Carlo's Corner: It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's... Your Inflated Sense of Self-Esteem!
This opinion shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve been keeping up with us over here at Back Row, but superhero movies – let's be honest, they're just kinda dumb. And you know what? That’s okay! I’m the last person who’s above that. You know who isn’t, though? Zack Snyder. I'm not aiming to take the guy down a peg, but I do wanna address the pitfalls of this particular sub-genre, and Snyder is anything if not adept at jumping off the deep end, thinking he’s cool while doing it.
A big tonal problem of the current clusterfuck of billion-dollar superhero movies is that they’re a bit too pre-occupied with appealing to snarky, self-serious adolescents aged 9 - 99. (Which is an odd decision when you break it down; is there any target audience both so fickle and yet cavalier toward the concept of pirating?) Sometimes it’s okay to tell, and not sell a story. Needless to say I’m not interested in painting an entire subgenre with the same brush, but on a large enough scale it does become harder to distinguish individual specks.
Probably the first high-profile forray into comic book-adaptations, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) was a critical and commercial success that spawned three direct sequels, a female-lead spin-off starring Helen Slater as Supergirl (1984) (flawed, but not meritless as people will have you believe), and pretty much paved the way for future masked avengers. Supposedly its Christmas season debut with limited competition helped it gain traction, and while this may have been the case, I feel it still holds up due to impeccable casting and tone – a marriage of sincerity to simply havin’ a gay old time.
Sincerity, transparency; they’re common themes in most of my articles. So when someone is clearly too embarrassed to call their movie “Superman,” my mind grows inquisitive. As fascinatingly meditative as Superman Returns (2006) was, it unsurprisingly did not connect with people, so I don’t blame ‘em for trying something different. And while Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) isn’t entirely unwatchable (no worse than a PlayStation 4 commercial), it's not exactly a lighthearted romp, is it? Like, maybe get that origin story business out of the way in less than half your running time? Or maybe just embrace the goofiness, and allow your lead to be more than a statue of a glaring man. I mean, you can really tell that this overly calculated, eulogy of a film did not allow for any happy accidents to occur on-set.
Questioning the need for a sense of humor in movies is like saying you can get through life without being able to put things in perspective. I know, I know; goofiness is “uncool” and makes you feel embarrassed. But we're talking about Superman here. You know, the guy in blue tights who somehow becomes the unrecognizable Clark Kent when he puts glasses on? Suspension of disbelief and a sense of humor are pretty critical here, so by trying not to lose face by grounding inherently goofy material, you're just adding insult to injury.
Now let’s do the time warp again, to the original run of Superman movies, to effectively "put things in perspective." No, I don't mean Superman I, II, or even the divisive part III starring Richard Pryor. I'm talking about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. I've marked about 3K movies as watched on Letterboxd, and Superman IV sits firmly nestled among the absolute worst rated with an aggregate score of 1.6 out of 5. Just edging in above Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Jaws the Revenge, and below The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. Shot on a shoestring budget, and hurriedly released with 45 minutes of unfinished footage festering on the cutting floor, it is reviled as one of the biggest cinematic turds of all time. I'm actually more impressed by the fact they managed to put out a relatively coherent movie considering the amount of deleted scenes.
After Superman III opened to mixed reviews, producer Ilya Salkind figured the Superman-hype had run its course and sold the franchise to the infamous Cannon Films (a name you might recall from those Breakin’ movies I covered). Whatever your stance may be on these guys and their unfinished little travesty, they were over the moon at the prospect of making a Superman movie. Despite its ineptitude, its enthusiasm does show, and because of it there are legitimate things it (maybe inadvertently) got right that Man of Steel somehow managed to bungle. It’s a stupidly entertaining movie that doesn’t overindulge in visual information.
Budgetary issues aside, Superman IV saw not only Christopher Reeve donning his cape for one final time, with Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman reprising their roles as Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. You'd almost be convinced you were getting a bonafide, non-diluted blockbuster, courtesy of... oh, right, Cannon Films. They even got Jon Cryer, hot off Pretty in Pink, to play Lex Luthor’s “totally tubular” nephew Lenny. Just imagine a Cronenbergian mutation of 80’s Keanu Reeves and Sasha “Cody” Mitchell and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what he’s adding to the mix.
Lex Luthor: “You know what I could do with Superman’s hair?”
Lenny Luthor: “You could make a toupe that flies!”
The titular quest for peace is about Superman singlehandedly trying to put a stop to the nuclear arms race, by quite literally intercepting every airborne missile, collecting them in an enormous fishnet in space, and chucking it into the sun. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has stolen Superman's strand of hair that he donated to a museum to hold up a cartoonishly heavy metal ball, which he intends to shoot off into the sun, using its stored-up nuclear power as a sort of instant-incubator to bring about the birth of: NUCLEAR MAN. Thank you sir, may I have another!!!
In the end Superman movies are about one thing first and foremost: Superman. You can tell how sincere of an experience you’re getting by the way our hero is being directed. Christopher Reeve is confident, eloquent, and suave when he’s Superman; as Clark Kent he slouches, constantly re-adjusting his glasses with a hesitant smirk, as he’s trying to bumble his way through sentences. Henry Cavill is a chiselled adonis whose brow cramps up when he’s Superman; as Clark Kent he disappears into nothingness because I’m sure Zack Snyder thinks Clark Kent is a “fucking nerd.”
Carlo’s unsolicited power ranking of the Super-person movies from entertaining to drudgerous: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Superman III (1983), Superman II (1980), Superman (1978), Supergirl (1984), Superman Returns (2006), Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).