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Film

The Front Page: The Puzzling Ascension of Bryan Singer

The headlines were so bizarre as to be hilarious. The German government, or more specifically, the department in charge of the nation’s motion picture production approvals and locations, was refusing to let Tom Cruise make his new movie, Valkyrie, in their country. It had nothing to do with the storyline -- a failed WWII plot among Nazi officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Though still a slightly tenuous subject, the German people have become less sensitive on the subject. No, the stated rationale was that Cruise, as a member of the controversial Church of Scientology, was a prominent member of a ‘dangerous cult’. The country would have no part in his presence. The firestorm surrounding the decision caused the standard back peddling, and within days, Valkyrie was welcomed with open arms. Oddly enough, if the nation wanted a more legitimate reason for banning the movie, they need look no further than the director in charge.

That’s because Bryan Singer is a hack. In a flummoxing fanboy realm where every movie he’s helmed has been deemed an instant classic, he’s barely better than a dozen far more despised directors. What, for example, makes Singer better than Mark Steven Johnson? Both have overseen half-baked comic book movies, and yet everything Mr. Ghost Rider and Daredevil does is condemned. The same lame characterization and average action sequences also appear regularly in Singer’s sloppy oeuvre. For that matter, why does our X-Man get labeled a true devotee of the funny book artform when Sam Raimi holds a similar Spidey stature? Could it be that Singer fails to own an Evil Dead like cult constantly circling its unwelcome wagons around its maker’s many moves? Indeed, you’d think Raimi would rate higher than this wannabe auteur, and yet so many give big Bry a pass that you’d swear they were on his personal payroll.

Looking back over the six full length features he’s helmed -- and discounting the independent effort Public Access for now -- it is clear that Singer lucked into a situation that, once it occurred, he found almost impossible to repeat. Said circumstance was the happenstance of buddying up with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. A high school friend, the two budding filmmakers collaborated on a pair of projects, one of which would go on to skyrocket the duo to instant Tinsel Town fame. Its name was The Usual Suspects, and thanks to a critical community desperate for something different in the standard crime/caper genre, the talky, showboating cinematic stunt became a sleeper hit. It also gained the pair unexpected Hollywood clout, thanks to many appearances on year-end lists and a pair of Oscars (neither for Singer).

Yet the next step for both seemed highly unusual. McQuarrie, who actually owned one of those two Academy Awards, worked on a failed television pilot (something called The Underworld) while Singer took over the adaptation of one of Stephen King’s beloved Different Seasons stories, Apt Pupil. In fact, he had long wanted to tackle the project, and sent the famed horror author a copy of Suspects as kind of an audition reel. Bringing in another childhood buddy -- Brandon Boyce -- to write the script, Singer made sure to walk as carefully to the edge of the story’s controversial narrative (a young boy discovers a nasty Nazi war criminal in his neighborhood, and picks up his violent mantel) without ruining his mainstream mandate. Unfortunately, a specific artistic choice got the entire production in hot water (Singer filmed a non-sexual shower sequence featuring several unclothed male minors), and in the end, the movie was only mildly successful.

All the while, another friend named Tom DeSanto was planting the seeds for the filmmaker’s first mega-success. A lifelong comic book geek, the production executive desperately wanted Singer to take on the big screen adaptation of the fabled Marvel characters, the X-Men. With its obvious undercurrents of racism and intolerance, it was a project that intrigued the director. Numerous scripts were floating around, many of which were quite faithful to the characters origins and attitudes. Singer, however, wanted to somehow bridge the gap between the fictional and real worlds, and he imposed changes on the property to ‘modernize’ its approach. Devotees of the characters were instantly up in arms (Issue #1 -- the new black ‘Batman’ like suits) and many feared Singer couldn’t appreciate the importance of this long delayed adaptation.

It was clear that, in the end, he really didn’t. X-Men stands as the sloppiest of big screen comic book movies, a leap in artistic logic that believes in manipulating material to fit both the demographic and business model the film is forged within. Thanks to advances in special effects, the various mutant powers owned by the characters are convincingly realized, but Singer fails to find actual personalities within each supposed hero and/or villain. In fact, he seems to think that backstory (Magneto as Holocaust survivor) and the stench of abject racism (the narrative revolves around a politician who wants to expose the mutant population as a possible threat to society) will fill in the obvious blanks. Suffering from average action scenes, an excess of explanatory exposition, and way too many players to properly manage, the movie remains an ineffectual mess. While there are those who find it almost flawless (especially compared to the plethora of similarly styled movies that it spawned), it’s really nothing more than a magnified misfire.

Still, money talks in the BS world of moviemaking, and with nearly $300 million at the box office, X-Men was viewed as an unqualified success. Singer was heralded as the new voice of comic book cinema (soon to be overtaken by others more deserving, including Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro) and he tried to parlay that professional delineation into his next few creative choices. But Hollywood loves to lock artists into previous payoffs, making sure that their triumphs are owned outright and reliably repeatable. Contractually obligated to make X-Men 2, Singer had to drop out of a couple of high profile projects in order to accommodate the studio’s sequel needs. Wanting to take a more ‘human approach’ -- i.e., focusing on the reactions of society against the unusual and the different -- the director drew up a new motion picture battle plan. Of course, he ran directly into the suits desire for more of the same, and it wasn’t long before X2 (as the newest installment was called) arrived, easily following the dollar-based directive.

While a step up artistically, especially in the epic scope and size of the storyline (an almost unlimited budget will do that for you), X2 shows that Singer still has no idea how to combine heroics with emotion. The main characters remain icons, unable to break out of the special skills that more or less define who they are, and without Ian McKellan as prime villain Magneto and Patrick Stewart as good guy Dr. Charles Xavier, the central conflict of the film would have no performance power or potency. Actresses Halle Berry and Famke Janssen lobbied hard for more significant screen time, and the balance between male and female mutants frequently feels shifted based on star quality, not storyline needs. With the action only slightly improved from the first film, and an inconclusive finale that simply sets up the next installment in the series, X2 was a preachy, arrogant attention whore. Naturally, the viewing public ate it up, twisting the turnstiles to the tune of nearly $400 million.

It’s at this point where Singer starts throwing his movie franchise muscle around. In 2004, his TV medical drama House, M.D. , found a home at Fox. Later that year, negotiations began for X-Men 3. But Warner Brothers, desperate to get back into the superhero game, were looking for someone to helm their Superman revamp. A long dormant disaster, everyone from Kevin Smith to Tim Burton had taken a swipe at reviving the Man of Steel, and with moneymen behind the mutants balking at Singer’s latest demands, Kal-El’s keepers saw a chance to get one of the two main names in the genre (Raimi, the auteur behind the ridiculously popular Spider-man series being the other). Singer jumped at the chance to reimagine Kyrpton’s last son, and Fox responded by handing over the reigns of X-Men: The Last Stand, to the Rush Hour reject, Brett Ratner.

Though slightly hurt, Singer couldn’t have cared less. He had Clark Kent’s alter ego to deal with, and the problems were paramount. The project had little believability or bearing and the graphic novel basis for much of the jumpstart was forged out of publicity ploys (the Death of Superman) and Dark Knight style stunts. Looking over the character’s cinematic arc, Singer proposed something radical. He would forget everything and anything that came after Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s ‘70s interpretation of the material, and make a movie that picked up where Superman 2 left off. While fans were flummoxed, Warners was sold. The new direction was approved and casting commenced. Chalk one up for Singer’s sense of what would sell. Unfortunately, it would be the last cognizant decision he would make as director.

His first significant stumble came with his choice of actors. No, Brandon Routh would turn out to be a wonderful choice (he’s a great Man of Steel), and old pal Kevin Spacey (who won one of his two Oscars under Singer’s guidance in The Usual Suspects) was an obvious - and rather easy - Lex Luthor. But Kate Bosworth is a hideous Lois Lane, incapable of bringing anything remotely realistic to her portrayal of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She’s a lousy damsel in distress and an even worse example of self-sufficiency. In this post-modern, post-feminist world, she crumbles the minute danger rears its routine head. She is supposed to illustrate the broken dream of Superman’s disappearance, but she’s really nothing more than an un-pretty pie face playing with the big boys.

Then there is the overall art design. Somewhere along the line, Singer fell in love with the notion of tweaking the image as far over into the blue spectrum of color as possible. Noticeable even to the untrained eye, the azure tint to everything from cars to clothes is oddly unsettling. Perhaps he thought it would give the entire production a more comic panel feel. Instead, it frequently feels like someone has purposefully fiddled with your retina’s rods and cones. As for the action, the opening space shuttle crash is wonderfully executed, and when the Daily Planet’s trademark globe is dislodged from the top of the skyscraper, Superman’s rescue of said object is powerful in its impact. But the rest of the movie is undermined by a real lack of focus -- specifically, in what Lex Luthor plans on doing with his newfound appreciation for crystals and kryptonite.

From a sloppy haired super offspring (who looks about as threatening as a Little Rascal’s waif) to a finale that’s all spectacle and no substance, Superman Returns was not the pinnacle of Singer’s production powers. Indeed, it once again highlighted all of his inherent flaws. Unlike Raimi, who perfectly balanced emotion with excess in Spider-man 2, or Nolan, who found a flawless combination of psychological and physical conflict in Batman Begins, Singer’s characters are all flash. They appear to be reaching for depth, but unless they are capable of seeing beneath the surface (like Routh did for his turn as Superman), they end up coming across as flat and totally dimensionless. Even the heroes he chose to highlight in the X-Men series -- Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm -- are more outer shells than insular individuals, defined almost exclusively by their special skills. The intriguing thing about Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne is that, at least in their current cinematic incarnation, they are people first, pillars of super heroism second.

This is why Singer sucks. He’s all about the surface, his constant concerns about subtext all smoke and unskilled mirrors. Outside the genre, he’s had limited direct success (Suspects was McQuarrie and Spacey’s baby, the vast majority of House is helmed by others) and so few people have seen his Sundance winner Public Access that it really doesn’t count. Any other filmmaker would be called a wounded one trick pony, especially since the X-Men have now been largely overshadowed by other, better comic book movies. This doesn’t mean that we should write off Bryan Singer for the near future. It merely indicates that, as some kind of savior, as a go to guy for every epic idea that comes down the pipeline, he should have to wait in line like dozens of derivative others. He’s not the greatest director of kinetic eye candy, and his films can’t compare to the efforts of those who’ve followed.

Valkyrie could change all that, and if it does, he will once again have a lot of significant help. McQuarrie is back penning the script, and Cruise still holds some clout, even if his pre-War of the Worlds/Mission Impossible III antics cost him some demographic percentage points. But having the German government diss you before a single frame a film is shot (granted, it now seems like a massive miscommunication) is not the most promising of possible omens. And yet, when Bryan Singer is involved in a project, it seems that something has to be slightly askew. It helps explain his ineffectualness come opening day, providing a built in excuse where something more personal is definitely the issue. How this translates into his status as an A-list director is still astounding. He’s no different than a dozen mediocre moviemakers (Tim Story, are you listening?) who get lucky tapping into an uninformed audience zeitgeist. He not special -- he’s substandard. This makes his continued ascension into the ranks of motion picture powerhouses as puzzling as ever.

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