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Hollywood News: Superman Returns (2006)
Superman Returns is released at long last, and once again, my supernaturally high expectations have let me down. This isn't to say that Bryan Singer's Man of Steel reboot is a bad movie. Far from it. It just isn't great. Granted, I've been waiting for this movie for decades.


Before I get to the review, I'd like to talk about the Superman mythos. I love Superman. Always have, always will. The infatuation goes back to my days as a wee lad. What little kid wished that they were Superman at one time or another? I think at some point as a child, I might have even considered jumping of the roof wearing the cape that came with my Superman underoos, Supes makes it look like a breeze. Fortunately my earthly parents learned of my caper and vetoed my plans. I've always been extremely vocal and vehement as to my opinion that entertainment can't be blamed for the idiocy that goes on in real life. Art imitates life. It isn't the other way around. I suppose in this particular instance, I would have to acquiesce. Thank God I was eleven, by the time Richard Donner's wonderful adaptation of Superman was released. Had I been any younger, I might have considered jumping off a bridge or some crazy such madness. The wonderfully inventive tag line for that movie read; "You'll believe a man can fly." They were right. I did believe a man could fly. Even though the effects work in that picture might feel a bit dated, I still watch it with the same sense of wonder I did when I was eleven.
Quite obviously, the 70's were a much different time for movies. Unlike today when a mega-budget, special effect-fueled beast hits the multi-plex once a week, in that particular decade such films were far less prevalent. Fantasy and sci fi movies (think Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) were the exception. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, that convincing an audience that a man can fly today, is much different than convincing them back in '78 - because there's a certain innocence lacking in the common movie goer nowadays. Translation; there'd better be a good story to back up the razzle dazzle.
Holding Donner's mythic vision together was a virtual unknown named Christopher Reeve. While Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman received top billing in the film, it was the charismatic, charming Reeve who proved to be the super glue that would hold it all together. As the all American Man of Steel and the bumbling, oafish Clark Kent, Reeve managed to not only make the audience believe a man could fly – he also made us believe he was two entirely different people. It didn't matter that there was only a mere pair of glasses separating Clark from Superman. Reeve was so convincing and so joyful in his depiction of these two characters, that it was easy to see why Lois and everyone else in the movie were fooled by his duality. He really sold it. He was Clark Kent. He was Superman. Would there be anyone else who could pull this role off as effortlessly? Only time would tell.

Through the years, Warner Brothers has tried to re-ignite the franchise several times. In the 90's, comic book geek and film maker Kevin Smith took a whack at a screenplay. Shortly thereafter, Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage were involved. Later on, names like McG, Michael Bay, and Brett Ratner were bandied batted about, but it would ultimately be Bryan Singer (who dazzled the comic book crowd with the first two X-Men films) who would be tapped to helm the project. Ironically, it would come at a price. Fox would not wait for Singer to finish Superman before going ahead with a third X-Men film. Instead, they fast tracked that project, and put Brett Ratner of all people in the driver's seat. It's odd how things work out in that wacky land called Hollywood.
Singer, meanwhile, immersed himself in Superman, but before he would approach Warner Brothers with the concept he had in mind, he went directly to Donner hoping he might receive the veteran film maker's blessing. Donner was enthusiastic about the pitch and even helped Singer land the gig with WB.
As much as Superman Returns is an ode to various incarnations of the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, it is the first Superman film that Singer and his screenwriting crew (Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris) have clearly used as a touchstone. Both the first picture and the second are loaded into the flashback machine, while Superman III and IV all but ignored.
So is Superman Returns a remake or is it a sequel? In my opinion, it's both in very much the same way Terminator 3 was both. Now I know plenty of folks out there hated Terminator 3 (I actually quite liked it), and I'm not suggesting that this film is anything like that one. I use Jonathan Mostow's picture as an example because that movie managed to continue the franchise while using the same beats and rhythm as its predecessors. Likewise, Superman Returns manages to be both a continuation and a homage at the same time.
I positively hate spoilers, so I'm going to tread lightly in terms of what I reveal in this review. I will start by saying that you might want to watch Superman and Superman 2 before going to this film. It will greatly enhance your enjoyment of Superman Returns, but at the same time, it will bring to the surface some pretty big flaws. We'll get to that in a second.
Superman Returns opens approximately five years after the events that took place in the second film. Following those events (which are really only vaguely alluded to in this movie), Superman (played by newcomer Brandon Routh) mysteriously vanishes without so much as saying goodbye to those in his life (save for his Earthly mother played by veteran Eva Marie Saint). Upon his return, the Man of Steel discovers that the world has gone on without him, including a love sick, Pulitzer Prize winning Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth).
Meanwhile, Superman's vengeful arch nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is back as well, following a hiatus of a completely different nature. With hatred in his heart and a brand new real estate scheme up his sleeve, it's clear that Superman will once again have to save humanity as we know it.
Firstly, let's get one thing out of the way. Superman Returns was crafted by a passionate individual with a great love for this famed character. What's more, director Bryan Singer was so moved by Donner's film, that he's opted to craft his installment with virtually the same tone. This will, no doubt, be disconcerting to many, but I kind of liked it. Be it the familiar opening titles accompanied by John Williams' masterful march, to a humorous moment in which Superman suggests that flying is still the safest way to travel, to Lex Luther's dastardly plan for world domination (which once again has to do with the real estate business), to the fashion in which the Man of Steel poses as he flies off screen at the end of the film, Superman Returns is a big time stroll down memory lane, but it isn't a mere retread as many critics are suggesting. Sure, the film has many of the same beats of the 1978 version, and yes, it does use some of the same lines of dialogue verbatim, but this is still very much a continuation. Singer doesn't do what John Moore did with his recent remake of Donner's The Omen. This is not a straight up remake.
How does the new cast compare to the old one? Well, Singer was wise in seeking an unknown for the lead. Brandon Routh has the perfect build and look for this updated Man of Steel, and while many have dismissed his turn here as a mere impersonation of Reeve, I don't know that's an entirely fair observation. Routh brings a certain individuality to the table, particularly as Kent. If I have a big gripe, it's that Routh isn't given the full opportunity to stretch his acting ability because Superman Returns is about 70% Superman and 30% Clark. It would have served the film had there been a better balance. What's more, it does take Routh a little time to settle in, but given that Superman Returns is so technical in nature, that's understandable. By the end of the picture, I felt Routh had pulled it off. He has some really wonderful moments, my favorite being a speech he gives to a sleeping child toward the end of the film (on a clever little side note, I believe the little boy is wearing Aquaman pajamas – cute). If I have anything negative to say about Routh, it's that perhaps he's too pretty. But then that isn't really an insult is it?
Kevin Spacey is the perfect choice for Lex in the same way Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman. He brings the same sort of wicked sense of humor to the part that Gene Hackman brought twenty-six years ago, but Spacey's Lex is far more vicious. This is clearly a revenge inspired character, and Spacey plays that up in a beautiful way. There's been much talk about how a hero is only as strong as his villain, and in this capacity, the movie sort of fails. Spacey is a master, but as a character, he never really feels like much of a match (or threat) for Superman. Furthermore, the two only share a couple of minutes of screen time.
Kate Bosworth is cute as the tenacious Lois Lane, but she lacks the all out spunk of Margot Kidder. As the intrepid reporter, she spends most of the film as the damsel in distress, but then the film is called Superman and not Lois.
There is a love triangle of sorts in Superman Returns. When Supes returns to Earth, he is stunned to find that Lois has a new man in her life. He's portrayed by X-Men's James Marsden. Strangely, Marsden is responsible for one of the more heroic acts in the film, and this lends an interesting dynamic to the proceedings. I only wish his character would have been better flushed out.
Independent film darling Parker Posey appears as Lex Luthor's side kick. I guess you could call her a sort of fusion of the Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty characters from the first two films. Posey purposely overplays the proceedings lending a campy vibe to the movie that is at times funny, and at others, downright annoying.

In the strangest bit of casting, Kal Penn appears as one of Luthor's henchman. Singer is wise to make Penn's role a non-speaking one, presumably for fear that this might turn into Harold and Kumar Go To The Fortress of Solitude. The sight of Penn throwing a punch at Superman was unintentionally funny to me.
The supporting cast is picture perfect. From Frank Langella's lively Perry White, to Sam Huntington's boyish Jimmy Olsen, to Eva Marie Saint's loving Martha Kent, the smaller roles are well cast and well played. We even get a couple of classy cameos in the form of Jack Larson (he played Olsen in the old Superman TV show) and Noel Neil (she played Lois on the old show as well as Lois' mother in Donner's film). Finally, Singer brilliantly includes Marlon Brando by means of unused footage from the original and a little bit of digital trickery. It's all really impressive.
How are the special effects? Well, quite obviously, technology has come a long way since 1978. The scenes of Superman taking flight are just extraordinary. His scenes in flight as well as his lift offs are seamless, and once again: I believed a man can fly. The highlight of the film comes in the form of a breathtaking jet rescue (a sequence that ultimately finds itself in a major league baseball park – you don't get any more American than Superman in a baseball park). This particular sequence is beyond description. I've seen the film twice. Once in a regular theater, and then again in Imax 3-D (at the glorious Jordan Commons Megaplex Theater in Salt Lake City). If given the opportunity, by all means go see Superman Returns in Imax 3-D - if for no other reason than seeing the jet rescue. It will blow you to the back of the theater.
I applaud Bryan Singer and Warner Brothers for releasing this picture in the Imax format, as it is perfectly suited for such a presentation. Pushing the medium even further, Singer has transferred twenty minutes of the film into digital 3-D taking Superman Returns to even greater heights. It would have been nice had the entire film been transferred into the third dimension. It would have been an enormous kick watching the opening credits in 3-D. As it stands though, the four sequences that do leap from the screen are more than worth it. Imax 3-D is yet another solid reason to go to the movies.
So as I stated earlier in the review, Superman Returns is an extremely flawed film, especially when you examine it as a continuation of the first two movies. Without going into too much detail, one thing that constantly bothered me during this film, was Lois' recollection of her love affair with the Man of Steel? Why? Well, for those who don't remember, Superman does in fact reveal his identity to Lois in Superman 2. At one point in that movie, Superman even has his powers taken from him so that he might live with Lois as a mere mortal. Of course, the Man of Steel gets his powers back so that he might save the city from destruction at the hands of three super villains. At the end of the film, he realizes that the world needs him, and that having a conventional love relationship is a sacrifice he will have to make.
So, in an effort to ease Lois' suffering, Superman erases the love sick reporter's memory by means of a super kiss. By this rationale, Lois shouldn't even remember she had a history with Superman. I suppose it could be argued that this is more of a continuation of the first film, but that doesn't make sense, because no apparent history was really even established during the course of that movie. In the first picture, Lois was experiencing a bit of puppy love, but the relationship hadn't been fully explored yet. I suppose this is nitpicking, but I was sort of bothered by this throughout the film. What's more, perhaps the biggest flaw in this movie, is the notion that when Superman leaves for five years, so does Clark. Why doesn't anyone even question this? Again, I'm nitpicking but these are fair questions. Questions that are never really addressed much less answered. Why? I don't think it has so much to do with intentional ambiguity as it has to do with the fact that these are questions that can't be answered. Again, they're logistical flaws. I guess, in the end, Singer believed that if he had the audience in his palm, such items would be rendered moot.
There are other major subplots within the film that I haven't even touched upon. In fact, there's a big one involving Lois Lane. A gimmicky device that, despite its obvious resolution, works surprisingly well. I'll let you discover it for yourself.
Perhaps the biggest problems with Superman Returns, even bigger than the aforementioned flaws, are the film's length and uneven pacing. Seriously, the film peaks far too early. The jet rescue happens in hour one. What follows is positively weak by comparison. At least in terms of sheer spectacle, and spectacle is what fans come to expect from Superman. I applaud Singer for bringing a sense of emotion and drama to Superman's universe, but the climax of this picture goes out with a fizzle rather than a bang.
Early on in the film, there's a great sequence in which Lex Luthor demonstrates what's going to become of Metropolis after he sets his diabolical plan into motion. His demonstration culminates in the destruction of an intricate (and massive) model of the city. I loved this part of the film, and it got me pumped for a climax that will forever stay in my imagination. When Superman is called upon to save the city from almost certain annihilation, I was somewhat underwhelmed. What's more, the fashion in which the Man of Steel attempts to reverse the damage done by Lex, was terribly unsatisfying. It almost felt as if Singer bit off a little more than he could chew. Certainly, he isn't as adept with pacing as Donner. There's just too much fat on this cut that could have easily been trimmed.
By the same token, there is plenty of majestic beauty to be found in Superman Returns. There is more religious metaphor to be found in this picture than in The Chronicles of Narnia, but in this movie, it worked to much stronger effect. Even the title of the film evokes a second coming as it were, and I quite liked that about Superman Returns. Superman is an iconic character, and such comparison is perfectly sensible. I also like that mankind actually comes to Superman's rescue in this picture. It's a nice little twist on the mythology. Superman Returns is overly long (kind of like this review) and even indulgent at times (much in the same way Peter Jackson's take on King Kong was), but I admire Singer for his undeniable love for this character. And I love how he cleverly peppers the film with a bit of his own life experiences as well. His X-Men was sort of an allegory for acceptance and tolerance. Superman Returns takes a similar look at adoption in a strange subtle way, and this is no surprise given that Singer himself was adopted. The way he's injected pieces of himself into the project is fascinating to me.
Some major film critics have dismissed Superman Returns as glum and without joy. While it does lack the endlessly joyful spirit of Donner's film, I wouldn't call it glum. It certainly has joyful moments all of which are punctuated by John Ottman's wonderful, John Williams inspired score. Bryan Singer's first take on the Man of Steel is flawed but respectable. Superman Returns didn't leave the same sort of bad taste in my mouth that George Lucas did with The Phantom Menace seven years ago.
Now that Singer has gotten his feet wet, perhaps the next installment will be that bit of greatness I have waited and hoped for. I have a lot of faith in Singer. After all, look at the leap he made from X-Men to X-Men 2. If he can make that kind of leap here, we're in for a super treat. As it stands, however, his Superman Returns is a welcome rebirth of a franchise I hold dear to my heart. Superman Returns isn't perfection, but it is an entertaining summer treat, and I, for one, will be anxiously awaiting the next chapter in the saga.
On a special side note, Superman Returns was lovingly dedicated to Christopher and Dana Reeve.


Posted on Mon Jul 10, 2006 5:12 am by Admin Mon Jul 10, 2006 5:12 am
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