“Mistakes Were Made” — How and When to Admit You Messed Up a Huge Summer Movie

You may have heard the crow of triumph from comic book nerds last week when Bryan Singer admitted Superman Returns “had problems.” Perhaps you simply felt the earth rock a bit as a bunch of them lifted their fists in triumph. It only lasted for a second – and then we started talking about Thor again – but it was definitely there.
But I think Singer’s abrupt and anguished analysis is more fascinating as a confessional than as nerd vindication. Directors are artists, after all, and one doesn’t expect them to ever admit their film was fatally flawed. It’s doubtful they ever can get enough distance from it to even know that it was. Whenever we make something, we see precisely what we meant to create — “there it is, see, it’s under the surface but it’s as plain as day if you look!” — but our audience doesn’t. And we’ll argue that they are wrong, ignorant, and blind because it’s there, dang it, it really is!
Singer was pretty adamant that we were wrong, and his film was right. The very first Comic-Con panel I attended featured Singer and Richard Donner talking about their respective Superman films in the summer of ’06. Returns was freshly in theaters, and Singer was full of zeal about the creative choices he made. People went up to the microphone to criticize him, and he was unfazed. One can say something like “A smart director has to realize then that his film flopped!”, but it’s a rare man or woman who can concede defeat that early. It’s the summer blockbuster season! Emotions are high, and fans often chill out and admit it was a pretty good movie.
And yet … they know. At some point, they have to know. When the slings and arrows just keep coming, and the studio hesitates on giving you the sequel you so enthusiastically talked up, the realization must finally dawn. When do you admit you were wrong, and the world was right? Even if you knew all along — you directed, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallenor Jonah Hex – when is the time to stand up and say “Mistakes were made. I messed up that film. I messed it up bad. How can I ever apologize enough?”
We certainly want them to. And yet we frown on them doing it too soon. If Michael Bay or Bryan Singer walked out on opening weekend and said “My film is lousy! It’s horrible! Please don’t see it!”, wouldn’t we see a thousand articles scolding them for their self-destructive streak? How many people worked on that film? Is it fair to dismiss their work so easily? And how many people’s jobs depend on ticket buyers? It’s a complicated and ugly issue. There’s a window where it’s absolutely necessary that the cast and crew of a film stick by it, no matter how much it hurts to do so. You just might want to temper your grandiose “Best movie ever!” statements in order to save a little face later, when you freely admit to the crappiness of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. (Michael Bay did do this, remember? And it was kind of funny after he wrote angry emails to Paramount for their lack of promotional enthusiasm.)
It feels arbitrary to slap a time limit on, but the best window for a confession or apology is really six months to a year after the film’s release. By then, any director should be in the thick of a new project, and be able to look back with the cold and critical eye of their detractors. Artists always have an attachment to their work, but in my own experience, the passion cools relatively quickly and you’re able to see how good or how bad your creation really was. It’s a brand new day, and often a humiliating one, but that’s how we learn and grow. If you’re honest, and admit you were simply too close to see the blemishes, people can respect that. We may not all have made a summer blockbuster, but we’ve all been there.
Singer’s confession had the right tone and sense of self-awareness. But what purpose does it serve now? Coming on the heels of a new Superman just smacks of someone scrambling to interject themselves into a conversation that’s long over. (Well, all right, no geek conversation is ever truly over. Returns comes up in every comment on a new Superman story.) As of 2008, Singer still had confidence in his film, enthusiastic plans for a sequel, and bitter criticism for anyone who disagreed with his creative choices. Three years is a long time though, and having the property yanked out from under you and handed to Zack Snyder has to be a cruel awakening, akin to being put on the rack. Maybe it took public pain to get to the truth.
We shouldn’t expect that a director will ever admit they made a mistake. But it is nice when they do. It makes you feel a small of kinship when you realize they finally sat down, and saw the movie as you did, rather than the one they think they made.

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