Film review: Superman Returns

This isn’t really a review. It’s more of a collection of my thoughts on the film. This film has been reviewed to an incredible degree on the blogosphere, as is appropriate, and I’m writing this over a week after it came out in the UK, not to mention the two weeks before that when it came out in the US. Thus, this is somewhat less structured than normal, with some reflections on the film more than anything else. There will probably be spoilers, but anyone reading this will have seen the film already (if not blogged about it themselves), so I’m sure I won’t be ruining it for anyone.

I’m not an enormous fan of Superman. I can’t pinpoint the specific reasons, but I haven’t read many stories that have really made connect with the character. I understand his importance, and I have enjoyed stories in which he has been a part, but I don’t have that primary love for him that is associated with many fans of comic books. It doesn’t help that I don’t particularly like the first Superman movie (which is practically heresy), despite it being a well-made film – I just HATE, HATE, HATE the ending beyond belief, as well as other niggles that are probably to do with my take it or leave it attitude to the Man of Steel. That’s the end of my disclaimer.

Superman Returns is a very good film that I like very much but don’t love. I think that Singer has made essentially a love letter to Superman the character and specifically the movie version. As such, I don’t know if that makes a completely satisfying movie experience, but it is definitely the best cinematic Superman (for me) and it looks fantastic.

Starting with the visuals, the film is beautiful. Singer has taken considerable care to ensure that the screen caresses the eyes with stunning optical opulence. From the beauty of the desolate Smallville farm, to the architectural grandeur of Metropolis, to the alienness of the Fortress of Solitude and the new land mass, no detail is too small. This is shown best in the FX used to create Superman in action – breathtaking visual poetry, capturing the essence of the Superman character the way that Spider-Man the movie captured the way Spider-Man should move in real life. The power, the speed, the flutter of the cape, the heat vision, everything looks exactly as it should do. Perfection.

In fact, for me, this is contributes to the lack of total narrative satisfaction, as we don’t see nearly enough of Superman in all his glory. The set piece with the shuttle and the jumbo jet is so spectacular, it leaves you wanting more of seeing Superman in his element – saving the day, being powerfully superheroic and doing the stuff other superheroes are not equipped to do. It is a compliment to Singer that he can make it so stunning that you want more.

Talking about Superman means talking about Brandon Routh. He is the Superman for our age, perfectly capturing Clark and Kal-el, so I hope he gets the chance to breakout of being typecast, as he does a great job. There is a spooky resemblance to Christopher Reeve, but it doesn’t linger and you can enjoy him in the role. Even the suit worked well in the film, something I wasn’t sure about from the publicity shots. Kevin Spacey is note-perfect as Lex Luthor, the anger, the intelligence, the danger. Kate Bosworth does a nice job as Lois, channelling the feel of Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, but I never really got the feeling that she WAS Lois Lane. I don’t know if it’s because she’s a natural blonde or the youthful face, but it never completely clicked, but she inhabited the role well. The other characters are mostly superfluous, although it was nice to see James Marsden get to do more acting and be on screen more than in both X2 and X-Men 3 combined.

The plot of the film echoed too much of the first film to allow the film stand on its own. I understand that it echoes the modus operandi and goal of Luthor, but it just seemed to be the same idea for the new millennium. Having a ditzy female (Parker Posey in an unusual role) as Luthor’s plaything who feels sympathy for Superman was too reminiscent, although at least she didn’t have to save Superman (thus negating the arc of Superman and his status as hero, a problem I have with the first film). The explanation of Luthor getting out seemed completely silly, but it is only a minor point. Superman saving the day by being Superman was a much more emotionally satisfying climax than the first film, which made me happier. Only it wasn’t the climax, as we had to have the bizarre mumbo jumbo between father and son at the finish.

This emotional ending seemed a little strange (leaving it open for the future films that may or may not happen), but the whole child issue seemed a little strange. It was only a minor point throughout the film (and obviously we have to ignore Larry Niven’s Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex essay), even though the five-year gap meant it was there immediately. I think it was part of the love letter aspect, Singer giving Superman a son (without the nappy years) and a woman who will always love him (and he her).

There are some wonderful moments in the film (the wonderful tension of Lois, Richard and baby in the yacht as it sinks is stretched to the actual moment where you think that Superman won’t be able to save them; the rapturous applause of the baseball park when he casually places the plane on the field after stopped it from crashing into the park; the heroism of Superman pushing the landmass into orbit while kryptonite crystals are pulsing towards him; Spacey shouting, ‘Wrong!’) that made it a delight to watch and made the two and a half hours fly by (if you’ll pardon the pun). I was humming the John Williams theme all the way home on the tube. My girlfriend, who is more a fan of Superman than I, loved it (and thought Routh was great as Superman), a review that Singer would be happy with, as he fashioned the film to be a ‘chick flick’ (in his words). The gayness thing wasn’t there (what were people going on about), even if the Jesus thing loomed in the mention of sending his only son and needing a saviour, but not to the detriment of the film. Still, trying to appeal to everybody might be the reason why the film stops short of perfection for me, but how many perfect films are made these days, especially with one of the most recognised icons on the planet? And it was better than Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Definitely the most enjoyable blockbuster I’ve seen all year.

Rating: DAVE

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Film review – X-Men: The Last Stand

I try to remain impartial when I see a film, to give an unbiased opinion about the movie (as all reviews are – I can’t really call myself a critic, I just liked the name for the blog). However, try as I might, I really can’t be a completely objective viewer when it comes to the X-Men. They are the reason I got into comics, and the fondness I have for those Claremont-written books I read in my younger years is something I will never lose. (An aside: articles in the press mention Lee and Kirby, but when will they give Claremont props? He’s the reason why there are the X-Men films.)

This, then, is a disclaimer: my review of X-Men: The Last Stand is coloured by my inner fanboy. Please take this into account if you continue to read. And, I talk about the whole film, so there are spoilers, but everyone has seen it already, so that doesn’t really matter, does it?

Where shall we start? The first thing to say, I suppose, is that my main problem with the film was that it didn’t feel like an X-Men film, which is the worst crime for the film. Despite having the same writers as the second film, perhaps one of the best superhero films we have seen, this movie doesn’t have the heart or soul; it masquerades as an X-Men movie, using the goodwill of the previous two to bully us through this one. It makes for an average sci-fi flick, using some characters that Marvel happen to known.

Part of this must be laid at the feet of Brett Ratner, the perfectly adequate but uninspiring director, who doesn’t bring the vision or, more importantly, the understanding that Bryan Singer did to the previous films. It was always going to be difficult, especially coming to the project so late, but, while he does merely a workman-like job, the problems with the film are not his alone.

The script doesn’t help. Trying to compress the fantastic overtones of the legendary Dark Phoenix story into the more-realistic world created in the first two, as well as the Joss Whedon story of a mutant cure, into two films is simply too much. There are too many characters, themes and points to touch on to make it a satisfying piece of cinema. For example, the impressive visual that is Angel, pimped in the trailers and the posters, is essentially a cameo. A flashback, a dive out the window, turning up at the mansion, and rescuing his father (and wasn’t that the silliest manner in which to get him to do something heroic – the doctor has been killed quickly by spikes boy, yet the other two have to throw him off a building, just so his son with wings can save him. That is bloody annoying story logic right there.) means that Warren Worthington III can barely justify the action figure. And don’t get me started on the shoddy treatment of Cyclops. Bad enough that he had to sit out most of the second film; now, he doesn’t even justify having his death shown on screen in a moment that has emotional resonance to the original comics (when Phoenix held back his power when he took off the ruby quartz glasses). That’s insulting.

The cast, which was large enough in the second film so that the third would have time to explore them, gets even bigger here, just for the sake of it being a trilogy, so it must be bigger! This means that a lot of characters get shunted to the background. Apart from Cyclops and Angel, Rogue is barely in the film (after anchoring the first one), Mystique is nullified early on (which is particularly frustrating after making her such a great character in the films, giving her so much potential, and the ignoring of her by Magneto after her sacrifice, while done to show how cold he is, seems out of character on a personal level), and even characters who have a sufficiently cool visual power to be given screen time, such as Colossus or Shadowcat, barely justify being given names. Hardly any of the newer people make much of an impression, apart from Vinne Jones as Juggernaut, who made an awful impression in that silly body suit. It was fun seeing Madrox, for example, but that was all.

There are some good actors in the film. Hugh Jackman is great again as Wolverine, as are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Xavier and Magneto (enjoyed the flashback scene that seemed to hint at a more-intimate relationship between them), with the only down point being the regret shown by Magneto at the end when he is depowered and ‘realises the errors of his ways’, which was rather pathetic. Kelsey Grammer was perfect as Beast, in voice and attitude, if not looks, but I don’t think Beast would ever work particularly well in live action. (And would Leech make him defur? I thought that was the result of an experiment gone awry; his mutation is super-agility (and strength and speed), not the ability to grow fur.)

The way the script treats things in general is ill-thought out. The explanation of Phoenix, admittedly necessary in the sci-fi setting of the films compared to the more-natural home of the comics, is shoddy, ignoring the basic reason for the name Phoenix (erm, rising from the dead, yes?). But the Phoenix force is difficult on different scales. She can kill her former lover, her mentor, and prison-loads of soldiers in the final assault, but she can’t kill Wolverine? How does his healing recover from somebody ‘thinking’ them out of existence? It’s not a physical attack that his body can fight; she is doing whatever the hell she wants. Another bit of annoying story logic. Talking of story logic, why didn’t they cure Jean, rather than killing her? It just seems to be the writers following the beats of the comic (having Jean come to her senses and ‘allowing’ Logan to kill her, reflecting the suicide on the moon), rather than understanding why they worked in the first place.

My girlfriend believes that Storm gets more screen time by the deliberate killing of Cyclops and Xavier because she insisted on it in order for the film to have the (surprise) Oscar-winning actress. She may have a point. Halle Berry has been good in a few films, but she is wooden and unnatural as Storm, particularly disappointing for such a strong character. Her increased exposure in this film only serves to highlight her inadequacies in the role. I may be extra bitter because I thought the eradicating of the heart of the X-men (Xavier, Scott and Jean) demonstrated that the filmmakers don’t get the point of the X-Men. They wanted the flash of the Danger Room and the Sentinels (it was fun to see it and the fastball special, but it was a tease and silly excuse to set up the flimsy Rogue–Bobby–Kitty love triangle) and things blowing up, without the understanding that Singer brought to the earlier films.

With Xavier dying, my inner fanboy knew that his brain wouldn’t die, even though it was a surprise when he was actually killed, but it was still silly to see the after-the-credits teaser for possible continuation, especially when they have been banging on about it being a trilogy. It wasn’t a trilogy. The flimsy link of Jean/Phoenix and Magneto through the films doesn’t make it a trilogy; there is no thematic arc over the course of the three films to make anyone think that this was a grand story over three films. Personally, I’ve always thought that the X-Men would work best as a television series (most people know it from the cartoons anyway, showing that it has a pedigree), even if the likes of Mutant X might put people off; it would allow for more exploration of the characters and the themes than a film would allow (see Lost for a good example of excellent juggling of a large cast, which is what the X-Men are about, not the grandstanding of two characters like Wolvie and Storm). I could be in the minority on that one.

The end of the film (the one before the credits) is not the end of a trilogy, which has people looking at graves and Logan looking mysterious, and hinting at sequel with Magneto. That’s not an emotionally satisfying resolution; it’s not even an epilogue. But, then, the film doesn’t feel like a real film; it’s a collection of unconvincing scenes leading to the big fight at the end, where Storm kills out of character, and a small set of inexperienced X-Men fight off a huge collection of powered people without dying themselves.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews of the film where people have said things along the lines of, well, it wasn’t as good as the last film, but at least it wasn’t rubbish, which is what we were expecting with Ratner. This is not a stance I can take. It might have been a decent sci-fi action film on its own, but it was supposed to be an X-Men film and, after the quality of the second film, it should have been a very good film too. It wasn’t. It was okay. And that isn’t good enough for me.

Rating: DA

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Film review: Fantastic Four

Confession: I haven’t read any of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Fantastic Four comics. Sorry. They were made before I was born and the only way to see them is expensively in colour or cheaply in black & white, and I don’t ‘get’ Kirby’s art. This is probably heresy and I apologise, and can only hope that I am still allowed to write about comics on this blog when I haven’t even seen a single issue of what I’ve heard tell is one of the best runs of super-hero comics around.

Nevertheless, I have read some FF comics. I’ve got John Byrne’s rather good run from before he turned into a bit of a nutter. I really enjoyed Walt Simonson’s run, which had the sense of the fantastic about it. One of my favourite stories involving the FF is the Fantastic Four/X-Men mini-series by Chris Claremont and Jon Bogdanove, which might make me even less suited to review the film, but it gave me a sense of what they are about as characters and wanted to see them on the silver screen.

And, for the most part, they do look okay in real life/CGI; the little kid inside me had a big smile on his face seeing the Fantastic Four in the flesh. The Thing still looks a little like a man in a suit, instead of the massive monster he should be – the CGI for the Hulk is more towards my personal idea of what Ben Grimm should look like, a giant creature, taller and wider than a normal man – but it comes off quite well when it could’ve looked completely awful. And I did like the little rocky noises they put in when you hear him turn his head in close-up. The invisible aspects have already been done, and fire has been created by CGI before, but Sue and Johnny looked okay as well. Although I love the character of Reed Richards, mainly for the fact of him being a scientist, his powers have never done anything for me, and I always felt a bit sorry for him with his superelasticity (obvious porno jokes aside).

The story was a little flimsy, however, which took away some of the enjoyment. It was as if they couldn’t quite make up their mind on how much of the comic to have and which bits to leave out. Let’s have Doom as an old associate of Reed, but let’s ignore every other thing about his history, thus removing most of the complexity and danger from the character, and have him as a corporate shark. Jessica Alba as the Director of Genetic Research was laughable; I have worked in science and I have never seen anyone like that in any place I’ve been, ever. Well, except for my gorgeous girlfriend, but she never wore a power suit.

Why increase the pathos of Ben Grimm even more, as if it needed it, by having the girlfriend who goes out in the middle of the street in the middle of the night in small and sexy night attire? I wouldn’t mind but, by the end of the film, he’s seemingly happy with being the Thing and getting cosy with Alicia – talk about a condensed history of Thing stories: ‘I hate being the Thing, I am sad and ugly and break bar stools. Hooray, I’m not the Thing anymore. Oh no, I must become the Thing again using untested technology that I don’t understand that doesn’t come with instructions. And I somehow end up wearing the stretchy uniform that I said I wouldn’t wear and am now happy with being an ugly Thing, even though I’m not sure I’ll be able to have sex with the hot blind girl I’ve just met.’

I don’t know if the more-simple narrative could appeal to a viewer like myself with more knowledge of the comics than the average punter, but it does seem they didn’t want anything too challenging to get in the way of the advertising and merchandising. From panning down at the entrance to the biking event, just to take in all the banners for Pepsi and Burger King, to flying through Times Square specifically stopping at big ads when Johnny flies through, or the completely gratuitous seeing-the-crowds-outside-the-Baxter-Building-via-a reflection in Johnny’s sunglasses, with special attention to the brand name on the front of the lens (especially as it’s stealing from Scorcese’s Casino). This is a very light, easy going adventure, where super-powers are controlled within a few minutes of getting them and the crowds love them because they are so nice. Perfect for kids and for people who never read the stories before.

However, with the diminishing of the Doom character to nothing more than a shadow of his real self, they’ve weakened the story by having a weak villain; as Kirby himself said, the heroes are only as good as the villains they are fighting. What’s more, Doom is the main FF villain; if he’s turned into a bland baddie, what about the rest? And who are they going to choose for the next villain? This fluffy version of the FF, and the more-realistic approach to heroes in general, mean that the whole ‘Fantastic’ part is missing, and the stories that worked the best were when the truly imaginative, wild and crazy ideas were thrown at them.

In fact, I don’t know if the FF don’t work best in comic books, full stop, where there is the room for the spectacular and amazing, and makes me nervous by the inevitable sequel. The FF need something to define their goals for the purpose of a traditional Hollywood narrative; whereas the X-Men are any minority fighting against oppression, Spider-man has the maxim ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, Batman has the mission to stop what happened to him happening to anyone else, the Fantastic Four don’t have that easily grasped hook, mainly because they were vehicles for stories where anything can happen, and that is not something we will see in a sequel from Tim Story, a pedestrian, bland and visually uninteresting director.

There was some fun to be had in the movie; Johnny had all the good lines, and the interplay with him and Ben was very nice, and there was the sense of them being a family. The actors were okay, especially Evans and Chiklis, but Gruffudd and Alba never really made me believe in their relationship, and McMahon was rather limp as Doom. Basically, this is a fun super-hero romp but it could have been something more. Maybe the sequel will fulfil on the promise.

Rating: VID

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