A rare misfire from acclaimed director Ang Lee, the comic book thriller Hulk (C-) is schizophrenic indeed. Ostensibly it’s supposed to be an action movie; but in trying to draw out the human elements characteristic of his greatest works, Lee creates a soapy, off-the-rails domestic drama. The story about the man who becomes a monster when enraged is shrouded in a blur of inconsistent effects and sloppy storytelling. It’s often quite a mess, despite admirable work by Eric Bana as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Jennifer Connelly and Nick Nolte. Not sure how this curiosity got green-lit.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (C) skews too safe and squeaky-clean with Tobey Maguire a particularly bland central casting choice stuck playing the dual role of the superhero and Peter Parker. After dispensing with the mythology of how the teen becomes the “arachninspired” legend, Raimi plunges the story into a rather weak romance with Mary Jane (a dead-eyed Kirsten Dunst) and a beleaguered battle with the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, in another “didn’t he used to be good?” role). The special effects are obvious cartoonish CGI and miniatures, and the action just doesn’t seem all that urgent. The best thing that can be said is it’s a fairly harmless film that kids will enjoy as a starter comic book adventure, viewed with parental guidance of course. With great power comes great responsibility, and the usually very creative Raimi stumbled a bit on the job here. Kudos to the iconic upside-down spider-kiss though!
Bryan Singer’s X-Men (B+) is an epic superhero film and apt allegory for outsiders as so-called “mutants” find their way to a special academy for people with special powers and prepare for a clash between good and evil. Patrick Stewart plays the protagonist professor versus Ian McKellan as the sinister mutant with the ability to control metals, who has a disturbing past from WWII. Hugh Jackman is the breakout star as the wily, claw-bearing Wolverine, and Halle Barry and Anna Paquin are among the female warriors in the ensemble. Singer orchestrates quite a streamlined story given the overstuffed number of characters and continually impresses with his bag of tricks. This clearly marks the spot of a fresh new franchise.
Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (D-) is a cluttered cacophony of hardware and hardbodies, of mechanical merchandising mayhem, madness and magnificent men in their flying machines. But there’s nary an ounce of human connection in a comic book adaptation that all of a sudden got too cluttered and silly for its own good.
Mike Binder’s Blankman (F) is a superhero spoof that just sits there like a bad chunk of Kryptonite. Damon Wayans, whose transition to the big screen from In Living Color has not quite soared, plays an inner-city superhero, and that conceit is intended to be funny in and of itself. This film has the power to move viewers to not a single laugh in a single bound.
Sidney J. Furie’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (F) was the film that trashed a perfectly good franchise, and this was coming off a previous film in which Supes accidentally ate dog food and straightened the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This fourth installment has Christopher Reeve’s now sullen Superman promise a bratty kid he will rid the world of nuclear weapons; but when he does so he accidentally activates a super-villain named Nuclear Man who had been strategically placed in embryo form in outer space by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his Valley Girl nephew (Jon Cryer) for just such a fertilization. Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) is quite possibly the lamest supervillain in movie history. Some of the effects in this film look like two dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Hurriedly-dressed sets are hilarious in how much they don’t look like Manhattan/Metropolis. And the stunning lack of logic around topics such as breathing in space further mars this quickie sequel as it creaks to the screen.
It’s like a producer asked what’s popular in the ‘80’s, and someone said computers and Richard Pryor; and then he said, thanks, I was really fishing for the villains for my new superhero film. So there you have it, in Richard Lester’s Superman III (C), Superman vs. a comedian and a microchip fortress. It’s a mess, but a guilty pleasure of a glorious mess as Clark Kent goes to his high school reunion and romances Lana Lang (a charming Annette O’Toole), as Superman is confronted with some bizarre Kryptonite that turns him into a meanie for a while and as Pryor and a gang of billionaire villains set a high-tech trap for Supes. Most of what worked in the past two films simply isn’t here, except Christopher Reeve, who continues to give it his all. In fact, this may be my favorite Reeve performance as Superman/Clark as he gets to go from earnest to boorish quite often depending on what bad super-weed Pryor is pushing. It’s all a bit goofy but still pretty watchable. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t just a slight lifting of standards.
Richard Lester’s Superman II (A) plunges viewers right into the action with a spectacular Eiffel Tower stunt showdown evocative of a James Bond prologue leading up to a showdown with the three villains from Krypton, led by a deliciously diabolical Terence Stamp. Christopher Reeve’s Superman decides that romancing Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is worth spilling his secret identity secret and possibly foregoing his superpowers in this film that balances the weight of the world versus the limits of love. Lester adds a tinge of additional tongue-in-cheek anarchy to the proceedings, which make the showdowns in the streets of Metropolis and in Middle America a whole lot more fun. This sequel flies high.
Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (A-) perfectly captures the zeitgeist of comic strip wonder as the natural charmer Christopher Reeve suits up to play the American hero opposite a marvelously modern Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. Following an appropriately somber special effects laden origin story with Marlon Brando playing Superman’s father and a lovely pastoral wheat field coming of age passage in Smallville, the movie plunges into Metropolis and a megalomaniacal plan by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) to sink California and jack up coastal real estate prices. Donner paces the film precisely for the right tone and tenor to showcase a blossoming romance with Lois and Clark (and his more suave alter ego) and flights of fancy. Except for a misstep in the final reel that too easily resolves some of the plotlines, this is the template for what a great superhero movie can be.