So, MAN OF STEEL is coming next Friday, the 14th. And boy do I hope it’s good. I really, really do. Superman is a character whom I love in concept and rarely in execution. He’s sort of my DC X-MEN. Love the idea of a team essentially fighting for exclusion while protecting the population from extremists, but, with rare instances, X-Men titles rarely do anything for me. Yet, the movies (except LAST STAND and WOLVERINE, which we’ll talk about later in the summer)…the movies worked for me. They gave me everything that appealed to me about the characters and their mission without, somehow, the things that made me leery of the comics.
And so it often is with Superman. I have not loved a lot of Superman books in my time—Secret Identity, Man of Steel, Superman for All Seasons, All-Star Superman, and the whole Death, Funeral for a Friend, Rise of the Supermen, and Return saga back when I really sank my teeth into comics—but I love the inherent idea of the character, the Platonic ideal of him, if you will. So hopefully movie magic can strike again and a character who’s comics rarely connect with me can fulfill find that spark on the big screen.
So I’m hoping. And hopeful. But we’ll see.
Logically, it makes sense to start where the franchise last was. Yes, MAN OF STEEL is a new movie with a fresh perspective and wholly different than what came before it, but Superman has been the subject of live action films before and this was the last one. So here we go.
And since we’re all friends here, I’m going to be real with you. There are parts of SUPERMAN RETURNS I genuinely like. I like the look that director Bryan Singer and his collaborators developed for the film: the color schemes, the sets, the CGI use. I think Kevin Spacey is an excellent Luthor and would’ve been even better if his goals made even the slightest of senses (real estate? Again?! Really, world’s smartest man.) And if you are the type who can’t look past his dumb scheme, just watch the bit where Luthor kicks the tar out of Superman on an island made of Kryptonite (yes, I know. I KNOW!) He’s smart, cruel, and utterly delighted in being both. I even like Brandon Routh’s Clark Kent/Superman while still acknowledging he’s pretty much just doing a Christopher Reeves imitation, especially since you know that was probably exactly what he was asked to do.
That said, there is plenty to nickpick about the movie. Plenty to dislike. But really, the real problem with RETURNS, the thing that breaks its back, boils down to this:
Superman’s not really the hero.
Boom. Mind blown? Terribly sorry, but it is true. James Marsden’s character, you know Lois Lane’s new boyfriend and, essentially, adopted father to her son? He’s the hero. In addition to being the one raising a child not his own with love and sensitivity , he more consistently risks life and limb for others and does so knowing that, most likely, when all is said and done, he’s going to lose the woman he loves to the guy in the red, blue, and yellow who flies. Superman, on the other hand, floats outside Lois’s window spying on her for far too long for me to be comfortable with, does not hesitate to make a play for a woman in a committed relationship and, oh yeah, that kid that I mentioned? It’s really his, but he ran off to space so the Man of Steel’s never met his little boy until now. Sure, he left before he knew Lois was pregnant, but still…hard to get passed that.
I can’t recommend this in good conscience. I don’t dislike it as much as most and I do think the years have made people remember it as being worse than it was but it’s a Superman movie where Superman’s not the hero and you know that something’s wrong with the film when that’s the case.
Oh…where to begin here?
This is Zack Snyder’s (MAN OF STEEL’s director, hence its inclusion here) opus, the thing he used 11 years of building good will and making Warner Brothers money to realize.
(Though, it should be noted, the version that reached the screen is not what Snyder claims he really had in mind. Interference derailed it from truly being his dream film.)
It is a loud exercise in near SKY CAPTAIN levels of CGI, women in various fetishistic outfits when they aren’t dancing all slinky like, guns, swords, and (possibly) commentary on the U.S.’s mental health systems circa mid-20th Century.
And boy, it sure is something.
Credit where credit is due, it’s dazzling to look at. The opening sequence, shot like a music video and using no dialogue, is a great bit of storytelling that conveys the dread and rage of Emily Browning’s Babydoll (you heard me!) with—admittedly visually overblown—efficiency. Some of the music is interesting. Jena Malone’s Rocket (again, you heard me!) has a fetching haircut.
The rest…the rest is a muddle. There are multiple levels of reality that one, if one was being charitable, might say are similar to THE MATRIX’s real and computer generated worlds or INCEPTION’s levels of dreamscape. Except, you know, not as good.
Before I can any farther, for the confused who have seen it, the layers proceed as follows: the asylum is reality, the brothel is “next” closest and possibly a shared delusion amongst our leads, and the video game-esque adventure having layer is the farthest away from reality, and most likely a coping mechanism for Babydoll to reorganize the events of her incarceration as she faces her final moments of either lucidity or life. Everything we see in the brothel, the plans to acquire items for escape and the execution of said plans, happens in the reality layer although, I suspect, with significant less flash. Everything that happens in the video game layer is an even more flashy interpretation of reality. So in reality, the female patients might distract a guard while one of their members steals a lighter; in the brothel layer, a girl gives a lapdance to acquire the same ends; in the videogame world, they fight Nazi zombies piloting mech suits to get fire. It’s all the same event and the ultimate result of it (got the lighter!) can be trusted but no, the girls are not sexy courtesans or bad ass warriors. This is why when Rocket dies, blown up, stabbed, or electrocuted depending on which layer you are discussing, she really does die. She just didn’t die from a neutron bomb explosion on a high speed train.
Anyway digression aside, the problem with the multiple layers is that they tell us nothing about the characters. In the MATRIX or INCEPTION, switching between earths or levels offered us insight into the characters, what they valued, what they wanted or needed, how they viewed themselves. In SUCKER PUNCH, the group orderly is a creep pimp in the brothel world but then, we already knew that. Nothing new gained, no insight unearthed. Thus, the layers just move us farther away from the characters. The lead women are going through hell in reality, but all we see is them fighting a polar bear. So when the real world does intrude and characters are hurt or killed, we don’t care. They’re pixels, not people.
Finally, the end. I’ve spoiled a lot already, but I hold back on this a bit except to say, there’s a way the ending can work. There’s a way to have that twist and make an audience applaud, not turn on you. This film doesn’t do it though. Instead, because, again, the characters aren’t people to us, we are left wondering what in this 2 hour plus slog was worth the journey when she’s the one who gives us our final narration.
Not recommended, if you couldn’t guess.