So Where’s Richard Pryor? (or, A Tactless Review of “Superman Returns”)

Please turn off all cell phones and pagers now! It’s time for another edition of Tact is for the Weak, the article that blew all its Vegas winnings on a mint condition copy of Showcase Comics #22 and a stripper named “Lacy!”

So here we are, a full two days after the release of Warner Brothers’ Superman Returns, and somehow there is NO review on’s illustrious column board! Now, I’m fairly certain that one of my esteemed colleagues is busy writing up a glorious movie review that will not only put my opinions to shame, but also bring Bryan Singer to his knees, begging for help before he tackles the sequel (“Superman Returns II: Wrath of the Paternity Suit”). However, seeing as how there is an obvious hole to be filled (besides Kate Bosworth’s), I have decided to step up and offer’s unofficial movie review of Superman Returns (until someone with some actual damn credibility decides to write one). Be forewarned; I’ll try not to reveal too much, but there will definitely be plenty of SPOILERS AHEAD!

Let me begin by clarifying that there’s a difference between a “superhero movie” and a “heroic movie.” For example: Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and the utterly abysmal Batman and Robin were all superhero movies; the first Batman and Batman Begins are heroic movies. The first two Richard Donner-directed Superman movies were heroic movies; the painfully executed Superman III and IV were most definitely superhero movies. All three X-Men movies and the two Spider-man movies are heroic movies; Daredevil, The Hulk, Catwoman, and Fantastic Four are all superhero movies. Constantine, helmed by the wooden Keanu Reeves of Matrix fame, is nothing more than a dark superhero movie; V for Vendetta, helmed by the plaster-faced Hugo Weaving of Matrix fame, is actually a splendid heroic movie.

…get the picture?

“Heroic” and “superhero” movies are the two most common variants of the modern cinematic phenomenon known as “comic book adaptation.” In essence, they all try to achieve the same things as any other movie: tell a good, fast-paced story with a bit of action and a large, colorful cast, all while trying to stay true to the essence of the original concepts. Alas, in the course of introducing these comic book characters to the movie-going public, many films streamline our beloved characters into easy-to-swallow presentations, rather than staying true to the chracters’ essences. Case in point: Halle Berry’s Catwoman, whose characterization was so altered from her original identity that even hardcore fans found themselves scratching their heads at the stranger on the screen before them. It is this very link between the characters on the pages and the characters on the screen that seperates “heroic” movies from “superhero” movies.

“Now wait,” you may be stammering, “just because some director chooses to add his own artistic flair to a character, that movie isn’t condemned to the pits of poor cinema!” Very true, dear readers; note that I did not say that all “superhero” movies are inherently bad ones as well. For instance, Marvel’s Hulk was clearly a “superhero” movie; never in the comic books has the character of Bruce Banner been so clearly dynamic and three-dimensional. Therefore, while the movie did not stay incredibly true to the essence of the original character, it was still a fairly good movie. Unfortunately, The Hulk is the exception to the rule; the reason most “superhero” movies are bad is that the original concepts from which these films stray are usually good concepts, and the farther they drift, the less enjoyable they usually become.

“Heroic” movies, on the other hand, are not always good. My usual example here is Hellboy. The movie is very true to the essence and feel of the comic book; however, the comic book is also sometimes hard to swallow and a bit jerky, and as a result, so was the movie. However, “heroic” movies usually stay true to good concepts, which typically extoll the protagonist as a true hero with admirable ideals (conflicting or not), and therefore lead to good stories.

So, what would I consider Superman Returns? Simply put, Superman Returns is the world’s greatest “superhero movie” of our time. But, it is not necesarily a good heroic movie.

You can tell from the opening credits onward that this film was directed by a true fanboy; Bryan Singer, who has utterly idolized the Richard Donner Superman movies, has poured his heart and soul into a product that, in his eyes, is the definitive Superman movie. The Donner influences are prevalent throughout the movie; from the continued use of the old John Williams musical score (one throwback that I will never complain about) to a plethora of quotes and references to the earlier films, this movie stands out more as an adaptation of the very first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, rather than an adaptation of a very specific comic book character. The story is epic, the character development believable enough, and the usual side characters are all present and accounted for. But, sadly, something is lacking from this film.

Can it be the casting? Actually, the casting is spot-on; despite early worries about newcomer Brandon Routh and recent criticism on Kate Bosworth’s somewhat stoic performance, the actors and actresses involved do a fantastic job of bringing to life the Man of Steel. Routh, along with his controversial new suit, is not just a Christopher Reeve look-alike; there are spine-tingling moments where all doubt leaves the building as the audience sees Superman on the screen, not some rookie actor. For all her faults, Bosworth’s portrayal of Lois Lane was exactly what it needed to be; if she wasn’t as playful as Margot Kidder, it’s because Kidder’s Lois never had to contend with two love interests and a five-year-old son. Bosworth presented a wounded Lois Lane that is afraid to once again share her emotions with the man that left her, and audiences shouldn’t expect any steamy reconciliations on the heels of such a complicated emotional issue. Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, on the other hand, was almost perfect; the only thing that bothered me was that he didn’t seem egotistical enough. Sure, the Spacey Sneer was all over the screen, but enough small things went wrong for Luthor in the movie to take away from his typical holier-than-thou attitude. Still, Spacey stole the show, and during his physical throwdown with the Man of Steel (or should I say, “one-sided beating”), there was no doubt that it was Lex Luthor in the screen, and not some hack…man.

So, was the plot weak? Never (and remember, I did warn you about SPOILERS)! True, there are some speed bumps along the way, but the story practically writes itself, and like most good plots, this is an organic tale of a true hero. When Lex Luthor gets his hands on some crystals from the Fortress of Solitude (he probably remembers how to get there from his last trip up north, back in Superman II), he hatches a maniacal scheme that jeopardizes the entire western hemisphere. This isn’t just any crazy scheme; the dazzling special effects bring to life a truly terrifying disaster that only a Superman could overcome (which, of course, he does). Oh, and the whole “Lois has a kid” thing? This must be Bryan Singer’s personal pitch to the head folks at DC. I’m not one to go around and point fingers at baby-daddies, but it’s obvious that James Marsden’s character (Lois’s “other guy”) never saw the steamy bedroom scene in Superman II, because Lois’s little boy is not altogether human…

Perhaps the visual effects weren’t up to snuff? Hardly! Have you seen the previews?!? If anything, the spectacular light show kept the audience dazzled during every second of the movie regardless of the ebb-and-flow of the plot. In addition to mind-boggling space effects and jaw-dropping stunts (not to mention paltry things such as heat vision, super-strength, and yes, even super-breath), Singer knows how to make men fly, folks, and he has a field day with this one!

So, what is it that Superman Returns is missing? To be frank, it just isn’t… super enough. Sure, it’s a fantastic movie and a wonderful version of a classic icon, but that’s just it; it’s a version of a classic icon, not the real thing. As any fanboy will tell you, the key attribute that seperates Superman from all other heroes is his ability to inspire others through his words and deeds. While his impressive feats of strength and chivalry were mouth-watering eye candy and left the citizens of Metropolis wide-eyed and cheering, there was no real inspiring moment or message that the Last Son of Krypton attempted to impart upon the audience. While he certainly pulls off many heroic rescues in style, he still sometimes seems like an average guy that just happens to fly to work every day. In the same style as the Spider-man movies, Singer portrays Superman as a guy who is all-too-susceptible to feeble weaknesses such as heartbreak and regret. It felt the same as watching Batman chasing down Catwoman in Batman Returns; it’s still the same hero, but why on earth is Batman, instead of Bruce Wayne, chasing down the girl? It’s the same situation here; it’s clear that Superman, not Clark Kent, is being much more active in pursuing Lois Lane. That missing distinction between the human alter-ego and the iconic hero is the crucial seperation that could have put this movie over the top as the greatest comic book movie of all time.

So, my ultimate verdict is this: Superman Returns is a fantastic superhero movie that is sure to reawaken any dwindling love for the world’s first comic book hero, and comic books in general. It’s epic, heartfelt, and successfully re-introduces us all to characters that non-comics-readers might have lost touch with. However, I can’t wait until a sequel is made, in which I hope we all get to see a Superman that has overcome his soap opera with Lois Lane and can show us all why he’s the best of the best.

Well, I’m sure that’s the very first review you all have read, so before you all rush out to see (or re-see) the movie, it’s time to doll out this week’s Tactless Book of the Week Award! As always, there are SPOILERS WITHIN. Really. Dan Didio will be mad if you complain about me revealing this one.

This week, the award goes to…DC Comics’ Brave New World one-shot. At 80 pages for only one dollar, DC promised readers that this book would not only introduce us to vital characters, but whet our appetites for the next big DC event. However, when compared to it’s complement (DC’s Countdown to Infinite Crisis), Brave New World is nothing more than a one-dollar previews catalogue with the barest possible hint of plot to be had. Sure, the six little vignettes are nice, but unlike Countdown, there is no single plot tying the entire book together, and instead of a story, it feels like a force-fed advertisement. Even the “big reveal” is underwhelming; anyone with half a brain and one eye open (along with a handy copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths) can tell from the cover who the “surprise appearance” is going to be (here, I’ll save you a dollar and half an hour: it’s not one, but a bunch of Monitors, probably all from different universes). Honestly, the final pages of Superman/Batman #25 (which I won’t spoil) have me more excited for the future than this plodding mass of loose ends. It’s a good thing this book is only a dollar; otherwise, I’d ask for my money back. The completionists among you can go ahead and buy the damn thing, but all you really need to see are the last three pages.

Well, that’s the end of that.

Well, that’s all the time I have for this week. Join me next week as I continue my battle against those beings most foul (that’s right! The Baldwin Brothers!). Sayonara!

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