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Superman Returns Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 19, 2006

  • “The father becomes the son ... and the son, the father.”

    Even if you hadn't ever noticed it before, the Superman saga is inherently religious. And Bryan Singer's interpretation is the most obvious and literal embodiment of that. With a Saviour still coming to terms with the great powers at his disposal and the sage-like advice of an ethereal father steering him to defend a race of people that love and adore, yet misunderstand and abuse him, an epic tale of Messianic sacrifice is, once again, dressed up in the guise of a modern-day fairytale. But, although Singer's aspirations are incredibly high and his pedigree beyond reproach, he, just like Peter Jackson with his gargantuan pledge of devotion to King Kong, has fashioned a tale that comes more from his heart than from his head. And whilst such a celebration is to be applauded, it should also be tempered and diluted with the things that Superman's vast congregation of other fans would to like to see and feel. Thus, Superman Returns comes across as more of a personal vision than as a mainstream action-adventure. People writing about the film at the time of its cinema release were quick to leap upon the hyperbole-bandwagon, often quoting one another with the all-too easy remark that this new version of the character's story doesn't just fly, “it soars.” Well, I don't think that is precisely correct. It certainly has its moments, but this Return is so besotted with its primary character that it is frequently guilty of lapsing into honey-smothered nostalgia and protracted sentimentality, when it really could have raised the bar for filmic super-heroics and literally let its star soar.

    Instead, its flightpath seems more sedentary than stratospheric.

    The thing is, what we have here is basically a remake of Donner's original Superman The Movie. Much the same sort of thing happens. We commence the movie with Kal-El crash-landing back at the Kent's farmstead - and he even treats us to a memory of the teenage discovery of his powers to pad out the nostalgia - and then we're off into the familiar turf of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent regaining his position at the Daily Planet, re-acquainting himself with Lois and then, after a few heroic escapades (which, in this case, form a pattern of ever diminishing returns), engaging in a super-powered attempt to thwart another of Lex Luthor's maniacal property development schemes. Plus, Luthor gets to use that old chestnut of Kryptonite again to blight his nemesis - although, this time, in a much, much more grandiose fashion. Now, to be blunt, the plot for Superman Returns is not very good at all. We've seen it before, folks. Times have changed and audience expectations are far higher, both in terms of spectacle and ideas, and the re-hashing or regurgitating of a former standard is, in my opinion, a complete cop-out. Superman has a truly illustrious back-catalogue of ideas and stories to work from and, in the years since Reeve hung up the cape (and, tragically, for good) we have had the excellent Smallville carrying the candle with imagination, dastardly schemes and terrific, all-round entertainment that both sustains and develop the characters through well-paced, on-going adventures that also handle the comic-book need for baddies with powers.

    Why then does Singer's film, with all the love that he claims to have for the big guy and all that money behind it, just content itself to pitch only a couple of set-pieces at us, and never give us some super-powered bad-guy-clobbering? And why, after initial reports suggested that the DVD release would include additional footage actually incorporated into the film, are there none to be found?

    The thing is, though, that despite all that ranting, I actually really enjoyed Superman Returns. I saw this twice at the flicks and the first time many of the audience seemed to really enjoy it, too. The second time I saw it, with an equally packed house, the film was openly jeered at by seemingly much the same percentage of the audience that had cheered the first time around. And, truth be told, the second viewing for me revealed its many shortcomings too. But I still loved it!

    What Singer succeeds in is finding the heart and soul of the story and placing enough humanity into the characters to have you give a damn. It is a franchise reboot and, as such, it has some foundation work to do, though not to the degree of, say, the superior Batman Begins. We have the background simply etched in text for us under the ghostly voice of Marlon Brando's Jor-El intoning across time and space his undying love and pride for his star-travelling son. Martha Kent, here played by Eva Marie Saint, puts in an appearance to link Clark's Earthbound origins to the heroics he is destined to undertake, although she seems more like a token gesture to the much-loved character than anything actually substantial. The Daily Planet, now under the leadership of Frank (Dracula) Langella's less-animated, but more realistic Perry White, has moved with the times, with news reporting now embracing the latest of scoop-gathering technology. But dunderhead Jimmy Olsen (never a worthwhile character, to be honest), is still just a tiresome, boy-faced hanger-on - and Sam Huntington, perhaps inevitably, fails to inject any life into him. Lois's new love, in the form of X-Men holdover James Marsden as Richard White, Perry's go-getting and eminently likeable nephew, provides a new character to the mix sets up the eternal love-triangle. But the difference here, and a welcome one at that, is that Richard White is no irksome and unwanted rival. He lives and breathes, which is a lot more than Marsden's character of Scott was allowed to do in the X-Men movies, and although we sympathise with Clark's love-loss and Lois's painful re-discovery of her caped former-beau reappearing on the scene, we do not want his feelings hurt either. Singer and Marsden work hard to keep this character strand believable and relevant, but it is thanks mainly to Marsden that we care about what happens to Richard and even end up sort of rooting for him.

    “Well I hope this little experience hasn't put any off you off flying. Statistically speaking, it's still the safest way to travel.”

    Brandon Routh was never going to put a foot wrong in this role. From the very first time that I saw him in production stills and publicity shots, I knew he had the dual persona of Clark Kent and Superman nailed. You just couldn't look that much like our most beloved incarnation of the hero, Christopher Reeve, without playing him to a tee, as well. And, rest assured, Routh doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk ... and flies the ... well, you get the picture. The marvellous moment in the trailer when Perry White, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen scrutinise the blur in Jimmy's hastily snapped photo and deliver those immortal lines, and then Routh blunders in with pure Clarkian timing, proved that the production had, if nothing else, found the right man to don the costume. Carrying the same naiveté-cum-nobility as Reeve, but with a little less of the gawky charm, Routh is like a ghostly reminder of what once was and acts as a spiritual umbilical cord linking a fondly-recalled past with the glories of possibilities still to come. Singer's choice of going with a relative newcomer was the natural thing to do - I mean what Hollywood star of recent years was ever going to be able pull this role off? Nicholas Cage? Yeah, right.

    “How could you leave us?”

    Kate Bosworth received a lot of flack from the many Superman fans that I know, but I actually quite liked her. I agree that she is way too young to fit the bill as the super-successful reporter and the multi-tasking mother of a five year old, but it is in her scenes with Clark and Superman that she reveals the heart of the character. The twisted emotions of finding her ex-lover back on the scene are hardly Oscar-worthy material, but they do convince of her spiked-feelings for him, with more than a hint of personal rage and loss, and a sense of the anger she has for his unexpected return to her life. Singer's film sets up a strange new screwed-up relationship here ... and it is one that, whilst possibly unneeded, provides a heart-snagging dynamic to the mix. Bosworth also does a good job of suppressed terror in the scene with the piano-playing goon, and her first glimpse of the familiar red-and-blue blur flying to her rescue (just like in the good old days) is delivered with a marvellous touch of panic and recognition.

    “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in red capes and don't share their powers with Mankind.”

    Kevin Spacey gives Luthor a harder, more psychotic edge, reining in a lot of the humour that we may have expected - although that deflated, weary expression on his face when Parker Posey's Kitty Kowalski belittles him about what his father said to him is absolutely priceless. His dancing down the crystalline steps of his new kingdom to the accompaniment of a very theatrical “Krrrrrypton-ite” is his finest moment, however, adding the necessary clownish menace to his somewhat dour Lex. His henchmen are a particularly nasty bunch, though. The beating sequence, which I will talk about in more detail later on, proves that Singer and Co were adamant that Ned Beatty's dumb-dumb Otis from the original would have no place in Luthor's new schemes. Spacey is allowed a couple of comical interludes which, for my money, aren't properly in-keeping with his dangerous new persona and even if he manages to pull them off, they still sit a little uncomfortably within the film as a whole. Yes, I'm thinking mainly of the daft little desert island sequence.

    “Crystals ... they're amazing, aren't they? They absorb the properties of the minerals around them ...”

    Where Singer's film goes wrong is in the severe lack of action. What he seems to forget is that since Christopher Reeve's iconic incarnation last wore the cape, we have had Superman's Animated Adventures and the even better Justice League show that both see the Big Boy Scout battling truly outrageous threats from other dimensions or galaxies. Even audiences not fully versed in Superman's exploits off the big screen have been made aware of other superheroes, like Batman or Spider-Man, and their tussles with the outrageous or the otherworldly. So, considering Superman's colossal powers and heritage, it comes as a great shame that his rebirth should focus so heavily upon the romantic side of things. In fact, I believe that Superman Returns goes too far in this direction, losing sight of what it is that makes these characters so irresistible. Richard Donner, in the first movie, kept the serious bad guys away but, at least, he piled on action set-piece after set-piece, and still kept the balance of derring-do and emotion spot on. Returns has a difficult task of re-establishing Kal-El and his relationships and I will admit that, in general, it does a pretty good job of meshing the old with the new, but somehow Singer loses his grip on the majestic and the awesome in his determination to bring to Earth a hero that we can believe in. Too much emphasis is placed upon Clark's heart and sensibilities, his powers taking their place way too far down the line. I know this is all set-up for bigger and grander adventures to come but, hey, how many years off are they going to be? For fans of Superman, this sidelining of the big-battle chaos that we know and love - and, damn it, had every right to expect from the guy that brought X-Men to roaring and flamboyant cinematic life - is unforgivable. Spacey may be a fine Luthor - on paper, at least - but as far as outright villainy is concerned, he is just not enough. The series of little “Hey, I'm back!” exploits as Superman makes his presence felt around the world are just nowhere near as satisfying as they should be. The T2-similar rooftop machine-gun episode promised so much more, yet completely failed to step on the adrenaline pedal, although the eyeball-rebounding-bullet shot is a terrific little touch. Yet, without Supes smacking a foe through a wall or wrestling a thug-filled helicopter to the ground, the greedy little fan-boy within each of us is denied the fix he richly deserves. And, speaking of helicopters, does anybody out there know what Superman does to the baddies' chopper on the rooftop, then? Hmm, another sequence left hanging in the air.

    But the heftiest pitfall, and one that could so easily have been avoided, is the five year hiatus that Superman has been on. Erm, why was this really necessary? With any superhero movie, we have to reach a fairly high level of disbelief suspension and, with the whole Superman/Clark Kent double-act we have to accept that no-one in Metropolis puts two and two together - I mean a kiss curl and a pair of huge spectacles really does change the face, doesn't it? - but having both characters disappear and then miraculously re-appear after all those years without anyone cottoning-on really does push the envelope for cast and audience stupidity. In the context of the story - the emotional distance between Kal-El and Lois and the revelation that she has a son - I suppose this plot element is entirely functional. Yet, for me, it doesn't gel properly and I feel sure that the film would have benefited from some other way of handling such material.

    “You're not one of them.”

    Tonally, though, the film feels right. There is a level of darkness here that I hadn't quite expected, but totally believe is the correct direction to go in. The beating that Superman takes from a gang of grinning thugs is a truly horrible sequence that drags the brightly-garbed icon from his lofty heights and leaves him as helpless as any other victim of street violence. There were a great many shufflings of discomfort around me at the cinema from viewers who were shocked by this scene and, even when watching it now it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The goons removing their shirts and leering down at their dazed and battered prey before putting the boot in again and again is an image that is unsettlingly close to reality, upping the stakes and giving the “campness” of the whole scenario a thorough bruising. But this is something that we have to see. The problem with Superman has always been his invulnerability to fists, feet and bullets etc. When he literally can't be taken down, how are we meant to feel any threat or tension from his predicaments? Thus, in the absence of any super-villains who can legitimately give him a thorough pasting, Singer makes a wise move in putting some extreme hurt in. But I'll pass on the obvious Christ references so blatant with this, and many other sequences in the film, because I feel that the urban grit of a down and dirty pulverising is newest and most effective quality that Singer brings fresh to the pot. An earlier sequence involving Lois and her son being menaced by a bull-necked goon, who likes to tickle the ivories when not snapping limbs, is equally as disturbing. The sense of physical threat is completely overt and certainly unusual in the history of family-friendly super-flicks. In fact the level of jeopardy that mother and son are placed in is quite powerful ... I mean let's not forget the sinking yacht scenes.

    Beyond this, however, Returns plays like a love letter to Superman. With so many lingering looks between Lois and Clark, photography that seems to faun over his muscled lycra and a much more yearning sense of unfulfilled love, it comes as no surprise that many more women seemed to fall under the film's spell than men. Certainly the banter amongst my friends and work colleagues regarding the movie has revolved primarily around this floaty, emotional aspect rather than the scenes of derring-do, with the ladies doing most of the talking and the blokes just rueing the scarcity of action. Strangely enough, Superman seems - if the circles in which I move are any approximation of viewer feelings worldwide - to have swung himself a whole new fan-set. Were once the superhero domain was largely a male-orientated obsession, movies such as the X-Men series, Spider-Man and now Superman appears to have coerced the opposite sex into discovering some sort of appeal within their fantastical wish-fulfilment ethos. Even the mighty James Bond, rising muscle-bound out of the sea in the shape of Daniel Craig (riffing spectacularly on the iconic sight of Ursula Andress doing the same thing in Dr. No) has achieved a similarly new, and powerful, female demographic with, as far as I can tell, more women suffering Bond-Mania than blokes. Go figure.

    “You wrote that the world doesn't need a saviour, but every day I hear people crying for one.”

    Naturally, we can't talk about Superman without making reference to its music. John Ottman's score is a remarkably effective piece of work. It certainly can't have been easy for him to take over from the musical-monument of John Williams' awesomely memorably theme tune so, wisely, he doesn't even attempt to. The use of the Main March, and the similar trick of having the title credits soaring past us out of a gorgeously crafted interstellar background is a touch that goes way, way beyond mere homage. Put simply, Singer's movie just couldn't have gotten off the ground without it. But Ottman rises to the challenge with some lush romantic cues that fit right on in with a screenplay so self-consciously wallowing in the broken-hearted doldrums and, most importantly, adds tremendous weight and giddy excitement to the few action sequences. Most obvious of all is the standout scoring for the plane/shuttle rescue which, note for note, is one of the most enthralling tracks this year and really hauls the heart up into the mouth with an electrifying combination of dynamism, terror and heroics and culminates in the fanfare we had all been anticipating from the start of the ten-minute set-piece. Elsewhere, Ottman supplies a dark theme of menace for Luthor and many hints of space-born fate, odyssey and redemption that, taken as a whole, add many levels and textures to a film that seems desperate to resonate with such spiritual and emotional complexity.

    Even if many individual components don't really add up, or have the more-damaging effect of being a tad unsatisfying, Superman Returns works because the end result is so much more than the sum of its parts. The characters are bigger than any script could do justice to and the themes of love, sacrifice and heroism are timeless and primal. Plot intricacies or inaccuracies depending on how you view them, no matter how deeply they may cut into the story, can never alter those simple emotional truths. As spectacle, the film contains much that is triumphant - the sight of Superman catching the nose of the stricken plane, or hefting what amounts to a continent on his shoulders are images that cannot fail to burn deep into the mind's eye - and when it comes to emotion, there are many scenes of poignant intimacy and soul-searching - a few bedside words of advice from a father to his son, and a night-time fly-by that lays bare Superman's colossal burden - truly make the heart swell. So, when the film gets it right, it gets it fantastically right.

    Early word suggests that Singer has taken onboard the many fan-criticisms levelled at the film, and has promised to up the action and provide meatier villains for the next instalment. If he can do that, as well as sustain the emotional core of the drama, then the next adventure should be something to get truly excited about. In the end, Superman Returns plays much better on DVD than it did on the big screen. Its pacing is less skewed and the lack of grand-slam exploits doesn't seem quite so damaging to a narrative that gets inside the mechanics of why we need a saviour and the sacrifice that that saviour must therefore make for us. That beating is still a shocker, though. Ultimately, the movie isn't quite what I'd hoped for, but it remains a fine piece of colourful fantasy, all the same.

    A final word about the packaging - terrible. The artwork depicting Superman whizzing towards us with The Daily Planet building in the background just looks so lame I'm almost ashamed to put it on the shelf next to its super-brethren. With all the glorious and sumptuous imagery at their disposal, it beggars belief that the DVD designers should have opted for this juvenile mess.