Wednesday, July 2, 2008

From the Archive: "Superhero Mania! Part 4 - Clark Kent Returns!”

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

This is a four-part Special Feature from the summer of 2008 where, for four weeks, I put two superhero movies head-to-head to see which one was better, or if I could even make it through both of them. 

Continue reading after the jump to access “Superhero Mania! Part Four – Clark Kent Returns!”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Superhero Mania!
Part Four”
Special Feature Article originally published July 2nd, 2008

2008 is the summer of the Superhero.  Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Dark Knight…it’s going to be a good summer.  But not all superhero movies are good.  In fact, many of them are God-awful abominations of man kind.  Some of these bad superhero flicks take nerves of steel to sit through, and when I thought about this, I wondered if I myself have the willpower to revisit some of these terrible superhero movies.  So here’s my challenge to myself—for 4 weeks, I will watch one good superhero movie, and one bad superhero movie, write about the experience, and post it here on YourHub.  The rules of the challenge are as follows:

1. I must designate one movie as “Good” and one as “Bad” before viewing; If I’m mistaken about the designation, I’ll fess up to it.
2. I must watch all of the movie designated “good,” but I can stop watching the “bad” movie if I can’t tolerate it any more, as long as I record how far I made it through the movie.
3. The must not have viewed the chosen movie in the past six months, so that my memories of the chosen films aren’t too vivid.
4. The two films chosen weekly must have a thematic and/or stylistic relationship with one another.
So without further ado, here’s Superhero Mania: Week 3.

THE BAD; Part 4:

Superman III (1983)
STARRING: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor
HOW FAR I MADE IT: 70 minutes out of 125

You’re name is Ilya Salkind.  You’ve fired the man who made one of your films, Superman: The Movie such a masterpiece, trashed all the footage he’d shot for the sequel, and replaced him with comedy director Richard Lester, thus turning Superman II into a horribly uneven camp action flick that doesn’t come close to living up to the first film.  Both films brought in money, so naturally, it’s time to do a third.  Do you make up for past mistakes by making amends with Richard Donner and trying to create another good Superman film?  Nope.  You hire Lester again and tell him to take everything that makes Superman special, roll it into a ball, stomp on it, and then flush it down the toilet.  You have Lester make a campy farce with little relation to earlier films; this is, of course, your vision for the man of steel.  Finally, in your most deranged move, you downgrade Christopher Reeve to a co-star in his own movie and make Richard Pryor the star.


Superman III makes me want to crawl into a corner, cry, and pretend that this film never happened.  Acknowledging that this film was actually made is immensely depressing, because it would force me to acknowledge that some humans are actually misguided enough to make something so horribly off the mark (It’s a similar reaction to watching Batman and Robin).

Richard Donner’s original Superman changed the face of comic book movies by respecting and enhancing the material rather than playing it for laughs; sadly, the producers (Ilya and Alexander Salkind) wanted Superman to be a campy farce, and while the first film escaped unharmed from the insanity of the Salkinds, they fired Donner when he was almost finished shooting Superman II and had Richard Lester camp it up.  The theatrical Superman II is a hybrid of Donner’s vision and the Salkind’s vision.  It’s not horrible, but it’s in no way good either.  (In 2006, Donner and editor Michael Thau did a new edit of Superman II that re-instated all of his footage; it is far superior to the theatrical version). 

But with Superman III, Donner was completely out of the way, and the Salkinds finally realized their insane vision on screen.  A film that, from the opening, sets out to destroy the man of steel’s reputation.

The film opens with a really long, very stupid, and immensely painful to watch sequence in which Superman, walking around metropolis, saves a bunch of very clumsy citizens from minor disasters.  The opening credits play during this slapstick sequence, and it’s just a really bad way to open a Superman film, and sets the tone for what is to come.  The first two films had their opening credits in space; the lettering was creative and it was set to John Williams’ excellent score.  The openings to 1 and 2 were nothing short of epic, but the opening of 3 is just a really bad attempt at sight gags.

So you get past this part of the movie, and you start to think that it might get better from here.  There’s a scene with Clark in the Daily Planet office; I like Clark scenes, I like the Daily Planet…how could you go wrong?  Well, here’s how.  First, you have a very brief interaction between Lois and Clark, where the only thing Lois says is that she’s going off to a beach somewhere and then leaves.

Did the Salkinds remember how much money and time they and others put into casting the lead roles of Clark and Lois?  How much effort was put into finding an on-screen pair with great chemistry?  Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are one of the best on-screen teams in cinema history; they’re one of the reasons people enjoyed the first films.  Actually, it’s kind of ingenious; by getting rid of Lois so early, the filmmakers are sending out a message that the movie will suck, and to turn it off before you go too far.

After Lois leaves, Perry White tells Clark to go home to Smallville to write an article about his high school reunion.  Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the first Superman movie open with a dialogue about how it was the job of the Daily Planet to deliver important, reliable news to the people of Metropolis?  Who gives a damn about a high school reunion in a small town nobody’s ever heard of?  I mean….c’mon!  This is ridiculous.  There had to be other stuff going on.  Superman III was released in June of 1983, so I’m going to assume that that’s when the story happens.  Courtesy of your friend Wikipedia, here are some interesting news stories going on in the world in June of 1983.
June 9 - Conservative Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 1979, wins the general election, in a landslide victory over Michael Foot (42% of the popular vote) .

June 13 - Pioneer 10 becomes the first man made object to leave the solar system.

June 16 - Cork Graham, a teenaged war correspondent and treasure hunter imprisoned by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam for 11 months on false charges of spying for the CIA.

June 18 - STS-7: Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space, on the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Boy, there was a lot going on.  And all the Daily Planet wants to write about is a high school reunion in Smallville?  Anyway, Clark goes to Smallville and tries to get Lana Lang to fall in love with him.  Of course, the entire purpose of the second film was to show that Superman can’t have human relationships…so why the hell do they devote an entire movie to him courting a new woman?  This plot of Clark going back to Smallville could have been interesting but…it just sucks.  Hard.

While Clark is goofing off in HickTown, the majority of the screen time is taken by a man named Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), and his attempts to get a job.  He becomes a computer analyst, and there’s an interesting subplot about him stealing change or something like that.  Well, it would have been interesting in a movie about computer hackers, but this is Superman.  Gorman is ratted out and blackmailed into helping some evil corporate genius do a bunch of dumb stuff that I don’t care about.

Honestly…I just can’t write anymore.  Thinking about this movie causes me physical pain.  If you think I’m exaggerating, then go watch it.  Actually, scratch that.  I’d rather you think me a liar than suffer through this awful film.  Christopher Reeve is great as always, and Richard Pryor is interesting in his role, but again, it just doesn’t fit with the Superman formula.

Actually, Christopher Reeve sums up the problem with this movie quite well.  [Richard Lester] was always looking for a gag - sometimes to the point where the gags involving Richard Pryor went over the top. I mean, I didn't think that his going off the top of a building, on skis with a pink tablecloth around his shoulders, was particularly funny.

And critic Leonard Maltin surmises my hatred for this garbage in just one sentence.  He says that the film is an "appalling sequel that trashed everything that Superman was about for the sake of cheap laughs and a co-starring role for Richard Pryor."

Well said.  I love Superman 1, and the Donner cut of Superman II.  It seemed like we would never get a quality sequel until a guy named Bryan Singer stepped up to the plate and made the true Superman III.  Hold that thought.

Film Rating: F+

THE GOOD; Part 4:
STARRING: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth

Ever since Superman IV destroyed the dreams of Superman fans worldwide, various filmmakers tried time and time again to create a new film; dozens of sequel and reboot ideas were thrown around for a good fifteen years before a film was actually produced.  In the mid-nineties, Tim Burton was set to do a film called Superman Lives; it was fully casted, sets were being built, and teaser posters were actually sent out to theaters (I’ve provided a picture of the poster in the pictures section above).  The project eventually failed, however.

More ideas were thrown around, but finally, X-Men director Bryan Singer stepped in and pitched his vision of the new film to the studio.  They loved it, and Singer dropped three films he was currently set to make (including X-Men 3) and created the first great Superman film since Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve made us believe a man could fly in 1978.

Upon seeing Superman Returns, it becomes obvious why previous projects failed.  Richard Donner already laid the groundwork in 1978; you can’t really improve on what he did.  Superman is a simple character, and to add as much complexity to the story as Donner did would be impossible to replicate.  Instead, you must embrace that and build on top of it, which is exactly what Singer does.

I remember seeing Superman Returns in theaters (actually, it was in IMAX); it was an incredibly experience.  I loved Donner’s film, and though all we had at the time was the theatrical cut of Superman II, that was also pretty cool.  To see the man of steel on the big screen was awesome, and that was enhanced by the improvement in special effects.  You’ve never seen the man of steel in action like this; he zooms around at the speed of sound doing things that could never have been accomplished in 1978, and it’s all believable. 

But special effects don’t make a movie good; they simply enhance it.  Bryan Singer’s vision for Superman Returns was exactly what the man of steel needed to be brought back to theaters.  Superman Returns is more or less a sequel to Superman 1 and the Donner cut of Superman 2; in essence, Superman Returns is the new Superman 3.

The plot revolves around Superman returning to Earth after being gone for five years; he left to search for the remains of planet Krypton, his home.  This makes sense; after learning he can have no human relationships in Superman II, the idea of returning home would sound appealing to Superman.  Having Superman disappear for five years also lets Singer explore the characters in a new, fresh way, and best of all, it all feels like a natural advancement of the series; it feels like the kind of story Donner would have told if he had made Superman 3.

Just as important, Singer assembled a top-notch cast for this film, led by newcomer Brandon Routh as Superman.  Christopher Reeve will always be the real Superman to me, and Routh doesn’t come close to replacing him.  But Routh doesn’t really try.  He uses some of the same styles Reeve would have used, and over the course of the film, makes the role his own.  The character feels like the same guy we knew from 1 and 2, but is also different.  Changed for his experiences.  Simply put, Routh owns the role now.

There are plenty of other inspired casting choices, but the big three are Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey.  Spacey plays Lex Luthor, and is beyond perfect.  The film is worth watching just for his portrayal of the villain.  He plays it much darker and less campy than Gene Hackman did, and it makes sense given the progression of the story.  After five years in prison, Luthor would be ready to unleash his genius without cracking jokes.  Like Routh as Superman, the character feels the same but different, and it’s for the better.  Spacey isn’t better than Hackman, but he is just as good, and that is heavy, heavy praise.

Kate Bosworth takes over the role of Lois Lane, who doesn’t really feel like Lois at all.  Obviously, after five years without Superman, Lane would have changed as a person, and I understand that.  But still, Bosworth is sort of bland in the role.  Margot Kidder brought so much life into the character, and her portrayal is impossible to replicate.  But Bosworth doesn’t really seem to be trying.  She’s just fine; not bad, but not really good either.

Superman Returns is a very meditative film; by that, I mean it’s long and takes that time to examine characters from many angles.  The length doesn’t hurt the film, and the time taken for characterization is well spent.  However, there are pacing problems; the film constantly begins to gain momentum only to let it slip away.  By the end, it finally takes hold of that momentum; it just takes too long to do so.

The major problem with Superman Returns is that it’s beyond predictable.  It’s quit obviously patterned after Donner’s Superman film, and many scenes are homages to the original movie.  In a few scenes, you can predict that line of dialogue; that’s how close it stick’s to Donner’s film.  This doesn’t always hurt the film, but eventually, it gets old, as if Singer was afraid to try anything too radically different.  I hope that, for the next film, he branches out and explores a truly unexplored area.  If you take everything that is good about Superman Returns (and there is a ton of good here) and transplant it onto a more original plot, then you would have a near perfect Superman film.

The best thing the film does, though, is to give us, after so many years of waiting, a true sequel to what Donner shot in the seventies.  It continues his themes, creates new ones, and expands upon all of them in a grand way.  Today, we’ve looked at the film officially titled Superman III, and the film that, with a completely different cast and crew, feels more like a sequel than the earlier film ever did.

Film Rating: B+     

Well, that’s all for Superhero Mania!  This was just a fun little experiment, and my personal love letter (and hate mail) to Superhero films.  However, I’m sure you’re all wondering why, in the four weeks I’ve been writing this, I didn’t discuss any Batman films, given that the biggest superhero flick of the year is going to be The Dark Knight.  Well, trust me, I’ve got something really big and epic planned for Batman…check back June 13th to see what I mean.

Up, up, and away!

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