/Movie Review – Superman Returns

Movie Review – Superman Returns


Superman-Returns-Review-Logo-v5.1

– Summary –

Director :  Bryan Singer
Cast :  Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, James Marsden, Eva Marie Saint
Year of Release:  2006
Length : 120 Minutes
Synopsis: Superman returns after a five year absence from Earth, only to find that we’ve all gotten along without him. He finds that his now fizzled relationship with reporter Lois Lane has been pushed aside by the arrival of another suitor, and a child, to his former lover. And then there’s Lex Luthor, trying desperately to get past his ill-conceived idea to push California into the ocean: now he’s concocted a plan to simply make his own continent from the very substance that can kill Superman, Kryptonite.
Review : There is so many things I want to say about this film. Not all of them are good. In fact, there’s more bad than good here. Superman Returns is a frustratingly inadequate exploration of the Man Of Steels emotional baggage, when, to be honest, we all just wanted to see him do more “super” stuff and save people.

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Okay, I know this review might be a little late since Superman Returns has been in the public domain for a few years now, but every time I watch it, and go to review it, I just can’t seem to muster the energy to do so adequately. I’ve probably rewritten this review a half dozen or so times in the last year or so since it’s release, and I figured, regardless of how muddled and ambiguous and unclear my thoughts are to read, I simply have to jot them down.

The original 40's Superman, first spotted in 1939.
The original 40’s Superman, first spotted in 1939.

I’ve been a Superman fan for a while now, at least since 1993, when I picked up the trade paperback edition of the comic storyline The Death Of Superman, telling of the great hero’s ultimate demise at the hands of the monstrous creature known as Doomsday. Sure, I’d seen the Christopher Reeves films multiple times (I have a secret crush on the second film as being my favorite: that opening credits montage still gives me chills of delight!) and knew who Superman was through all the various forms of media at the time, but in that moment, I discovered that the man was vulnerable. How can you kill a national icon, I thought to myself. And so began a decade long comic-buying spree that ended in around 2003-2004, when I began to outgrow the whole comic-book buying thing and decided to get a girlfriend, get engaged, and then get married.

The classic, modern Superman.
The classic, modern Superman.

A decade of comic book collecting makes me reasonably qualified to give my opinion on Superman, doesn’t it? I think so.

Anyway, I had followed the cinematic journey of this new, revamped Superman though his various guises, from the diabolically stupid Tim Burton idea of having him all in black, casting Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent (Seriously? Dudes, what drugs were you on?), to Simon Con Air West,  right the way through to Brett Ratner and even JJ Abrams doing it and a whole slew of other promiscuously obtuse ideas. To be honest, with the technology available these days to put just about anything you can imagine on the big screen, surely to God somebody could do Superman properly. Richard Donner pulled out all the stops in the 70’s and gave us lightning in a bottle, an epic treatment of the man of steel writ large for all to see, and his film version has since become the stuff of icon and legend. Watching that same film today, however, and you can start to see the cracks; the technical gaps left over from an era where computers were yet to be invented (pretty much) and Superman “flew” against bluescreen backdrops. That’s not to say that what Donner (and “director” of the sequel Richard Lester) achieved in the first two Superman films was bad: quite the opposite. They managed to give us a living, breathing, full colour man of steel, a Superman for the ages, invincible against any threat save Kryptonite and Lois Lane’s biting, rapier-like wit. Oh, and Gene Hackman. But it’s still not quite up to snuff, really. Against the modern marvels of George Lucas and Steven Speilberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson, who have taken us places some people can only aspire to, the 70’s Superman cinematic treatment was in dire need of a redo. So when Warner Bros, the owners of DC Comics and subsequently, the Superman brand, sent out word that they wanted to have another crack at the Superman legend on screen, fans couldn’t wait. That was back in the early 90’s. It would take the best part of a decade to get the project onto the big screen.

It could have looked like this....
It could have looked like this….

The long, sordid history of the Superman film franchise post-Quest For Peace is available to read in this Wiki page, so if you feel like involving yourself in a whole bunch of “thank God THAT didn’t happen”, then go right ahead. Suffice to say, it’s been a while since we had Superman on screen in the movies, and we hoped like heck that when he came back, he’d come back in a big way. We had a great, proven film director who’d done superheroes before, in Bryan Singer, whose professed love of the character was expounded all over the media like somebody badly trying to convince us all not to worry. We had a relatively good cast, including Frank Langella, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth (whom I have to admit, hadn’t seen much of prior to this film) and a slew of B-level acting talent just cool enough to make me sit there and say, okay, this could be good. And of course, no-name Clark Kent, Brandon Routh, who had never been in anything bigger than a school play prior to Superman Returns. The special effects on this film ought to make this the most believable Superman picture yet, right?

And so Singer gave us Superman Returns.

I so badly wanted to really love this film. So much so that I ache every time I watch it and see the potential it squandered in it’s effort to be either cannon or respectful of what came before. There are many problems with Superman Returns, and no doubt as I think of them all I’ll ramble incoherently about most of them, but the biggest thing about the film that turned me off was the storyline.

When the film opens, Superman has been missing from Earth for five years, apparently going off on some fact-finding mission to the destroyed remains of his home planet Krypton. The world’s gone to crud and people are starting to get used to the idea that he isn’t coming back. One of those resigned to this is reporter Lois Lane, still working at the Daily Planet and now engaged to Richard White, the nephew of her Editor In Chief, Perry White. In the time Superman has been gone, Lois has had a child, and seemingly moved on, even going so far as to write a bitter article about why the world doesn’t need a Superman. So when the big fella returns (accompanied, of course, by the ever bumbling Clark Kent) everybody starts to freak out, and of course, so does Lois, who is well known to have feelings for Superman previously. While Superman/Clark is trying to repair emotional bridges damaged in the years since he’s been gone, everybody’s favourite bald villain, Lex Luthor, is engaging in some of his own dastardly doings in trying to establish a new continent just of the coast of the US. By stealing some Kryptonite, doing a few scientific things to it, dropping it into the ocean, and causing a large land mass to form composed primarily of the very substance that we all know can kill the Man of Steel.

Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman
Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman

Got all that? Now, I bet you read that bit about Lois having a kid and wondering if it could possibly be Clarks, right? Well, as it turns out, that question is quite pertinent, because the film implies that the youngling has some pretty impressive abilities in his own right, leading us to conclude that perhaps Lois and Superman may have done the deed. Bryan Singer himself stated that Superman Returns picks up after events in Superman II, which, for those who’ve seen it, is where Lois and Superman finally get jiggy with it after all these years of unrequited sexual tension. So it would follow that a child may have been the outcome of that. Again, it’s never specifically stated in Superman Returns, but the clues and seeds of the mystery are surely sown right about the time the kid throws a grand piano at a villain threatening to harm his mother.

The major, unrelenting problem with the storyline was the lacklustre attempt to bring emotional drama into Clark’s life by having Lois being with another man, and having a family. In the comics, it was always destined that Lois and Clark would get together, and I guess, in comics, that can happen. In real life though, the fairy-tale ending isn’t always the case, and in modern superhero films, that’s especially the case. I’s not sure if it was Brandon Rouths po-faced delivery and inability to show emotion as Superman (he has a good “what, me?” look that he uses, I’ll give him that) or a somewhat ordinary turn by Bosworth as Lois, or the blatant lack of chemistry between the two on screen that made the whole thing uncomfortable to watch, but in this instance, Lois and Clark had no spark. Remember the Dean Cain/Teri Hatcher TV series from back in the early 90’s? Now THEY had chemistry, they had spark. Was it too much to ask that the people playing Lois and Clark, the two most romantically entangled coupling since Romeo sat outside Juliet’s balcony like a sordid peeping Tom, actually enjoyed being in each others company? Any time this Superman got near Lois, he’d look like he just shat out a pineapple. It’s excruciating to watch. So from the get go, the two people we want to see together just don’t feel right! That, and just like the perving Romeo, Superman keeps popping over to Lois and Richards place and using his X-Ray vision to spy on them: he’s a creepy, perving alien peeping Tom! What kind of Superman is this? A realistic take on the mythos? Nope, it’s not, but I can kind of see where Singer was trying to go with this. Lois was the one constant in Clarks life, like his touchstone if you will, and he’s lost her to a human man, a man without the ability to punch through granite and lift enormous things about. Superman has every right to feel pissed, but because he can’t stop chasing Lois even when she’s quite clearly off the market, this time Superman comes off a little freaky.

Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane
Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane

Singer seems unable to tear himself away from the previous Superman films when it comes to the subtle Easter Eggs hidden throughout the film. The bartender of the local watering hole frequented by the Daily Planet staff is none other than TV’s Jimmy Olsen himself, Jack Larson from the George Reeves series from the 50’s. Noel Neill, who played Lois in the same series, has a cameo as well. There are more than a few subtle nods in both casting and production design to Richard Donner’s version of Superman, and it’s here that Singer gets himself into trouble. In his weird homage to Donners version, the Chris Reeves version, Singer is so caught up in trying to remain respectful that he forgets to bring something new to the character. Undoubtedly trying to keep everybody happy; the studio who wanted big bang for their buck, the fans who wanted a faithful realisation of their favourite character but had for years been hoping not to have Nicholas Cage as Superman, the critics who were ready to pounce if he misstep after leaving the uber-successful X-Men for this project, and himself, who so badly wanted to live up to what Donner had started all those years ago. Singer even waxed lyrical in the DVD’s bonus features about seeing the Donner version in the cinema for the first time, and I can understand his wide-eyed enthusiasm in trying to recreate it. I remember the first time I saw Superman The Movie, and it was a seismic shift in my cinematic journey. But Singer’s infatuation with the Donner mythology is critically undernourished here: instead of being an homage to the great film, instead, Singer’s merely able to copy it, and a poor copy at that. The magic is missing, and it’s this that take Superman Returns from being awesomely cool and being merely average, a kind of deja vu film in which you get the strangest feeling that you’ve seen this all somewhere before.

Superman flies into action.
Superman flies into action.

Not to lay it all at the feet of Singer, which would be justified, but Superman Returns has another enormous problem: the cast. Almost every actor with the exception of Sam Huntington manage to turn what should have been an enjoyable, sunshine and happiness comic-book romp into a turgid, unevenly acted mismash of overblown campy villainous-ness and earnest, corn-cob cheese. The uneven tone of the film permeates through every frame: Routh does a great impersonation of the late, great Christopher Reeve, but never manages to keep that glint in his eye that Reeve had while in the role. Reeve knew it was all fun and games, Routh appears to be unsure of himself, and that undoes his work here. He certainly looks the part, but then, if you can’t act, then Superman you ain’t. And poor Kevin Spacey! If he was to look back in thirty or so years at his work here, surely he’d roll his eyes and be utterly embarrassed. Criminally off-key as Lex Luthor, Spacey is about as dangerous as a teenage slumber party. Sure, he rants and raves like a criminal mastermind probably should, but didn’t this kind of villain die out the moment super-suave Han Gruber took on John McClane in Die Hard and redefined what a bad guy was supposed to be? And, let’s be honest, Lex Luthor is probably the most overused villain in the Superman pantheon, and has certainly been done plenty of times in almost every conceivable format the hero has appeared in. Gene Hackman’s DNA reversal of the character in the Donner/Lester versions to a campy, scenery chewing lout with aspirations of grandeur had defined the role in many people’s eyes, particularly those who didn’t read the comics and had no idea of the characters subsequent shift in personality. In the comics, Lex Luthor had been a brilliant scientist (trying to use his incredible knowledge to kill Superman) or a filthy rich trillionaire who used his influence and power to try and destroy his arch nemesis. In Superman Returns, Luthor appears to be some sort of petulant child in a man’s body, all shouting and stomping in order to get his way. And, like Hackmans Luthor in Superman The Movie, he’s again trying to corner the market in real estate.

Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) explains his dastardly plot to Lois Lane.
Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) explains his dastardly plot to Lois Lane.

Then there’s Kate Bosworth, as Lois. When I first saw Bosworth in a publicity shot from the film, just after she’d been cast, I wondered if Singer had made an error in judgement. Then again, who was I to second guess the man who cast Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, possibly one of the finest film casting decisions made in the last 20 years. George Lucas might learn a thing from Singer. Anyway, I decided to reserve judgement about Bosworth until I’d seen the film, because as I mentioned above, I’d not seen any of her work prior to this, and had no basis for an argument. Well, my personal opinion now, well after the fact, is that I was right the first time. Bosworth is woefully lacklustre as Lois, trying as hard as possible to be the sparky, feisty Lois we’ve all come to expect from nigh on a century of comics, TV and film appearances. Heck, her TV version on Smallville, played by Erica Durance, was a superior version than even Margot Kidders defining portrayal in the Donner film. Here, Bosworth appears nervous about the part, seemingly unable to convict herself to invest emotionally in the role, and instead delivering a Lois who appears unsure of herself, a little scared, a little blustery and unkind. Lois is quite possibly a stronger character that Superman himself, emotionally speaking. In the comics, Lois was the go-getter, the fierce, never-say-die reporter who went out of her way to get the scoop (do they still say “scoop” any more?) on her competitors. Lois was the driving force of the decades old love triangle of herself, Clark and Superman. Clark wanted Lois, she wanted Superman, and we all wondered why he didn’t just do us all a favour and tell her he was both those blokes. Bosworth is no Margot Kidder, that’s obvious. Kidder wasn’t exactly the most attractive Lois Lane, but her performance had enough zest and vigour, as well as the requisite tenderness at the appropriate moments, to endear her to an entire generation of filmgoers. All Bosworth has done is endear herself to Superman history buffs as another blight on the series’ ongoing misfortunes on the big screen.

Then there’s the problem with the kid. Tristan Lake Lebeau will probably go down cinematically in much the same way Jake Lloyd did playing a young Annakin Skywalker: derision and disdain. The poor kid barely gets a line, has the entire subplot of Supermans past and future weighing him down, and has dramatically no ability whatsoever to play the part. It’s not his fault, though, that he’s given nothing to work with. His sole role in the film is to be the MacGuffin of the piece; the unexplained part of the Superman mythology that sends the film spiralling into greatness (it doesn’t, Bryan) and instead, now filmmakers have to try and figure out a way of getting rid of the kid so audiences can get back to Lois and Clark. You see, to the vast majority of the general public (not the rabid Superman fanboys who know every moment of Super Lore) Lois and Clark are a double act, not a trio. This ain’t no Three Stooges stuff here, this is Lois And Clark. if you’re going to give two of the most sexually charged people on the planet when they get together a child, we need to see how it unfolds. Don’t just give them a kid off-screen, and never explain it. It’s frustrating and annoying, is what it is. If they do end up having a kid, it shouldn’t be some bastard “whose the father” crap that society churns out every second week on Bold & The Beautiful. We don’t need a kid to get into Supermans psyche, do we? In the comics, Clark and Lois (who have been married for a while now, dontcha know!) have adopted a kid, because it turns out that with Clark being an alien (as in, from another planet and with a different genetic blueprint than our own) it’s entirely likely that he and Lois will never be able to conceive a child on their own. People seem to overlook that fact in favour of the fantasy. That’s not to say they can’t have kids, but if you’re going to shove one in our faces in a Superman film, there’d better be either a great montage of the moment of conception, or a great death sequence which returns the status quo. But to simply say “hey, you have a kid” to the audience is to shortchange the romantic tension between two of comicdoms great loves.

Lois and Perry White (Frank Langella) square off over an article.
Lois and Perry White (Frank Langella) square off over an article.

So, let’s quickly recap: the cast are disproportionately unable to act their way through this muddled script, the direction is hamstrung by a tedious desire to recapture the Donner magic (which has, let’s be honest, faded in the years since iPods and Facebook became the norm) and try shoehorning the public perception of the character into an unworkable, unlikeable angst-ridden demi-god, which is something to foreign to the Man Of Steel there should be a monument to just how un-angsty and un-angry Superman should be. There’s also the woefully stupid start which sees Kevin Spacey killing off his elderly “wife” to abscond with her fortune, a minds-eye vision so appalling that it’s repugnant in the extreme (he’s forty-ish, she’s in her 90’s… it’s like Anna Nicole Smith and that oil billionaire, but in reverse!) and puts you in the wrong frame of mind to begin with. Having Superman start the film crashing back to Earth in his weird spaceship just isn’t Superman. It’s like staring off a Bond flick with a sex scene….. nope, Bond starts with an opening bang and then beds the chick, that’s the formula and they stick with it every time. The opening to a Superman film should, and usually does, involve either a quick recap of the hero’s origin or a rescue sequence. After all, you paid to see Superman, not some High School Musical lookalike trying to act his way through despair and angst. And it doesn’t get any better, with a simpering plot merely content to stroll along, barely breaking into a sweat for the majority of the films running time. The languid pace of the story seems counter-productive to the action-oriented perception we have of Superman as a franchise.

On the bright side, however, there are some good things to mention about the film. First, the musical score by John Ottman, whose work on X-Men 2 and the diabolical Nicole Kidman “thriller” The Invasion was pretty decent stuff. Here, he takes John Williams’ iconic theme and runs with it, tweaking, revising, reprising, and ultimately, throwing it away at times, creating a new and vibrant tonal language for the Man of Steel. It’s the same, but different, if you will. Ottman pulled double duty again for Singer here, not only scoring the film but editing it as well. I’m afraid he didn’t quite do as good a job at the cutting than he does at the cuing, this time out. Perhaps he should stick to one or the other, not both. He’s edited and scored the majority of Singer’s films, but I think his finest musical work is here. Given he had a great place to start from, with Williams music being perhaps among the most identifiable on the planet, he couldn’t really go wrong.

Showdown between Superman and Lex Luthor.
Showdown between Superman and Lex Luthor.

The effects, as you’d expect, are first rate. The flying and super stuff all look amazingly real, even the digital double for Superman is truly lifelike (except for one moment right at the end of the film, with a close-up of Superman flying up into the clouds from Metropolis, as the grand theme swells into range, which looks for all the world like that Neo digital double from The Matrix Reloaded: plastic and fake. Apart from the one moment, the rest of the effects are sublime. Perhaps the defining scene of the entire film is an action packed moment where Superman must save a space-shuttle type plane carrying a bunch of reporters to the fringes of space from crashing, after a launch sequence goes horribly wrong. This is the grand, epic action material Superman can deliver, and on this count, the scene delivers in spades. Clark runs from the Daily Planet, down the street tearing open his shirt to reveal the big S, Lois is (of course) on board the plummeting plane and in mortal danger, and the rest of us mere mortals can only watch in awe as Superman swings into action, saving the launch vehicle and the plummeting plane as well, although how the passengers aboard both vehicles survived without extensive injury remains an enduring question to come from this film. Another moment, demonstrating that Superman really is faster than speeding bullets, particularly fired from a massive mini-gun, as well as invulnerable to almost every conceivable weapon yet devised by man, comes along soon after, when Superman stops a bank heist from becoming a slaughterhouse. Here, again, Singers sense of occasion is unmatched, and goes a long way to delivering the Superman we’ve been waiting for all this time.

Problem is, it’s too little, too late. By the time Superman finally gets into costume, we’re about 30 minutes into the film, and unless you’re doing an origin story, this is a fatal flaw in Singer’s cinematic arsenal. You simply can’t have the hero not appear in costume until a full half hour into the film: the audience expects some Superman action, and if you don’t give it to them, they’ll revolt. And I think that’s what a lot of critics and fans did: they revolted. I can commend Singer wholeheartedly for trying something different with Superman, by trying to take him in a new, perhaps strange direction. But people are a funny thing, generally we don’t like change too much, and when you have a history as long and convoluted as Superman and Lois, change happens slowly. It took the comics about 70 years to get them married, for Goodness sake! It took ten minutes to figure out that Superman had a son. Trying to foist that onto a general audience was tantamount to drawing a beard on the Mona Lisa. Okay, so the fans may have accepted it, but the fanbase wasn’t going to make this a successful film on their own… you need to appeal to the general public for that. So in favour of some critical drubbing over sticking to the formula, perhaps this is one instance where that may have been preferable than just bashing a new concept into people’s heads when they don’t’ want to see it. People want Superman to be super, not to be saddled with a paternity test and child support.

Lois' child, played by Tristan Labeau Smith
Lois’ child, played by Tristan Lake Labeau.

I so badly wanted Superman Returns to be a great film. The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions were indicators of just what was capable in making people fly and behave in “super” ways convincingly, and for all the critical poundings the Wachowski’s came in for over their sequels, I would have loved to see them take on Superman. As it was, we got a whole bunch of flying, a few moments of genuine Superman awe and magic, and then a raft of ill-conceived plot points and emotional wrenching that simply annoyed the hell out of good folks who wanted to see Superman doing something other than loiter around a private residence and spy on people. Currently, Bryan Singer isn’t looking at another Superman film yet, he’s busy with other projects, and with the rights to the character currently going through endless court proceedings (the Siegel and Shuster families are seeking the rights to the character they created to be returned to them….. Google it if you dare to unravel the stupidity that is the US legal system) its going to be some time before we see the big guy on the big screen again.

Superman Returns was both an action and dramatic misfire, beginning with a misguided screenplay and some lacklustre performances by key cast members (Routh, Bosworth, Spacey) and ending with one of the most ludicrous sub-plots Superman’s ever been foisted with (kids!). Muddled, confused, and missing the magic, Singers Superman is merely a shadow of the iconic portrayal of Christopher Reeve, and although it may be unfair to compare the two, by his own admission Singer himself was going for an homage to Reeves films anyway, so comparison is inevitable. And when you stand up next to what Donner and Reeve did back in 79, you’d better bring more than another Lex Luthor property deal and some overwrought daddy issues; you’d better bring Superman to life. For the briefest moment, Superman shines when he’s rescuing falling space-planes; the rest of the time, it’s like a badly written soap opera with effects.

5-Star

 

 

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Normally detesting these kinds of bios, Rodney's keen love of film more often outclasses his ability to write convincingly about them. Never blessed with a body worthy of a porn star, nor being the heir to a wealthy industrialists fortune, nor suffering the tragedy of having his parents murdered outside a Gotham theater, Rodney is, contrary to popular opinion, neither Ron Jeremy, JD Rockefeller, or Batman. As a serious appreciator of film since 1996, Rodney's love affair with the medium has continued with his online blog, Fernby Films, a facility allowing him to communicate with fellow cineasts in their mutual love of all things movie.