A film review by Craig J. Koban
½ Standard theatrical version:
3D IMAX version
2006, PG-13, 140 mins. Superman/Clark Kent: Brandon Routh / Lex Luthor:
Kevin Spacey / Lois Lane:
Kate Bosworth / Richard White:
James Marsden / Perry White:
Frank Langella / Jimmy Olsen: Sam Huntington / Martha Kent: Eva Marie Saint
/ Kitty Kowalski: Parker Posey
2006, PG-13, 140 mins.
Superman/Clark Kent: Brandon Routh / Lex Luthor:
Kevin Spacey / Lois Lane:
Kate Bosworth / Richard White:
James Marsden / Perry White:
Frank Langella / Jimmy Olsen: Sam Huntington / Martha Kent: Eva Marie Saint
/ Kitty Kowalski: Parker Posey
It’s startling to consider that Superman was the creation of two Depression era, Jewish teenagers that were just looking to make a buck in the industry they loved.
Since his very first appearance in Action Comics #1 way back in 1938, the Last Son of Krypton certainly has made his mark on our popular culture that we know today. That powerfully simple emblem that he wears proudly on his chest – all while fighting for truth, justice, and the American way – is arguably one of the most recognizable symbols of our time. It ranks right up their with the Christian cross, the Coca-Cola logo, and the Golden Arches. Superman ushered in the birth of the super hero comics and all other spandex clad crusaders owe him a debt. Make no mistake about it – Superman is one of the defining representatives of modern American mythology and is one of the Twentieth Century's greatest fictional creations. For that, any film that showcases him as its star better live up to that proud legacy.
SUPERMAN RETURNS certainly flies, but it unfortunately does not soar to the heights that I desperately wanted it to. After an 18 year absence from the silver screen, a long battle through Hollywood development hell, a six month shoot in Australia, and a $200-plus million dollar budget, it's safe to say that the fans of the Man of Steel have incredibly high hopes for Bryan Singer’s newest entry in the once lucrative franchise. I myself can be counted in with the other DC Comics fundamentalists. I’ve waited an awfully long time for Kal-El to return to the cinema. On its levels, SUPERMAN RETURNS is a commendable effort for most participants involved, but it nevertheless is a decidedly so-so piece of escapism. Great Caesar’s Ghost!
To be sure, SUPERMAN RETURNS has terribly big shoes to fill. People, I think, tend to take the original 1978 SUPERMAN film for granted. To me, that film still remains the grandest of all the comic book superhero films. Richard Donner’s film has dated somewhat to contemporary eyes, but it’s charm and sparkling imagination still remains. For its time, it was a bold and miraculous achievement in sprawling and epic filmmaking. It was the type of large-scale comic film that was made at a time when super heroes were considered kryptonite to box office returns. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE’s success, in hindsight, was noteworthy and astonishing.
Of course, there have been other interpretations of Superman both on the big and small screen before Donner’s work. There were the brilliant and masterfully made animated shorts of the early 1940’s by the Fleisher Brothers. Then there were the low budget film live action film serials of that same decade starring Kirk Allen as The Man of Tomorrow. Even beyond that was the very fondly remembered TV series with George Reeves donning the tights and cape. However, Donner’s film still remains the definitive benchmark rendition of that All-American extraterrestrial. In short, with the character's long past history and legacy, SUPERMAN RETURNS certainly has its work cut out for it.
I’ve seen the film twice now – once in a standard theatrical presentation and the other time in a stupendous 3D IMAX version (more on that later) – and something just does not seem right about this film. It’s somewhat hard to put my finger on it. I mean, its got astonishing production values, fairly respectable performances, a reasonably adequate man playing the hero, and a series of strong, virtuoso special effects/action sequences that do inspire a considerable amount of awe and wonder. The movie also undeniably has its heart in the right place. Unfortunately, its head sometimes feels vacant from the process. I dunno…something just feels…off here.
Perhaps the best manner to viscerally describe the film is to say that SUPERMAN RETURNS is kind of like the New Coke of the whole Superman franchise. I don’t think that this analogy is too far off base. Superficially, the movie comes with the same relative packaging of the previous SUPERMAN entries and comes across as being very similar to the look of them as well. It's important to mention that SUPERMAN RETURNS is not so much a sequel to the original films nor a remake of them; it is basically a vague continuation of the story from SUPERMAN II and rightfully tries to forget the somewhat silly SUPERMAN III and the absolutely abortive SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. Kudos to the makers for realizing that the first two SUPERMAN flicks were the ones that got his mythos right.
Singer’s SUPERMAN very wisely uses John Williams’ legendary theme (probably his best non-STAR WARS fanfare) and utilizes a credit sequence with those swooshing title cards against a space backdrop that is very faithful to the original film. SUPERMAN RETURNS also features a posthumous performance (albeit mostly in a CGI altered apparition) by Marlon Brando playing Jor-El, Superman’s father (thankfully, they did not have to pay him $3 million dollars for a few minutes worth of work like they did the first time). Beyond these similarities, this new film’s differences are good in ways (it uses advances in special effects technology that are light years ahead of anything available in the late 1970’s), but in many ways they are not necessarily improvements. More than anything, SUPERMAN RETURNS too often comes off as a reasonable, but faulty, facsimile of a classic work that – on its own – just works better.
Perhaps the one key ingredient that this new film misses is a sense of whimsy. The first two SUPERMAN films (and – to a degree – the third one) were wondrous fun. They had their tongues firmly in their cheeks (or should I say capes?). The performances were snappy, energetic, and breathed with an exuberant energy and vitality (that went for both the heroes and villains). Those films were a loving tribute to the Superman comics I remembered from childhood – adventurous, action-packed, light as a feather, not too heavy-handed, and oftentimes quirky and funny. Those films never took themselves too seriously, at least not as much as Singer’s does. Introspective, melancholic, and tortured heroes (like the X-MEN) are interesting, but too much of this type of gloomy vibe permeates SUPERMAN RETURNS (hell, even his suit has been updated by draining out the vibrant red’s and sky blues with a more desolate and dark looking burgundy, navy, and amber shades). The film forgets to have fun at its own expense. It is a consummately made work and a noteworthy achievement in the action arena, but the spunk and childlike energy seems to have vanished faster than a speeding bullet.
As for the story? It seems that astronomers have discovered the remains of the doomed planet of Krypton and that has sparked Superman’s (newcomer Brandon Routh) interest. He leaves earth, gives up being a savior to the planet, and engages in a search for any survivors of his home world. His travels would be long (half a decade) during which he finds nothing and returns to earth and finds that his adopted home world has been getting on pretty a-okay without him. To make matters even worse, when his alter ego Clark Kent returns to the Daily Planet he discovers a shock. Lois Lane (the gorgeous Kate Bosworth) not only got over Superman, but she managed to hook up with a new hunk (X-MEN’S Cyclops, James Marsden) and had – gasp – a kid. Actually, to put salt on his fresh wounds, Lois actually managed to win a Pulitzer for her story 'Why the World Does Not Need Superman' while he was away. Needless to say, Clark is crushed upon his return to Metropolis (it's funny, but no one in the newsroom wondered why Clark never wrote a letter, dropped an email, sent a post card, or phoned in over five years during his “absence” as well, but never mind).
Just as Superman tries to mark his return, old - and less hospitable - friends re-emerge as well. The self-anointed greatest criminal mind of our age, Lex Luther (Kevin Spacey) managed to get out of prison with revenge on his mind. It appears that Superman forget to make a parole hearing and testify while he was gone, thus, securing Luther’s release (hmmm…no one on the board seems to have remembered him high jacking nuclear bombs and nearly killing millions of people. You'd think that would be the kink in Luther's armor for a quick release). Anyway, Luther regains his freedom and a vast fortune and plots his revenge on Superman. He infiltrates his Fortress of Solitude (which says very little for the security there) and gets the lowdown on how Kryptonian technology works. With his newfound technological power (and with a little bit of a particular green glowing meteorite), Luther hatches a scheme to not only kill his nemesis, but to destroy the entire American continent. Gotta give it Luther, he thinks big when it comes to evil plans.
Again, this film looks extremely good, but the tone is perplexing. Take, for instance, the final shot of the movie where Superman flies into space, banks towards the camera, breaks the cinematic fourth wall, looks directly at the audience, and then flies away. This is a direct echo of how the original films ended. In Singer’s hands, his Superman barely manages so much as a smirk as he looks at us. In Donner’s hands, his Superman gives a wide-eyed, ear-to-ear smile as a sort of wink to the audience. It was an intimate moment in those films, allowing the character to sort of invite us in to enjoy its sense of self-reverential wit. SUPERMAN RETURNS does not uplift like its earlier counterpart. It’s simply a bit too sullen, introverted, bleak, and dim to allow even its main attraction to crack a smile and have a good time. Honestly, if you were Superman, would it not be a riotous good time and not a curse? Sure, you can't get the woman of your dreams and you're forced to live an existence of duality and deception, but you're an all-powerful Christ-like messiah. Inner torment works for Caped Crusaders from Gotham City, but not for Superman.
Now, something has to be said about the performances. On a whole, all of them are good, but the overall chemistry between some of the participants seems to lack in moments. The spirit (hate to use that word again) also seems hollow. Take the scenes in the Daily Planet. In SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE the personas had fast-talking, vibrant exchanges with dialogue that was light and funny. The exchanges in that film snapped and had a good sense of underplayed, farcical comedy. In SUPERMAN RETURNS the spirit seems a bit flaccid in the newsroom. Maybe this has something to do with Frank Lengella playing the quarterback of the Daily Planet, Perry White. Jackie Cooper played the same role in the original with a jolly, cigar-chewing zest and bravado. Langella plays his White in stoically and serious manner, like he is just coming off his last does of prosaic. Again, where’s the energy and spirit?
The other players fare a bit better. There’s Bosworth as Lois Lane and she definitely is a more sexy, bombshell intrepid reporter than Margot Kidder was and she plays her role with the prerequisite level of determination and sassy attitude. Her chemistry in scenes with Superman is all right, but her moments with Clark seem a bit underwritten. This relationship was integral to the original films and the entire Superman lexicon as a whole, but in SUPERMAN RETURNS it’s somewhat delegated off to the side.
Spacey’s Luther is a mixed blessing. Having worked with Singer before in THE USUAL SUSPECTS, you’d think that he would have a field day as Superman’s archenemy. His villain is ruthless, cold-blooded and a vindictive SOB with a sociopathic edge. Yet, what Spacey seems to forget is that Gene Hackman’s portrayal of the same role was memorable because he had a sort of slick, slimy charisma and magnetism. You liked hating him and had fun watching Hackman parade around and preach the gospel of his intellectual virtues. By comparison, Spacey’s Luther is just a hateful creature without Hackman’s capricious vivacity. At least his assistant Kitty, played in a funny performance by Parker Posey, remembered to play her part for broad chuckles.
And…as for the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent, which was made immortal by the late Christopher Reeve? Well, this time he’s played by an unknown, 25 year-old Iowan actor named Brandon Routh. His previous credits include a daytime soap opera, a few stints on WILL AND GRACE, and other episodic TV. He, much like Reeve, is a virtual unknown, which is the right move when casting a man like Superman (honestly, just imagine a name celebrity in the role; it would be distracting and wouldn't work). His has the utterly thankless and insurmountable task of filling in for Reeves, and I can respect the pressure he was – no doubt – under.
On an affirmative note, he sure looks a lot like Reeve and – even more so than the late actor – physically looks like Superman (Routh is a larger and more chiseled specimen than Reeve ever was and he fills out the costume well). Beyond his physical façade, Routh plays the role as a stern and uneasy champion of justice and he does so well. Yet, Routh lacks that everlasting twinkle in his eye that Reeve always possessed. One of the joys of Reeve was in his superhumanly bumbling and geeky portrayal of Clark Kent. Routh’s Kent is a bit more cute and goofy than gawky and nerdy. Watching Reeves it's reasonable to see why others can’t see this guy being Superman…I mean…just look at him! Routh’s Clark seems a bit too dignified to allow for this suspension of disbelief. I have no doubt that Routh was a solid choice for the makers, but his performance in the film is more of a thumbnail sketch, not a finished product. It’s a work in progress that could mature and grow with future films in the series.
There is one big problem in the film and that is with the character of the kid. Let’s face it; it does not take a rocket scientist of Jor-El’s keen abilities (or a spoiler warning on my part) to see who his real father is. Considering the relative worth and importance of this little tyke, he’s never really developed into an interesting character. He’s a cute, but a detached personality and he does not really have anything noteworthy to say or do in the film (aside from one key moment with a piano). Ultimately, he’s more of a hindrance and a red herring plot device that seems superfluous. And, even with all of this, when a scene builds to where Superman and Lois can discuss this kid’s real upbringing and heritage, the screenplay offers up Lois nothing better to say to Superman than, “Will we be seeing you around?”
However, SUPERMAN RETURNS does get some things right. Williams' theme and the appropriation of it for the credit sequence will make fanboys salivate. The movie, as stated, looks sensational. Its budget (reported to be the highest in film history) did not go to waste. There are several impressively mounted action scenes, like an early one that has Superman saving Lois aboard an airplane that is trying to piggy-back the space shuttle into space (I think Superman is wrong, because at least when Lois is concerned, flying is not the safest way to travel). There are also other grand moments, as when Superman stops a raging, underground gas fire and also stops a bunch of hooligans with a rather large machine gun (this moment demonstrates - in one nifty instance - that every inch of Superman's body is indestructible). One inspiring sequence has him lifting up a chunk of land the size of Texas, but I somewhat chuckled during this moment at the film’s incongruity with his powers. Moments earlier – with Kryptonite in his veins – Superman is nearly beaten to death by Luther and his goons. Soon after, he manages to hurtle this continent sized landmass into space. Huh? Also odd is an introductory scene where Superman’s starship crash-lands on earth after his voyage. He barely seems to survive. SUPERMAN RETURNS appears to forget that an infant Superman managed to survive a similar crash land perfectly fine, and in his baby suit no less, but I digress.
More than any of the other SUPERMAN films, I found myself engaging in the spectacle more than the characters and the interplay. Maybe this has something to do with seeing it a second time in its breathtaking and jaw dropping 3D IMAX presentation. With a screen several stories high and some revolutionary and eye-catchy digital 3D effects (it utilizes special 3D goggles digitally timed with the events on screen, not those flimsy and cheap 1950's inspired paper glasses), SUPERMAN RETURNS is an unparalleled audio-visual nirvana – one of the most impressive technical and immersing film experiences I’ve had in a theatre. I foresee a gigantic future for this type of technology in showcasing films, and these 3D innovations just may radically change the medium in the same ways sound and color did. No doubt, there is a sense of unequivocally magic (which is sorely missed, these days) watching SUPERMAN RETURNS on IMAX and it works a bit better overall as a film-going experience in this format. If you have to see the film, you owe to yourself to rush to your nearest IMAX theatre. SUPERMAN RETURNS is a better film because of it.
Make no mistake about it, SUPERMAN RETURNS was a long time in the coming and – on many levels – it’s a bold and amazing realization of big budget, high tech, and action packed filmmaking wizardry. On these cosmetic levels, the film is enjoyable and engaging (especially on 3D IMAX, where it borders on transcending in an out-of-body way at times). Yet, despite its awesome command in the visuals and production values, this SUPERMAN is a mixed bag where its preoccupation with screen magic and spectacle almost overwhelms its heart and spirit. I have used the terms fun and spirit a lot in my review, and for good reason. The original SUPERMAN had an endless supply of spirited fun. Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS is kind of too overstuffed and dour to have the perseverance to remind itself to not take itself too literally. I remember in my original review of SUPERMAN THE MOVIE that I called it a very human story of an extraterrestrial. SUPERMAN RETURNS is more of a story of an alien that lacks some much needed flights of fancy and irreverence…not to mention fun. As a worthy addition to the films that Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner bestowed upon us, SUPERMAN RETURNS moderately flies up, but just not up, up, and away.
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the SUPERMAN films:
1. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)
2. SUPERMAN II (1981)
3. SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)
4. SUPERMAN III (1983) 1/2
5. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987) 1/2