Superman vs. the X-Men
I saw Superman Returns this weekend, so I can now comment on X-Men 3. Superman was the better movie, with good acting all around. I especially enjoyed the performances of two of the lesser characters: Sam Huntington (Detroit Rock City) as Jimmy Olsen, and Kal Penn (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) as Lex Luthor’s pilot. I’m not sure if Penn had more than two words in the entire movie, but his body language and facial expressions really set off Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor. It helps that he shares Superman’s first name!
I loved Huntington in Detroit Rock City, and it was a very pleasant surprise to see him here.
The movie itself was very tightly edited and plotted. The two and a half hours flew by, even though the air conditioning was on the fritz in the AMC theater we went to.
The Elephants in the Room
The obvious problem with the movie were two noticeably missing current events: September 11 and Iraq. War is a problem Superman writers have had since the fifties. In World War II it wasn’t as much of a problem because Superman was not yet the god-like creation he is today. He still couldn’t even fly, but rather had to leap long distances.
In retroactive Superman/World War II stories, after Superman’s power expanded, DC Comics came up with a plot device wherein the Axis had a magic spell over their territories. If Superman (and a handful of other ultra-powerful superheroes) entered Axis territory, mind control caused them to switch sides. This ensured that the writers didn’t have to deal with Superman (and other superheroes) changing the course of history.
Brian Singer solves the September 11 problem by having Superman leave earth five years ago. Assuming Superman Returns is set in the current time, this means he left a few months before the September 11 attacks. However, that’s pretty much the sum total of the movie’s nod to current events.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t lurking in the background, however. Lois Lane has written an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”. She’s about to receive a Pulitzer for it, now, five years after Superman left. That indicates there are some significant feelings about Superman’s absence. It is hard to imagine what people would feel about major disasters in a world where they once had a Superman and now do not—and for no apparent reason.
Superman’s disappearance must have only become obvious during that morning. When Superman did not swoop down to stop that second airliner from crashing into the World Trade Center, it must have felt like Superman had abandoned them.
It isn’t hard to believe that an essay about why the world doesn’t need Superman would be considered Pulitzer material. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this resentment plays a role in subsequent movies, assuming Singer stays at the helm.
With great power…
Brian Singer and his team appear to be setting Superman up for a power play morality tale, perhaps power corrupts or one of power and responsibility. Superman first abandoned the world and let bad things happen. Soon, he may try to do too much.
Explaining this requires giving away an important bit of the plot, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you may want to avoid moving your mouse over this text. Also, if your browser doesn’t support style sheets very well, you may just want to skip down to the end of these paragraphs.
In the comics, Superman has a very strict code against killing. The movies haven’t made this explicit, but they appear to be following the rule. With Superman’s powers, especially his heat vision, he could kill any human villain he wants to, from long distance, with no danger to himself.
In Superman Returns, Superman has a son—he doesn’t learn this until the end of the movie—and young Jason’s powers aren’t fully developed. But Jason’s first act with his super powers is to kill a man who is beating up his mother.
It was barely mentioned in the movie after that. Superman probably doesn’t even know it happened. Lois does, and she was both grateful and apparently a little scared. This may be the first time he’s ever shown super powers.
But this kid is not growing up in Smallville raised by two elderly farmers. His upbringing is going to be the opposite of Superman’s: raised in the city by wealthy parents who both work all day and who are willing to put him in danger to do their jobs.
It’ll be especially interesting to see how Superman treats the world now that he has a son. In the old comics, Superman often had to choose between his love for Lois and his desire to protect the world. Both the first and second movies covered this as well. In Superman I, Superman turns back time to save Lois (but not, apparently, the rest of the world), and in Superman II he gives up his powers for Lois, but has to get them back again when the Kryptonian villains take over the world.
Now that he also has a son, this conflict will likely escalate. Will he feel that he needs to be more pro-active in making the world a better place? At the same time that his son is coming to grips with the responsibilities inherent in having super-human power, Superman may go through a mid-life crisis. What happens when a superpower tries to do too much to make the world a better place for future generations?
Superman is so powerful that his stories are not so much about big fights as they are about responsibilities. As much as I enjoyed the fight scene in Superman II, it was ultimately irrelevant to the plot. Superman Returns has no such fight. His responsibility, as the Daily Planet shows, is to hold up the world.
X-Men 3, on the other hand, was a bit of a disapointment. It was an okay movie, if you ignored the dialogue and the plot. I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad I saw it in the theaters. But I’m not likely to pick up the DVD. Having seen it once, there isn’t much to see again. After the first two movies it could have been so much more. Brian Singer’s absence was obvious.
The first two movies were driven by a fear of strange others. The world feared that mutants would try to convert their children into mutants, too. As many people noted, Singer was drawing on anti-gay stereotypes for his mutants, combining them with anti-Jew stereotypes of the past.
The movies were about minorities, and about disarming those minorities. In the first movie, Senator Kelly tries to convince an unknown senator to support mutant control legislation by asking him “you support gun control, don’t you?” The implication is clear: “these people” need to be disarmed.
In the second movie, the government comes after the mutants’ “guns”. And the mutants fight back, killing government agents in defense of their rights and their lives. Singer’s team drives home that this is what Wolverine is doing—killing people who are just following orders—both in the assault on the mansion and when Stryker gives his venom to Deathstrike.
The mutants in X2 are not caught up by a charismatic leader such as Magneto. They’re not making choices. In the case of the soldiers, they’re following orders. In the case of Deathstrike, she’s the victim of mind control. If the mind control venom ever fades out, she’d almost certainly attack Stryker. Wolverine knows this, but he has to fight back, not just to survive, but to save lives. Choosing to kill her is the nadir of Wolverine’s story so far.
The third movie threw most of this out. All of the subversive choices left with Singer. On the surface there are similarities: the cure for mutant powers could have fit the theme well. But instead it was just used as a plot device for a big fight. And the big fight was cool. But, like Superman, the X-Men are not about big fights. They’re about character interaction and big themes. That was missing this time around.
Part of the problem was the dialogue. Magneto’s big speech was disappointing, especially given the caliber of the actor delivering it. Where was the charismatic leader who befriends even mutants such as Professor Xavier? This is Ian McKellan we’re talking about here! Why saddle him with such poor dialogue? I can understand Storm’s poor speech: she was set up in the first movie as a poor speaker. But Magneto was not and is not.
Wolverine’s big speech was as bad as Magneto’s. Wolverine should have been better. This is the kind of situation he excels at, even if he doesn’t like that he excels at it. But that’s not my complaint here. It isn’t that Wolverine is a poor speaker that hurts his speech. It’s what he chooses not to talk about. Look at that team. Look at that purpose. What the fuck? Why are they going into battle with someone who can kill them all? With what looks like a 12-year-old girl? They never, anywhere in the movie, touched on the fact that they’ve got a little kid in their main battle team.
She wasn’t needed. There was no expectation that she would make a difference and in fact she didn’t. Just about anyone could have handled her role. Or at least, anyone over 18. I suppose we can count our blessings that Kitty Pryde didn’t sneak onto the Blackbird and screw up the mission by having to be rescued, screaming all the while, but still, what the hell?
Wolverine was a wimp in that talk. Where was the talk of death? Magneto has no scruples about killing; the people he recruits often enjoy not just killing, but torture. Given the caliber of people Magneto recruited this time around, it wasn’t just death that the X-Men were risking. Yet there was no mention of the risk they were about to face, no discussion anywhere about the appropriateness of bringing young children into that risk.
And the situation wasn’t in any sense a “last stand”. This wasn’t the last stand between mutants and humans, as the trailers promised. Nor was it the last stand between mutants and mutants. It was just a stupid little fight over a stupid little island over a stupid little vaccine.
Oh, and a stupid little kid who could turn off mutant powers. Here is a world where being a mutant is like being gay in the fifties. So they take this kid and turn him into a vaccine generator. And in a nice way. He’s not kept as a slave. He gets video games and a nice room and, as far as I can tell, can probably even go out to movies.
This is a kid whose power will set up a major emotional conflict in every mutant who isn’t at terms with their mutations. Other than Hank McCoy seeing his human hand again, this isn’t touched on. Even Rogue, who looks into taking advantage of the vaccine, never goes through any conflict about that choice onscreen.
The only thing we get out of that “subplot” (and I guess I can call it a subplot because despite how small and inconsequential it is, it’s still one of the biggest plots in the movie) is an interaction between Rogue and Wolverine. Wolverine just tells her to make sure she’s doing it for herself, and he’s not her dad, he’s a friend. And then sends her off across the country (New York to San Francisco) alone on a bus trip. Some friend!
Magneto’s treatment was probably the most disappointing. He went from a relatively layered and understandable villain who believed he was doing right, to a stupid one-dimension villain, evil nearly for the sake of evil. In the first two movies, and over the course of the comics, Magneto was arguably one of the heroes. He was tolerated by Professor X not just because he was an old friend, but because in the true last stand, his martial prowess will be necessary.
The first two X-Men movies set up a layered story with characters. Fox had the opportunity to create a trilogy that would last the ages. Instead, they just went for the fight scenes.
- October 18, 2009: Superman Returns is a great movie
I just finished watching Superman Returns again. It is brilliant, more so every time I watch it. It has a depth far surpassing the two great originals from the seventies and even Singer’s own great X-Men movies. What I said at first blush about it being “not as good as I’d been hoping for, but it was very good” was probably just over the hype. Whatever the reason, I was wrong about the first part, and right about the second.
This is a beautiful movie that builds with every viewing, and it sets up what promised to be an epic tale of heroism and the responsibility of power, a clash between the farm and the city, of good intentions and freedom. It’s too bad it looks like Singer won’t get to finish it. This could have been a story for the ages. It almost is even unfinished.