Superman (1978)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Superman: The Movie

You’ll believe a man can fly.

Also Known As: Superman: The Movie

Country: USA, UK, Panama, Switzerland & Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 143 minutes | 151 minutes (Expanded Edition) | 188 minutes (TV version)
BBFC: A (1978) | PG (1986)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 11th December 1978 (New York City)
UK Release: 14th December 1978
Budget: $55 million
Worldwide Gross: $300.2 million

Stars
Christopher Reeve (The Remains of the Day, Village of the Damned)
Margot Kidder (Black Christmas, The Amityville Horror)
Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Unforgiven)
Marlon Brando (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now)

Director
Richard Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon)

Screenwriters
Mario Puzo (The Godfather, Superman II)
David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde, Moonwalker)
Leslie Newman (Superman III, Santa Claus: The Movie)
Robert Benton (What’s Up, Doc?, Kramer vs. Kramer)

Story by
Mario Puzo (Earthquake, The Godfather Part II)

Based on
Superman, a DC Comics superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.


The Story
The only survivor of the destruction of his home world, Kal-El is raised on Earth realising he has extraordinary abilities. When he comes of age and comes to understand where he came from, he resolves to use his powers to help mankind — which is handy, because criminal genius Lex Luthor is planning a destructive scheme that only a superman could prevent.

Our Hero
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman! He can fly, he can withstand bullets, he can see what colour underwear Lois Lane is wearing…

Our Villain
Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind and possessor of a suspiciously varied hairstyle, whose latest real estate-based plot is put at risk when Superman emerges.

Best Supporting Character
Super-journalist Lois Lane. She may be a strong-willed highly-capable modern woman, but she still swoons at the sight of a muscly superhero.

Memorable Quote
Superman: “Easy, miss. I’ve got you.”
Lois: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”

Memorable Scene
As Lois Lane takes off in a helicopter from the roof of the Daily Planet, it snags on a wire, crashing into the rooftop and ending up dangling over the edge. As a crowd gathers below to watch the unfolding tragedy, Lois struggles to climb out, but slips and falls. As she plummets to certain death, in swoops Superman to catch her. Cue: Memorable Quote. And then, with his free arm, he rescues the helicopter too.

Memorable Music
John Williams at the height of his powers, composing another of the most iconic main themes of all time, plus an equally epic score to go with it. What more do you need to say?

Technical Wizardry
The sets are magnificent, particularly the several huge constructions, like Luthor’s underground lair, or the icy Fortress of Solitude. Reportedly, director Richard Donner was disgusted that designer John Barry didn’t get Oscar recognition for his work, especially as one of the actual nominees for Best Art Direction merely duplicated an existing hotel.

Truly Special Effect
You’ll believe a man can fly! Obviously some of the late-’70s special effects have dated 40 years on, but, actually, many of them hold up surprisingly well today.

Letting the Side Down
In case you haven’t seen the film, spoilers. If you have seen it, surely you know what this is: when Superman flies around the Earth to reverse its rotation, thereby turning back time. It’s possibly the most scientifically implausible thing to ever appear in a major motion picture, and I’ve seen Geostorm. What’s most disappointing is how it threatens to ruin a near-perfect film right in its closing minutes. Surely they knew that was stupid even in the ’70s? (I say “nearly perfect” because there’s also Lois’ terrible poem/song when Superman takes her flying. But that’s as nothing compared to the sodding time travel.)

Making of
There’s lots of great making-of trivia about the film, but one I didn’t even notice: for the sake of continuity, they had Christopher Reeve dub all of young Clark Kent’s dialogue — the voice of the actor who played young Clark, Jeff East, is never heard.

Previously on…
As the first superhero, Superman has a long history on screen, starting with the 17 Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios cartoons produced between 1941 and 1943. The first live-action iteration was a 15-part serial in 1948, with a sequel in 1950. The first Superman feature followed in 1951: Superman and the Mole Men, which was designed to promote the TV series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1952 to 1958. The character returned to animation for The New Adventures of Superman series in 1966, and he was one of the Super Friends from 1973. So it’s no wonder the character was well-established enough that Donner’s film even includes some in-jokes.

Next time…
Christopher Reeve went on to star in three more films over the next nine years, with diminishing results. A 19-year wait ensued until the hero’s next big screen outing, with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns attempting to continue the Reeves series as if III and IV had never existed. It didn’t work. The character was rebooted in 2013’s Man of Steel, with that iteration continuing in Batman v Superman and Justice League, with more expected to follow. Around these there have been several TV series, both live-action (most notably Lois & Clark, aka The New Adventures of Superman, and the long-running Smallville) and animated (including a follow-up to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, the imaginatively titled Superman: The Animated Series, and dozens of direct-to-DVD animated movies). There’s a full list of all this stuff here.

Awards
1 Oscar (Special Achievement for Visual Effects)
3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing, Original Score)
1 BAFTA (Most Promising Newcomer (Christopher Reeve))
4 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Cinematography, Production Design/Art Direction, Sound)
5 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actress (Margot Kidder), Music, Special Effects, Production Design)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Actor (Christopher Reeve), Supporting Actress (Valerie Perrine), Director, Costumes)
Winner of the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
2 Grammys (Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture, Best Instrumental Composition (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
1 Grammy nomination (Best Pop Instrumental Performance (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
1 WGA Award nomination (Comedy Adapted from Another Medium — it is quite funny, but still…)

Verdict

Superman is virtually perfect. Every member of the cast is excellent, though none more so than Christopher Reeve in the dual role of Clark Kent / Superman — he makes them feel like two different people, each equally believable. Richard Donner’s direction is first-rate, keeping our interest through a long storyline that could be slow but in fact never drags. There’s a pure heart here, a childlike sense of wonder and excitement that shines off the screen. Superman’s “boy scout” image could be a barrier in our modern, cynical world, coming across as twee and old-fashioned, but instead the film somehow makes it triumphant and magical. And then the time travel ending is so bloody stupid, it nearly undermines the whole movie. But, when everything else is so great, it’d be churlish to let it get in the way.

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Justice League (2017)

2017 #157
Zack Snyder | 120 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English, Russian & Icelandic | 12A / PG-13

Justice League

This review contains spoilers, but only for stuff everybody knows.

DC’s answer to Avengers Assemble begins with a doom-laden cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows (a Zack Snyder music choice if ever there was one), and there’s a lot that “everybody knows” about the troubled production of this long-awaited superhero team-up. Everybody knows that the so-called DCEU was deemed to be in need of a course-correction after Batman v Superman. Everybody knows that this was to take the form of making this film tonally lighter, something Snyder and co said was always the plan. Everybody knows Snyder eventually had to leave the project for personal reasons. Everybody knows Joss Whedon was brought in as his replacement. Everybody knows that meant reshoots and an attempt to lighten the tone further. Everybody knows that was a recipe for a conflicted movie…

For those who are thinking “I didn’t know any of that” and aren’t so familiar with superhero things on the whole anyhow, Justice League is set in the aftermath of Superman’s self-sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman, which has given Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) a change of heart: he wants to make the world a better place. When he discovers than an alien invasion is imminent, he teams up with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to put together a team of metahumans (read: people with superpowers) to fight it. That team includes Barry Allen aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — and, following an opportunity to revive his cold dead corpse, Clark Kent aka Superman (Henry Cavill).

The new trinity?

Justice League has certainly provoked a mixed reaction from critics and opening weekend audiences. It was always going to: Batman v Superman has been very divisive, with critics largely hating it but a dedicated fanbase to be found without too much digging. Justice League compounds that issue by trying to appease critics, risking alienating fans in the process. The end result inevitably falls somewhere between the two stools, which means there’s no predicting what any one person will make of it — following social media the past couple of days, I’ve seen every possible combination of people who loved, liked, hated, or were indifferent to previous DCEU films and now love, like, hate, or are indifferent to Justice League.

So, my personal reaction is that I enjoyed it. On the whole it’s not as thought-provoking as BvS, but is instead a fun time with some good character bits thrown in. From early reviews I feared the whole story would be choppily edited, and the opening act is indeed a bit disjointed and jumpy, but the closer it gets to the team being assembled the more it settles down. Once they’re together, it’s a fairly straightforward action-adventure movie, with the heroes in pursuit of the villain to stop his world-ending plan. Unlike BvS it’s not full of portentous (or, depending on your predilections, pretentious) themes to ponder, but it’s still a reasonably entertaining action movie.

Bruce and Diana

As for those character bits, it completes arcs for Bruce and Diana that have played out over their past couple of movies, both of them opening up to the world and their place in it. Moments that emphasise Bruce being old and tired and Diana stepping into the role of leader seem to have been added during reshoots, no doubt indicating the future direction the DCEU is now reported to go in — Affleck stepping away in the not-too-distant future; the popular Wonder Woman becoming central to the universe. (As a Batman fan, I hope this doesn’t kill off the raft of Bat-family films they’ve been planning. We’ll see.)

For the new team members, it does a solid job of introducing the Flash and making him likeable — he’s under-confident but good-hearted and funny. Fans of the currently-running TV show may find he’s “not their Flash”, and his costume is one of the worst ever designed, but I’ve never been that big a fan of the series and I can live with the costume. Cyborg gets a mini-arc that works well enough, considering he’s mainly there to be a walking talking plot resolution. Aquaman’s also OK, but a good chunk of his part feels like a tease for his solo film — which, by total coincidence, is the next DCEU movie. This all might’ve been more effective if DC had gone the Marvel route of introducing everyone in solo films first, but the film makes a fair fist of the hand it was dealt.

Flash! Ah-ah!

And as for Superman… well, that’s a whole kettle of fish. Firstly, it’s the worst-kept open secret in the history of movies. The final shot of BvS was a clear hint he’d return, so there’s that for starters. Then early promotional materials included him; behind-the-scenes photos referenced him; when reshoots rolled around, the fact they’d have to deal with Henry Cavill’s Mission: Impossible 6 moustache was big news. Despite all that, they left him off all the posters and out of every trailer. Would it have made a difference if they’d publicly acknowledged he was back? Who knows. Let’s judge what we were given.

In short, he’s not in it enough. The story of his resurrection is a decent idea, but the film has to rush and condense the arc of his return, presumably because Warner were pushing for a lighter tone and brisk running time. How his return affects him does complete the overall story that started in Man of Steel and continued through BvS — the story of how an ordinary young man with extraordinary abilities develops into the paragon of virtue that Superman is to many people. Honestly, I believe this was (more or less) Snyder and co’s plan all along, and those haters of Man of Steel and BvS who now say that “Justice League finally got Superman right” have perhaps misunderstood how something like character development works. (Should that entire character arc have been contained in the first movie? I think that’s a different argument — in our current franchise- and shared-universe-driven blockbuster era, character arcs are routinely designed to play out across a trilogy.)

There are no official photos of Superman from this movie, so here's a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman
There are no official photos of Superman from this movie,
so here’s a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman.

Much attention has also been focussed on the ridiculousness of the moustache removal — both how funny it always was, and how poor the end result is. Honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as you may’ve heard. I’d wager most people won’t even notice, especially if they’re not looking for it. It’s the kind of thing film buffs see because they’re looking and, yeah, sometimes it’s not great. Personally, I didn’t even think it was the worst computer-generated effect in the movie. Main villain Steppenwolf looks like a character from a mid-range video game, and has about as much personality as one too. There’s terribly obvious green screen all over the place, which is undoubtedly the result of reshoots — sometimes it crops up mid-scene for no obvious reason, other than because they’ve dropped in a new line. Other effects — stuff they’ve probably been working on since principal photography — look fine.

Naturally the effects drive all of the action, for good or ill. Some have said these sequences are entirely forgettable, which I think is unfair. There’s nothing truly exceptional, but how many movies do manage that nowadays? I’d say what Snyder offers up is at least as memorable as your typical MCU movie, which is presumably what critics are negatively comparing this to. The everyone-on-Superman punch-up is probably the high-point, with an effective callback to “do you bleed?” and a striking moment when Superman looks at the Flash (that sounds completely underwhelming out of context…) I also thought the desperate escape with the Mother Box on Secret Lady Island was a strong sequence. The big tunnel fight has its moments, but needed more room to breathe and a clearer sense of geography. The climax is a great big CGI tumult, which clearly aims for epic but is mostly just noise — again, with one or two flourishes.

AQUAman

Another late-in-the-day replacement was Danny Elfman on music duties. It’s proven controversial — turns out there are a lot of fans of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s work on the previous Snyder DCEU films. Personally, I think Elfman’s score largely works — its numerous callbacks to classic themes are better than Zimmer’s musicless thrumming. There’s a massive thrill in hearing Elfman’s iconic Batman theme again, and John Williams’ even-more-iconic Superman theme. In his work on Man of Steel and BvS, Zimmer never produced anything even close to that memorable. Elfman’s style works other places too: an early scene where a bunch of criminals take a museum hostage immediately brought to mind the feel of Tim Burton’s Batman for me, mainly thanks to Elfman’s score. That’s no bad thing in my book.

The biggest point of discussion swirling around the film this weekend, in many circles at least, has been “which bits were Snyder and which were Whedon?” According to one of the producers, the final movie is 80-85% what Snyder shot during principal photography, making 15-20% what Whedon added during reshoots. Not a huge amount, but also not inconsiderable. Personally, while I felt some Whedon additions were glaringly obvious, it also felt to me like a shot or line here and there rather than whole chunks of the movie. I think they’ve done a better job of integrating it than some have given them credit for. I put this down to some people thinking any humourous line must be a Whedon addition, but we know that isn’t the case — they were showing off lighter stuff during press set visits and in the initial footage previewed at conventions, both of which were long before Whedon became involved in re-writes, never mind reshoots. The lighter tone was intended from the off, Whedon just added even more of it.

Born 'borg

For those interested, someone who worked on the film has posted a very long list of changes, attributing various bits to Snyder and others to Whedon. There’s also this tweet, which says Snyder’s original cut went down badly with WB execs (hence why Whedon was sought out) and that the vast majority of Superman’s role was reshot to change it entirely — supposedly all that remains of Snyder’s Superman are his action beats (though Whedon added some more), the final scene with Bruce (“I bought the bank”), and maybe one or two other individual shots. This, then, would be Whedon’s biggest contribution to the film. Some love him for it, others not so much. There seems little doubt this is a lighter, more fun Superman. I liked him, though it can’t hurt that I have a bit of a soft spot for Henry Cavill.

Generally speaking I’m a fan of Whedon — I grew up with Buffy; I’m certainly a Browncoat — but I think his additions (assuming those accounts are accurate) are a mixed blessing. Most vital is all the character stuff he’s slotted in, some of which really adds to the movie — Batman’s pep talk to the Flash about “save just one person” was a highlight, I think. The jokey dialogue sometimes lands, sometimes feels forced — the obvious insert of Batman complaining “something’s definitely bleeding” feels incongruous. I’ve seen some complain that he added too many pervy shots of Diana’s ass in that short skirt or those tight trousers, but then whenever I noticed such shots they were in footage that’s been attributed to Snyder, so who knows.

Well if you wear a skirt that short what do you expect to happen?

Everything to do with the Russian family was certainly Whedon, which I’d rather suspected. I mean, there are civilians there to add stakes to the final battle, so that it’s not just the villain being villainous in the middle of nowhere, but why is it that just one family lives there? Because they were added during reshoots and there was probably neither time nor money for crowds of people, that’s why. Their subplot could’ve been integrated better (it felt like they kept just popping up for no reason), but I liked the eventual pay-off with the Flash and Superman saving them — the Flash saving one carload while Supes flies past with an entire building is the kind of humour I think works in this film.

Justice League is a different movie for Whedon’s involvement, that seems unquestionable. Is it better or worse? That’s partly a matter of personal taste. As my taste stretches to include both directors’ works, I can see positives and negatives every which way. My ideal cut of the movie would likely keep some of Whedon’s additions but lose others, as well as reinsert some Snyder stuff they cut. There’s no pleasing everyone, eh? (If you want to see some of what was definitely cut, there are various shots in the trailers, and someone’s leaked eight short clips from Snyder’s version — mostly of unfinished CGI, but one reveals what Iris West’s role was. (If those clips are even still there by the time you read this, of course…))

The Batman

Finally, the post credits scenes. It’s obvious that the first is a Whedon addition (confirmed by the above breakdown) — it’s just a little coda that doesn’t add anything other than some fun. The second scene, however, is an odd one, because it feels like it’s teasing a movie that’s been uncertain for a long time. If it’s setting up The Batman (because Deathstroke was meant to be that film’s villain), well, we know director Matt Reeves is massively reshaping whatever Affleck had planned, quite possibly ditching Deathstroke altogether. If it’s setting up Justice League 2 (because Lex Luthor’s back with a team-building plan of his own), well, who knows if that’s even happening anymore? It was originally planned this movie would be Justice League Part 1 and be closely followed by Justice League Part 2 — presumably that’s why Steppenwolf is the villain, because he was meant to lead into Darkseid (it’s long been reported that a cliffhanger ending to set up just that was cut by Whedon) — but I believe Part 2 has gone MIA from the schedule, and with Affleck now making definitive noises about wanting out of the franchise… Well, who knows what’ll happen.

Back in the present day, Justice League is set to underperform at the box office this weekend: predictions have been revised ever downwards over the past few days, to the point where it’s now at under $100 million — which is kinda funny because it feels like everyone’s talking about it. I guess that’s the difference between “film Twitter” and movie blogs compared to regular folks. Movie Nerds v Regular People: Box Office of Justice, or something. Funny thing is, for all the hatred these DC movies have attracted, they don’t half get people talking. As I saw someone point out on Twitter the other day, you may not’ve liked Batman v Superman, but it’s more than 18 months later and you’re still talking about it. I can’t even remember which Marvel movie was out 18 months ago without looking it up. This is no doubt a simplification — not everyone’s still arguing about BvS, and one of the reasons Marvel movies don’t stick so long is that they produce so darn many of them — but I do think Marvel films give you fun for a couple of hours, and you can call them to mind again if prompted, while DC films stick around, turning over in your mind, love it or hate it. At least for some of us, anyway.

All in

With Justice League, there’s the added complications of its multiple directors and fraught production. Should we judge a film for what it could have been or for what it is? The latter, surely. The former is definitely an intriguing proposition, but not what’s in front of us (and, as the likes of Blade Runner, Alien³, and Superman II have shown, maybe one day we’ll get a chance to judge that movie anyway). Nonetheless, how much should we take into account the behind-the-scenes issues? Should we just pretend they don’t exist? I guess for a lot of regular moviegoers this isn’t even an issue, but for many of us film-fan types it’s hard to put aside the knowledge that this movie was the product of two directors with very different styles and very different production timeframes.

I don’t have any easy answers, I’m afraid. All I know is that Justice League is far from perfect, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Justice League is in cinemas everywhere now.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (2016)

2016 #128
Zack Snyder | 183 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Ultimate EditionThe Batman v Superman Ultimate Edition has been available via various means for a month or more now, but has only hit disc in the UK this past week (and I waited for it, because I’m a good boy). This extended cut adds half-an-hour of material, give or take (comparing the two Blu-rays tells me the difference is just under 31 minutes; Movie-Censorship.com says it’s just under 30 minutes) — material that is unlikely to completely transform anyone’s opinion of the movie, but at the same time definitely does improve it. That means two things: firstly, most of my original review still applies; but secondly, and crucially, some of it doesn’t.

If you hated the movie’s overall dark tone, or its depiction of either of its titular heroes, or the over-CGI’d climax, or the way it shoehorned in teases for DC’s future movies, this cut fixes none of that. I mean, of course it doesn’t — they didn’t remake the movie. If you thought the storyline wasn’t clearly explained, or that Superman’s half of the story needed more screen time, or that you’d really like to have to wait even longer before the title fight, then this is the cut for you.

As per Movie-Censorship.com, there are 99 changes. Yes, 99. That’s made up of 18 wholly new scenes and 60 extended ones, plus 19 scenes with alternate footage and two slight audio tweaks. The clearest effect of these additions is in filling out the events in Africa near the start of the film and Lois Lane’s subsequent investigation into them, as well as showing Clark actually investigating Batman, rather than just having Perry constantly tell him off for doing it. In the process, it massively clarifies who the overall villain is and what connects all the many disparate plot threads, so that it’s a logical reveal rather than an end-of-act-two declaration that some viewers completely missed. Let’s take each of those in turn.

You may have read that the photographer with Lois in Africa is Jimmy Olsen, identified in the credits but not on screen in the theatrical cut. In this version he is named on screen, but that’s not the important part. More is done to establish why Lois is in Africa, what she’s hoping to achieve, and lay the seeds for why it’s all going to go wrong. This is achieved in such a short space of time that it seems ludicrous it was cut out, leaving theatrical viewers playing catch-up when a couple of extra moments would’ve explained it clearly. (Of course, there may be an element of re-viewing bias in this: I already know what’s happening so of course I cottoned on to everything sooner.) When things do go south, more material makes it explicit what happened — what the bad guys do to frame Superman, essentially. It’s possible some of this material was cut to achieve the PG-13 rating, but in doing so they left out bits and pieces that are referenced later, heightening the sense of confusion for theatrical viewers — how are we meant to know a woman testifying to a congressional hearing about “burned bodies” is a reference to events we just witnessed if we don’t see anyone burning any bodies?

This kind of increased clarity follows throughout the film. The fleshing out of Lois’ investigations is what leads to us understanding the overall scheme better when it comes to a head. It’s also where you’ll find Jena Malone’s character. There was much speculation about who Malone was playing, especially after she was cut and director Zack Snyder claimed it was because her character was of greater significance to the DC movie universe than this movie in particular. Turns out she’s… some lab tech. That’s it. Now, her role seems disproportionately small considering the level of actress cast, so maybe she has some secret identity that will be revealed in Justice League; but on the BvS level, she actually helps explain some of the plot, and therefore is much more relevant to BvS itself than that awful Flash cameo or the terribly clunky scene with the meta-human files. If Snyder really wanted to ring-fence the universe-building into the Ultimate Edition, those are the scenes he should’ve excised from the theatrical cut.

Less vital to the overall plot, but which certainly contributes to the titular conflict, is that Clark’s investigation into the Batman is seriously beefed up. It makes Clark/Superman feel like more of a leading character in a film that was, at least as originally conceived, his sequel. In some respects this storyline is a more understandable excision, because Superman’s dislike for the Batman and his methods isn’t entirely unclear in the theatrical cut. Equally, it does flesh it out better and connect up some of the dots, like why he intervened when Batman was trying to steal the Kryptonite at the docks (essentially: a Bat-victim’s girlfriend said Batman needed stopping. Maybe not a great reason, but hey, it’s a reason). It’s a case in point of how this film simply has too much going on. To create a workable version it’s had to be three hours long — that’s the length of two movies, and it does feel like two movies’ worth of material. Not back-to-back movies — you couldn’t cut it in two at the middle and be left with two independent films — but two movies that occur concurrently; intercut. I mean, there are even two big action climaxes, back to back.

In my original review, I noted that there was an “almost-throwaway sliver of dialogue that indicates Lex put all of this together, [but] the way it’s presented in this cut makes it come a little out of nowhere.” I believe some viewers missed that reveal entirely. The primary achievement of the Ultimate Edition, then, is making this story clear. It’s still something of a reveal that Lex is behind everything, but we get there through investigations and deductions that the characters make, rather than arriving at the end and Lex simply declaring, “b-t-dubs, everything you’ve just seen? Totally planned it all.” Personally, I thought Lex’s plot was already fairly clear; not crystal, by any means, but you could get there. I mean, you had to pay attention — probably more attention than most people expect to have to pay in a Zack Snyder blockbuster — but it was there. So it’s tough for me to say exactly how much clearer the Ultimate Edition makes it. It does feel more streamlined, with obvious new bits that help clarify certain points. I don’t think it sinks to the level of spelling it all out slowly and carefully in case you missed it, but it does make it more explicit; and, as discussed, it does that by showing more of Lois’ investigation, so it feels like her role is more substantial too. She felt a little cursory in Man of Steel — “it’s a Superman movie, we have to put Lois Lane in” — whereas here she has a bigger role than her boyfriend… at least until the punchy-punchy climax, of course, when his superpowers win out.

Also in the Lex camp, his mystifying line to Batman about aliens coming (or something) is somewhat explained by a short scene (which was made available online after the theatrical release and is now cut into the film) where he’s shown in front of some kind of creature that disappears when troops turn up to arrest him. I say “somewhat explained” because that’s literally the extent of the scene — there’s not even the vaguest explanation of who the creature is, or what the creature is (another Kryptonian mutant? An alien entity? A man in a suit?), or how it got there, or why it got there, or what it’s doing with/to Lex… It’s just another vague tease, which non-fans must either shrug and ignore, or scurry online to find a forum thread or news article or tweet where knowledgeable fans can tell them what the hell they just witnessed and why it’ll be relevant next time.

That was one of the more sensible removals from the theatrical cut, then. Otherwise… well, I’m not the first to say this, but it’s really bizarre that Snyder seems to have consciously chosen to cut out scenes that actually explain the plot. As I’ve said, it was followable in the theatrical cut, so maybe he just got blinded by the fact he’d seen the movie a thousand times while editing and so it all still made sense to him? Nonetheless, watching the extended cut enhances the feeling (which is there in the theatrical if you know a longer version exists) that the methodology for shortening the movie by half-an-hour was to just select scenes at random and delete them. How else do you explain losing chunks of Lois’ and Clark’s respective investigations while that awkward scene of Perry wondering where Clark’s gone remains in both cuts?

One thing that is pretty apparent about Snyder’s intentions is that he really wanted to make a Batman movie, and I suspect Man of Steel was his way in to getting to do that. Despite launching out of the events of Man of Steel, and engaging with issues of what it means to be Superman (therefore continuing MoS’s theme of “what would it be like if Superman was real?”), and having Lex Luthor as the main antagonist, BvS feels like a Batman-driven movie more often than it does a Superman one. Personally, I get it — I’m more of a Batman fan than a Superman fan too, so that approach warrants little complaint from me — but I can see why Supes’ fans would be miffed.

Another Snyder-related point comes to mind thanks to the numbering system I use for this blog. Most extended cuts of films I’ve already seen don’t merit a new number — i.e. this would be #127a — because they’re usually not significantly different to the existing versions, just adding some character beats, bonus action moments, or extra gags. They’re not fundamental enough to consider it a “new movie”. To be honest, because the extended BvS mostly serves to clarify the plot that was present in the theatrical version, I might’ve just gone with my usual numbering if it weren’t for, (a) everyone else saying how different it is, and (b) the fact a 30-minute extension amounts to 20% more film — no one can call that an insignificant addition. Interestingly, one of the few other extended cuts I gave a new number to was the Watchmen Director’s Cut. And I never bothered to watch the theatrical version of Sucker Punch, but from everything I read I’m sure the extended cut is substantially different and substantially improved. When Snyder does an extended cut, he means it. It’s not just “here are ten minutes of scenes I had to delete but rather liked”, it’s a revised version of the film — and it’s always a better version.

Other, more minor changes in this cut include increased violence, though personally I barely noticed it. Some people seem adamant this should’ve upped it to a 15 certificate, but I think you can justify saying it stops just short of that. Quite what the MPAA saw that merited an R, I’m not entirely sure. More interesting to my weirdly-obsessed mind is that the film actually includes the “Ultimate Edition” title on screen, both during the opening credits and at the end (where it’s technically titled “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition” without any additional punctuation). How many other extended cuts actually change their title card to reflect that fact? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any.

As someone who genuinely enjoyed Batman v Superman’s theatrical cut, it’s hard to say how much better the Ultimate Edition is for viewers who were less convinced. However, I do think it’s a question of “how much better” rather than “is it better”, because this is certainly a superior version of the film — the fact it’s now over three hours long notwithstanding. The new cut won’t ‘fix’ the movie for viewers who object to the inherent tone and style of the piece, but if you’re open to that, this cut does improve the storytelling and character arcs for a smoother experience overall. I do understand some of the reasons people dislike this movie — the way it modifies characters from their traditional depictions; the overall serious and dark tone — but they’re not opinions I share. It’s certainly not a perfect movie, though: the climax descends into CGI-fuelled mayhem (though the reduced scale of a TV screen makes it more followable); the desire to counter accusations levelled at Man of Steel’s destructive climax gets old fast (the film is at pains to constantly tell us that such-and-such an area is deserted for this-and-that reason); the meta-human set-ups are clunky and distracting; and your mileage will vary on the revisionist versions of Superman and Lex Luthor (I didn’t love Eisenberg’s take on the character, but I don’t mind it either).

I gave the theatrical cut 4 stars, which doesn’t leave me much room for manoeuvre here. Is the Ultimate Edition a whole star better? Maybe it is. I enjoyed it enough that I’m almost kind of tempted to go for the full 5… but that would be pushing it. I’m not sure any movie is perfect, but even for someone who likes it Batman v Superman has enough niggles to discount it. Still, I think it’s an enjoyable, interesting movie, that provides a welcome tonal counterpoint to the efforts of the other superhero shared movie universe. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

4 out of 5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition placed 10th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The next film in the DC Extended Universe, Suicide Squad, is in cinemas from today.

Superman Returns (2006)

2016 #117
Bryan Singer | 154 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The same summer that Christopher Nolan revitalised the Dark Knight with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Batman Begins, one of the men who’d helped kickstart the current superhero resurgence, X-Men director Bryan Singer, attempted the same with DC Comics’ other major hero, Superman, only to be met with critical derision and commercial failure.

Except that’s not actually what happened, despite what many have come to believe since. Superman Returns was actually pretty popular with critics: 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, enough to gain a Certified Fresh classification; and if you hone that to just top critics, it scores 68% versus Batman Begins’ 65%. Returns also outgrossed Begins that summer, taking $391 million worldwide to the Bat’s $374 million. These are all small margins, but even just being on the same level as each other demonstrates something about how perception and accepted narratives can distort what actually happened.

Of course, even this is a slight distortion, because while Batman Begins cost $150 million, Superman Returns’ budget was $204 million — at the time, one of the most expensive movies ever made. Lump in the development costs of previous aborted Superman films (which Hollywood accounting does) and you get closer to $270 million — a figure that, even today, would put it in the top five most expensive movies ever made.

All of that was ten years ago now, since when plans for a sequel have been abandoned, the character has had a reboot, and kicked off a shared universe with a Batman co-starring sequel, too. With all that behind us, is Superman Returns’ poor reputation actually deserved? I’ve never got round to seeing it, so had no horse in the “it’s misunderstood” / “it’s deservedly derided” race; but today is the 10th anniversary of the film’s UK release, so what better time to finally join the debate?

The film begins in media res, with Clark Kent / Superman (Brandon Routh) returning home after five years away. The world has moved on: hot-shot reporter and Supes love interest Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a fiancé (James Marsden) and a young son, and worst of all has penned an award-winning article called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has escaped a jail sentence and is secretly setting about a nefarious plan…

Sitting down to Superman Returns cold, it feels like you’re watching a sequel — and in many respects, that’s what it is. Singer loves the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, quite rightly, and when offered the chance to make a new movie with the character essentially set out to make Superman III. Yes, Superman III already exists — and Superman IV, too — but no one likes them, so Singer’s decision to just completely ignore them wasn’t so daft. What was daft was making a sequel to a 26-year-old movie and assuming that the audience would be instantly familiar with the whole setup. Most cinemagoers won’t have done their homework and re-watched the older films before heading to the movies (because why would they?), so no wonder people felt confused and disappointed by what they were seeing. People nowadays complain about too many reboots and retellings of origin stories, often for good reason, but (a) sometimes a new telling is the right way to go, and (b) if you’re going to pick up a character mid-life, you still need to treat it as a new and standalone story if its immediate predecessor was released decades ago.

Really, Returns is one massive tribute to those ’70s and ’80s Superman films. Brandon Routh is essentially stuck doing a Christopher Reeve impression, both as bumbling Clark Kent and the Big Blue Boy Scout. Kevin Spacey is similarly in Gene Hackman mode, though as the film goes on he seems to increasingly relish the absurdity of what they’re doing. Old footage of Marlon Brando is resurrected to play Supes’ dad; the aesthetic is nostalgic, with a bright red-and-blue costume, classically-inspired sets, and sepia-tinged cinematography; there’s a focus on drama, with a sparing use of action sequences (at least until the climax); even the opening titles emulate the iconic whooshing blue names of the 1978 film. Maybe watched as part of a series with the earlier films it works as an homage or addendum, but as a work in its own right, viewed in isolation, it feels… misjudged.

That’s not helped by some aspects simply not working. I have nothing against Kate Bosworth, but she’s horribly miscast as Lois; so wrong it’s even hard to pin down exactly why it doesn’t work. The pace is wonky, with a long, slow start before a surfeit of action sequences blow in, at least one of them a complete aside from anything that’s going on, presumably just to gather some cool shots for the trailer (the bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye, for example). If the movie had begun with the airplane rescue scene — which is actually a great sequence, quite possibly the best Superman-related action scene ever filmed — perhaps it would’ve earnt the time to indulge in the Reeve-related posturing that actually takes up the first half-hour-or-so. I can imagine an edit of the movie that begins on that plane: just a bunch of journalists observing the press demonstration of the new shuttle technology, when suddenly, inexplicably, it fails — they’re all going to die — then Superman turns up completely out of nowhere and saves them. Then you have the credits, which are immediately followed by Lex’s whole journey to the Fortress of Solitude, and only then do you get in to the stuff with Superman only having just returned, wondering what his places is now, and so on. Maybe lose the scene of him basically stalking Lois’ new family, though.

You can see what Singer was going for with Superman Returns — a respectful, lightly modernised homage to some classic, beloved movies — but the benefit of hindsight makes it clear that really wasn’t a good idea. That said, it could’ve worked. If they’d put a little more effort into making it work as a semi-reboot rather than as a straight-up continuation, which is how it comes across, then maybe it would’ve been friendlier to newcomers. There are some excellent things in here — the tone mixes drama, humour, and life-or-death stakes in a way some blockbusters are losing sight of; Lex’s scheme is unusual and therefore interesting; the action scenes are thrilling; attempting to bring some character to the characters, rather than merely using them as pawns in those action sequences, almost lends the film additional depth — and I think it would’ve been a lot better liked if people felt they could get on board with it; if it wasn’t trying so hard to be something it’s not, which is a Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve made in 1983. For all Man of Steel’s faults, at least it tried to reintroduce the character, rather than pick up where it left off.

The final thing this all makes me think of is the forthcoming Marvel Spidey movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming. One wonders if Sony were inspired by Superman Returns’ perceived failure when they chose to reboot Spidey in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, rather than make Spider-Man 4 with a new cast and crew. That reboot decision was not popular, to say the least, with audiences thinking ten years (since the ‘first’ Spider-Man movie) was too little time to warrant retelling a familiar story. With that universe abandoned after an even-less-popular sequel, the next Spider-Man movie has to start again — but they’ve learnt their lesson and aren’t retelling the origin, instead diving in with Spider-Man already established as a hero. In media res again, then, but also (one hopes) with an awareness that this is to be the first movie in a series, not pretend to be the third or fourth. Another, better lesson learnt from Superman Returns, perhaps? Wouldn’t it be nice if Hollywood could learn from its mistakes more often…

3 out of 5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

2016 #65
Zack Snyder | 151 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

With Warner Bros’ universe-launching superhero epic now in its second weekend (unless you live in Myanmar or Poland, anyway), you’ve probably more than had your fill of spoilerphobic reviews. So allow me to provide a spoiler-filled one. (There are a fair few of those around too, of course, but not all reviews can be beautiful or unique snowflakes.)

Despite being a sequel to Man of Steel and featuring a Superman-heavy supporting cast (from Batman’s world we have Alfred; from Superman’s we have Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lex Luthor, Martha Kent, and (spoiler for something that was in the trailer) Doomsday), Batman v Superman is really a Batman movie. It begins with the latest recap of his origin story — pretty much a prerequisite for any new big-screen incarnation of the Dark Knight. But don’t give up on the film within the opening minutes, because BvS is actually going somewhere with this — the Bat’s backstory has a role to play in the climax. Anyway, after that we get a recap of the end of Man of Steel: as Zod and Supes turn Metropolis into rubble and slaughter untold thousands in the process, we see Bruce Wayne driving and running through the collapsing city streets, heading for a Wayne Financial building where he does superhero-y stuff like save a little girl’s life, and fix the flying Kryptonians with a glare that says, “you are my new enemies.” Central conflict, right there.

I say this is a Batman movie, but in many respects it’s actually a Bruce Wayne movie. Is there a difference? I suppose you could argue not, what with Bruce being the man inside the Batsuit, but I would say a “Batman movie” concentrates on what he gets up to in that suit — fighting crazy villains, essentially — while a “Bruce Wayne movie” would be more about the man, his decisions, his emotions. Now, I’m not about to claim BvS is big on its characters’ inner lives, but if it really taps into the thoughts and feelings of anyone, it’s Bruce. This is a Batman who has perhaps lost his way, scarred by too many tragedies in his life. There are unmissable references to his 20-year crimefighting career; to good people turning bad; the Joker-graffitied Robin suit… This isn’t fan-pleasing/teasing background detail, it speaks to Bruce’s mindset. He’s become the kind of person who believes lines like, “if there’s a 1% chance he’s our enemy, we must take it as an absolute certainty.” He’s a bit of a right-wing nut, basically. If you want to find a character or emotional throughline to the movie, it’s Bruce learning to be a better hero again.

Of course, this being a Zack Snyder film, it often does a muddled job of presenting this kind of material to us. There’s also a heavy vein of what it means to be a hero, with Superman under constant scrutiny for his actions, with questions being asked about what rights he has to act the way he does, and whether methods are needed to stop him. These are potentially interesting themes to tackle, provided you buy into the whole superhero genre in the first place — they don’t really have any real-life equivalent, if that’s what interests you in movies; they’re predicated in the thought process of, “if Superman was real, what would it be like?”

So assuming we consider these as valid things to dig into, it’s a shame the film does a muddled job of it. There’s some grandstanding and speechmaking, and some heavily portentous dialogue, but what is it really saying? Good luck finding out. Maybe repeat viewings and some proper consideration will reveal more depth tucked away there. Certainly, I’ve been a bit annoyed with some of the glib online criticism of the dialogue and the ideas presented through it; commentary that chooses to focus on one sentence that comes at the end of a discussion, so the clever-clever internet person can laugh at the silliness of that line’s question or observation, ignoring the fact that there was a whole range of dialogue before that one line, and in that dialogue the idea was more fully considered or explained. But no, it’s easier to take a soundbite and analyse it as, “lolz, shit dialogue, dude.” I’m not saying BvS has a script of Oscar-worthy, polished, believable, insightful dialogue, but it’s not that poor, either.

But if we are criticising the screenplay, let’s turn our attention to the story and its structure, which leaves something to be desired. This isn’t just the writers’ fault, of course, because myriad things affect a film once the screenplay is signed off. In the case of story structure, editing seems a likely culprit — not the actual cutting together of individual shots to craft a sequence or scene, which is as good here as in any action blockbuster, but in terms of storytelling. Frankly, that’s a bit of a mess. Or a lot of a mess, maybe. Whole scenes serve literally no purpose or are clearly in the wrong place — the bit where Perry wanders up to Clark Kent’s desk and wonders if he’s clicked his heels and disappeared back to Kansas, for example. What purpose does it serve? None. But where it might have a role is where it clearly belongs: a couple of minutes later, right before the scene where Superman is in Kansas, chatting to his mom. Why is it not right before that scene? It’s like someone accidentally dragged it out of place on their computer editing timeline and never noticed. Sure, this is a minor point in the grand scope of the film, but it belies a sloppiness to the entire storytelling.

That extends all over the place. Someone clearly thought the movie was short on action — it has a lot of plot to get through, and whereas once upon a time it would’ve just got on with that plot and happily let all the action sit at the end, that’s not allowed these days. So, unable to find a combat or chase within the real narrative, Bruce has visions of a possible future where Batman wears some kind of dusty trench-coat and battles Superman-symbol-emblazoned soldiers in a Mad Max-esque landscape. In itself it’s a neat, fanboy-pleasing “alternate world” idea, and it’s an exciting sequence with some excellent action choreography, and it certainly looked good in the trailers, but in the film it’s a total aside from anything.

The only purpose it might serve is teasing the future — what is the giant Omega symbol? What are those flying devil-creatures? DC fans know that’s all related to alien supervillain Darkseid, and late in the film Lex Luthor makes a veiled reference to imply that some such alien badass is on the way. Yep, it’s Marvel-style foreshadowing, where every film is just a stepping stone to the next. Except BvS does it even more heavy-handedly than Marvel. As I said, the dream/vision is utterly unnecessary; Lex’s line is nonsensical (how does he know?); and the way other members of the Justice League are teased… You know, I don’t even want to discuss it. It’s a bad Marvel post-credit scene shoehorned into the middle of the movie. It feels like someone accidentally cut a teaser trailer into the actual print of the film. It’s not even so bad it’s good, it’s just tacky. And, I have to say, though I’m not the biggest fan of The CW’s Flash TV show (I think it’s been massively overpraised by some of superhero fandom), Cheery TV Barry Allen seems a much more likeable, comics-accurate version of the character than the movies’ Hipster Beard Barry Allen. Maybe it’s just the beard, I don’t know; but even if it is just the beard, it’s a hipster beard, and it’s wrong.

For a movie that critics stuck it to*, there’s an awful lot to say about BvS — genuine stuff, not just facile observations on hipster beards. This is not a film that needs an extra 30 minutes in an Ultimate Edition. It does need scenes re-arranging; it does need focusing in on its various plots — because there is actually a throughline here; a story that connects all the disparate strands together. Some people will miss it because those strands are so varied and so haphazardly put together, but there is a character who has an overarching plan and has engineered a lot of what’s going on — and as this is a spoilersome review, I can say that character is Lex. It surprised me a little that there was method to the madness; that someone had been orchestrating all these disparate elements. Surprise is good; surprise that makes you rethink the film even better — but you’re meant to rethink to look for clues you missed, not rethink to see if that even fits with everything we’ve seen. That’s because even if you do latch on to the almost-throwaway sliver of dialogue that indicates Lex put all of this together, the way it’s presented in this cut makes it come a little out of nowhere. However, I believe it’s a plausible explanation of events (within the realms of the version of the genre these films are in), and would tie the whole thing together neatly, were it just a little clearer.

So, saying “there’s an awful lot to say about BvS” and then not saying it is a cop-out, but we’re 1500 words deep into this review and I haven’t mentioned: the role of Lois Lane; the role of Wonder Woman; the role of Alfred; how good Ben Affleck is; how wasted Henry Cavill is; Jesse Eisenberg’s performance, for good or ill; what, if anything, the film is saying about government oversight and/or domestic terrorism; the car chase (purely as an action sequence, I liked it); the presence of Doomsday; the battle with Doomsday; the death of Superman and its almost-immediate sort-of-retraction, and whether that was a good idea or not, or if it even matters; why the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle is an accurate addition to the title, but also a pain in the ass to the “Batman v Superman” part; heck, I’ve said nothing of that titular duel itself. When it comes, the fight is inspired by — but not completely adapted from — Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which should surprise precisely no one as, a) Snyder is an avowed Miller fan, and b) if you’re doing a Batman vs. Superman smackdown, that’s the one to do.

(I also wanted to write something about the film’s lack of attentiveness to cityscapes, because that’s something that interests me and I’ve not seen anyone else discuss it; but I’ve only remembered this after the entire review is finished, illustrated, and scheduled for posting, so it’s quite late at night to get my brain in gear and add it. But if anyone’s actually interested, there’s always the comments section.)

As to those other points… look, I don’t want to get too off-topic, but there’s a rant to be had about discussions of films stopping at opening weekend. “It was cool” / “it wasn’t cool”; “it was fun” / “it wasn’t fun”; “it was an irredeemable piece of crap and I hope it kills off the franchise” / “I can’t wait for Wonder Woman” — followed by, “done now, when’s Civil War out?” Hey, hang around for a minute! There’s stuff here. I know critics just want to barrel on to what’s next because they didn’t like it, but maybe if they stopped to discuss it they’d find there’s more to unpack than they’d like to think? Because yeah, you can see the movie as one long mess before Batman and Superman finally fight, at which point it degenerates into a mess of CGI and aural bombast (seriously, there’s too much noise during the climax), and ends with characters stood around having conversations where the pre-first-draft filler dialogue said, “Give audience an idea what future film(s) will be about while saying absolutely nothing concrete about what future film(s) will be about.” But in that mess (the mess I mentioned at the start of that last really long sentence, remember? OK,) there is stuff going on; there are ideas the filmmakers want to put across, possibly with the intention that they’ll actually be thought about.

And I know it’s just a superhero movie, and I know they’re just ideas about superheroes, and I know if you get into discussions of its representation of women or the legal/political system or any other real-world-connected points then you’re getting into a minefield that the film may not have fully-considered ideas about… but for all his faults as a filmmaker — for all his focus on visual Cool — Zack Snyder has now made at least three films where, buried beneath all that surface noise (both visual and aural), there are things to think about, but because that surface is so polished that it suggests the film must only be skin-deep, the ideas get ignored. The other two films, for what it’s worth, are Watchmen (where, yes, he’s given a leg-up by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ uncommonly thoughtful graphic novel) and Sucker Punch — a movie even more dismissed than BvS has been, but which I maintain has a lot going on.

I’ve even lost myself at this point, so I’ll call it a day. Batman v Superman is a long way from being a perfect movie, and anyone who likes the lightweight fun of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to be ill-served here. (Oh man, there’s a whole other semi-off-topic discussion. Ten to fifteen years ago, the only things that could be Cool were dark-and-moody, self-serious, po-faced, grim-and-gritty films/games/whatever; nowadays, you do that and you get lambasted for not being colourful and humorous. Back then, I was miffed that everything had to be the former and when anyone did the latter it got shat on, and now I’m miffed that everything has to be the latter and when anyone does the former it gets shat on. I’m not contrary, I just think we can have, can enjoy, and can accept, both.)

As I was saying: not a perfect movie, but one with a lot of material to provoke thought about both the inherent concepts of superheroes and, external to that, the genre itself, especially the way it’s presented in cinema. I’m not going to slag off the Marvel movies, because they are fun, but the entirety of the big-screen MCU** put together hasn’t given us even a fraction of as much stuff to consider, dissect, analyse, and process as this one bold, messy, controversial movie. I kinda love it for that.

4 out of 5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is still on release everywhere. The 30-minutes-longer Ultimate Edition is scheduled to be part of the DVD/Blu-ray release, probably in July.


* I won’t trot them all out here, but there are interesting (if you’re into that kind of thing) stats about its critical drubbing vs. its box office performance — essentially, it’s far and away the worst-reviewed super-high-grossing movie ever, as if some omniscient power felt the point really needed ramming home that critics no longer matter to franchises that have what-they-call “pre-awareness”. ^

** “Big-screen” because, in fairness, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a whole different kettle of fish. ^

Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

2015 #109
David Bullock | 72 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG-13

The second release in Warner Premiere’s series of direct-to-video DC Universe Animated Original Movies (which now stretches to 24 titles and counting) is adapted from writer and artist Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier, which sees Golden Age heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) meeting Silver Age heroes (the Flash, Green Lantern) for the first time in the 1950s.

With so many characters (those are just the tip of the iceberg), Justice League: The New Frontier has a many-pronged narrative to squeeze into its brisk hour-and-ten-minutes running time. The connecting tissue is an unknown entity that has decided to destroy all life on Earth, which eventually will lead all of the various characters to come together to combat it. Other than that, I’m not even going to attempt to summarise the story because there’s so darn much going on. Uncommonly, it spends a lot of time focused on the likes of Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) and the Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) rather than the usual big names.

Frankly, there are too many characters, and the film doesn’t always seem to know what to do with all of them. The array of cameos in minor roles is fine, and sure to please thoroughly-versed comic book readers, but it’s the main characters who are sometimes sidelined. In some cases, literally: Wonder Woman disappears off to her island after two scenes; the Flash retires early on; Superman gets sunk in the ocean at the start of the climax. The plot feels underdeveloped too. There are snippets of Batman investigating the entity, for instance, but before he can really learn anything the thing just attacks, so his storyline was needless. Maybe Cooke’s original graphic novel had more time for all of this. If some things have had to be sacrificed to streamline the tale into a 70-minute movie, then it wouldn’t be uncommon for these DC animations. I’ve not read the book so I don’t know. However, there are definitely bits that could’ve been sacrificed or abridged further (the Flash’s two early action sequences, for instance) to make more room to tell the story in full.

On the bright side, a period-set superhero movie makes a nice change; and it just gets on with it, rather than feeling the need to explain itself with alternate worlds or time travel or any such BS. It has the confidence to start with many of the heroes already in play, rather than worry about giving each one a full-blown origin story or something. At one point I thought it might manage to pull off something akin to Watchmen, but in the ’50s and with recognisable DC heroes. Such a comparison might be a kindness too far. There are some good concepts here, but the execution pootles out as it goes along. At times it feels a bit like a pilot episode, as if they were somehow expecting to spin a TV series out of it — for all I know maybe they were — but the problem with pilot episodes is that they are, by definition, unresolved. The New Frontier has a climax that wraps up the immediate threat, but it also feels like it was laying character and supporting cast groundwork for something longer-running.

On technical merits, the art design is… variable. At times it appears to have been inspired by Cooke’s awesome style, which is both pleasing in itself and marks a nice spot of variety from these animations’ norm, but at other points the style reverts to simplistic “Saturday morning cartoon” familiarity. Disappointingly, the actual animation is always of that level. Warner have definitely put out worse examples in this range (Superman vs The Elite), but they’ve also done much better (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns).

I really wanted to like The New Frontier, for all sorts of reasons. It does start well, with moments of promise sparkling here and there, but the longer it spends juggling so many balls, the fewer it can keep flying smoothly. (Do balls “fly” when juggled? Anyway, you get my point.) Considered as a whole, the overall result is fairly disappointing.

3 out of 5

* The New Frontier has never had a disc release in the UK (or a theatrical one, naturally), so has never been classified by the BBFC (I thought you needed that for streaming or download nowadays, but turns out it’s optional). Amazon choose to list it as a PG, but the US’s PG-13, aka a 12, seems nearer the mark (depending how much you care about cartoon violence and blood, anyway). ^

Supermen of Malegaon (2008)

2015 #149
Faiza Ahmad Khan | 66 mins | streaming | 16:9 | Singapore, Japan, South Korea & India / Urdu & Hindi

In the impoverished Indian town of Malegaon, everyone either works on the power looms and is paid a pittance, or is unemployed and so has even less; apart from the women, who are squirrelled away out of sight at home. The population is 75% Muslim, the remainder Hindu, and that leads to tension. Outside of work, there is nothing to do for entertainment… except go to the movies. And Malegaon loves the movies.

A number of years ago, one movie lover and video parlour owner, Sheikh Nasir, decided to make his own film. He remade the beloved Indian classic Sholay, but with its setting relocated to Malegaon, and turned it into a kind of spoof. It was recorded on video, edited VCR to VCR, by someone who had learnt filmmaking only by watching films themselves and seeing the behind-the-scenes outtakes on the credits of Jackie Chan movies. He didn’t even realise a film crew consisted of more than one person. Yet Malegaon ke Sholay was a local hit, and so Nasir decided to produce more. All of his films are spoof remakes of popular Bollywood and Hollywood productions, but set in Malegaon and engaging with local issues. They’re something of craze, so much so the people have a nickname for it: Mollywood.

Supermen of Malegaon is the making-of story of Nasir’s most ambitious production to date. Having seen the use of greenscreen in one of those behind-the-scenes outtakes, he realised he could use the process to make a special effects movie — specifically, to make Superman fly to Malegaon. This documentary follows the trials and tribulations of Nasir and his band of hobby filmmakers through their film’s writing, planning, and its sometimes troubled shoot, until it’s completed. In the process, we meet some genuine characters, learn something of the unique lifestyle of Malegaon itself, and maybe even learn something about ourselves too.

The latter is the kind of claim liable to have your everyman viewer thinking, “yeah, right.” It’s a huge, horrid cliché for films to preach about following your dreams, or of finding something life enhancing through simple pleasures even when living in hardship; and generally movies that shove such ideals down our throats are gratingly earnest and/or sentimentally vacuous. Supermen of Malegaon is neither. There is no forcing here — insightful observations spring forth unassumingly; life lessons build up gradually and naturally. This is a film that doesn’t labour a point; doesn’t try to force some heartwarming message on you; but there’s every chance it will, almost incidentally, make you believe in the power of movies.

Even if it doesn’t, the situation in ‘Mollywood’ is an interesting one. This is a cottage industry: everyone involved has day jobs, funding the movies out of their own pocket, or by borrowing cash, or with favours, or by selling in-film adverts to local businesses — yes, that’s right, product placement, not that anyone involved would know that term. Women from Malegaon cannot appear in or work on the films due to local attitudes, so actresses are hired from nearby villages; the screenplay is written and shooting schedule arranged so that the actress only needs to be involved for the minimum number of days, to save money. Bicycles and motorbikes are used to create tracking shots; the director gets a piggyback for a high angle, or is raised and lowered on the arm of a cart to create a crane shot. The ingenuity and inventiveness of these literally-self-taught moviemakers is astonishing.

It really matters to them, too. As one young extra observes, people are keen to do anything they can to be involved, because being in a Mollywood movie buys you street cred in Malegaon. These things are that popular.

And yet it remains just a hobby… or it does for Nasir, anyway. He loves movies and so just wants to make them. He says that even if he was offered a job in Bollywood, he wouldn’t go. Not everyone shares his view: one of his relatives wants to make films as a career; Nasir is vocally against the idea — you can’t support a household doing this, he says. His films cost a pittance: at one point he tries to buy software to do the greenscreen and is quoted a price of $4,000, which he turns down because he could make four whole films for that much money. Even that little is scraped together. Mollywood moviemaking isn’t a money spinner, it’s a hobby. Still, one of the writers wants to make it as a proper writer; wants to go to Bombay and do it as his career. This has been his aim for 15 years, he says, and Bombay is no closer.

So there’s sadness here too, and controversy (to Western eyes, the position of women seems ludicrously unacceptable), and yet the ingenuity of these people, the endurance, the sheer love of cinema and the want to be involved, to not only recreate it but to forge something new, with their own enjoyment as the sole reward, is heartwarming, maybe even life enhancing. These are amateur filmmakers, working in their own backyard with a consumer video camera, who have greater integrity than all of Hollywood put together — and are still making movies, not falling to pieces and dying out, as Hollywood seems to think it would if it ever manned up.

In an interview, the director commented that “someone said after watching the film: ‘If you are about to give up on your dream, watch Supermen of Malegaon’.” I can believe that would work. A reviewer said that “if you don’t like it, then it can only mean that films were never really your thing in the first place.” A bold statement, but I’m inclined to agree. It’s an incredible, one-of-a-kind film; more powerful and life-affirming than it perhaps has any right to be. But then the filmmakers of Malegaon don’t really care about such things. They make movies because they want to, whether they ‘should’ or not; they make them better than you might expect; and it enriches their lives. Their story may do the same for you. In my opinion, it’s an essential film; a true must-see.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Supermen of Malegaon is on Channel 4 tonight at 1:30am. It’s also available on YouTube.

It placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015)

2015 #95
Jon Schnepp | 104 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | *

Jon Schnepp’s widely-reviewed documentary about the batshit-crazy Nic Cage-starring Tim Burton-directed Superman movie that almost happened in 1999. If all you’ve seen are the photos of a stoned-looking Cage in a light-up abomination of a Superman costume that leaked onto the internet a few years ago, prepare to be amazed. Indeed, those infamous photos and footage are an aberration that this documentary explains.

Schnepp guides us neatly through the film’s protracted development, from the early script stages — initially penned by Kevin Smith — right up to costume fittings and special effects tests. It’s remarkable how late in the day the film was canned. A wide array of interviewees means the documentary offers a genuine insight into the entire process, with the likes of screenwriters and concept artists offering details on specific elements, to producer Jon Peters (certainly a ‘character’) and director Tim Burton sharing more of an overview of the project. Indeed, the only significant absentee is Cage.

Some have said Schnepp puts himself in the film too much. He’s a long, long way from the worst example of a documentary maker intruding too heavily, in my opinion, though it’s true that at times he could pull it back a bit. A sequence where someone takes a phone call mid-interview while Schnepp patiently has a drink is presumably supposed to be some kind of comedic interlude, but it’s obviously an inside joke because it’s a narrative-interrupting pause with no worthwhile effect. Thankfully, such indulgences are few and far between.

There seem to be an increasing number of “making-of documentaries about films that didn’t get made”, to the extent where it’s almost turning into a sub-genre. The highly-praised Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fixture of my “must watch soon” list, while one looking into George “Mad Max” Miller’s very-nearly-happened Justice League movie is in the works. Schnepp has said that while producing The Death of “Superman Lives” he also uncovered information on a variety of other well-known didn’t-happen superhero movies (like J.J. Abrams’ Superman: Flyby, Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman vs Superman, and Darren Aronofksy’s Batman: Year One) and is considering turning those stories into a TV series. I hope he does.

No one outright claims Superman Lives would have been a huge success, as you might expect they would (especially Peters). Instead, as the documentary comes to a close, an interesting consensus emerges from its contributors: that Superman Lives would have been either a completely revolutionary hit or a critical and commercial bomb, but, either way, it would certainly have been interesting. Although this documentary is only really worthwhile for anyone already intrigued by the project or fans of behind-the-scenes-of-blockbusters tales, it’s hard to disagree with that opinion.

4 out of 5

The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is available to purchase in a variety of digital packages, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray, from tdoslwh.com.

* There are no certificates because it’s not officially been released in the UK and it’s “not rated” in the US. If you’re bothered, it would probably be a 15 / R for language. ^

Superman vs. The Elite (2012)

2015 #82
Michael Chang | 74 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Superman vs. The EliteAdapted from acclaimed comic book story What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?, this DC animated movie sees the methods and morals of Superman (George Newbern) being questioned by the public and authorities alike when a super-villain escapes for the umpteenth time and kills more innocent bystanders. In the incident’s wake, a new super-powered team emerges — the titular Elite, led by Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes) — and their preparedness to execute criminals is met with great popularity around the world. How much humanity is humanity willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of conflict resolution? Are Superman’s high morals a thing of the past?

You might not expect such moral quandaries from a superhero narrative, but, well, that’s what flashy blockbusters will do to your impressions — comic books have long tackled more complex themes and debates, just wrapped in the veneer of colourful costumes and abundant fights. That’s transported to the realm of animation here, to an extent. The driving theme taken from the original story (are Superman and his methods still relevant?) is a good’un and well executed at times. Superman vs. The Elite offers quite a different answer to the one Man of Steel presented when it engaged with — or, to be more accurate, fleetingly touched on — a similar dilemma, which may please those who didn’t like that movie. There’s some gentle political satire in the mix too, just to help liven things up a little. You can see why the original comic book merited adapting, at least.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything else about the film is poorly done. The animation is awfully cheap-looking, even by the standards of these direct-to-DVD DC animations. That includes a dreadful realisation of England. It’s very much “grim oop North” — as another reviewer has commented, it looks like it’s simply been copied from a Lowry painting. Accents are similarly heavy-handed, as is Manchester Black’s dated punk style. Dated EliteI assumed they were being faithful to a comic that hails from the ’80s, but it was actually published in 2001. It’s like Brit Pop never happened.

A subplot with Manchester Black’s sister is woefully underdeveloped, like it was badly abridged from a long miniseries, even though the film is actually expanded out from a single-issue story. Supporting characters of significance are few, but include an irritating Lois Lane. It’s hard to pin down why, exactly — it’s her whole characterisation, the way she’s written, as much as Pauley Perrette’s voice performance. An over-abundance of problems like these make it hard to engage with the weightier issues that screenwriter Joe Kelly (adapting his own comic) and director Michael Chang presumably want us to focus on.

A very mixed bag, then. Once you get used to the animation and accept the other weak elements, the final act is relatively good. It feels a long while coming, though.

2 out of 5