end of Superman II. Lex is in jail, the Krypton criminals vanquished. Superman gets called for help in some emergency and rushes to the scene. Only it turns out to be a trap put in place by Lex Luthor before he was sent to jail. Superman is laid low by kryptonite. A prerecorded message from Lex plays. He explains that if Superman is there then he must be in jail and his contingency plan has gone into effect. If he's going down, so is Supes. As Superman lays weak and powerless, Lex explains that he isn't going to kill Superman. Too easy. He wants Superman to suffer in prison like HE is. The trap essentially traps Superman in a high tech coffin which runs on kryptonite and keeps Superman constantly dosed in just enough kryptonite radiation to keep him crippled. The coffin will end up burrowing itself under Metropolis where it won't be found. Or it'll be in a statue honoring Superman. Something like that. Close enough so that if Superman's super senses are working he can hear/see what is going on but he will be forever trapped alive until the kryptonite power supply gives out in, oh, 100 years. The only other way out would be if an EMP pulse would short out the system. But if that happened that would mean Metropolis had been nuked. So still sad day for Superman. So Superman is trapped in the prototypical villain trap. Only in this case, it works. The opening ends with Superman defeated and locked away as Lex laughs at him. Credits roll.
Then we see "Five Years Later". Then the film can start picking up largely as written. Superman is gone for five years. Lex is out of jail. If you've seen the movie you know that early on Lex conducts an experiment that creates a huge EMP pulse. You play that scene and end with Lex going, "Was that an EMP pulse? Ohhhh no…"
Now what I just set out wouldn't fix all my problems with the film but it would fix a boatload of them. It would serve as a better reason for Superman's disappearance and one that would not make Superman look like a thoughtless stupid clod. It would also instantly elevate Lex Luthor from con man to true super villain status. He actually defeated Superman! He put him out of commission for FIVE years! Now he starts the film with some street cred. It also would start out the film on an exciting vital visual that would throw us right into the story instead of on a perfunctory, "We couldn't be bothered to write this part of the story," title card. It would take all of five minutes of screen time and fix so much. But no, better to just go, "I dunno, maybe he goes home to Krypton," like a comic book neophyte.
Bryan Singer, you did right by The X-Men. If you do make another Superman movie, don't mess it up like this again. You started Superman Returns with Superman apparently having learned nothing from the previous films. Please be sure you have.