Today, you can’t swing a dead cat at the movie theater without hitting another big budget adaptation of a comic book property. I remember when I was a kid, I’d lurk around the local comic book shop and devouring any Spider-Man comics I could find, but the idea of a Spidey movie, or any superhero movie for that matter, seemed like a pipe dream. Sure we got those Batman movies, but seeing Batman & Robin was like watching Hollywood take advantage a family member while wearing a diaper and an ape mask.
Now, comic book movies are everywhere. Twelve-year-old Hunter would probably be in hog heaven, but to my adult eyes, the market feels bloated and overstuffed. But for a market to get that way, you have to have had your share of good movies, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and Bryan Singer’s X-Men helped remind Hollywood that people love them some superheroes.
Ultimately what superhero movies do, specifically the first entry in the series, is build a mythological foundation. The blueprint for the proper way to go about it is Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which is included in the big new Superman box set coming to Blu-ray this week. The original concept for Superman was to make a campy exercise a la the Batman TV show with Adam West. There was even a scene in the original script involving Superman meeting Telly Savalas of Vegas fame, in which Supes yells “Who loves ya, baby?!”
Fortunately, Donner, along with screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, punched it up. They opted to take the material others deemed silly seriously. They injected Superman with a sizable helping of apple pie Americana, giving the character a serious sense of place with middle America, as well as a weight behind his principles that informed his actions. Aside from the goofy spoken-word song delivered in-flight by Margot Kidder, Donner’s Superman is a classic because it didn’t compromise the character.
This brings us to the sequels. Because Richard Donner was fired in the middle of the shoot, Superman II has two versions, the original Richard Lester version, and the Donner cut, which was released in conjunction with Superman Returns. The Donner version has less silly nonsense and is more in keeping with the tone of the original, but the new ending is as lazy as it gets on a script level. It’s enjoyable, if only for General Zod and his group of Kyrptonian cronies, but nothing to write home about.
Superman III is where we start really running into trouble. Richard Lester returns behind the director’s chair, and what we get is the bloated camp garbage that the original might’ve been without Donner and Mankiewicz. The producers erroneously decided that Superman couldn’t carry a film, and opted to insert otherwise-funny comedian Richard Pryor as a co-star, resulting in what can only be described as comedy poison.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace…well…it happened. The producers of the first three films decided to have a garage sale, and peddled the rights to Cannon Pictures, resulting in a bafflingly B-grade entry in what used to be an A-list franchise. The effects were bad enough, but add in Christopher Reeve’s sanctimonious anti-nuclear crusading script, and you have a franchise-killing embarrassment. One could only anticipate the film where Supes communes with the Dolphins and stops those dastardly Japanese whalers.
Nearly two decades passed before Bryan Singer abandoned the X-Men franchise to the clutches of Brett Ratner in order to make Superman Returns, a film that could only be described as an ambitious failure. Singer gives the movie a feel that is epic in scope, and Brandon Routh fills the big shoes of Christopher Reeve well.
Unfortunately, three things ruin this movie. One is the re-hashed plot from the original film, involving another Lex Luthor real estate scheme. Kevin Spacey works just fine in the role, but Lex as the evil scheming master-criminal played well in the seventies, now having him be anything so simple seems lazy, especially given the rich exploration of the relationship between the Lex and Superman that has occurred in the comics in recent years. Another problem was that the film couldn’t decide if it was a sequel or a reboot, it was a narrative fence-sitter, which was frustrating.
But the movie’s gravest sin was the attempt to make Superman a “citizen of the world.” No longer can Superman stand for “Truth, justice, and the American way.” Instead, he’s been homogenized and neutered for an international audience, so Hollywood can apologize for America, while hoping for high overseas returns. What we got was a movie that was ashamed of its origins, and couldn’t decide what direction it wanted to go in.
Here’s hoping Zack Snyder will give Superman his due when his upcoming interpretation of The Man of Steel hits the big screen. The errors of the past are plain for all to see, pray he doesn’t repeat them.
In case readers of HomeVideodrome haven’t guessed by now, I love westerns. It seems like it was the genre cinema was created to depict, as Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery imbued movies with an obsession of the old west. But in recent years, Hollywood seems to have fallen out of love with the genre. Since the western is the oldest genre out there for movies, one can’t help but wonder if most filmmakers don’t know how to say anything new with it. Thankfully our thirst for a new film gets occasionally quenched, as the Coen Bros. did so when they opted to remake True Grit.
The remake of True Grit wasn’t a case of Hollywood plundering their properties for remake ideas, as the Coen Bros. brought their own bizarre sense of humor to the story by Charles Portis, and even lifted much of the dialogue from the novel verbatim. Jeff Bridges, who won an Oscar the year prior for playing a drunkard, brings his booze-fueled gravitas to the role of Rooster Cogburn. Matt Damon’s facial hair does the heavy lifting for him in the acting department as the impotent Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf. While he’s made a reputation playing a killer amnesiac spy in the Bourne films, Damon has shown he’s best at playing the fool, another great example being his silly performance in Steven Soderbergh’s otherwise dull movie The Informant!
Josh Brolin, who made a big career comeback with the Coens in No Country For Old Men, plays a character who has the luxury of spending most of the movie being built up as a legendary bad guy everyone is out to get. However, when you finally meet him, Brolin brings a special brand of stupid for a twist, and the casting of Barry Pepper as Ned Pepper seems like a joke. But it is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross who steals the show, pulling a coup as an unknown performer the same way Christoph Waltz did in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. One can only hope she has an amazing career ahead of her. Her determination and take-no-shit attitude make her character stand out, reminding us why the story of True Grit makes for an excellent western, and the film a worthy remake.
Other Noteworthy Releases
The Man Who Would Be King: This one is long overdue, for what seems like an eternity we’ve had a bare-bones DVD of this John Huston-directed manwitch, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. It comes out this week in the nice Blu-ray book it deserves.
Just Go With It: It looks truly awful, but Adam Sandler movies are like fast food to me, so I’ll probably see this one eventually, and then punish myself afterward for being so stupid.
Sanctum 3D: Just watch Neil Marshall’s superior The Descent instead. It’s a scary, claustrophobic cave experience, minus the Jimmy Cameron taint and the 3D bullshit.
Another Year: Mike Leigh’s latest, which has gotten some great buzz. What’s hilarious about Leigh’s movies is that they often get a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, despite the fact that he never writes one for his movies.
The Outlaw Josey Wales: The Clint Eastwood classic gets the royal treatment it deserves. as it makes its debut on Blu in a book not unlike the one for The Man Who Would Be King.
New York, New York: Martin Scorsese’s cocaine-fueled homage to big-band musicals flopped when it came out back in 1977, and with good reason. This film, starring Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli, was supposed to combine Hollywood spectacle with intense characterizations, but what resulted was a pretentious mess. It was easily Scorsese’s worst since Boxcar Bertha.
The Stunt Man: This Richard Rush film starring Peter O’Toole has become one of the most interesting cult oddities of the eighties.
American: The Bill Hicks Story: A documentary on the late comedian.
Billy Madison: “If peeing your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis.”
Happy Gilmore: “You can trouble me for a warm glass of shut-the-hell-up! Now, you will go to sleep! Or I will PUT you to sleep. Check out the nametag. You’re in MY world now, grandma!”
Bulletproof: …I never saw this Adam Sandler movie, so I can’t quote it. I’m so sorry…or am I?
This article originally appeared over at Parcbench