I’m a long-time comic book/superhero fan, and to be honest, Superman was always one of my least favorites. I like the character; it’s just that he’s kind of limited. Superman comes from another planet, is basically indestructible unless Kryptonite is involved, and hides his identity by putting on a pair of eyeglasses. He doesn’t have the dark psychological torment of Batman, or the unsuppressed rage of the Hulk, or the teen angst of Spider-Man. That’s probably why the movies haven’t been terribly kind to the character. The 1978 Superman effectively told the origin story, but the sequels went downhill faster than a speeding bullet. (Remember the one that teamed Superman and Richard Pryor?) I’m not sure it’s possible to make a truly great movie out of this material.
After a long absence, Superman Returns brings the DC comics hero back to the big screen. The film – directed by Bryan Singer (the first two X-Men movies) – positions itself as the true sequel to the 1978 picture, taking place five years later. Superman (Brandon Routh) has been off looking for remnants of his home planet, leaving the citizens of Metropolis behind. Feeling the impact the most is Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who won a Pulitzer for an article called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Not finding what he was looking for, Superman returns to Earth, just in time to save Lois from a plane crash. She does not welcome him home warmly. Since he left, she got engaged and had a child. It’s clear that some emotional business remains unsettled between them, though.
Meanwhile, arch villain Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison. A certain caped crusader, it seems, failed to show up to testify in Luthor’s trial, thereby helping him get acquitted. With the aid of his henchmen – including the ditzy, sarcastic Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) – Luthor locates and invades the Fortress of Solitude. He steals all the crystals that were sent to Earth with young Superman (or Kal-El, if you prefer). Then he steals some kryptonite and hatches another plan for world domination.
The theme of Superman Returns is whether or not the world needs a savoir. Lois may write that it doesn’t, but inside she feels quite differently. And when Luthor’s plan starts taking shape, it becomes clear that billions of lives are at stake. It will take a special kind of hero to stop evil of this magnitude. The movie takes the savoir theme all the way, becoming a parable for the story of Christ. For example, the Man of Steel is the “only son” sent by father Jor-El to help humanity. There are also several shots of him floating in a crucifixion pose. Superman even has a metaphorical “death” and “rebirth” as he goes away for five years, then returns to save mankind. There is so much Christian imagery in the film that a more apt title might have been The Passion of the Superman.
That’s an interesting, original approach to the character. One of the most interesting I’ve seen, in fact. I would liked to have seen even more of it. The main problem with Superman Returns is that it ties itself so directly to the ’78 version that there isn’t too much room for it to go its own way. The story picks up the plot threads introduced in the earlier version and, consequently, feels old fashioned. Adding to the déjà vu is the fact that Singer uses the now-famous John Williams score, plus an opening credit sequence similar to the one in Richard Donner’s ’78 version. That famous scene where Superman holds onto Lois as they fly through Metropolis is also recreated. It’s a dilemma. On one hand, the original Superman remains popular and it had a definitive performance from Christopher Reeve. To ignore its influence might seem dishonest. On the other hand, last summer’s Batman Begins proved that a completely fresh start is sometimes what’s needed to re-launch a franchise. What I’m saying is that, personally, I wanted Superman Returns to take more chances rather than just rehashing all the familiar elements that have been done in other Superman movies and TV incarnations (the Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle, the dual identity humor, etc.).
The unnecessary two-and-a-half hour running time could have been trimmed too. The film is slow to start and feels like it’s going to end five times before it actually does.
Having said all this – and I know most of it sounds negative – there is still a lot to admire and enjoy in the movie. First of all, I think it’s very well cast. Spacey is perfectly evil as Lex Luthor, and Bosworth is an appropriately feisty Lois. Newcomer Brandon Routh looks remarkably like Christopher Reeve, which is clearly not coincidental, but he also has Reeve’s quiet stoicism and immediate likeability. He’s a terrific choice for the role.
Even though the unexpressed love between Lois and Superman is a long-familiar staple of the property, the performances of Routh and Bosworth breathe some life into it again. Saying where this plot thread goes wouldn’t be fair, but as the movie goes on, we kind of get why Lois has never gotten Superman out of her system and why she felt so betrayed by his departure. The actors do some really nice character work in these moments. I also think that some things were set in motion that will allow the next sequel to break off into more daring territory. If this movie isn’t the complete re-imagining of the series that I had hoped for, at least the seeds have been planted for that to happen in the future.
And what would any comic book movie be without action? Here’s where Superman Returns scores. In addition to the exciting plane crash scene, and the final face-off between Superman and Luthor is intense. My favorite scene is the one where a criminal opens fire on Superman with a high-powered machine gun. Using the “bullet time” effect popularized in The Matrix, we follow the trajectory of the bullet as it leaves the gun and bounces harmlessly off Superman’s open eyeball. (Now that’s what I’m talking about!)
The best superhero movie I’ve seen is Spider-Man 2. Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins are close behind, as are the X-Men films. Superman Returns isn’t quite on par with these but, again, I’ve always felt the material was inherently limited. The movie is probably about as good a Superman epic as you can get without taking some crazy, universe-shaking chances. This one’s a safe-but-solid start; maybe the next one will take it to a new level.
The Superman Returns 2-disc DVD also features some interesting special features. There are 15 minutes of deleted scenes, most of which flesh out young Clark’s time on the family farm. One of these excised scenes is a longer version of the moment where Clark realizes he can fly. While it was obviously cut for time, the scene adds something important to the overall feel of the film.
Even better is “Requiem for Krypton” – a two-and-a-half hour making-of documentary that far surpasses similar features on other DVDs. Broken into five segments, the documentary avoids the type of self-congratulatory stuff that usually populates such features. Instead, we get in-depth coverage of the pre-production and shooting of the film, including depictions of how the flying special effects were done. Much time is spent following Bryan Singer around, which is invaluable for film aficionados. Here’s your chance to see how a talented, visionary director puts his ideas on the screen. Watching “Requiem” makes you feel like you’re a visitor on the set.
There are also some interesting tidbits from the production. Singer and DP Thomas Newton Sigel play a practical joke on the production designer. Parker Posey balks at slapping Kevin Spacey and is told by Singer to do it anyway. (Spacey requested it.) Most intriguing is the wrap speech given by Brandon Routh. While he appears to be nothing but genial in all the footage, the actor tells the assembled crew that the shoot was emotionally trying, and he apologizes for any instances where he “may not have been nice” to them.
This 2-disc set also has a short segment showing how CGI experts resurrected Marlon Brando for a cameo, as well as a trailer for EA’s new movie-based game. All in all, it’s an outstanding package that adds new appreciation for the film itself.
Movie:( out of four)
Extras:( 1/2 out of four)
Superman Returns is rated PG-13 for some intense action violence. The running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes.
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