Summer Showdown: Can "Superman Returns" Top "Pirates of the Caribbean 2?"

by | June 30, 2006 | Comments

With the successful but not-quite-spectacular opening of "Superman Returns" this week (pulling in $21 M in its Wednesday opening run), some may start to wonder just how worried Warner Bros. should be in the short week of box office dominance it has before Disney’s "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest" debuts on July 7. RT puts both blockbusters head to head to predict which flick will pop audiences’ kernels the most this summer…

Let me preface this by noting that I have indeed seen both "Superman Returns" and "Pirates of the Caribbean 2," and enjoyed both immensely. That said, a number of elements pop up when comparing the two studio tent poles that could make this contest an excruciatingly close call.

Action-Romance vs. Action-Comedy

First and foremost, are you a lover of romance, or is action more important to your movie-going experience? If you’d be more moved by the wistful melancholy of impossible love than rousing sets of swashbuckling derring-do, "Superman" might be a more satisfying way to spend 2 hours and 40 minutes of your life. The return of the world’s once-beloved superhero after a five year absence tugs more than a few heartstrings as Superman finds both the world and the woman he loves have moved on without him, and scenes between Brandon Routh‘s Supes and Kate Bosworth‘s Lois Lane carry the emotional complexity of wounded romance (alienated lovers, awkward silences, unspoken feelings) that inevitably abound in real life.

Routh and Bosworth make convincing tormented ex-lovers

But if you’d rather soak in action, adventure, and lighthearted fantasy (or, as some critics have argued, you are simply a guy), "Pirates" may strike your fancy much more. As in the first installment, this sequel is full of spirited swordfighting, fantastical CGI creatures, and silly, entertaining set pieces. As one of only two women in the cast, it’s nice to see Keira Knightley getting a bigger piece of the action than she did in "Curse of the Black Pearl;" this time around, her Elizabeth gets more time in pirate garb than in a corset, and even gets to wield a few swords.

Winner: Tie (will gender and/or sensitivity split the decision?)

History, Franchise, and Pre-requisites

Thematics aside, both films do have a lot in common — making them natural rivals for the affections and ticket sales of potential audiences. Both are big-screen adaptations of a youth-oriented fantasy intended to appeal to a wide (but largely adult) demographic. In this, "Superman Returns" has a whole lot more to live up to — decades of comics, multiple multi-generational television shows, an entire film series, the iconic Christopher Reeves — while "Pirates" has only got to live up to a Disneyland staple ride (recently updated with the films’ Jack Sparrow, we hear) and its own cinematic predecessor.

Winner: "Pirates"

Story and Characters

Here "Pirates" has the added edge of being a sequel, with characters and storylines still familiar to fans who even vaguely remember Part One. In contrast, "Superman" seems at times cumbersome in its requisite homages to previous "Supermans" (visually, sonically, pop culturally), even that clever Singer setup enabling the trailer-friendly line "It’s a bird! It’s a plane!" Singer’s co-written story explains Superman’s 5-year-long absence from Earth, but he must (he has to, else the Superfans eat him alive) provide scenes showing his many Kryptonic superpowers — X-ray vision, heat vision, flying, super-duper breath, speed, impermeable skin, impossibly white teeth, etc. Sure, it’s cool to see these powers demonstrated, especially in one heist-foiling scene involving a hail of bullets and his freaking eyeball, but having to include each scene in the 160 minute runtime (and with a $2.3 M bill to shoot the latter scene), you have to wonder if proving Superman’s strengths is worth losing the patience (and all feeling in the derriere) of the viewer.

Captain Jack: still preening, but a tad more complex

In comparison, "Pirates" wastes far less time setting up character and story (they’re mostly the same, if you’ve seen the first film) and allows Knightley, Orlando Bloom, and Johnny Depp to expand their characters. Elizabeth and Will are no longer children growing up, but young adults engaged to be married; Captain Jack Sparrow still remains a charming, self-serving rascal, but he’s now a softer cad trying desperately to avoid a terrible fate. Circumstances once again throw the trio together, along with returning Laurel and Hardy-esque pirates Ragetti and Pintel, and Commodore Norrington; Will is reunited with his long-lost pirate father, Bootstrap Bill Turner (a stellar, soulful Stellan Skarsgaard), and his distraction in this side-story opens the door for an interesting, if inevitable love triangle between Will, Elizabeth, and Jack. In fact, Elizabeth’s comically hormonal reaction to her abruptly postponed marriage allows for the most entertaining and believable "distance makes the heart grow confused" discourse since Jacques Demy‘s "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." Seriously.

Winner: ?? "Superman" is a bit redundant; "Pirates" is definitely an in-betweener — as in a Part Two of Three (reportedly filmed without a finished script, back to back with "Dead Man’s Chest"), making "Pirates" feel distinctly episodic…

Visual Effects

But perhaps none of this matters to you — what of the special effects? "Superman" serves up the more sensational, sky-searing sequences by far; even without the enormous IMAX screen and 20 minutes of 3D visuals (by which I mean on a normal screen) these high-flying set pieces — and the Metropolis-saving sequence, and the deep sea sequence — are surely stunning. Superman’s shuttle-rescuing reintroduction to society, in which he catches an Earth-bound, Lois-carrying airplane and nestles it safely onto the ground of a packed baseball stadium, is enough to make you cheer yourself — if not for Superman himself, then for Singer and his FX crew. Clark’s flashback scene recalling his first superpowers is a neat visual treat. And did I mention that $2 M eyeball-bullet scene? Totally worth it, on a purely eye-candy level.

"Superman" soars spectacularly through the skies!

Does "Pirates" measure up to "Superman"’s wow factor? Not quite, although the creature CGI and visual effects on the undead crew of the supernatural Flying Dutchman pirate ship are impressive in their own right. Verbinski scores with some amazing computer-generated visuals more than a few times, especially with the menacing, squid-faced Captain Davy Jones (played beautifully by Bill Nighy) and Jones’ killer sea creature, the Kraken. Davy Jones’ crew of undead pirates, sworn to a lifetime of servitude on his undersea ship, take on physical characteristics of the ocean: a spiky shell-faced first mate, a hammerhead shark henchman, a poor lost soul who’s transformed into human coral. Fantastical as they seem, they’re all completely believable visually, even in a world so, well, fantastical.

Winner: "Superman," by a plane-catch and an eye-bullet

Both "Superman" and "Pirates" are fun rides that will perform decently (and, in the case of the latter, I think will perform outstandingly). Both are mind-wearingly, butt-numbingly long (at 160 and 150 minutes, respectively). Audiences already know Superman, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor, as they do Jack Sparrow (or at least, the swaggering, rock star-like Johnny Depp). "Dead Man’s Chest" was shot back-to-back with the next "Pirates" sequel, Part Three; "Superman Returns" cost a whopping $260 Million to complete.

"Pirates" boasts beautifully composed shots and a better, more balanced cast; “Superman” has an emotional core, a humanity, a poignancy.

"Pirates" is full of achingly composed, beautiful shots like this opening scene

Two days into its release, "Superman Returns" has gone Certified Fresh at 76 percent on the Tomatometer. With only five reviews in (and none from the Cream of the Crop), "Pirates" is hovering at a 60 percent Official Tomatometer — though that is sure to change by early next week. My own personal pick? Although I shed more than a few tears for "Superman," my heart belongs to "Pirates" — if only ever so slightly.

What do you think? Which flick appeals to you more? Who will win the box-office battle?