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the theme song remains the same
superman returns to a multi-paneled multiplex
by mike julianelle
5.12.06
film

I recently went to see Mission: Impossible: 3. Suffice it to say that the best movie I saw that day was the Superman Returns trailer. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, as evidenced by the fact that someone in the theater clapped heartily when the preview ended (that was me). No one clapped at the end of M:I:3.

Before we begin, let the record show: I have never been into comic books. If I happen to pick one up, I barely even glance at the multi-paneled “artwork” and just speed through the dialogue bubbles in about seven minutes. Seems like a waste. That said, I love me some superheroes. And, as the past few years have shown, so does Hollywood.

You've probably noticed that Hollywood is terrified of original thought. Executives prefer to invest in so-called “bankable” commodities, which is why every other movie these days is either an adaptation of a book, video game, or TV show, or a remake, usually of a horror movie, since that genre has built-in fans so desperate for gore that they’ll buy tickets, regardless of budget, star power, or quality (there are enough of these fans around that "Fangoria" exists. Now that's scary).

While most moviegoers bemoan such stunning lack of creativity, horror junkies, comic aficionados and fantasy lovers alike have been reaping the benefits of Tinsel Town's thievery. The late 90s and 2000s have been notable for Hollywood’s overdue use of comics, graphic novels, and fantasy material as the sources for their blockbusters. Due to the resulting success of these movies, every major to middling character is being prepped for a big screen debut. These movies are raking in the dough, and will continue to do so, until they suddenly don’t.

I’m sure some of you have heard of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Remember when Scream came out and everyone was clamoring about the horror movie renaissance? And then Screams 2 and 3 came out, along with the I Know What You Did Last Summers, followed by a string of even more pieces of garbage, and then, suddenly, horror was dead again? Well, duh. The bandwagon gets crowded and eventually the wheels fall off.

We’ve already seen hints of this among the superhero/comic book genre. The studios, anxious to put out the next X-Men or Spider-man, have snapped up the rights to every possible fringe character of all time, from Hellboy and Ghost Rider to Ant-Man and Shazam. In the general public’s superhero hierarchy, Spider-man (check), Batman (check), the Hulk (bounced check), Wonder Woman (on her way), and Superman are the big five, and even among them, Wonder Woman is the NHL. She exists, but no one really cares except for a small segment of the population, be they girls who are into comics, perverted boys with Amazonian fetishes, or Canadians. But there are 500 other characters with cultish fan-bases ranging in size from minuscule to slightly bigger than miniscule, and they want their movies too. Unfortunately for them, when fifth string comics are made into movies, they are neither good nor successful. See: The Punisher.

Superman Returns is crucial for this new genre, for several reasons. Not only is he the most well-known superhero of all time, he is also the first to have his movie become a blockbuster hit and, significantly, remain credible while doing so. And now he is the last of the majors, excepting Joss Whedon's gestating Wonder Woman, to be reborn on the big screen. Richard Donner’s one-and-a-half (for an explanation of the fraction, scroll down to the "Controversy" section here) Superman flicks are considered by many to be the benchmark of comic book movies, a title undisputed until Spider-man finally hit the screens (and even copied Superman II’s template for its own sequel, to rousing effect), but they are almost three decades old (the slightly more recent, significantly more comic, but exponentially less heroic 3rd and 4th movies, made without Donner and his reverence for the character, are unmentionable and forever stricken from the record).

The original Superman was an epic; the first film to take a superhero seriously and, until Burton’s Batman, the only one to do it even slightly well. But things didn’t really catch on until special effects caught up, the X-Men marked their spot, and Sony was able to untangle Spidey’s web of legality, thus igniting the current wave of superhero blockbusters.

A wave that, thanks to overzealous executives and fanboys that can't say no, might have already crested. Spider-man and the X-Men are already launching their third incarnations, the Hulk didn't even like himself when he got angry, and while Batman has been newly invigorated, he has almost always had more of a dramatic feel than a comic-book one, at least on the big screen. He is, after all, a mere mortal. Superman, though, is just re-beginning, and his franchise could stretch well past the end of this decade.

Superman deserves another shot, and he is in good hands. Together with Sam Raimi, director Bryan Singer helped usher in the new age of respectable comic book movies, and even while dangerously ceding control of his X-Men franchise to the competent-at-best, Rush Hour-at-worst Brett Ratner, he has rightly moved onto bigger things. The big blue Boy Scout started it all, and he deserves to reclaim his throne, sans Tom Welling (the looks but not the chops), sans Tim Burton and Nicholas Cage (Supes-as-outcast is intriguing but too angsty), sans Brendan Fraser (puh-lease), polar bears and gay robot sidekicks.

Barring a disaster, which judging from early glimpses looks unlikely, going with the unknown Brandon Routh was a good call. Superman need not be played by an established star. The character is the draw, not the actor. But Singer has smartly retained the iconic score from the first films, the mere inclusion of which raises goose bumps, even on the highly problematic “Smallville.”

I have high expectations but I'm no fool. There is a reason this column is running a good month and a half before the movie is released. If it follows the recent trend of summer blockbusters and disappoints, at least no one will remember these words by then.

Popcorn movies have gone stale. They need a savior. On June 30th, the son of Jor-el finally returns. He’s sorry he’s been away so long. He won’t let us down again.

In anticipation of skepticism towards the prospects of Superman Returns, I leave you naysayers with the words of General Zod, the master of all he surveys and Superman's last significant silver screen foe:

Why do you say these things to me when you know I will kill you for it?


ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE

Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".

more about mike julianelle

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COMMENTS

russ carr
5.12.06 @ 11:37a

Take my hand and swear eternal loyalty to Zod!

Superheroes have been around in one shape or another for eons. Things started back with Hercules and Beowulf, growing into Flash Gordon and Zorro, and now it's Superman and Wolverine. Heroes have made their way through oral tradition to epic poems to pulp novels to comic books, and now graphic novels and movies. Why shouldn't they enjoy a distinct and successful film genre? If TV can support umpteen procedural dramas from week to week, why can't theaters host three or four comic book adaptations a year?

In a way, it reminds me of the peak of Westerns (on film and then TV) in the '40s and '50s. Sure, there was a glut. And sure, the quality was less than stellar for many, as the studios cranked 'em out to pull in audiences. But amongst the swine were a few pearls.

I've never been a big Superman fan. The inconsistencies of a character who's supposed to be so exceedingly unstoppable have always been frustrating to me. But I'll admit to getting a chill when I heard excerpts of John Williams' score played behind new scenes of a new Man of Steel. Singer is eschewing the camp and bringing back the action. No more Richard Pryor or John Cryer or any of that crap. I'm excited for this like I was excited for "Batman Begins." Better believe I'll be back in the theater for this one.

jael mchenry
5.12.06 @ 11:51a

I'm not sure why Superman doesn't have me all riled up. Batman sure did. Then again, I have a Christian Bale thing and a Christopher Nolan thing, and I don't have any affection for anyone involved in the Supes movie, except a bit of remaining attachment to Kevin Spacey.

I assume part of the superhero glut is due to improved special effects -- flying, explosions, superspeed, it's all easy now.

Brett Ratner has done a lot worse than Rush Hour. Did anyone see After the Sunset?

brian anderson
5.12.06 @ 12:16p

Russ paraphrases Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crud. In the midst of the wave, we see all the crud, but looking back at the past we tend to remember the 10% that was good.

I always suspect that Superman can be, but often isn't, good. The Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s are some of the greatest animated shorts ever, but so often it's hard to write Supes has two hard characters to get right and sympathetic. S-Man himself is the overzealous, nonquestioning Boy Scout (especially in the post-Dark Knight era), and Clark comes off as a schlemiel. It's a hard act to make both convincing and complex, and a lot easier to just sketch them out (and even in sketch form, neither has the Cool Factor of dark, tormented Bruce Wayne).

I am cautiously optimistic.

Mike, kudos for making a convincing case without bringing up the slam-dunk case of Daredevil.

She exists, but no one really cares except for a small segment of the population, be they girls who are into comics, perverted boys with Amazonian fetishes, or Canadians.

I've heard that for some reason, Canada is one of the largest markets for Archie Comics. I draw no conclusions.

tracey kelley
5.12.06 @ 12:42p

Rumor has it that Des Moines will get the new Superman five days to week prior to everywhere else.

Why? 'Cause darling Routh grew up 20 minutes from my house.

Ha Ha HA!! Take that, Coasties!!

Mike, I'm going to call you from the theater if this actually comes to pass and play the movie through the phone.

russ carr
5.12.06 @ 1:28p

S-Man himself is the overzealous, nonquestioning Boy Scout and Clark comes off as a schlemiel.

I wasn't a huge fan of "Lois & Clark," but I'll say one thing about that show that was good: they made Clark Kent as a regular person, not a klutz. (Same goes for the George Reeves series, back in the day.) Donner's movies did great things, but I think they tainted Clark Kent by having him overcompensate. "Mild-mannered" is not "inept bumbler." Hopefully Singer has toned some of that down.

jael mchenry
5.12.06 @ 1:49p

I must admit I LOVED Lois & Clark. I really don't know why, other than Dean Cain's crazy hotness. But I sure did love it, at least the first two seasons.

russ carr
5.12.06 @ 2:05p

The thing I didn't like about Lois and Clark (other than its romcom roots) is one of the same things I don't like about Smallville: the need to contrive a reason each week for Clark/Supes to use his powers.

mike julianelle
5.12.06 @ 2:10p

Lois and Clark was WAY too cheesy. You can be wholesome-ish without being cheesy. And the budget caused problems as well.

jael mchenry
5.12.06 @ 2:10p

re: Russ' point about weekly power excuses -- TV may not be the best medium for superheroes for exactly that reason. Even Buffy had weeks without vampires.

geoffrey gamble
5.12.06 @ 10:51p

I'm a long time reader and a first time poster. I have high praise for most of your articles, but this one:

I think you need to expand on the topics of your articles. The topics related to movies/TV dominate too much of your article universe. You should try some topics that you might feel strongly about but don't know a lot about yet. Research and write about those topics. You don't want your column to become a 'movie/TV column'. If it did, i wouldn't read it and some others wouldn't either. A disproportionate number of your articles relate to movies/TV in some way. Perhaps another article that is political in nature might break the monotony? A big slam on Republicans (or Democrats)? After that, an article on something completely different again....it could be pop culture related (but not movie/TV) as that is your sweet spot. Personally the movie stuff doesn't stir me and i think you could apply your skills in a broader venue. IMO, one of your more important gifts as a writer is to expose bullshit via cutting sarcasm. You could apply that anywhere on any topic. Find more 'every day' BS and expose it.

al brouilette
5.14.06 @ 9:41a

Public Service Announcement:

If you're a fan of superheroes, you should be watching Justice League Unlimited. JLU just ended, probably for good, but that is why Jesus gave us Bittorrent.





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