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World’s Finest Smackdown: The Big Men of DC Comics

EDITOR’S NOTE:  With this Smackdown first posted in May 2008, we begin a series of “Classic Smack” reviews that deal with super-heroes from comic book origins.  There’s a poll at the end of the review where you can vote for your favorite film that launched or re-launched a single-character comic-based super-hero franchise.  Express yourself!

Superman Returns (2006) -vs- Batman Begins (2005)

The Smackdown
.  Before going with the solo projects “Superman Returns” and “Batman Begins,” Warner Bros. teased fans for years with the idea of a “Batman Versus Superman” film.
It’s a fanboy dream, of course, to see DC’s two most iconic characters in the same movie.  Since it’s not going to happen (at least in the immediate future), Smackdown puts the recent reboots into the ring.  Both of these superheroes had rather shameful pre-21st Century franchise histories and great care needed to be taken with their re-imaginings.  “Batman Begins” clearly believes that the path to success is its ability to shine a light (Bat-Signal?) on a new tone while “Superman Returns” obviously believes the fastest way (speeding bullet?) is to get back to what worked before and get that right.

The Challenger. Superman Returns blasted onto movie screens with more of a whimper than a bang, presenting a soft, character-driven story about a god-like alien’s search to find his messianic place on Earth and an old foe’s attempt to exploit the hero’s alien heritage.  Under Bryan Singer, fresh off his success with the first two X-Men films, Superman returns to Earth after five years of searching for his destroyed homeworld to find an engaged Lois Lane with child and his old nemesis, Lex Luthor, scheming to recreate Krypton on Earth.  Although having a plane rescue that is arguably one of the best shot, scored, and realized action sequences in superhero history, Superman Returns seems more comfortable in the tense silences between its characters as they struggle to find one another in this somewhat overly long movie.

The Defending Champion.  Christopher Nolan tore into the psyche of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, the first film to chronicle exactly how a billionaire playboy evolves into a night-stalking vigilante dubbed Batman.  Armed with a tank-like Batmobile and military-grade armor, Nolan’s Batman wages war on Gotham’s corruption before facing a fanatical international terrorist hellbent on saving the world by destroying it.  This happens just in time for Batman Begins to cater to action and comic fans who expect  big explosions, fast fighting, and clever one-liners to tie up all the loose plot ends in an efficient, if cliche, manner.

The Scorecard.   Batman Begins gives an entire backstory to Bruce Wayne that is only hinted at in previous live-action Batman films and shows.  This is a darker story at first, exploring themes of revenge and justice.  However, once Bruce returns to Gotham, the film largely becomes action-oriented and the darker tones established early in the film are abandoned.  The obsessive lust for revenge that Bruce Wayne harbors is lost as Batman politely excuses himself to criminals, gives fashion compliments to the homeless during battle, and gets chummy with Gordon to prevent the ticking time-bomb scenario of the film’s predictable climax.

Though the Superman/Lois dynamic and Luthor’s real estate interests in Superman Returns may seem like retreads too, Singer contextualizes them in such a way as to make Lois reflect Superman’s yearning for acceptance and Luthor’s scheme mirror the haunting fact of being the last survivor of his race.  When Superman confronts these challenges on Luthor’s bastardized version of Krypton, he suffers a lynching at the hands of Luthor and his thugs, nearly dies tossing the last of his homeworld into space, and finally discovers that Lois’s child is his own.  The film ends as Superman gives up his only son to Lois and her fiancee in much the same way that his own father gave him up to Earth.  The characters have found each other but Singer has thrown them into a new emotional world full of challenges, threats, and most importantly: hope.

So, Superman and Batman go toe-to-toe and…

The Decision.  Superman Returns squeaks past Batman Begins
and does so on the merit of its ending.  Nolan gives a fresh take by
taking Bruce Wayne through his dark psyche but leaves him in a
situation that could easily be a  launching point for any of the
previous Batman films we have seen.  Superman Returns builds
upon what’s come before, but during its final moments leaves its
characters in new — and controversial — situations.  None of
Superman’s previous films even hint at a child, nor explore so deep
as this one Superman’s alienation.  For this reason, Batman Begins has no cinematic kryptonite to best Superman Returns.




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