Jor-El: [Superman remembers Jor-El's last message to him from the first film]: Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.
Superman may be very close to a globally-recognized icon, but that doesn't mean everyone sees him exactly the same way. I grew up with the George Reeves portrayal of the "strange visitor from another planet" on TV and the Man of Steel of the 1960s, the hero who, for the most part, was the quintessentially selfless champion, admired by all, respected by governments, role model for the rest of the DC super-heroic pantheon. The stories in which he would play cruel tricks on his friends to teach them lessons never struck me as "real" and, on some level, I just dismissed them as a sad aberration. Knowing what I know now, after over three decades in the comics industry, I dismiss them as another example of comics editors and writers not always understanding the classic characters entrusted to their care.
If I were writing Superman today and with a reasonable amount of creative freedom, I would take my cues from the exchange between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the 1978 movie and even more from that cocky protector of the little guy conceived by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the Man of Steel's first comics adventures. Their Superman would be small comfort to the powerful who either failed or arrogantly ignored their responsibilities to their fellow men.
"My" Superman would be more Jefferson Smith and Atticus Finch than Jesus Christ, which is not to say that Jesus isn't a wonderful role model in His own right. I've just never felt comfortable with how Hollywood has ham-fistedly tried to turn Superman into a Christ figure. Moses, maybe, but not the Son of God.
I've been spending a lot of time with Superman recently. I've been viewing the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN on DVD. I took my son Eddie to see SUPERMAN RETURNS. I read a bunch of DC comics published to tie in with the new movie.
Great Caesar's Ghost! I think I have a theme for this month's edition of "Tony's Tips!"
In June, prior to the release of the new movie, DC published a four-issue SUPERMAN RETURNS PREQUEL series [$3.99 per issue] with plots by director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. Sixteen bucks for four comic books. For that kind of money, you could've bought a ticket to the actual film and even stopped by the concession stand for a small popcorn and soft drink. So the question I have to ask is...were these prequel comic books worth their cost?
"Krypton to Earth" (issue #1) has a "story adapted by" credit for Singer, Dougherty, and Harris. Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, this 30-page chapter is a faithful retelling of the Krypton and Earth Landing scenes from 1978's SUPERMAN. Going by my uncertain memory, most of the issue's dialogue is taken from the movie, though Palmiotti and Gray have translated it smoothly to the comics form. The art by Ariel Olivetti and the coloring by Nestor Pereyra are superb. It's a great-looking comic, but doesn't really add anything to either the first film or this new one. If you're a Superman completest, you'll want to have it. If you're not, you can easily do without it. Nice as this book is, I can't award it more than three Tonys.
"Ma Kent" (issue #2) has more emotional weight to it, courtesy of writer Marc Andreyko and artist Karl Kerschl. The movie trio of Singer, Dougherty, and Harris are credited with "story," as is also the case with the remaining two issues of the series. The scenes of Martha, alone at the farm save for her memories, are moving, and a sequence of her in Smallville brings home that, for all her loss, she's still living her life. This issue is my favorite of the four and earns four out of five Tonys.
"Lex Luthor" (issue #3) covers a lot of ground not covered in the movie. We get the usual flashbacks to the 1978 movie - Singer is coy about how much of the 1980 sequel remains canonical - and we get such background moments as Luthor in prison, Luthor interacting with his future henchmen, Luthor with prison nurse Kitty Kowalski (who will join him in the outside world), and Luthor's face-to-face meeting with the frail, naive Gertrude Vanderworth on his release from prison. Writers Gray and Palmiotti drive home Lex's hatred of Superman, and the penciller-inker team of Rick Leonardi and Nelson hold up their end well, but, despite their efforts, this issue adds nothing of consequence or even texture to the movie. It's padding and it reads as if the powers-that-be felt there had to be a Luthor issue in this series, but had no actual ideas for the issue beyond that. It gets a disappointing two Tonys.
Of the four issues, "Lois Lane" adds the most new information to the movie. Written by Andreyko with art by Wellington Dias and Doug Hazelwood, it's the story of how Lois comes to terms with the Superman-sized hole in her life. It's a little heavy on flashbacks to the first movie - the double-page spreads really eat up the page count - but the scenes of her world without Superman and, for that matter, Clark Kent, are excellent. We see Lois' first meeting with future fiancé Richard White, how they come together as co-workers and lovers, the birth of Lois' son, and how she comes to write "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman."
This prequel issue makes it appear Richard is Jason's father, likely done in an attempt to preserve one of the film's "surprise" moments. Where the prequel improves on the movie is in having Lois write her Pulitzer-winning story in acceptance and hope rather than the anger and sense of betrayal indicated on the screen. That more positive portrayal earns this issue four Tonys.
I liked SUPERMAN RETURNS much better while I was watching it than I did five minutes after leaving the theater. That's when the flaws, some major, some minor, emerged from the screen-candy to hit me square on the noggin. I've had serious concerns about all the Superman movies - the third and fourth movies were just plain bad - so perhaps some retrospection is called for here.
I hated the "Superman turns back time to save Lois Lane" bit from SUPERMAN (1978). The only good thing about Pa Kent's death was that it made clear that, for all his amazing gifts, there were things beyond the power of Superman. That's part of what makes him one of us and it got tossed out the window with this ridiculous feat. The version of the movie that plays inside my head has the devastated Superman bringing a barely-alive Lois to a hospital, entrusting her to the care of doctors, taking down Luthor's lair while barely restraining his rage, returning to the bedside of his injured-but-out-of-life-threatening-danger beloved, and thanking the heavens for the gift of her life. The world may need Superman, but he needs us just as much. We keep him human.
In SUPERMAN II (1980), I could grant him the moment of human weakness that leaves him powerless when the world needs him most. I could sympathize with his love for Lois and even doing the deed with her. What I couldn't forgive was his making Lois forget all they shared, apparently by kiss-sucking enough oxygen out of her to give her selective amnesia. It was another absurd feat, one that undid my willing suspension of disbelief.
When not being dazzled, I am a story guy first and foremost. The only way SUPERMAN RETURNS even begins to work for me is if our hero never expected to be stuck amidst the ruins of Krypton for as long as he was. Though Singer and company are annoyingly coy about what they kept from SUPERMAN II, some events from that movie have to have happened for this new movie to happen. Luthor had to have visited the Fortress of Solitude. Clark and Lois had to have made love. Most importantly, Superman would've learned his lesson about abandoning his responsibilities. Some dialogue indicates this was the case, that Superman meant to return sooner - leaving unasked and unanswered the question on why the kryptonite in space didn't kill him - but it needed to be driven home more forcefully.
Luthor's return to power and evil schemes is played too broad. Kevin Spacey chews the scenery whenever he's on camera, swallows it with relish, and then takes another big bite. The character hasn't grown in the slightest since the 1978 movie. He's still a clownish murderer with a penchant for real estate and for beautiful women incapable of thinking things all the way through. At least he did upgrade his hired help for this movie, and a scene when one of his goons plays the piano with young Jason is priceless.
The movie spends valuable time on Superboy flashbacks which do not appreciably advance the story, but Clark Kent's return to the Daily Planet is a nice combination of humor and heartache. I also liked Superman's rescue of the jet and space shuttle, a thrilling way to announce the hero's return. I like the reuse of the "flying is still the safest way to travel" dialogue from the first movie, though I didn't need the reprise of Lois fainting after the rescue. She should be tougher than that by now.
Brandon Routh does a good job playing Clark and Superman. He takes most of his cues from the Christopher Reeve performances, but they work for him. Kate Bosworth is creditable as Lois, but she's often sabotaged by a script that has her character doing incredibly stupid things. Her best moments come when Superman's own courage inspires her to heroic efforts and when, if I'm reading the scenes correctly and not merely hopefully, she chooses Richard White over the Man of Steel.
James Marsden delivers the movie's standout performance as the nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry White. His character is a damn good man - and father - who has his priorities straight. He keeps his completely understandable inclination to be jealous of Superman under control. If I were Lois, I'd marry him.
Parker Posey's "Kitty Kowalski" is a virtual re-fry of Valerie Perrine's "Miss Teschmacher" and only slightly better played. As with the 1978 movie, I had precious little sympathy for a character willing to stand by while millions of innocent people are murdered. It was bad enough that the new film repeats Luthor's 1978 previous scheme on a larger scale. Why did the repetition have to extend to Posey's character?
In the other key roles, Frank Langella and Eve Marie Saint are sensational as Perry White and Martha Kent. Sam Huntington does a good job as Jimmy Olsen, as does Tristan Lake Leabu as the son of Lois Lane and Superman.
Noel Neill gives a stunning performance as the dying Gertrude Vanderworth, nailing the basic goodness and the tragic foolishness of her character. I enjoyed Jack Larson as "Bo the Bartender," but would've like to seen him have more of a chance to use his comedic skills. Maybe in the next movie.
As I said, I enjoyed SUPERMAN RETURNS while I watched it, but began dwelling on the flaws once it was over. Besides the things I've mentioned above, why did the revelation of Jason's powers come with his accidentally killing one of Luthor's men? Considering how Lois got bounced around the falling jet without breaking any bones, did we need to see a little kid crush even a bad guy to death with a piano? How did it serve the story?
The big finish bothers me as well. Superman is dying when he is rescued by Lois and Richard - That Richard, what a guy! - and is still shaky when Lois gets most of the kryptonite dagger out of his wound. He flies up into the sky for a quick bit of sun therapy and then somehow has the strength to lift a small continent out of the ocean and into outer space. It looked impressive as heck, but not at all convincing. And wouldn't the chunks that fell off the mini-continent and back into the sea keep growing? Is there a law that requires all Superman movies to short-circuit my willing suspension of disbelief?
Then there's the fate of Lex and Kitty, stranded on a barren island with a few coconuts and a dog. I assume this was meant to be amusing, but my sense of justice demands more and more formal punishment for a criminal responsible for several deaths, including those of his own men. Not to mention - logic being the demanding beast it is - the residents of Metropolis and other coastal regions who Superman didn't save when Luthor's continent-building wreaked havoc on their cities.
Too many nits to pick, not enough pages. SUPERMAN RETURNS is not a movie that holds up well under even moderate scrutiny. When it comes out on DVD, it'll be a rental and not a keeper. Though a considerable improvement over SUPERMAN III and SUPERMEN: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, it's a letdown after Singer's X-Men movies and, as such, it earns a paltry two Tonys.
I can only speculate as to the challenges Martin Pasko faced in writing SUPERMAN RETURNS: THE OFFICIAL MOVIE ADAPTATION [$6.99]. The comic includes scenes that never made it into the film, such as Ma Kent's introducing her friend Ben to the returned Clark, while omitting any mention or visual of Jason's super-powers or his true relationship to the Man of Steel. I wonder if the version of the script Pasko worked from had those scenes or if a decision was made to avoid tipping the film's biggest surprise in the comic. If the latter, boo on whoever made the call. An official movie adaptation should be faithful to its source material.
Even at 72 pages, this adaptation is choppy and rushed, pages of tedious set-up followed by nearly copy-free pages of lightning action. Artists Matt Haley, Mike Collins, and Ron Randall do some outstanding storytelling throughout the adaptation, but too many of their panels appear "posed," as if they were merely copies of movie frames and this makes for uneven visuals.
Pasko and the artists made an honest effort to create a comics version of SUPERMAN RETURNS, but the adaptation doesn't measure up to the movie. Considering my stated dissatisfaction with the film, the best I can do for this comic is two Tonys.
"The Origin of Superman" is a classic and compact version of the tale by E. Nelson Bridwell and artists Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, and Murphy Anderson. "A Night at the Opera" makes much more of Luthor's "love" for Lois Lane than I think fits the character, but has some nice Lois and Clark moments.
"The Second Landing" by writer Geoff Johns and artist Brent Anderson is a fun done-in-one adventure, while Joe Kelly's "Walking Midnight" is as heartwarming as they come. "Lois and the Big One," a five-pager prologue to her first interview with Superman puts a nice bow on the collection.
The other tales would have earned a higher score on their own. I'll split the difference with the adaptation and give this trade a respectable three out of five Tonys.
Want to see more "Tony's Tips" columns that focus on a single comics character? Let me know.
Today is your last full day to vote on our current TONY POLLS. Sometime after midnight, the old questions will be taken down and new questions posted.
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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