Retrospective Reviews #8: Superman Revisited

So, Retrospective Reviews has returned, but you’ll noticed I’m a bit behind. The Kevin Smith Retrospective (along with various other real life commitments) has pushed a lot of things back, including most of the back log of stuff I saw in March. For those curious, I’ll be posting a few small scale reviews of those over on my Letterboxd account. Otherwise, these longer mini-reviews will be for films I care to go on about… like the delayed next entry in the Harry Potter Retrospective, which I promise is coming back in April with a vengeance. Anyway, this bit of R & R is focused on revisiting some of the older Superman films in honor of the release of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This doesn’t include the first two, which I have coming in a sizable retrospective over at OneOfUs.net soon. No, this will focus on a few films following those… which are checkered at best.

3/16/16: Superman III

supermanIII

Warner Bros

Following Richard Donner’s ousting from the production of Superman II, Warner Bros decided that Richard Lester’s version of Superman he inserted into the film was probably the right way to go. Unfortunately, it’s clear that this wasn’t the way to go right from the start of this awkwardly stilted “comedy” of sorts, where Lester’s attempts at comedy constantly fall on their face. The opening sequence is a harbinger of not just how out of whack this supposed sequel is, mainly with how little Superman really appears in it during the first hour. No, instead of focusing on the titular character, this third entry gives much of the spotlight to Richard Pryor, who’s usual knack for comedic deliver is weighed down by wacky slapstick and poor excuses for him to perform characters.

He’s also sharing screen time with Robert Vaughn as a poor man’s Lex Luthor/Mr. Burns, an 8-bit Superman tracking system and a computer embezzling scheme that would be done far more coherently in Office Space a decade and a half later. The few moments we get with Superman are spent either on a dry love story between him and Lana Lang or a muddled attempt at Clark/Superman going through a Kryptonite induced identity crisis. It’s really a shame, since Christopher Reeve is still trying his hardest to convey the struggle between the Kal El we know & love and this darker side of the character, but he’s constantly betrayed by this all out bore. But it wouldn’t be the last time.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Super Human Benders

3/17/16: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

supermanIV

Warner Bros

While Superman III suffered from too much poorly implemented intentional humor, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is made entirely watchable thanks to the incredibly moronic attempts at sincerity. This fourth entry tries to juggle the nuclear arms race, another Lex Luthor scheme, rehashing of Lois’ discovery of Clark Kent as Superman and a new super powered clone menace in the form of Nuclear Man. Needless to say, it’s a jumbled mess. Yet, it’s a hysterical mess, dolled out with a clearly miniature budget that makes the heavy handed attempts at Cold War era conflict fall flat on their face as Supes flies with the hand of the Statue of Liberty in front of a terrible green screen. The reality (even in context of a Superman film) is constantly broken by abrasively poor visual effects and decisions that clearly had little to no impact on the mind of director Sidney J. Furie or anyone in the production offices of Canon Films that produced this, particularly when a human woman is flown out into space without any sort of protective covering or how Superman’s hair can be easily cut by bolt cutters.

It’s the kind of lack of consistency that makes one laugh uncontrollably. Most of our returning cast seems to be on autopilot, to varyingly hilarious effect. Daily Planet regulars Margot Kidder and Jackie Cooper seem to be on another planet entirely, Gene Hackman spends most of his time in a robe or more comfortable letterman jackets & Marc McClure… well, sort of sits in the background. Once again, Christopher Reeve shows more of an earnestness that serves as the sole remaining facet of Richard Donner’s vision. It stings in a particularly bad fashion when Reeve’s story credit shows he wanted to address bigger issues that ultimately become sidelined for silly action and ghastly visuals. Well… at least he went out on a somewhat entertaining note.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Easily Cut Kryptonian Hairs

3/19/16: Superman Returns (Re-Watch)

brandonrouthsuperman

Warner Bros

Clearly, after a blunder of a fourth entry, it took awhile for Superman to return to the screen. After several failed attempts at reworking the character, director Bryan Singer – leaving his potential X-Men trilogy to whither elsewhere – decided to return to the style that brought Superman to life in the first place… and literally dub it Superman Returns. Singer goes to great lengths here to recall the work Richard Donner did on Superman, reusing John Williams’ iconic score, the classic Fortress of Solitude crystal set design and heavily emphasizing the struggle of characters over fisticuffs. There’s a sincerity to it all, but much of it is so dull and hollow. Singer’s attempts to recreate Donner’s touches come off as rather ill advised pandering, the type of mimicry that feels more at home in an internet fan film than a major studio production. Evoking the iconography is one thing, but adding so little to make it distinct or new in its own right feels like a waste of time. I’m not saying we just need the constant fights that were missing from Donner’s films (and I’ll be saying more of that later), but resting on old laurels for two and a half hours gets incredibly tedious after awhile.

This is particularly evident during the scenes where Kevin Spacey uses his honed impressions skills to imitate Gene Hackman’s Luthor with direct yet underwhelming accuracy alongside a wasted Parker Posey and befuddled Kal Penn. Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth feels woefully miscast as Lois Lane, having all the ace reporting gumption of a pre-teen girl putting on her mother’s clothes. The only people who feel dead on in their portrayals are a crabby Frank Langella as Perry White and the charmingly jovial Brandon Routh as our titular hero. Routh isn’t just the bright shining hero of the film’s narrative, but also the glue that keeps Superman Returns together. He captures the same type of lovable charm that Reeve had in the part, but adds a believable layer of remorse for his actions that shows as he hears the cries of the people he abandoned with his super hearing or tries to lift a mountain of Kryptonite. Routh sells it far more than Singer does, but it’s a shame that a solid Superman was stuck in a nostalgia driven slog that showed glimmers of greatness.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Crystal Shards

3/22/16: Man of Steel (Re-Watch)

man of steel

Warner Bros

Man of Steel is a film that takes chances. That alone makes it more intriguing than the previous attempt to revisit the man in blue tights. Director Zack Snyder and writer David Goyer decided to give this version of Superman a harder edge that drifted slightly more towards reality than any of the previous adaptations. Their film strives to showcase an alien being dropped into our world, heavily emphasizing on the ramifications of this being living among us and struggling to admit who he is. A lot of this is portrayed wonderfully on a visual level by Snyder, who fills the film to the brim with breathtaking shots of spectacle that show off the scope of Superman’s powers and abilities. Noble pursuits all around… but boy is all of that laid on thick. Producer Christopher Nolan often gets criticism for his Dark Knight Trilogy using far too many speeches to display character motivations, but Man of Steel drops it on us constantly. Pa Kent speechifying to Clark, Jor El speechifying to Clark, Perry White speechifying to Lois Lane, it keeps on going. Even worse, this speechifying often ends up being contradicted or muddled by how little we’re aware of Superman’s maturity or true control over his powers thanks to bizarre decisions in editing for non-linear flashback sequences.

So much of Superman’s (and to a lesser extent Lois Lane’s) agency is taken away during these moments, as he’s preached to about making a deliberate choice yet isn’t really allowed to make one most of the time. When he’s able to, it makes for some of the film’s best moments like the interrogation scene, where Clark willingly gives himself up in order to quell humanity’s fears. There’s an understanding of his role as a savior that feels organic to the character, unlike the rather blatant religious nods that make similar moments in Superman Returns look tame by comparison. Then the controversial third act comes and highlights many of these problems tenfold. The large scale fights initially impress, but end up weighing down this ever lasting climax that pits Superman and Zod against each other. It’s obviously more grand than any of the fights in Superman II, but at a certain point is pumbles the senses to the point of diluting the crucial point Superman realizing how far his limits can be pushed and his desire to keep civilians out of harms way. All of this does more damage than something as beautifully simple as a boy with powers trying to imagine his mother’s voice as an island. Sometimes, less says more.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Boy Childs

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