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Monday, July 03, 2006

Movie Review: Superman Returns

Okay. Writing about this movie is tough - one reason being that there are probably 200 reviews online, so coming up with something new to say is a challenge. But also, I was skeptical of this movie from the get go - when I saw the first screenshots, I kinda went "aww, gee, Spider-man 3 with a different costume. Yawn." Did we really need another "update" of a superhero story with whiz bang effects and ho-hum writing? The Spider-Man flicks are enjoyable, don't get me wrong, but they're about as intellectually nourishing as a pop tart. When I saw Superman's "new" costume, with its plastic dimpled "S" and dark-toned cape, I thought it was going to be another "update" movie, which sacrifices the essence of a character with almost 70 years of history to appease a modern audience who might think a guy running around in tights is silly.

Am I ever glad I was wrong!

I should have trusted Bryan Singer. The dude's proved he can do a good superhero flick, one that not only tickles the senses but also hangs together with dramatic coherence. True, they each kind of collapsed under the weight of the "summer movie conclusion," as basically every superhero flick ever done has, but until those points they were generally thoughtful takes on their characters, filled with ass-kicking action, good performances, good looks, and brisk, entertaining stories.

What Works

The central conceit of the movie, that Superman has been gone and the world has changed since, works brilliantly. In some ways, it couldn't be truer. Most people just don't read the comics, and any TV show gets spotty viewership at best. So in a very real sense, Superman has been gone for 10 or 20 years from most people's lives. And boy, has the world changed since then. In the 70's of the Reeve films, Americans were disillusioned by government corruption and scared of nuclear annihilation. Now, we still suffer from those issues, but have added to that noxious mix terrorism, crushing political and social apathy, a nearly complete degradation of social mores and morals, a jaded indifference to same, blind jingoism and intolerance, well-deserved global hatred of the United States, and reality television. Not only has Superman been gone, but so has everything he represented. In short, things suck.

Speaking of jaded, I don't think I'm the only one who's become jaded by movies. Summer action "blockbusters" have lately been anything but. We've seen it all. What effects romp can possibly dazzle us now? Action sequences have been uniformly boring since at least Star Wars Episode 1. I can't remember the last time a film thrilled me, scared me, or moved me. Laughter, sure. Irony, too. Sadness, rarely. But thrills? No way. Even "Batman Begins", as good as it was, still kind of left me cold. I just admired it as a great take on the character. But it lacked that magic, that ineffable element to great moviemaking that transports you into a situation, makes you feel all the twists and turns, puts you at the edge of your seat.

Superman Returns has that magic. If not for the whole 2 1/2 hour run time (which would be a super feat in itself), for such a significant percentage that it is uniformly thrilling.

So the question for a critic becomes, why? Is it the technical proficiency of the effects? While the CGI and set design are extremely accomplished, that certainly isn't it. Superman 1 had the magic, and you could tell when rear projection and mattes were being used. My opinion is this - as with all great movies, the magic of "transportation" is only accomplished when all the elements gel together - the true talent of a great director. 20% might be technical proficiency, sure. But the other 80% are some combination of storytelling choices, writing, and performances.

Here is why the "return" conceit of the movie works to such great effect. Superman, and with him that feeling of "gee whiz, America, baseball, mom, apple pie, and doing good deeds are great," has been gone. So much crap has happened in those five (or twenty) years, it's hard to remember a time when those feelings even existed. But when Superman swoops in and saves a jumbo jet full of people from plummeting to Earth in a fireball, this story choice not only keenly parallels some of the awful events we've lived through recently, but also tells us: This is how things could have been. If there had been a Superman, maybe some of that stuff wouldn't have happened. Not only that, but maybe if some of his ideals and his character were more prevalent, things might be better. It's fantasy and wish fulfillment of the highest order, and it provides an emotional punch to the gut that injects what would otherwise be stale effects set pieces with gravitas. I want Superman to exist when I watch him save a plane or deflect a falling chunk of a building. I want someone to care that much and be that ethically pure. I want a respite from the daily chum-bucket of modern American life. It is this yearning, that tickling of a desire within us that we might have thought was dead, which makes us pull for and feel what is happening on the screen. For whatever its other faults might be, Singer nails this emotional core of the story, and it's why Superman Returns works as a whole.

Brandon Routh's performance also works, and is obviously a very important part of the film's success. He plays the Clark Kent role extremely well, both aping Reeve's performance as well as deepening it just a tad. In fact, the Kent stuff worked so well, I wished there had been much more of it. Which is not to say that the Superman scenes did not work - except for one or two miscues which were more the fault of the writers, Routh's Superman is super, vulnerable, likeable, and amazing all at once. At times he seems a bit slight for the role, he's tall and muscular, but kind of thin and young - but he plays it with seriousness and just the slightest smirk, and it is successful and charming.

Kate Bosworth's performance has been attacked by some critics, but I for one liked it. Lois Lane is really the focus of the movie - her love affair with Superman is a dramatic mirror for all of our own love affairs with the character. Indeed, as she tells her fiancee in the film: Everyone was in love with him. So it becomes her role to crystallize why we had fallen in love with him, why we were upset that he was gone, and why it's so great to have him back. I think Bosworth gives her portrayal enough complexity to accomplish the task. She is also likeable when she needs to be, and sad/bitter, too. Not to mention she looks great. So I guess for me, she was "enough." I liked her, I could see why Supes had a thing for her, and I understood her character's emotional turmoil. Maybe she didn't have the spark of Margot Kidder, but she convincingly portrayed the drama, and is a lot hotter, to boot.

James Marsden completes the love triangle in this film, and does so quite ably. His role as Lois' fiancee strikes the perfect tone to make this a complex and engaging character story in addition to a rousing action flick. Too many "romances" in movies fall back on tired cliches to manipulate the audience - so often the "competition" for the girl is a posterboard villainous jerk, to contrast with the sterling protagonist, as if to put in huge neon letters for the audience: ROOT FOR THIS GUY. It is insulting to our collective intelligence, degrading for the female characters, and sadder than anything that many people actually need and like this lack of complexity in their movies.

In this love triangle, Marsden plays the genuinely nice guy, a devoted fiancee and dad, whose steadfastness, bravery and availability were what Lois needed, despite whatever torches she may have still been carrying. Superman is in fact the "jerk" in the situation. He got sexually involved with someone and then took off for parts unknown for five years, leaving her in the lurch. Now, upon his return, he hopes to insinuate himself back into her life - following her around with x-ray vision and super hearing. But her better judgment is telling her to have none of it. It's not fair to her or her fiancee and child, and he knows it. He's not a big enough jerk to really push it, but his desire for her still compels him. This complex triangle enlivens the characters in the movie and makes us as an audience really want to know what happens next.

Casting throughout is terrific. Kevin Spacey is very good as Lex Luthor - equally as funny as Gene Hackman's previous turn in the role, he also has that disturbing edge of psychosis which really makes it fun and creepy to watch. Parker Posey, perhaps the funniest actress of her generation, does well in her limited role as Lex's primary accomplice/squeeze. Frank Langella plays Perry White with cynicism but charm and warmth. Sam Huntington is Jimmy Olsen to a tee.

Singer does a great job acknowledging the first two Chris Reeve films, cherry-picking the cool stuff while systematically ignoring the dorky bits. Still present are the ice-planet Krypton, eerie superpowered crystals, star-shaped meteor ships, and Brando as Jor-El. The Smallville farm is nearly identical, and Eva Marie Saint does a fine job as Ma Kent. Gone are the super-memory-erase-kiss, cellophane "S" symbols, teleportation, illusion, flying really really fast to go back in time, and the like. "Superman Returns" is not a sequel, but neither is it a "reboot" like "Batman Begins." It's just a new version of the story which shows its creators' super-sized love affair with previous Donner-Reeve collaborations.

You see, this is actually consistent with the great tradition of comic books - when a character's been around for 60 years, a lot of silly stuff gets written. If modern Superman comics had Krypto the Superdog, Jimmy Olsen as Elastic Lad, and forty colors of kryptonite, modern readers might balk. The key is to distill the essence of the past while telling a story suited to the sensibilities of modern audiences. As a creator, you can be in love with a previous version and do an homage. Or you can slash and burn everything that went before and try to make your take original and fresh. But like a comic book, you should be able to pick up a random issue and pretty much know all the basics, with the details not really being essential to enjoying the self-contained yarn within.

For instance, one friend of mine balked at Kate Bosworth being "too young." He's really missing the point. No, Lois wasn't 11 when "Superman 1" took place - you're just being too stinking literal. The point is, she's plucky Lois Lane, Superman ditched her 5 years ago, and she's steamed as all heck when he comes back. Bosworth nails these essentials without ever having to replicate an old performance or shoehorn herself into a previous continuity. It would be like asking a modern day Jim Lee to replicate Curt Swan's classic 1960's and 70's art when he draws a Superman comic. Why would you desire such a thing? If you want Curt Swan, dig up some old back issues and get the real thing. If you want "classic" Reeve and Kidder, very good DVDs of the first two flicks are easily purchased. For that matter, so are versions of the 50's George Reeves Supes, the 90's "Lois and Clark," and the current "Smallville" series. They're each perfectly valid takes on a set of characters, and they each play loose with one aspect of continuity or another. It doesn't matter, though, as long as the essentials are there.

This movie was obviously a huge labor of love for Singer. There seems little doubt that he was influenced mightily by Donner's original films, and that they have a great emotional resonance for him (as indeed they do for most of us within a certain age cohort). The original John Williams score is used to booming effect from the outset - thought it is remixed in some interesting and bittersweet ways throughout the film, too. Little winking touches which acknowledge the previous films permeate the script.

Singer is a visual director par excellence. Nearly any superhero movie will live or die by its look - it is essential to translate the kinetic energy of its parent medium. Superman Returns looks like the best comic book ever drawn - poses are iconic, set dressings are ornate and stylish, colors are lush and evocative.

What Doesn't Work

So much of this film worked, that singling out dud elements seems like picking nits. There are, however, a few pretty large nits that deserve picking.

As previously mentioned, with Superman Returns, Singer again falls prey to the "overwrought supervillian plot conclusion" bug that stifled the otherwise great "Batman Begins," both X-Men flicks, and both Spider-Mans. It's too bad that it happens, but given the overall record of comic book films, it's generally forgivable. The character dynamic of the first 90 minutes had been so rich and interesting, that it was a shame to sort of cut away to a big action plot. This must also be why, when the movie winds down with a 20 minute denouement, it feels like you're going back to stuff which could have been tied up before.

Lex Luthor's crystal plot is insufferably hokey. Ummm, okay Lex - naturally, if you were to kill hundreds of millions of people (not to mention American people, the most violent, retribution-seeking people around) by creating a new continent, surely no one's feathers would be ruffled, and you'd have loads of investors waiting to buy your land. Also - the crystal which Superman used to build his fortress of solitude was green, not clear. Was it programmed with the Fortresses' dimensions? Why would the clear crystals sprout uncontrollably into continents? Did Lex alter them somehow? What happened to the other unused ones at the end of the movie? It looks very much like they fell onto the ground, and possibly into the water. If they get wet, will they too accidentally sprout? Lots and lots of holes here, none terribly important, since the story is really about the characters - but still enough to make heads itch and to pull you away from the fantasy just a bit. On the other hand, Lex's scheme, implausible as it may be, provides a nice sense of impending doom, which matches well with natural disasters of recent vintage such as tsunamis and floods.

Lois Lane provided an additional issue of credulity - the physical beating she takes in this movie just strains belief - she gets tossed around an airplane cabin at multiple gee forces, yet emerges with nary a scratch or bump. Then, later into he film, she gets whacked on the skull by a steel door which must weigh half a ton - yet again, no blood, no bruise - she's the one worried about Superman's health!

Another issue is one which has plagued Superman from his creation - sometimes he is just too super for any real dramatic tension to be felt. Kryptonite is an attempt to ameliorate this, but still, you're watching a Superman movie. You know the bad guys aren't going to win. So it becomes a game of wait and see - what combination of events will result in story completion this time?

What really would be dramatic for a character such as Superman is the moral choices he has to make. Not whether he will succeed in this or that - since we're in the movie called Superman, we assume he will. But what if Superman chose not to do something? In one of the scenes in which Superman floats in space, listening to events below with his super hearing, the distinct sounds of an armed conflict can be heard. It's a war, somewhere in the world, probably somewhere with a lot of sand. Where does he fly to? A bank robbery. Why? It's never followed up on. Why not have Superman fly to Iraq to find himself ordered away by the administration? Or prevent some atrocity which he then takes the heat for? Superman being able to choose only a limited number of wrongs to right is interesting. Superman being pressured one way or another is interesting. Superman lifting yet another heavy object is much less so.

A corollary problem I had with the film was a writing choice in one scene - Lex and his henchmen beat a kryptonite-weakened Superman. As mentioned, this is Superman we're talking about, and Kryptonite is sort of a storytelling cheat to inject drama into a plot. But as Supes takes a beating, why not inject character drama instead of artificial drama into the scene? Superman did not fight back enough. Just before Lex pushed him off the cliff into the cold water below, why not have Superman try to throw a punch, fixed with a determination to fight no matter how weakened his state? Instead, he just keels over. Chance for drama lost.

While the homages to the Donner films were great, the atrocious Marlon Brando dialogue which was resurrected here really could have been trimmed. The fact that Routh is forced to recite some of it at the end is doubly painful. "My life will be lived through your eyes, as Yours will be lived through mine???" HUH?!? Seeing as how the film was dragging a wee bit long to begin with, some of this could have been mercifully cut for time.

All right, now on to the biggest potential problem.
(highlight the text to read it more easily)

Lois' child opens up a super-sized can of worms which will be difficult to close without severely altering the classic character dynamic or resorting to either cheesiness or weirdness in future installments of the series. Jason, Lois Lane's son, apparently by her Fiancee, has the question of his parentage raised about midway through the film by Lex Luthor. The question is definitively settled when little Jason hurls a grand piano at a baddie, and then in the denouement when Superman visits his bedside with the aforementioned maudlin Brando dialogue.

While I like the twist of Lois being a "single mom," and the kid himself is nowhere near as execrable as most child roles in movies, having a super-kid just opens a new story element waaaaaaayyyyy too big to address well. Will the next movie focus on him and Superman's relationship? Will he be Superboy or something? Will the screenwriters try to ignore all of this stuff and just say "well folks, he lost his powers, it was a fluke." Will they kill him off, cheaply and effectively nipping these issues in the bud?



In the end, regardless of any issues, nagging or pretty darn big, "Superman Returns" has the magic which makes movies fun. I was both thrilled and enchanted, something which hasn't happened simultaneously since I was about yay high. Just this fact alone makes it worth a movie ticket or a future DVD purchase.

However, it's not just a cheap thrill - Superman Returns makes you think and makes you feel, too. It works as a character story and it works as a reflection on Americana, hero worship, and alienation. The movie would work if it were stripped only to the paternity story of a returning lover horning in on an engaged couple and their son. The movie just works, period. I'd give it an 8 out of 10 for someone not steeped in Superman or comic books from childhood, and a 9 out of 10 if this kind of stuff is already your thing, as it is mine.


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